Sunday, 6 May 2018

Tolkien and fandom

When I first became interested in JRR Tolkien in the middle 70s, there was not much attention paid to him by the British mass media - but when there was, there was always some reference to the popularity in US college campuses, and to phenomena such as the 'Gandalf for President' lapel button, and graffiti along the lines of 'Frodo Lives'. Then The Lord of the Rings (LotR) movies in the early 2000s triggered another - much larger - wave of mass-, and the social-, media fandom.

When I consider the phenomenon of Tolkien popularity represented by the Gandalf for President button, I can find no relationship at all between that and what I value in Tolkien or LotR, with what is actually-in Tolkien; indeed the joke political slogan is the antithesis of what the LotR represents ex-plicitly, im-plicitly and every kind of plicitly... Saruman for US President/ Sauron for UN President would make a great deal more sense.

In their way, 'fans' of Tolkien are sincere; and may expend a great deal of time, money and effort in their fan activities. Yet, in the end it gets the participants nothing-at-all - it corrupts Tolkien rather than learning from him.

Fandom - but its appetite for novelty, and it mass nature, always corrupts; and always corrupts in the direction of prevalent mainstream ideology: whether that be 60s hippiedom, late 70s environmentalism, or - since the 80s and increasingly - the various facets of the sexual revolution, political correctness and 'social justice'.

Instead of learning-from Tolkien; it is quite normal for fans to read-into Tolkien whatever happens to be the current nihilism, hedonism, materialism, atheism... somehow fans find in Tolkien exactly what they seek - or else try (in effect) to 'teach' Tolkien about feminism, socialism, radical sexuality... whatever - for example via the vast mass of fan fiction (including 'slash' fiction) that quite explicitly inserts this kind of stuff into Tolkien's world.

Other fandoms are closely analogous - revealing that this is a property of fandom rather than being related to specific authors or their work. In Harry Potter, another work of Christian fantasy with traditional values at its heart; the main fan website was initially obsessed with the 'shipping' (romantic relationships between) the main characters, in all possible and inconceivable combinations. Later the web pages and fandoms were quite explicitly and systematically enlisted for a check-list of current social justice campaigns, such as agitation for same sex 'marriage' legislation. And the fans duly complied, with apparent enthusiasm and zeal.

Or Brandon Sanderson - I recently attended a talk, reading and book signing done by Sanderson; which was packed with hundreds of fans who turned-out and paid money to be there... and I say fans, because in the Q&A session every single one of the couple of dozen questions was related to the most trivial, ephemeral and superficial aspects of his work. There was not one single interesting, insightful, or challenging question asked by this mass of people; not the slightest indication that the novels were anything other than depictions of magic systems and 'cool' personalities.

Sanderson is an active Mormon, and all of his work is permeated with a serious consideration of religion and spirituality; both on the surface and as underlying structure. But it was clear that for Sanderson's fandom this was of sub-zero interest - invisible and irrelevant. 

The phenomenon of fandom is therefore at best trivial and fashion driven, there being more in common between fans (regardless of what they are fans-of) than between fans and the subject of their fanaticism. Fandom is corrupting and destructive of whatever is good in the authors and works that get caught-up by it; and in its advanced form, fandom embodies subversion and inversion of whatever is specific and distinctive in its subject matter; the aim being to reinterpret and rewrite it in line with currently-dominant, top-down, manipulative social campaigns that ultimately emanate from (and are funded by) the global Establishment elites.

So the phenomenon of fandom is a product of evil purpose; and has a malign influence all-round. No wonder that the elderly Tolkien was so confused and appalled by its first stirrings in the 1960s, and by the 'Gandalf for President'-type expressions.

Journalists thought that this was 'ungrateful' of him, because masses of fans led to more sales and more money in Tolkien's pocket.

But Tolkien was not a 'professional author' - he wrote from the heart and for the highest motivations. And he realised that fandom had nothing to do with him or his work; but on the contrary was the attempted obliteration of his work, the attempt to harness his books for a dark agenda.


Cathy Smith said...

Thanks for the recommendation of a modern author worth checking out, Brandon Sanderson. It took a while before I could appreciate Tolklein. I heard of him before but didn't feel like reading him until the Peter Jackson movies came out and I wanted to see the source material. He has a scope and range I can't help envying. It's little wonder he's still admired while other authors who react against the "hero" stereotype have become dated fast.

