It has been just over two years since I published my last interview with a Tolkien scholar. I have always wanted to do more but the amount of time I had to put into each interview was considerable and my workload these past two years has been my largest obstacle to creating the kind of in-depth content I want to publish. I do my best with the questions that Tolkien fans ask but some days there just isn’t time to do any research, even for the briefest of questions.
Nonetheless, as my Middle-earth blog approaches 800 published articles, people browse the articles every day. Unfortunately I changed statistics tools twice over the past two years so I don’t have complete data going all the way back to when I launched the blog in June 2011 but looking at the past year’s worth of data I see that the site has served nearly a half-million page views. Thanks to the Peter Jackson movies and occasional references from other Tolkien Websites the blog is attracting more visitors month-by-month. And while one Website’s data doesn’t provide a scientific sampling into the interests of Tolkien fandom I thought it would be worth sharing some of the things I see in my statistics.
For example, the four most popular articles on the blog (accounting for about 11% of all page views) deal with movie-and-book questions. Tauriel, the female wood-elf character introduced in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”, has out-performed nearly every other topic on the blog. And I have only written one article about her, whereas for some topics I may have 5-10 articles.
If you combine 2 of the top four questions, then the topic of “similarity between the Hobbit book and movies” is the most popular. But all four top questions deal with differences between the books and the movies in some way. I think most Tolkien-related sites that publish movie-related content probably see something different. That people recognize there are differences between the movies and the books and that they care about those differences strikes me as a significant indication of a powerful sentiment for the books.
Some of the other questions near the top of my list are not Hobbit-related at all, not really. People still want to know why Frodo left the Shire, for example; and I am pretty sure that article was much more popular when I first wrote it 2 years ago. This seems to be a perennial question, and must surely be one that is discussed in Tolkien classes around the globe. It’s a great “end-of-story” question, in my opinion, because it does require the reader to go back through the whole story and put a lot of pieces together to see that Frodo was so deeply wounded by his experience with the Ring that there was no way he could find healing in Middle-earth.
You almost have to reread the Mordor chapters by themselves to really see what Frodo (and Sam, to a lesser extent) suffered.
I was surprised by a recent article where I speculated on how Sauron might have given the Seven Rings to the Dwarf-lords. Although I thought it was an interesting question I didn’t foresee the great interest among fans. This is the 10th most popular article for the past year. I don’t know if it will remain popular for long. But I think it reflects the deep frustration that so many readers feel toward the relative incompleteness of so many sub-plots in Tolkien’s fiction. To make his world seem so real he included all sorts of minutiae that were little more than echoes of much larger stories.
Azog is also a very popular topic. I have only written two articles about Azog but they are both in the top 20. Looking as far back as my current statistical data goes (to about late November 2012), Azog accounts for about 10% of all the page views on the blog. The next most popular article/topic is “in what order should J.R.R. Tolkien’s books be read?” with about 3.5% of the page views. Clearly the movies are driving most of the passion in fandom’s quest for more knowledge about Middle-earth, but I don’t think they are just looking for more information about movies. At least, not when they visit my site.
One of the least popular topics, which surprises me, is an article about the origins of the Took family name. I just thought, when I wrote that article, more people would be interested in it.
There are certain controversies associated with Tolkien’s books, such as whether racism exists in The Lord of the Rings, that bring many visitors to the site; and yet these controversies are not nearly as possible as the questions comparing the books to the movies. The most popular controversial topic in my repertoire deals with the true nature of pipe-weed (it’s tobacco). And yet more of my readers want to know how to build a hobbit hole than care if Gandalf and Bilbo were getting high all those years.
In terms of traditional research topics — the kinds of things that have attracted the attention of academic papers and thoughtful books through the decades — I think the most popular question concerns Gandalf’s death. But there are minutiae that are occasionally mentioned in passing by Tolkien scholars which seem more interesting to my readers. For example, any article concerning Thranduil, Thingol, and Elf-Dwarf tensions seems like a big winner. The pronunciation of Smaug’s name is another “hot” topic, even though everyone tells me I pronounce it incorrectly (I prefer “SMOG” to “SMOWG” — sorry JRRT).
