Writing Down the Dragon

A reader named Paul LaMontagne draws our attention to a simply excellent book of essays by Tom Simon. Here I reprint Mr LaMontagne’s comment in full, as this is the best way I can imagine to have my readers rush out immediately and buy Mr Simon’s book.

The bold text is Mr LaMontagne, the italics is Mr Moorcock, and the regular text is Mr Simon.

… Have you read Tom Simon’s excellent collection of essays “Writing Down The Dragon”? In “Moorcock, Saruman, and the Dragon’s Tail” (link to essay below) he also addresses and analyzes Moorcock’s infamous essay. Interestingly, at the end of the below passage he applies to Moorcock an analogy you yesterday applied to Edmund Wilson:

“…He [Moorcock] raises against Tolkien (and even more specifically against Heinlein) the old, threadbare charge of ‘escapism’:

‘The laboured irony, as it were, of the pulp hero or heroine, this deadly levity in the fact of genuine experience, which serves not to point up the dramatic effect of the narrative, but to reduce it — and to make the experience described comfortingly ‘unreal’ — is the trick of the truly escapist author who pretends to be writing about fundamental truths and is in fact telling fundamental lies.’

There, I think, is where the shoe pinches. Let us look at some of the ‘fundamental lies’ Tolkien offers us:

*Power is addictive.

*The habitual exercise of power corrodes the will and blunts the moral sense.

*There is evil in the world that we cannot hope to overcome, but it will never be overcome unless we do what we can to resist it.

*By conquering nature, we dehumanize ourselves, but by appreciating nature and preserving it, we supply a deep spiritual need.

*Good cannot be achieved by evil means. Moreover, evil itself cannot achieve the particular ends it desires by evil means: ‘Oft evil will shall evil mar.’

*There is no good excuse for cooperating with a tyrant. If you think he will spare you because of it, you are fooling yourself.

*It is better to resist evil, even if it means war, than submit peacefully to be enslaved and slaughtered.

*The desire for immortality is a cheat, for no matter how much power you have, you will never have power over death.

*If we oppose evil to the limit of our strength, though that in itself is inadequate, there is a Providence that can make our victory possible.

I think it is this last point above all that offends Moorcock. He is bitterly hostile to religion, and to Christianity in particular, and his own fiction does not suggest that he has a well-developed sense of ethics. The great struggle in the Elric books is not between Good and Evil, nor even between better and worse impulses in the human mind, but between Law and Chaos, either of which can be served just as well by evil means as by good. Actually it is a false dichotomy, as Fabio P. Barbieri has pointed out. Chaos can only occur in a context of order, and order, by the laws of thermodynamics, inevitably decays into chaos. The alternative to an ordered society is not a state of complete anarchy, but death; and everything that exists, however disorderly it may appear, is strictly subject to the laws that make its existence possible. As William Blake said, ‘Reason is the circumference of energy’: they require each other, like the poles of a magnet. But since neither law nor chaos can exist alone, there can be no final victory or defeat in any war between them. The combatants can go on fighting for ever, or at least until they grow tired and discover that the whole donnybrook was fundamentally silly.

Elric makes a pact with Arioch, a Lord of Chaos, who gives him the sword Stormbringer. Stormbringer gives its wielder great power, but also turns him, in effect, into a vampire, who must slay other living souls merely to stay alive. Nowhere in the Elric books is there any indication that Moorcock’s hero regrets his pact, or feels that his victims have any worth comparable to his own. In the end he builds up an army of barbarians, returns to Melniboné, kills the cousin who usurped his throne, destroys the entire city, and then betrays his allies to destruction themselves. From all this slaughter and betrayal he walks away more or less smiling, if the desperately melancholy Elric can ever be said to smile. It is a celebration of heroic nihilism so blatant that even Nietzsche might have averted his eyes in shame. All this is worlds away from the strict Judaeo-Christian ethics and Catholic sense of grace that permeate Tolkien’s work. Moorcock is not the only critic to have scented the presence of grace and reacted like Gollum to lembas: ‘Leaves out of the elf-country, gah! Dust and ashes, we can’t eat that.’ It is significant that Moorcock is a strong admirer of Philip Pullman, whose entire oeuvre is essentially an attack on a Gnosticized strawman version of Christianity.”

Here is a link to the whole essay, but the entire collection is, in my humble opinion, worth purchasing:


Your humble opinion is the same as my proud opinion, and I salute Mr Simon as inspired by a particular genius of insight. I strongly, strongly recommend his essays to anyone who wants to enjoy a thoughtful conversation about Tolkien.