Welcome to my new blog!

I’m so pleased to have brand-new website where I can put up blog posts.  Now all I have to do is find the time to write some.  I’m also hoping to have the occasional guest blog by writer friends who have thoughts they’d like to share widely.

For starters, though, I want to post a blast from the past, a short article I wrote back in 2002 for a magazine called THE SWAN, which was, if I remember rightly, an Australian publication.  I’m putting it up because it’s still topical, thanks to all the fuss about Tariel in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie.


An Argument with The Master

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings created modern genre fantasy. No author I know would argue with this proposition. Before the appearance of his work in the 1950s, English-language fantasy novels abounded, certainly; these books tended to fall into two major classes (rife with exceptions, as all such generalizations are). The first we may call literary fantasy, ranging from William Morris, through Tennyson’s idealized Arthurian poems, or in a more mordant vein, James Branch Cabell and John Crowley. The second, the ancestors of our genre fantasy, tend to be clumsy wish-fulfillment, such as the Conan books, or dreamlike modern fairy tales, such as Lord Dunsany wrote. Lord of the Rings was something very new and very exciting, an attempt to create a powerful mythology, set in our world but at some vastly ancient time, as if it were Europe’s equivalent of the Australian Dreamtime. Language lies at the core of his work, as do creatures and sapient beings drawn from the world of Northern European legend: the alvar (elves), dweoger (dwarves), vargr, goblins, and the like. To Tolkien these words and legends were the last remembered remnants of the Dreamtime that he then expanded into, as it were, a recovered memory.

Along with the emotional and literary success of these books came commercial success – heaps of it. The money, unfortunately, inspired a number of imitators who extracted a shallow formula from the works and then ran it to death, giving modern genre fantasy a very bad name indeed. Those of us who’ve chosen to labor in the same vinyard are often accused of merely imitating Tolkien’s world, just as if he’d invented the ancient themes and the sapient beings he made such brilliant use of in his work. That we write modern fantasy not to get rich but because we love it, that we consider him the Master but want to create something different than he did, that in fact some of us have quarrels with the Master – these simple ideas are apparently too difficult for these particular critics to grasp.

Leaving them behind, therefore, let us consider these quarrels, or more specifically my quarrels, since I can’t really speak for any other author. Let’s start with the women. Yes, there are a few women in the books, especially in the Shire: Rose Cotton, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and a faceless crowd of hobbit women who produced all those hobbit children who love fireworks.

Once we travel beyond the Shire, we have Eowyn, Galadriel, Goldberry, and Arwen. Galadriel and Goldberry both are magical figures, part anima, part goddess, who between them define the Earth Mother and the Spiritual Guide. They are brilliantly done, but they are not real women. (There is a reason for all these capital letters, so bear with me.) Arwen is a bare sketch of a person, the Destined Bride, whose husband and mother define her entire life, at least in the books, and I’m not discussing the movie here. This leaves Eowyn, the woman who wants to be a warrior and help save her people. She does come alive, though her creator seems to think she wants to fight only to be near the man she can’t have. Thus she’s charged with going beyond her station by trying to contribute to the fight against Evil. Risking her life and killing the Nazgul isn’t enough to win her a place anywhere but in the home and any honor beyond being loved by a Good Man.

Deverry15 - Silver Mage (UK)

Women can appear in cover art

In any culture there have to be women somewhere, if only to bear the boy babies who will grow up to be the important people. Tolkien does give a nod to this truth. Consider Minas Tirith for a moment,that magical fortification, set in a perfect location and beautifully fortified to protect those who live in it. Now, consider that orcs are ravaging around the countryside at the time of our story. Why in hell have all the women and children been sent out of the city? They are in far greater danger out than in. I suspect that Tolkien just plain didn’t want them there, that writing about the reactions of those women, even as nameless minor characters, was a job that either he either didn’t want to do or, more probably, didn’t realize needed doing.

Deverry11 - Fire Dragon (UK)

Especially when partly clothed

[Update in 2015: In the Middle Ages, upper class women were trained in holding sieges while their menfolk were out of the stronghold fighting.  They knew how to man the walls and how to keep those trapped inside alive as long as possible.]

