On Tolkien, China Mieville, and how looks determine your fate in the world

China Mieville whose work I very much like (current favorite: Embassy Town, although I also thought The City & The City was great), has this to say about Tolkien:

The stories are structured by moralist, abstract logic, rather than being grounded and organic. Tolkien wrote the seminal text for fantasy where morality is absolute, and political complexities conveniently evaporate. Battles are glorious and death is noble. The good look the part, and the evil are ugly. Elves are natural aristos, hobbits are the salt of the earth, and – in a fairyland version of genetic determinism – orcs are shits by birth. This is a conservative hymn to order and reason – to the status quo.

I remember seeing the movies and thinking that you could tell the bad guys from their hair, teeth and skin, not to mention birth anomalies. And indeed, the same is true in the books. Good is good, and bad is bad, and there is little room for growth.

But having seen an excerpt from a recent interview with Mieville (link not functional), I went back to this review of the first movie from 2002. Mieville liked the movie as an improvement over the books. I’m not convinced.

I remember in grad school watching a very striking and poised (two things which I was not, in any sense of those words) fellow grad student proceed to have an affair with her advisor. She got all sorts of breaks I didn’t, including money to support her project from his grant, invitations to meetings, and dinner with Important People when they visited. I was irritated, upset and angry. I knew I was not only not-so-good-looking, but was considered “poison” (i.e. “dykish”). The message to me was quite clear: what gets ahead in research is being poised, good looking, and not quite so stereotype defying.

In particular, one group of people that is still fair game for making fun of is the physically challenged, or developmentally delayed, or those with unfortunate neurological defects (like spasticity). And that’s what was used for some of the images of the orks and  other Middle Earth bad guys.

I admit to watching those movies over and over. The scene in the 2nd one where the elves show up to support the troops at Helm’s Deep still can move me to tears (damn it, thats the support we all want in life). But I am also uncomfortable in the way that ugly is used to be the equivalent of evil. That the morally corrupt have bad teeth, and the honest and moral have had extensive orthodontia and tooth whitening procedures.

(h/t BoingBoing)

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One thought on “On Tolkien, China Mieville, and how looks determine your fate in the world

  1. Saruman’s teeth in the movie are not particularly white, but he looks pretty neat and clean. I guess his teeth are metaphorically quite white. In a way he’s like a dude in Nazi uniform: charismatic and stylish, while also undeniably bad.

    And that’s the thing: when Orks (and even Uruks) are so ugly, it’s not because they were not lucky. That’s because Sauron (and later Saruman) deliberately created and bred them this way; they did not care about them, about their bodies, or about their well-being. In a way, they are not born ugly, but are maimed, as a species. They have bad teeth for the same reason that they are morally corrupt: because they were abused and deformed by the power that squeezed their humanity (or rather elvishness) from them. They are ugly not because they are bad, but because they are neglected.

    But when it comes to the personal choice, the correlation is rather the opposite. Gandalf is gray and unassuming, while Saruman is so cool. Frodo is small and weak, while his enemies are powerful and awesome. In other words, I see your point about looks being an overused metaphor for the inner world of the character, but still Tolkien is a bit more nuanced than that.

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