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Mythmaking in the Golden Age of Tolkien

Some years ago I was presented with the opportunity to participate in a special project in which someone wanted me to translate a number of texts into Elvish, a task for which I am singularly unqualified.  Visions of con artists streamed through my head as I thought what it would take to do the work required.  I had known people in my youth whose philosophy was, “How much does it pay?”  These were the kinds of people who, if you asked them, “Does your software do [X]?” they would reply with, “It CAN.”

Instead I passed on the opportunity and submitted to my erstwhile benefactors and business partners a list of four names of people I felt were singularly qualified to do the deed.  I cautioned them I did not get on very well with candidate number four but he had the chops and belonged on the list more than I did.

Sometime later I asked one of the other three candidates if he was approached about the job.  “I was,” he said.  “I had to turn it down.”  His explanation could be expressed as “I had no desire to lose the good opinion of certain people whose opinions mean much to me.”  I will end this anecdote with that but it sets the stage for something that has been growing in my mind for a few years.  I’ll get to that after this next anecdote.

In the 1990s I came across many online references to an electronic novel set in Middle-earth.  It was named for a character (the lead character in the story).  All the people who mentioned it wrote glowing reviews and best of all it was FREE (so as best I could determine no one was being paid to say it was great).  I located a copy and downloaded the book.  It was not written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  And upon scanning its electronic pages I was quickly reminded of that classic Klingon joke: “There is nothing like a good J.R.R. Tolkien story and this is NOTHING like a good J.R.R. Tolkien story.”

Fan fiction has earned its reputation for being badly written, poorly thought out, inexplicably unresearched, and unpenitently disrespectful of the source material.  But Alas! I had opened Pandora’s box.  I let all the evils out and was left with only poor little Hope as my companion.  I set out upon a quest with her at my side to find what I was sure could not be found: a good pseudo-Tolkien story.  I will regale you with that adventure no further.

We live in an age of unprecedented Tolkien scholarship and commentary.  I’m not always sure of where the scholarship ends and the commentary begins.  And I say that with due respect to all the authors of the innumerable master’s theses, dissertations, and journal articles I have read through the decades.   My journey through Tolkien scholarship has only convinced me that I will never be able to read it all.  I am amazed at how much there is, and I am deeply impressed by anyone who attempts to document it.  In most cases Tolkien scholars are very respectful.  There are a few who, in the eyes of objectivity, probably deserve the name “scholar” but whose writings have withered beneath the dour, loyal gaze of more adept and faithful Tolkien devotees (among the scholars).

And then there are the people whose bestial collations of every possible quotation and page reference without any regard for what goes with what make me want to wring my hands and say, “You and I have a very different idea of what disgraces the name of ‘Scholar’, Malfoy.”  But we won’t go there.

There are two worlds living side-by-side: the world of the fiction, begun by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the world of the scholarship, begun by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s an odd thing, I think, that so much of our scholarship is based on his own scholarship as redacted through The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings itself.  I have known scholars who studied the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard who lacked sufficiently scholarly commentary from the authors themselves.  I think Tolkien’s self-scholarship is rarely given its full due, but there will be scholars among you who say, “Ah! He hasn’t read [some paper or book]”.  Yes, let’s agree I haven’t read everything.  That’s an important point.

Who among us has read everything about Tolkien and Middle-earth?  I am skeptical such a person exists.  In just a few generations Tolkien’s two worlds have grown too large to be known by any one person, and there is the crux of the matter.  Are they Tolkien’s worlds any longer, the fiction or the scholarship?

Christopher Tolkien took up the task appointed him and he published a Silmarillion that we deemed worthy of his father.  But then he set about the task of explaining it all, revealing that it wasn’t so much his father’s work as a synthesis of his father’s work.  Maybe “synthesis” is not the best word, but I hope we don’t fall into the scholarly trap of trying to find the best word to describe it.  I once saw someone describe The Silmarillion as a pastiche in an online discussion and people nearly cut each other to pieces over the apparent denigration of such a great work.

Of course it’s a great work.  I love the book, have read it many times, expect to read it many times again.  And yet, pastiche fits (in the eyes of some).  I have also seen the book described as the best fan fiction ever written.  The eyes of Elves are blinded by such words.  If anything Christopher Tolkien has accomplished what his father accomplished: the publishing of fiction followed by a self-scholarship that is almost unique.  One almost wonders if any future generation of the Tolkien family will achieve the same, or if it would be fair to expect that of them.  I think not but I would be pleasantly surprised if the tradition passed to a third generation.

Meanwhile, there are the rest of us.  Some live in both worlds at the same time, fiction and scholarship.  Most live only in the world of the fiction.  I don’t know if it would be possible to only live in the world of the scholarship.  That would be a very esoteric point of view, would it not?