Here we see the influence upon Tolkien not of myth, but of the British public school system. Like CS Lewis, Tolkien grew up in an all-male atmosphere, fought in the masculine hell of WWI, and came home to work in a university peopled mostly by men. He was happily married, yes, and apparently he thought that all women everywhere had the same ideals and goals as his wife: a suburban home, children, a security such as she’d not had growing up, like him, an orphan. Many men do sort women out into brand names, for example the Madonna, the Bad Girl, the Angel in the House, and Tolkien seems to have a worse case of this disease than most. Be that as it may, his world is one where men act and women wait.

But the men, when you come right down to it, are no more fully realized individuals than the women. They tend to be archetypes and just plain types as well: the Dispossessed King, the Mighty Wizard, the Faithful Steward, the Spirit of the Earth, and so on. (Archetypes require capital letters, you see.) Few of them have the subtle characterization of, for example, the men of the Iliad or the early Arthurian material. Only the hobbits come across as real persons. Like pagan gods his heroes have characteristics rather than being characters in the fully developed sense. One tends to overlook this lack of characterization simply because Tolkien was the first to use this set of archetypal figures in this manner – and because he does it so well.

Most people who have read Tolkien only once tend to forget who was who. What they do remember is the land, Middle Earth itself. It has all the properties – the soul and the presence, the depth, the personal quirks, and the feeling of an existence outside the books – that his characters so often lack. Those of us who have read the books many times come away again in awe of this achievement. Along the songlines of Middle Earth, Europe’s dreamtime comes alive.

I found myself arguing – mentally, of course – with the Master about the lack of real people in this gorgeous landscape. In the course of the argument I realized that what mattered to me in fictional worlds was the characters. What I wanted most in a work of fantasy was real human beings, not cozy hobbits who become sentimental stand-ins for human beings once the humans have become archetypal figures. And yet, because I wanted the human beings to seem solid and real, nor more did I want a wish-fulfillment world where girls were raised equal to boys as a matter of course and could do anything they wished as adults. Tolkien had taken myth and language encodings as his starting point. The more argued with him, the more I realized that history, human history, would have to be mine.

Which brings me to my last quarrel. His evil beings do evil things just because they like them. In the Silmarillion he does make it clear that Morgoth and Sauron started out as noble as any of the Valdar and Maya, but that they somehow or other “fell,” became corrupt and evil, and thus brought an abstract and implacable Evil into the universe. And what do evil beings do? Something nasty, of course, Just Because – torture prisoners, build factories, throw each other to giant spiders, and the like. Tolkien was of course a devout Christian, and the doctrine of orginal sin seeps through and stains his work.

Yet when you look at reality, not theology, you see over and over again that people do evil things and become evil for reasons, ghastly flawed reasons, but reasons. They are twisted with inner pain. They think their God wants them to do things others find evil. They believe that the evil they do will bring good somehow to someone. They are raging inside because of the horrible ill treatment they have suffered at other’s hands. They fear they will suffer if they don’t strike first, and most of all, they fear their own dying. Tolkien’s orcs do display the scars from such black reasonings, but their masters in evil float somewhere above on clouds of abstract hatred. Only an over-optimistic idiot would think that Evil doesn’t walk in the world. But generally it wears human boots, nor is it cloaked in a vast grudge against the Creator of the Light.

What does all this have to do with my own books? Why, everything, of course. I started writing fantasy not because I believed I could be “better” than Tolkien, but because I needed to be different. And so have others who write modern genre fantasy, not imitators, but journeymen in the true sense of the word, setting out on our own because we can no longer stay with the master of our craft.

Text Copyright © 2002 Katharine Kerr. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Welcome to my new blog!

  1. I love your new website! I remember reading your argument with the master back in the day. It certainly helped me understand why I found aspects of Tolkien’s work so frustrating.

  2. I just finished the 4th Nola O’Grady book. There were lots of loose ends, particularly the Peacock Feather thread. Do you have plans for another novel in that series? I picked up my first SF/Fantasy book in 1951, and have been hooked ever since. I enjoyed your O’Grady series.


