« Putting the Babble Back In Palpabable | Main | Difficult Writing Again »

December 23, 2003


Jeremy Osner

I'd be happy to take bets on how long codwagnerian.blogspot.com remains unclaimed.

Timothy Burke

I'd go for wenonarse.blogspot.com myself first.

I'm cooking up another essay on this topic, I think, basically asking what is wrong with a manichean moral fiction if it is set in a fictional universe whose fundamental premise is that God exists and is known to virtually all of creation to exist. There are no real doubters in Tolkien's universe, just those whose existence is so distant from Eru and the Valar that they find it hard to actualize that knowledge on a daily basis. The source of evil in Tolkien is not the failure to believe, but largely a desire to have a higher or more powerful place in the Creator's hierarchy than you were originally designated to have.

So once you've got this stipulated as the rules of the fictional universe, what exactly is so objectionable? Some critics seem to me to be saying, "Because the world is not really that way", which seems a very peculiar kind of interpretative empiricism, a sort of vulgar response to fiction. Others seem to be saying, "Because the desire for this kind of manichean order produces some consequences in the real world that are undesirable", which also seems a peculiar, probably false, assumption.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Is Tolkien really Manichean? Maybe I'm being literal-mindedly theological, but it seems to me not. Indeed, within the terms set out in Tolkien's universe, the most salient fact about the dualism propounded by Morgoth, by Ar-Pharazon, and by Sauron is that it's factually wrong.

Timothy Burke

Hm. Yes, I think he is, in that there is an absolute good (harmony with the will of Eru and the Valar) and an unmistakeable evil (deliberate disharmony with same). But the will of Eru and the Valar is multifaceted and allows for variety and even dissent (witness the creation of the Dwarves, not to mention the entirely unknown genesis of hobbits). So the good is not monolithic or monocultural. But there is good and there is evil and the distinction between the two is clear to most inhabitants of Tolkien's world. I can't think of too many characters in the actual stories (as opposed to the more diagrammatic lore in the appendices of LOTR and some of The Silmarillon) whose evil is banally self-interested or born out of a confusion about whether or not the Valar actually exist. Bill Ferny, Ted Sandyman, or Lotho Sackville-Baggins, I guess. The more exalted variety of self-interestedness (Ar-Pharazon, the entrapment of the Nazgul) seems to me to come from a much more conscious desire to rebel against the naturalized hierarchies set in place by the Valar, to achieve a greater place in the order of things than one was intended to have. Genuinely morally ambiguous characters are almost wholly absent from the mainstream of Tolkien's works--the temporary effect of moral ambiguity is occasionally created by the proximity of the One Ring, but that's cheating.


the following is not a totally unbiased definition of manicheanism but it might be beneficial: http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/heresy03.htm

It irritates me that in the past year I have seen this word misused in everything from describing traditional Christian eschatology, George Bush's psychology, and now Tolkien.

Quite happy to see Patrick's usage of Dualism which seems to me the better term for Tolkien's worldview.

So anyway, the subject was "What does the term Cod-Wagnerian mean?"

Well on one hand it means China Mieville is too stupid to see the difference between Frodo Baggins and Conan the Barbarian.

Given that the list of good writers who have fought against the awful influence of Tolkien includes Moorcock it means Mieville was doing drugs when the term was coined. /mean-spirited snarking.

I suppose it is meant to imply bombast and fraudulence of feeling, perhaps with a certain ineptitude thrown in.
But these charges were levelled against Wagner himself when he first wrote the Ring Cycle.
So the charge is really some sort of Cod-Cod-Sagaism.

The question is whether Tolkien is truly double-cod saga, given his expertise in the matter I should think he was at least as apt to turn out single cod saga as Wagner was.


Hmmm, thanks all. This discussion is shaping up nicely. Let's keep it up. Quick point in response to Timothy: you say there isn't much self-interested as opposed to 'up with evil'-evil in Tolkien. This is certainly so. But Wormtongue may be a counterexample. And, moving up the scale, Saruman as well. What somewhat conceals this from view is that there is something strangely zealous about Saruman's flip over to the side he thinks is going to win. He seems so happy making orcs. So this may be the classic exception that proves the rule. Even when Tolkien clearly intends to construct a morally ambiguous character, he tends to settle into a less nuanced point of view. Is this right?

Patrick's theological point is clearly correct. And that seems rather important.