But whereas the scholarship has remained mostly faithful to the original work I cannot help but notice an occasional footnote or glimpse into a new region, one unforeseen from the beginning, a dark region that if illuminated by too close a scrutiny may elicit a great deal of debate.  And yet I submit to you that a thousand years hence if the words of J.R.R. Tolkien are still remembered and studied, that dark region will be illuminated.  It may even surpass the Middle-earth of Tolkien’s imagination and scholarship.

The fan fiction in all its forms (and they are many) is evolving.  What’s more, some of it is actually pretty darn good, even if it’s not “a Tolkien story”.  And where there is good fiction there scholarship may almost inevitably follow.  I have already browsed some scholarship of fan fiction, but there will be scholarship of Tolkien fan fiction.  I can see the Great Kin-strife looming on the horizon, too.  We shall have the purist scholars and the minglest scholars for Middle-earth has become something well beyond the story of one or two people.  It is a place of legend in the minds and hearts of many who yearn for it, who seek it in their dreams, and who cannot restrain themselves from writing about it.

We have seen this before.  I speak not of the pastiches of Robert E. Howard fandom.  We can go back much, much farther, deeper into the halls of literary history.  There are ancient tomes and poems which were parts of greater bodies of literature, vast centuries-spanning movements of thought and philosophy of which only fragments survive today.  Somewhere in time someone made up a story and that story was loved and appreciated and learned and studied and it inspired other stories, and of those stories came some few that were loved and appreciated and learned and studied and they, too, inspired new stories.

If you’re thinking, “Yes, but these fantasy authors who want to be like Tolkien are not like him” then you are looking in the wrong direction.  What I see is a new branch of Middle-earth, one that has evolved on its own without conscious guidance from anyone, a crowd-sourced Middle-earth that consists of stories, anecdotes, footnotes, events, and clever memes.  It is a Middle-earth that is being documented in a thousand ways.  It is a fiction that exists outside the pages of books, beyond the mere imaginings of simple authors who just want one more story in Middle-earth.

It’s a Middle-earth seeking self-definition.  It has its own axioms, its own traditions.  Fight them as you will, you cannot destroy them.  You can only watch as their island drifts off into the sea, forming a new world that will in time be called “Middle-earth” but maybe in a metaphorical way.  It is a myth making itself even in the Golden Age of Tolkien, when we all know his own words intimately, and we study those words faithfully.

I imagine it to be something like the barbarian tribes growing stronger at the edges of the empire.  In time the Pax Tolkieniana will come to a close and the barbarians will rush into the empire, seeking to claim pieces of it for themselves.  These barbarians are not people, not fan fiction authors or scholars; they are ideas, concepts, memes, and things we don’t yet have words for.  They look in on the empire with great envy but their future is filled with the promise of things to come that some today fear may pass.

In 100 years, maybe 200, someone will look back and work diligently to distinguish between (the fictions and scholarships devoted to Tolkien’s Middle-earth) and (the fictions and scholarships devoted to Greater Middle-earth).  They will not be sure of where one ended and one began.  We cannot be sure of that either.  The process has already begun and it cannot be stopped.

Some of our generation, I think, will welcome this evolution with curiosity, perhaps an objective ambiguity.  Others will seek to trample it in the dust and decry it as false and sacrilegious buffoonery.  Maybe most people today will simply dismiss it as irrelevant to what is important to them.  This would-be Greater Middle-earth has not yet taken center stage but it’s waiting in the wings.  You have already glimpsed part of it.

But there are those whose good opinions many of today’s scholars will want to retain.    That essential conservatism is a powerful force that should, I hope, carve out a special niche for early first (JRRT), second (CT), and third generation Tolkien scholarship which will be long revered and held as communal wisdom.  And then there are those who live beyond the reach of those good opinions, who have no incentive to curry that favor.  They are not necessarily harboring barbarians willfully; they seem themselves as loyal citizens of the empire, enjoying and protecting the Pax Tolkieniana, but they do not live in Rome.  Their homes are closer to the borders.  They do see the barbarians more clearly.

I don’t think this process is reversible.  Nor do I think it should be feared.  Maybe the best path is to recognize it for what it is and to leave it be, or to engage in discourse with it, without drawing up battle lines.  We all know what happened the last time the legions were divided and set upon each other: the barbarians flowed over the borders and destroyed the very thing they coveted.  Such a disturbing metaphor may never come to pass, but it does occasionally move in the shadows of my thoughts.  I see the barbarians at the border in a thousand different discussions.

I think it’s worth noting they are there.

About the Author: Michael Martinez