  3. Proto-feminist bunkum.
    You are as guilty as any of creating stylised caricatures that conform to type , so arguing and chiding the absent Tolkein for what, in effect, you make out to be flat and underdeveloped characters is at best disingenuous and at worst a classic case of pot and kettle.
    Just as a I enjoyed Tolkein’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire body of your Deverry series. Neither you, nor he, are literary genius, but you both weave enthralling tapestries that transport the reader into mythical and magical worlds. But you are no more noble, and no less guilty, in the portrayal of your characters.
    Admittedly, you took a much longer and more detailed route to your final act, adding flesh and personality that exposed flaws as well as nobility, but your females bear all the stereotypical hallmarks of a thousand other writers. By investing what has to be idiosyncrasies borne from personal feeling, you confuse feminism with anger. Tolkein chose not to touch what he didn’t understand, that being the mindset of a late 20th century female, and wrote instead about what interested him. That, Ms Kerr, is called honesty and integrity.
    Your approach to the subject, however, is clearly reactionary.
    Instead of your female characters spanning a range of emotional roles that represent the myriad facets of women, you simply transposed male characteristics you think you understand onto females that you clearly don’t. You take your central heroine from helpless orphan , through hormonally charged teen, into feisty , love struck woman, and then throw her under a cart by making her cold, unfeeling, and latterly curmudgeonly. In effect, you turn her ( even physically) into a mirror image of Nevyn.
    Might I suggest that in future, instead of arguing with the Master who wrote only what he knew from a time when what he knew was common, and argue with or chide yourself for trying to reflect a pastiche and 2 dimensional cartoon who eschews her womanhood in favour of androgeny and faux masculinity.
    Or, even better, relax and enjoy both Tolkein’s work….and your own…for what it is. “Fantasy” fiction.

  4. I just found your Deverry Cycle books — just started “The Spirit Stone” so I’m not quite through yet, but I am loving them!

    This will be blasphemy, I know. I understand that Tolkien is the master and I did read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and to be honest I got frustrated with his made up languages. That subtracted from the stories and became tedious. I read those works because my ex-husband kept telling me how he’s read them over and over and loved them. I enjoyed them; I did not love them. After reading those I decided that high fantasy was not the genre for me.

    Until George R.R. Martin who I know is so influenced by Tolkien that he even used the middle initials. 😉 I love his ASOIAF series so much that it inspired me to give fantasy another try and you know what? I love it! I’ve even started searching specifically for “epic fantasy” when trying to discover new (new to me) authors and that is how I found out about your work. Lucky me; the Deverry Cycle is complete so at least I have the pleasure of reading them back to back.

    I suppose I don’t think of any of the authors I’ve read so far as just imitators. Every one had to create their worlds and cast of characters and magic systems and so on. Some may have more original ideas than others but I am enjoying them just the same. It takes real talent to build those worlds and make people care about them enough to gobble them up as fast as they can.

    I don’t know why fantasy gets such a knock here. How many love stories or thrillers or horror stories have we read that are similar?

    Good luck with your new blog and thank you for your wonderful work. I’m really enjoying this series and will most definitely be reading your other works once I’ve finished.

  5. I read palace a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I am still waiting for a follow up. Are you ever going to write one. Really enjoyed your other series but still yearning to find out what happened next in palace. Thank you for reading this and I hope you keep on writing as you have a real talent for creating strong characters. Good luck in your future, and have a wonderful 2016.

  6. I read palace a few years ago and I’ve waited for the follow up to it. I really enjoyed the story and you really have some good strong characters in it. I’ve read others of your series but palace is the one I like the best and I want and need to read more. Please say you will or tell me if there already is a sequel. Thank you for reading this and good luck in the future and enjoy 2016. Owen.

  7. Allow me to say first that I began reading your Deverry series when I was eighteen (1998) and was utterly captivated from the very first word. I have continued, and will continue, to read your work throughout the rest of my life. All my life I had aspired to be a writer but until I first picked up ‘Daggerspell’ I had no idea what I wanted to write. Lost in the pages of your world I remembered the fairy tales my mother had told me as a child; not just the published works but her own inventions and the magical world she created for me in our very own back garden. I knew at that moment I wanted to write fantasy fiction. Not, as you so eloquently put it, to be ‘better’ than you, my personal inspiration, but to be ‘different’. Since then I have read the works of many, many fantasy authors; including going back to ‘The Master’ himself. Like you I felt lost in his world but alienated from characters that seemed to me to be two dimensional.

    I have finally achieved my dream, independently publishing a fantasy trilogy called ‘The Witchcraft Wars’. In writing these novels my primary objective, beyond writing a solid, readable and enjoyable storyline, was to create a brand new world that I named Kaynos and to populate that world with real, fully realized, three dimensional characters. Characters with virtues, flaws and motivations for their actions good or evil. I hope that to some measure I achieved my goal. To date I have had many very moving compliments paid to me by readers who almost universally comment on the strength of my characters and how they grow and change throughout the series. I’ve also had a couple of very nice reviews from book critics. I am currently working on another series, set in the same world, Kaynos, but twenty-five years further in time. That way I can bring back some favourite characters as well as introducing a new cast of characters to tell my story.

