I’ve been reading the to-and-fro about steampunk with great interest since Charlie Stross posted his rant. And though there have been great sweeps of argumentation back and forth, there’s one teeny tiny footnote I wanted to make to the original essay. I haven’t seen it around anywhere.
See, for me there’s a rich irony in the fact that Charlie cites China Miéville’s essay on Tolkien. Because one of the guys who would have been nodding along to passages like this?
It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.
That would be JRR Tolkien. (Though he might have disagreed about contraception as a solution.)
There’s a lot of criticism, by Miéville and others, of Tolkien for his romanticization of a sanitized medieval era. I’m not sure I agree with that summary, even with regard to Rohan and Minas Tirith, but that ex-horse has worn out enough whips without me adding to it.
But there’s one society in Middle-Earth that is not based on the Middle Ages, not directly: hobbit society. It’s derived from a kind of intellectual Middle Ages 2.0, true, but not one of Tolkien’s creation. The Shire isn’t remotely medieval in its social structures:
women own property (Lobelia Sackville-Baggins);§ a gardener’s son can become mayor; there are servants but there are no lords.
What hobbit society really is is an Arts and Crafts community. Possessions are few, handmade, treasured and beautiful: gifts circulate from owner to owner. There is work for all hands, but leisure time for parties as well. Even a gardener makes a living wage.
Using the Shire, Tolkien actually tackles the very subject matter that Charlie wishes the steampunk crowd would† **. It’s true that Saruman did not descend on Hobbiton in a zeppelin‡, and his zombies were cleverly disguised as half-orcs. Nor did his attempt at industrialization last long enough for Rosie Cotton to have to turn to prostitution to support her impoverished family. But the Scouring of the Shire is most certainly about the damage of empire, resource extraction and mechanization to a formerly peaceful society.
Now, I agree that Tolkien doesn’t really address the problem of the price of Victorian industrialization in any meaningful way, because he doesn’t engage with the roots of what created it. But neither did the Arts and Crafts movement itself; for all of its attempts at social engineering, its solution was basically to go back to a crofting and crafting society and try harder to make the economics work. Convince people on the upward curve of possessions-as-happiness to want less stuff. It was about as successful as any such movement in history has been (which is to say, not).
Though it failed, we still live with the legacy of the movement: ironically, many of the most beautiful steampunk artifacts draw heavily on the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts era. Meanwhile, the ecological slogan of “reduce, reuse and recycle”, and the pull of deep-value durable goods over disposable ones, comprise yet another attempt to get people to own fewer things and better ones. In other words, Tolkien’s proposal is still tempting.
Here endeth the footnote.
§ I stand corrected, and indeed did know that women in some medieval societies did own property. I’d still say that there’s a significant contrast between Lobelia’s agency in society and, say, Éowyn’s, but this is a distraction from my actual point.
† And do, but this essay is not about that.
** Note that none of this is in the films, apart from Sam’s brief vision in the Mirror of Galadriel
‡ Though Isengard would have been a fantastic mooring tower, with some pretty good thermals from the underground fires to boot