Tolkien Fandom

Tolkien Fandom

For the 200th issue of “Lembas”, I wrote this article on Tolkien Fandom. An English translation is below.

In this anniversary issue of Lembas, an article on Tolkien’s “fandom” really should not be missing. After all, Lembas is named after the Elves’ power-giving bread for on long journeys. In the case of readers of our Lembas: the reading material that keeps us going on our journey through Tolkien’s fandom. The paper Lembas feeds us – with new information, reviews of Tolkien’s work, and fun creative expressions based on that work. So that (Dutch-speaking) fans remain enthusiastic and engaged. Lembas is fuel, which makes sure that the flame of love for Tolkien’s work will not extinguish. Lembas is therefore crucial to our fandom. But what exactly is that, this “Tolkien fandom”?

Fandom in general is often seen as a subculture, characterised by enthusiasm. Sometimes it has a value judgement attached to it, similar to the word “amateur”, and, according to some, fans lack the level of sophistication and complexity when comparing their expressions to the more professional literary reception. Tolkienfandom refers to the global but unofficial community of fans of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the history of Middle-earth legendarium, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien fandom is the popular and creative aspect of the general discussion about the public reception of Tolkien’s works.

It may be hard to imagine for my generation, but much of Tolkien fandom existed before the films came out. Being a fan of the works of Tolkien is not the same as being a fan of the works of Peter Jackson, but anno 2022, in popular parlance, these fandoms often blend together. The people we describe as Tolkienists are fans of The Lord of The Rings – either of the original book or the film adaptations. In addition, the term Tolkienists can also refer to people who have studied Tolkien’s work in a (more) academic way. Finally, it can refer to students of the various constructed languages in Tolkien’s works (about which more in the article “Pedeg edhellen?”).

You may be surprised to learn that Tolkien fandom did not start in Britain. We often associate Tolkien with England anyway, and with all sorts of ideas of an idealised ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England. Yet he was not an Englishman by birth. His cradle was in Bloemfontein (in today’s Free State province), but he moved to Britain as a child, the country that would be very important to him. As readers of Lembas will already know, he was professor of Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford University from 1925 to 1945 and then professor of English language and literature at the same university’s Merton College until 1959. Nevertheless, the very first Tolkien fandom seems to have originated on the other side of the Atlantic. In the United States, “Tolkien” was simply a separate category of epic fantasy that emerged in the United States in 1960. The revival of fandom happened in the context of the hippie movement. According to his son, this was to the surprise or perhaps even disapproval of the author himself, who spoke in interviews of “my deplorable cult”. The fans, whom we now often refer to as “Tolkienists”, called themselves “Tolkien fans”, “Tolkienites”, “Tolkiendils” and “Tolkienophiles”. Fans of The Lord of the Rings used the words “ringer” and “LoTRian”, and since Peter Jackson’s films, there have also been “Lord of the Rings Fans”, about which more later.

Earliest fandom

The publication of the Fellowship of the Ring in July 1954 brought together serious admirers and fans of Tolkien’s work within the science fiction fandom. The first still-findable manifestations of what we would now describe as the international Tolkien fandom took place in the context of the American hippie movement in the 1960s and 1970s. An important name in this is Ted Johnstone, a pseudonym of American science fiction author David McDaniel (1939-1977). Indeed, he is the founder of the very first organised Tolkien fan club, quite appropriately called “The Fellowship of The Ring”. This Fellowship of The Ring (the group, that is) also published the very first Tolkien fanzine: i-Palantír.

i-Palantír came out in August 1960 and consisted of 17 pages. The cover was drawn by John Harness. This very first Tolkien fanzine includes a piece of fanfiction, which we now believe to be the very first published Tolkien fanfiction, namely “Departure in Peace” by George Heap. It also contains a more academic article, written by Arthur R. Weir: “A Study of hithlain of the Wood-Elves of Lorien”, and an amusing comparison, namely between Sam and his given name Sam Water from The Pickwick Papers. Salient detail is that here the name of Richard H. Eney is mentioned, while this comparative analysis was actually written by Hal Lynch. The group later disbanded, but released four issues before then and inspired countless other groups to produce similar publications (a small selection in the box).

