Don’t trust the labels

Warning: This has turned into a gentle semi-rant as I wrote it.

Ok, here goes. I have recently cross-read two articles claiming two very different positions on Tolkien’s place in the literary canon.

Article No. 1 says that Tolkien was a hidden modernist. While he wrote fantasy, he should be counted amongst modernist giants like T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce because he addressed similar topics: Finding new ways of expressing language, a quest for identity, a feeling of loss.

Article No. 2 says that Tolkien was a keen anti-modernist: He valued tradition, monarchy, and nowhere in his works any shattering of old orders to “make it new” is to be found.

And the same happens to Pratchett, except he is accused of Postmodernism. Some critics claim the Discworld picks all the best pieces of fantasy and pop culture, shuffles them and then rearranges them playfully into chaotic story lines with no clear ending or beginning. Others underline that the novels have beginnings and endings, and that for all his referencing and rearranging, Pratchett still uses classic plots and characters from myths and fairy tales to make fun of.

I think both Pratchett and Tolkien would shake their heads at these arguments and point out that they simply like writing stories. Certainly, they are products of their time – no story develops in a cultural vacuum – but waving just one flag and claiming that this is the ultimate truth (™) is like saying Pratchett is a “funny” author or Tolkien was a “creative linguist”. In the worst case, this means labelling one aspect of a person and thinking all the others will fit into the same category.

I know that I have my labels as well which I am attaching to Pratchett again and again like pinning a tail to a donkey, but I hope I will still be able to see the human underneath them at the end of the day. As a teacher of my girlfriend once wrote, literature is like telling a joke: If you have to explain it, it’s not fun anymore.

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