I very much like Bryan's 'count the cods' approach. And it does seem that Mieville has in mind bombast & fraudulence of feeling & ineptitude. I would add: Wagner's alleged sin was well expressed by Nietzsche when he called the man 'our greatest musical miniaturist'; and by Chuck Jones when we see tiny Elmer 'Kill the Wabbit' Fudd's shadow gesticulating so hugely and dramatically. The dark suspicion has always been: not much going on, and lots and lots and lots of padding. Some nice eight-bar tunes that get stuck in your head. Nothing that's worth sitting still for 21 frickin' hours, just so the damn ring can get back where it frickin' started. The thing is: I don't think you could really accuse Tolkien of anything of the sort. His problem might well be: building up from too much material of the wrong sort - whole made-up languages and histories and such. I don't think one would call the sin of inventing languages, so forth, 'bombast' or 'sentimentality'. It's more like obsessive-compulsive, if you want to be mean about it. It is really this quality that has long made him beloved of nerds: the obsession with collecting details - a sort of orderliness that is, at least arguably, of dubious aesthetic merit. (I am personally an utter Tolkien fanatic, just for the record.)

I don't think you could really call LOTR bombastic or overblown, oddly enough. You might say that its striving for majesty and elegiac lyricism is undone by clumsiness, and bouts of sentimentality. But it isn't bombastic. Also, cod-Wagnerian pomposity, whatever it may be, is surely a species of pomposity - and Tolkien is too clearly determined to please himself first; too clearly caught up in his own delight in sub-creative details (sub-creation being his word for all this world-making) to be accused of being pompous. You can't be pompous if you aren't playing to the audience in some cheap way. Accuse him of being a clunky stylist, yes; but not of pandering to low tastes, I think.

Perhaps we should say: the man is not cod-Wagnerianly pompous, but has certainly been the cause of it in others.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Well, I personally think China Mieville is wrong about Tolkien, but if being wrong about Tolkien is how you write King Rat and Perdido Street Station, that seems a minor price to pay.

Shock horror: strong artists have eccentric opinions, forcefully stated! Stop the presses. Wait, don't.

Timothy Burke

Well, I'm certainly not out to lay waste to Mieville for the sin of his opinion--the earlier exchanges between John and Henry Farrell came up with some nice, nuanced readings of Mieville's strengths and weaknesses. And I said on my own blog, I think Mieville's got a point when it comes to the later circulations and reproductions of Tolkien, the hold his work has come to exert.


"Well, I personally think China Mieville is wrong about Tolkien, but if being wrong about Tolkien is how you write King Rat and Perdido Street Station, that seems a minor price to pay."

I would normally agree 100% with this theory, however I feel that Tolkien is the better writer, and given that he is dead I find it in bad taste to be so insulting about him. I haven't read Tolkien in at least a decade, other than Farmer Giles of Ham, and some of his essays, the reason being that I don't think he would be much help to me. If I were to make an evaluation of Tolkien I would say: "Very good, but for many reasons not of much help to a modern fantasist."
This is probably the same evaluation I would make of Eddison.

Most of my feelings about fantasy literature can be traced back to reading Languages of the Night.
I feel it is true that 'High Fantasy' requires a very close attention to language, that the reader should feel that the characters in the book are speaking in a way very different than in the real world. It is the speach and description of the world that first establishes its remove from reality.
In the fantasy practiced by Mieville the description must still be fantastical, but the speech can hopefully be relaxed somewhat.

Well I will get off that, as it is an issue really needing several pages.

On the aspect of Tolkien as obsessive/compulsive this seems to be a working style, think of Faulkner or Balzac. It is not a working style very much practiced in the history of fiction, although I have seen it praised in some writing manuals so I'm not sure of its current prevalence.

Ms. LeGuin discusses in one essay how she was invited to give a talk about Earthsea, and was asked to bring maps and languages and whatnot. She of course did not invent her worlds in that manner, she found them.

Perhaps some people are naturally finders of worlds, and some are inventors of worlds. Tolkien was an inventor, and perhaps that is a rare sort. But it seems to me that all his imitators, or just about every supposed fantasist of the present tries to be an inventor, as if they start by drawing a map, and listing family trees, and so forth. All things that might be of use at some part in the story, so one doesn't have to go all the way back looking over pages to find what the name of that little town was, but also things the creation of which might tend to enervate the story itself.


Cod-* means "fake *, and I know it's fake and you know it's fake, but it's what the punters want."

There are certainly fantasy authors who could be accused of being cod-Tolkienesque. But it's clearly inappropriate as a prefix to any description of Tolkien himself. He was quite serious about the world he (sub)created.

Perhaps Mieville meant sub-Wagnerian pomposity. Sub-* means "sincerely strives to come up to *, but falls short." I can't actually think of any examples of Tolkien trying for a Wagnerian effect--he doesn't have enough female characters for that--but it's not stupid a priori.