Around 1961, Ken Chelsin published Britain’s first Tolkien fanzine, Nazgul’s Bane, to complement the more general science fiction zines. Indeed, while many fanzines of the time bore Tolkien-inspired names such as Ringwraith, Shadowfax, Mathom, Lefnu and Glamdring, they contained little or no Tolkien content. Tolkien’s work was thus discussed from the 1960s onwards in a variety of (mainly English-language) fanzines, both in general science fiction publications, such as Ed Meskys’ Niekas, and in the specific Tolkien zines, the publications of the Tolkien fandom, the forerunners of our Lembas.

Some early Tolkien fanzines

Glamdring by Bruce Pelz 1960s
Nazgul’s Bane by Ken Chelsin 1961 (?)
Rhodomagnetic by Berkeley, CA. 1962.
Niekas by Ed Meskys, ed. 1962.
I-Palantir by The Fellowship of the Ring 1960-1961, 1964, 1966.
Anduril by Paul Zimmer 1962.
Orcist by Richard West 1969.
Entmoot by Greg Shaw 1965 -1966

Besides these fanzines, Tolkien fandom also flourished through other manifestations. Tolkien-inspired costumes were first worn at the 1958 Worldcon, and two years later The Fellowship of the Ring organised a 49-minute event at Pittcon (August 1960). The Tolkien Society of America – now the Mythopoeic Society – first met “in February 1965, next to the statue of Alma Mater on the campus of Columbia University”, according to Richard Plotz, the Society’s founder and first Thain (in a 1967 interview in the New York Times).

As a fan of fantasy, you couldn’t really ignore Tolkien. As fantasy author Terry Pratchett once wrote:
“J.R.R. Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji”.

Fandom in the United States (1960)

The Lord of the Rings has had a major influence on American culture since the 1960s. For instance, the work also inspired the emerging video game industry and the popularisation of fantasy role-playing games. According to Foster (2006), there was a wave of Tolkien fandom in the United States in the mid-1960s as a result of the hippie subculture and the anti-war movement demanding “mellow freedom”, similar to the “Shrine” and America’s cultural Anglophilia of the time. This hippie movement, also called the “counter culture”, was fuelled by the pirated paperback version of The Lord of the Rings, published by Ace Books, which was later replaced by Ballantine Books’ authorised edition. Some groups within the various hippie movements gave alternative interpretations to support their missions, for example the Dark Lord Sauron’s resemblance to US military service during the Vietnam War. Tolkien was not entirely happy with this interpretation and was quoted as saying, “Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I’m not”. He later admitted that ”even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense”. But the intensity of the fans’ obsession made Tolkien remove his number from the public phone book and move to Bournemouth, on the south coast of England.

As might be expected, the 1960s also saw the emergence of all kinds of countercultures in response to hippie culture, with accompanying publications. One notable in our context is Bored of the Rings, a parody of The Lord of the Rings. This short novel was written by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, who would later found National Lampoon. The work was published in 1969 by Signet for the Harvard Lampoon, and remained in print for more than 40 years (which is unusually long for a parody). Its association with hippies also made The Lord of the Rings a target of ridicule. As a result, many people saw it as a controversial work of mainstream culture, rather than high literature. (This might have contributed to the fact that academic study of Tolkien’s work took off relatively late, but that is a topic for another article.) That Tolkien’s work had a huge impact on the zeitgeist is beyond doubt and is nicely described in this personal message from a first-time American fan:

“I (70+ now) was the co-founder of a Tolkien society at a Major American University in 1969. That’s not just before the Internet, it was 5-8 years before the first personal computer (depending on what you want to count as the first computer). Most fandom was organised around sit and discuss groups which most often produced their own newsletter and/or fanzine. The “big groups” such as the Tolkien Society of America, the Mythopoeic Society, and the UK Tolkien Society served as publishers as well and also as coordinators for the smaller groups. Eventually Tolkien fan conventions were held, though they were never as common as science fiction conventions were.