Stephen J. said...

Fandom was not always this way. Nor is it entirely this way even now; you simply have to look much harder for those seriously interested in the substance of works as they are, and not in the stylistic ephemera or political implications of their subversion.

I blame two causal factors for the decay you observe. One is perennial: Because fandom is almost by definition a refuge for those unable to join mainstream interests, it will always gather those with less investment in the social norm, and quite often those with a profound resentment against being excluded from that norm even as they make use of the free time thus given them to get even more involved in fandom. As the typical SF&F properties become more mainstream, "true" fandom's appeal thus becomes based on other factors of perceived exclusion: sexual, psychological and political oddity, and the political exaltation thereof, among them. (I think it is no coincidence that my own interest and involvement with fandom declined in direct proportion to becoming a successful husband, father and professional.)

The other factor is, I think, genuinely new: I blame the Internet, which has turned fandom into something that can be done literally 24-7-365 anywhere in the world, and which has also rendered the inevitable infighting of any constant intense community far more toxic for being permanently written down and unforgettable (and thus prone to retroactive misunderstanding by newcomers). It has also facilitated the addiction to the trivial and the subversively esoteric by accelerating the demand for *novelty*, and ruining people's patience. Fans who limit their participation to one or two conventions a year in real life tend to be much happier people, I've noticed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen J - Yes, of some some of fandom is decent - there is a minority counter-current of good stuff going-against the vast tidal wave of filth and debris.

But it's like I wrote in my book on the mass/ social media - Addicted to Distraction - when 99.9% of a phenomenon is malign, then malign is how we have to regard the phenomenon as a whole. When something is heavily net-bad - it's bad.

Wurmbrand said...

Perusal of issues from the early years of the Tolkien Journal and Mythlore (say late 60s, early 70s at least) and even the monthly Mythprint newsletter would show quite a lot of discussion somewhat akin to the sentiment evident at the Albion Awakening blog. But many people have never seen those fanzines. Photocopies of them are available, reasonably priced, from the Mythopoeic Society, I believe -- I completed my set fairly recently. Dr. Charlton might have found in the Mythopoeic Society founder Glen Goodknight something of a kindred spirit at that time. The "fans" sometimes were quite serious and diligent about seeking to become attuned to the wisdom of Tolkien and Lewis and even, occasionally, the wholesome elements of Charles Williams -- the distressing facts of whose life were not known. The fanzines are worth getting hold of and reading.

Dale Nelson

Anonymous said...

Interesting is perhaps one of Tolkien's earliest reflections on 'fandom', some 73 years and 7 months ago this week, when somehow fan-mail crossed the Atlantic in the midst of the war. He wrote Christopher, quoting:

'Dear Mr. Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised it's not more popular... If you have written any more books would you please send me their names?'

John Barrow 12 yrs.
West town School, West town, Pa.'

He continued, "I thought these extracts from a letter I got yesterday would amuse you. I find these letters which I still occasionally get (apart from the smell of incense which fallen man can never quite fail to savour) make me rather sad. What thousands of grains of good human corn must fall on barren stony ground, if such a very small drop of water should be so intoxicating! But I suppose one should be grateful for the grace and fortune that have allowed me to provide even the drop. [...] Do you think 'The Ring' will come off, and reach the thirsty?"

David Llewellyn Dodds, Tolkien Fan

Wurmbrand said...

As an example of what I mean, one could read Brian C. Bond's article "The Unity of Word" in Mythlore #8 (1972), working in a sincere but not overly earnest way with Barfield's theory of language. A reader of this and other articles might well come away with a renewed respect for language. Professors did sometimes contribute, but the fanzines were not dry, tedious academic stuff, and this was before the swamping of university English studies by Theory.

These fanzines, by the way, sometimes published reminiscences and critical articles by people such as Barfield who had survived to that day and who had known Tolkien and Lewis. Thus you had Barfield writing on Lewis's Great Divorce, etc.

The fanzine Niekas, in its 18th issue (which is for free download available online at, published what is certainly one of the best interviews with Tolkien -- still uncollected elsewhere so far as I know.