Thomas Dent

Unfortunately, many modern performances of Wagner perfectly epitomize cod-Wagnerian pomposity. I put it down (partly) to Karajan and the tendency over the last century of brass instruments to become bigger, louder, easier to play and coarser-toned.

Of course singers have to follow suit or get crushed. Hence the ubiquity of people like John Tomlinson who have an ugly, but loud and commanding, voice.

Since the brass often provide the sheer weight and padding in the texture, not surprising that half the interesting parts simply don't get heard.

Why 'cod-' ? Maybe because the cod was once the dullest, cheapest white fish. Maybe something to do with the codpiece and that Shakespearean mystery peascod.

Another factor is conductors' desperate desire to be Serious and Dignified and Philosophical and to evade the least suspicion of brash theatricality. Well, too bad. Wagner is meant to be theatrical and lyrical and thrilling and to be played to the hilt, and anyone who is embarrassed by this side of it has no business getting near the score. This includes the likes of Bernard Haitink, the most boring famous conductor (or the most famous boring conductor?) I've ever heard.

Of course, the director and music director have to understand the philosophical underpinnings, such as they are, but at least half of Wagner's greatness is being able to dress them up in a form where an audience can actually enjoy digesting them.

Douglas Adams' PanGalactic Googolblaster would be an apt comparison: like being knocked out by a gold brick wrapped in a slice of lemon. The slice of lemon is very important...

Jeremy Osner

Thomas -- nicely posted. I believe the drink in question is called a Gargleblaster.

Walt Pohl

While I don't think much of Mieville as a writer (I thought "Perdido Street Station" was okay), I think that it's important that _someone_ hate Tolkien. Now that Tolkien is at the apex of his fame and critical credibility, it would be monotonous if we only heard the hosannas.


I've praised Mieville before, so I didn't really bother to do it again in my post. But it seems in order. I think he is a first-rate writer largely on account of his astoundingly rich sub-creations (in Tolkien's technical sense.) Mieville's world really sticks with you. His books are destined to become classics of fantastic fiction, and will - I am confident - have generally good effects on the genre, largely due to the fact that hand-me-down Tolkien cliches are an astounding dead end.

I think it is interesting that Tolkien and Mieville both achieve most as sub-creators - that is, as world-makers - rather than as supreme story-tellers or characterizers or poets, so forth. This is a big claim. Someone might say that LOTR is a tremendous, thrilling tale with great characters. But I don't think that's it. I think it is mostly for Middle Earth taken as a whole that we love Tolkien. (And please note: I'm not saying LOTR is a bad story. It isn't. It's very good. I just think it's mostly Middle Earth that explains - and justifies - Tolkien's status. He does something really, REALLY well, and I think it's world-making, not story-telling, or anything else you might propose. Yes, yes, it's not as though we need such a simple explanation. Rich tapestry of factors. Still.) Ditto for Mieville.

Anyway, Patrick is right that a great world-maker like Mieville is entitled to whatever screwy opinions about other great world-makers should happen to pop into his head. It's clear that doing his best to systematically reject as many Tolkienesque features as possible has worked fine for the man.

Thomas Dent

Duh. Am I the first person to confuse the Gargleblaster with the Googolplex?

Anyway, I managed to distract attention quite nicely from my utter ignorance of Mieville and almost complete ignorance of Tolkein. In which (at least as far as Tolkein goes) I'm happy to continue, at least as long as there are Fleming, Le Carre and Wodehouse to read...

Walt Pohl

I object to the idea that Mieville gets some special pass to hate Tolkien just because he's a great writer. I'm a terrible writer, and it's my God-given right to hate Tolkien (which I don't).

Maybe I'm losing my ear for good science fiction/fantasy, but I didn't think "Perdido Street Station" was _that_ innovative. If Tolkien's work is "subcreation", then Mieville's is more like "subsubcreation". His combination of three genres (horror, fantasy, and science fiction) is somewhat original, and he clearly works hard to invent a non-derivative fantasy world. But I can't see how reading the book would change someone's life, the way "The Lord of the Rings" has changed so many lives.


Hmm... isn't the Pan-Galactic Googolblaster a doomsday weapon in a Greg Egan story... ('Pointwise deformation is futile! You will join our topology!')

I agree that Miéville's novels so far work best in the realm of world creation, but I thought the characterization in The Scar was significantly better than in Perdido Street Station.

I would be curious as to younger readers' reactions to Miéville. It seems unlikely, however, that many kids will come across Miéville as their first experience of serious world creation, as can happen with Tolkien.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Buy Reason and Persuasion!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)