When I first read LotR and Hobbit, it was in the midst of the counterculture/Hippie/antiwar period and, frankly, Tolkien was everywhere. If you lived anywhere that was even semi-hip, like a college town, there was inevitably a coffee house or a restaurant with a Tolkien theme or, at least, decorations. So I truly don’t remember where I first found out about it.

[Later he adds: There was much discussion surrounding what else Tolkien might have written about Middle-earth. We’d hear of mysterious books named “Silmarillion” and “Akallabeth”. There was also discussion about how to pronounce “Tolkien”].

“I was a voracious reader and especially a reader of science fiction. I subscribed to a couple of science fiction fanzine/journals and it’s highly likely that I first substantially heard about it there, very likely from Locus magazine since Ed Meskys was not only one of the founders of Locus but was also by then the president (Thain) of the Tolkien Society of America.

Tolkien in effect started the modern genre of epic fantasy. While there had been a couple of earlier works that might be considered in that genre, Tolkien’s work really defined it and made it take off”.

Tolkien fandom outside the United States

Shortly after the revival of expressions of Tolkien fandom in America, similar initiatives followed outside the US. The earliest mention of an official Tolkien fandom outside America is found in Scandinavia. The Tolkien Society of Sweden is considered the first J.R.R Tolkien Society in Europe. It was founded in Gothenburg by members of Club Cosmos in 1968. Fun detail: the society was initially called just “The Tolkien Society” and “of Sweden” added when a Tolkien Society was also founded in the UK a year later. So this Tolkien Society (UK) was founded in 1969 and is, among other things, very active as a charitable organisation; they donate Tolkien’s work to people all over the world. The society has two publications: a bi-monthly bulletin called Amon Hen and an annual publication called Mallorn. In addition, the Tolkien Society (UK) organises events such as the annual Oxonmoot (in Oxford), around 22 September. On this “Hobbit Day”, the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the Tolkien fandom comes together to commemorate and study the life and work of J.R.R Tolkien.

Besides the Tolkien Society of Sweden, the Tolkien Society Forodrim also started in Sweden 1972. That society is mainly interested in and focused on Tolkienian languages. It is based in Stockholm and today has about 160 members across the country. And there are related Tolkien societies in Malmö, Gothenburg and Uppsala. The Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft (DTG) is, as its name suggests, a German Tolkien Society. It was founded in 1997 and is based in Cologne. The Magyar Tolkien Tarsasa is a Hungarian Tolkien Society, founded in 2002. Tolkien fandom in Africa is harder to track down via the internet, but at least there is Haradrim, an old Tolkien society for mainly Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa. The society was founded in 2000, but was active before then with radio programmes, lectures and exhibitions. Unfortunately, this society has since disbanded due to crime in the area.

Internet and Tolkien Fandom

In short, before the internet, most fandoms were organised in discussion groups. Many of these groups we still know today because they organised events and produced newsletters or fanzines. Larger groups such as Tolkien Society of America and the UK Tolkien society acted as coordinators and publishers for the smaller groups. Before the advent of the World Wide Web, fans regularly had to make some extra effort to join a fandom. As another pre-Internet Tolkien fan recalls: “When I was 14, not long after The Silmarillion came out, I wrote a letter to Christopher Tolkien via the publishers asking him some questions. It didn’t get to him but I did get a handwritten reply from Rayner Unwin which included, among other things, the postal address for The Tolkien Society which of course I joined as soon as I could. So fandom existed, but sometimes you had to work a bit harder to get involved.”

