Tom Simon on Superversive Fantasy

Mr Simon explores the question, “Does Fantasy equal Subversion?” and takes a Mr Grant to task for his embracing of this idea and goes on in his usual engaging style to draw us into what is wrong with the idea that fantasy, and all art, needs to be subversive. As “My Superversive” himself, Mr Simon obviously disagrees with this madness.

Does Fantasy equal Subversion?


Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’. He does leave himself just enough room to wriggle out of the logical implication, which is that Tolkien himself did not write fantasy; but he does this by allowing that Tolkien’s work is, in some unspecified way, sufficiently ‘subversive’ to meet the Grantian standard.

Now, this is a remarkable claim for anybody to make. If just one author in the appalling history of the twentieth century was not ‘subversive’, it was J. R. R. Tolkien. He was an enthusiastic supporter of order, authority, hierarchy, in both the temporal and spiritual spheres; a passionately orthodox Catholic, a royalist, a hidebound traditionalist who did not even approve of refrigerators and called aeroplanes ‘Mordor-gadgets’. When Orwell said that a Conservative is ‘a thing that does not exist nowadays’, he was merely proving that he had never met Tolkien. A full study of Tolkien’s conservatism would fill up many books, so here I shall confine myself to a couple of quotations (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien) that sufficiently illustrate the point:

I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.

Touching your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you.

Now, some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors.

This leaves Mr Grant in an awkward position. According to his rash definitions, The Lord of the Rings must be ‘Generic Fantasy’ and ‘garbage’ because it is not ‘subversive’; but what most of his audience means by fantasy is ‘stories like The Lord of the Rings’. Mr Grant has not only cut off the branch he is sitting on, he then has the audacity to announce that it alone is the real Tree, and all else is merely a diseased fungoid growth. Often a surgeon must amputate a limb to save the patient; but he amputates the patient to save the limb. Whatever else this is, it is startlingly original.

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