    I hope you don’t mind but I felt compelled by your words to reach out to you and thank you for the incredible gift your work has been to me. I also wanted to tell my story as it was inspired by you. Perhaps most of all though I wanted you to know how much your assessment of Tolkien’s work resonated and reassured me, both as a reader and as a writer.

  8. Dear Katharine,

    You have been such an inspiration as a writer ever since I first found your books on the library shelves, read them out of order for the first series, right up until the final denouement.

    I wholly agree with your treatise on Grandfather Tolkien, whom today’s Bechdel test leaves looking rather shabby despite his attempts at making his heroines somewhat important to the story. Peter Jackson’s treatment at least provides major screentime, even inventing a female character for the inferior Hobbit Trilogy.

    The question remains, will any daring producer ever attempt the Deverry Cycle? Would you be against your Saga being produced in animation, a forum where narration and thorough explanation of each character’s reincarnation could be achieved? Perhaps a multimedia approach, where viewers would be able to read, watch and discover through glossaries and added connections through reincarnation charts, maps, family trees and historical events.

    Just like the Deverry Cycle, I hope the story continues to be read and interpreted and passed on. I am proud to say that my bookshelves carry far more than 50% female writers, including all of your books, with many writers who would count you as one of their inspirations. Write on, and I hope to read many more of your observations on the genre.

  9. I love that you write to tell the stories that fly through your imagination rather than following existing formulas as many others do. The writers who let their characters take them away on adventures tell the best stories. The path you took with the Deverry Series is so different and fascinating compared to other fantasy.

    Reading Tolkien was like reading through mud. Lord of the Rings is the Archetypal fantasy story, but what you’ve said about it is true. The extraordinary thing is that Tolkien often speaks of how it is the common person who does the most good, yet he lumps that all into hobbits and treats them as simpletons.

    The male dominated worlds of fantasy are tiring. Often, when women are made to be strong, it only lasts a while before they then become subservient to men. In this day and age, I’ve noticed that writing has shifted to include far more women writers than ever before, but we’re still not where we need to be.

    I hope you continue to share your stories with us. They’re wonderful to read.

  10. Really nice to read a criticism of one of my favourite authors by one of my favourite authors! Tolkien was, to me, a philologist and world-builder first, and a writer second. I agree with your criticisms of his characters, but I’ll throw in some counters against his seemingly one-dimensional characterisation of evil.

    It’s almost impossible to extract his works from religion, with Eru Iluvatar taking the place of God. But Melkor’s attempts to disrupt the music of creation were actually pretty helpful. When Ulmo, the water Ainu, sang water into creation, Melkor tried to blast it with heat and cold, but as Ulmo says: “‘Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.” It suggests that no matter what Melkor/Morgoth did, it would all work into Eru’s greater plan. It’s a very Christian way to look at evil, but I think it fit into Tolkien’s world, because it was so heavily based on a Christian creation story. And Melkor and Sauron had separate driving forces: Melkor was furious that he couldn’t do creation his way and sought ever-after to destroy the world. Sauron was so prideful that he wanted to control the world entirely (and was influenced a lot Tolkien’s hatred of industrialisation).

    But evil wasn’t contained to Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron. The Elves committed a lot of evil deeds in the Years of the Trees and the First Age, and while they were influenced by Melkor at times, characters like Feanor were flawed by nature. Feanor recognised Melkor for what he was, but pride and vanity still allowed him to become crazy over his Silmarils, and when they were stolen, the vow he made which his seven sons also took, drove the elves to commit countless evil deeds like the first kinslaying and burning the Teleri ships. And Feanor’s sons, even though they fought Morgoth, betrayed their own kin again because of the vow. So while a lot of the corruption came from Melkor, I think there were more nuanced portrayals of evil too – while Elves like Feanor were not evil, they did evil things as a result of pride, grief, vengeance, jealousy etc.

    So yeah, Tolkien was an amazing world-builder and storyteller, but not the best ever writer. Still, I think he did understand more of the nuances of evil deeds, beyond a simple God/the devil analogy.

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