With the advent of the internet, the threshold for Tolkien fandom became lower and discussions about Tolkien also began to take place in newsgroups. Mailing lists about Tolkien’s work began in the 1990s. The two largest of them, and, launched in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Many of the fans who populated these discussion groups at the time look back on the Tolkien fandom before the Jackson films with some nostalgia. As one user under pseudonym NSatin puts it, “I’m going to offer a hot take: I think the fandom surrounding Tolkien before the Jackson adaptations and the ubiquitousness of social media was better educated and informed, on average at least. It really was something one had to actively engage in, read about, and deliberately interact with. Post-Jackson, post-social media, every Tom, Dick, and Harry can post something and people believe it. I think the modern fandom has read and studied less, and takes the Catholicism undergirding Tolkien’s works less seriously.” But according to Lembas editor Nathalie Kuijpers, that is “very rose-coloured glasses”. She says: “apart from a few sub-discussions, I don’t remember us working on Catholicism that much – but the groups were large enough for everyone.” How these proportions really were can no longer be traced – much of the history of the internet has unfortunately been lost, including the very first Tolkien discussion groups online.

But many of the people who can tell us about this are fortunately still alive and kicking. To preserve their stories, several research projects have been launched, for example at Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection is an ongoing project of Marquette’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives. It seeks to document the history of Tolkien fandom through short (up to 3 minutes) audio interviews with Tolkien fans worldwide. The sound recordings with transcripts are available online. Moreover, the information from the interviews has been compiled into a dataset to encourage and facilitate digital analysis. The aim of the collection is to collect 6,000 interviews, a number equivalent to the number of Riders of Rohan who were summoned and led by King Théoden to come to the aid of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. The collection is conceived as a “Host” of interviews collected over time. New interviews are gradually being made available in éoreds of 120, with the éored being the basic unit of the Riders of Rohan. This staggered release will allow access to the interviews long before the target of 6,000 interviews is reached.

Peter Jackson’s films and fannish reactions

The enthusiasm for Tolkien adaptations increased after the 1980 animated film The Return of the King (based on the last book of Tolkien’s trilogy), and fans of computer games could enjoy Tolkien’s world through their screens since 1982. The release of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy created an even wider audience. The films were released in December 2001, December 2002 and December 2003, and sales of Tolkien’s books skyrocketed. Since then, the Tolkien fandom has thus also consisted of people who did not come into contact with Tolkien’s work before the films and is divided into two groups: the purists and the revisionists. The purists are concerned with preserving the originality of the text. The purists stress that films and stories should have no differences; even the producers should not include their ideas to change the plot. The purists want filmmakers to respect and honour the source material as the basis for all adaptations. The revisionist position is the opposite; revisionists are open to more fundamental changes to the story. They wholeheartedly embrace the differences between the film adaptations and the original text. Some revisionists also believe that changes are necessary for the adaptation process to make successful films, and that whether or not they conform to the original text is therefore of secondary importance.

Following on from the beginning of this article, with the various names by which fans refer to themselves and each other, it might be interesting to look at a third group of ‘post-film fans’. These are the so-called “Lord of the Rings Fans”. This subset of fans has never read Tolkien’s works directly (or otherwise experienced them, e.g. via an audiobook). The “Lord of the Rings Fans” directly associate themselves as fans of the films and we can therefore debate whether they actually belong to the Tolkien fandom. Analogous to these fans are, of course, the fans of the many games based on The Lord of the Rings. But one thing is certain: whether Tolkien’s legacy seeps through Peter Jackson or carefully navigates around it, anno 2022 Tolkien is hard to imagine away from our pop culture. Without Tolkien’s work, many of the tropes and elements we consider essential to ‘fantasy’ – in books, board games, streaming series, games… – would simply not exist, at least not in their current form. Tolkien added an extra layer of meaning to what he called “fairy stories”, at a time when fairy tales were dismissed as trivialities for children.

Originally published in Dutch:

Mussies, M. (2022). Tolkien Fandom. Lembas, 200, 28-33.

white ceramic mug beside white laptop computer, tolkien fandom
Picture by Madalyn Cox

My name is Martine and I am writing my PhD about the Cyborg Mermaid. On this website, you’ll find blogs about autism, cyborgs, fan fiction, King Alfred of Wessex, mermaids, music & musicology, martial arts, (neuro)psychology, video games, and random nerdiness.

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