Among the many articles are some semi-fan fiction pieces, the “Middle-earth Unplugged” articles. Of these the most popular by far has been “Horror in the Woods: How Men Live in Mirkwood”. I think those readers come mostly from the role-playing community, as they do have adventures set in Mirkwood and Tolkien wrote so very little about Men in Mirkwood.
And there are meta questions that touch on topics the scholars favor, things to do with the nature of evil in Middle-earth. Orcs are always on topic, it seems. Edmund “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” Wilson might not be pleased by just how many people have questions about Orcs and why they behave the way they do.
People don’t care so much about canon, or whether Valinor is supposed to represent heaven, or even which LoTR battles may have been inspired by historical battles. It seems that the closer an article gets to “the real world” the less interesting it is. And yet some of my favorite questions in the area of literary dissection do seem to get a fair shake. People seem very interested in why Peter Jackson left out Tom Bombadil (from “The Lord of the Rings”). I am a Bombadilian going way back and I have always defended him as being important to the story (not to contradict JRRT but because I think JRRT was cherry-picking importances).
Another popular topic concerns how Beleriand was destroyed in the War of Wrath. I can only speculate but the speculation has always led me to think about the Ragnarok. Tolkien’s original mythology in The Book of Lost Tales envisioned a Ragnarok-like “last battle” (and readers want to know why that was left out of The Silmarillion). I think the scholar sees the importance of the evolution of the literature, whereas the casual reader just wants to know the details.
Tolkien’s fiction always seems to revolve around world-ending events, even in Smith of Wootton Major there are hints of transformation in the world, and of greater epics waiting to be told (such as when Smith sees companies of Elven warriors returning from war in distant lands). “Leaf by Niggle” takes the reader from one world (of the living) to another (that of the dead). So by “world-ending events” I mean that this literature fixates on irrevocable changes in the living world. That is very much the stuff of scholarly inquiry and yet most readers seem oblivious to the point of it all.
When you look at what Tolkien lived through, having served in one world war and watched his son serve in the next, it should come as no surprise that he was deeply moved by world-ending events. The world he knew ended twice, and that is two times more than one should expect to see in a lifetime. These things matter to us, to me, because I feel a sense of compassion for the author as he sheds his emotions through these stories. I still feel relieved when Aragorn rises up out of the grass to challenge the Rohirrim because, by golly, he’s doing something important. The world he has known is about to end and instead of racing to meet that ending he is giving his full thought and concern to the fate and well-being of two little hobbit-folk. That is manhood, sir. That is manhood.
It may be too much to ask that the worlds of scholarship and readership co-mingle, but where I can I strive to include some of both in each article. Someone once told me that my work is less satisfying that way because I am like the Elves, saying both “yes” and “no”. Either I should try to be a scholar or I should write for the masses, but can I really do both? I don’t know, but over 300,000 visitors have taken time out of their days and nights to give my words consideration.
And after all these years of writing what I think the readers want to see, I am still surprised by what they respond to. Whether you are studying the movies, the books, or the fandom I don’t think we have quite dissected everything yet. Why this magic continues to play out is still a mystery that cannot be easily explained by any set of technical definitions. It’s a rare gift when a writer like J.R.R. Tolkien can move whole generations of readers to ask questions. He has sparked imaginations on a scale rarely achieved. It’s too soon to compare him to the likes of Homer or Herodotus but we’re coming up on 100 years of Tolkien’s published influence. In another ten years people will be marking centennials for all sorts of Tolkien publications. In 2016 they will be raising a toast to “The Fall of Gondolin”, no doubt.
Maybe by then more people will be asking questions about Gondolin and The Book of Lost Tales, and if so won’t that be an exciting time after all?
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.