Thursday 7 March 2013

Tolkien fandom then and now: Tolkien-based or meta-Tolkien - the Litmus Test of re-reading


As a young teen in the early 1970s and a Tolkien fan, the essence of fandom was re-reading.

There was very little published material by Tolkien, even less about him - all of it was expensive and most of it was inaccessible on a pocket-money budget.

Therefore, I read and re-read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.


Nowadays, a fan need never re-read because there is so much secondary and tertiary material - there are the movies and their fandom - so many web sites, so much chat-about Tolkien-related matters.

There is no need to re-read - and anyway re-reading is quantitatively swamped by all the other stuff.

For the modern Tolkien fan, therefore, Tolkien is mostly a mass media phenomenon: the modern Tolkien fan is actually a meta-Tolkien fan: a fan of Tolkienish stuff of which Tolkien is a part, but by no means the dominant part.


I doubt whether the modern Tolkien fan experiences those years upon Years of aching desire for more of the same; only satiated (and only partly) by returning again and again to the books: to Tolkien's own words.



Wurmbrand said...

In the US, awareness of Tolkien could be divided into three phases:

[1] the era in which his books were available only in hardcover;

[2] the era in which they became available in paperback (i.e. 1965 and beyond];

[3] the era in which they were largely associated with movies (i.e. since Jackson's trilogy began to appear)

During the first era, The Hobbit was, I think, pretty widely known as a good children's book. Individuals discovering LOTR might have one or more of three types of experiences: [a] entirely solitary reading and enjoyment; [b] the discovery of one or more fellow devotees; [c] connecting with nascent Tolkien fandom, in the sense of semi-organized groups of readers who published fanzines such as I Palantir, Niekas, etc.

An example of [b] is provided in Peter S. Beagle's story about a cross-country journey with a friend on motor scooters -- one of their bonds is love of LOTR. The time is the first half of the 1960s.

The fanzines published material of mixed quality, ranging from humorous "filksongs" [sic] parodying LOTR elements, to artwork of elf-women in contemporary California-style lingerie, to really good critical articles, and even something as outstanding as a multi-page interview transcript, from a telephone conversation with Tolkien himself.

Go to and search under Tolkien Fandom Review for the chronicles by Gary Hunnewell (Hildifons Took) of these early fanzines.

After the paperbacks appeared, Tolkien fans multiplied and so did the fanzines. The best ones included Mythlore, Tolkien Journal, and Orcrist. You can still buy inexpensive photocopies of these 'zines, or even original printings sometimes, at very affordable prices, from The Mythopoeic Society. However, it takes them a while to fill orders since, I believe, this is done on a volunteer basis.

I wish one could acquire other old Tolkien fanzines (as reprints), at affordable prices, but so far as I know I Palantir and some of the others are, in effect, not available. However, you can read all of Niekas #18 at the efanzines site. This includes Henry Resnik's very interesting interview with Tolkien, mentioned above.

CorkyAgain said...

Thinking back on those Mythlore/Tolkien Journal/Orcrist days, it strikes me that one of its most significant characteristics was its amateurishness.

Like many others, for example, I was fascinated by Tolkien's Elvish languages. I constructed my own dictionaries and speculated on the etymologies. I even got some of these speculations published in the zines. But I didn't have any formal training in linguistics, and it showed.

I think there is another era between Wurmbrand's [2] and [3]: the era in which Tolkien became the domain of professionals. People began doing doctoral theses on his work, and teaching courses on him in universities. There were scholarly books to read and academic conferences to attend.

I think that the more scholarly professional approach was already beginning to appear in the pages of Mythlore and Parma Eldalamberon. But amateurs could still make interesting contributions. I'm not sure that's true today.

Wurmbrand said...

CorkyAgain, are you acquainted with the monthly Tolkien newsletter/commentary 'zine Beyond Bree? It still welcomes interesting articles, letters, and artwork from non-academics. I suppose it is the most "fannish" Tolkien publication around -- in a good sense. I recommend it!

Deniz Bevan said...

I'm happy I first read him at the best time - when everything had been published but there was no inkling of movies and hokey merchandise to come; I had at least fifteen years of rereading under me before the mass media phenomenon began. So for me, it's always been about the aching desire for more of the same...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Deniz - This comment was a bit of a shock! The LotR movies were released 2001 was 12 years ago, minus the 15 years of re-reading you had before they were released = 27 years... And from your blog/ photo I always had assumed you were a recent graduate and considerably less than 27 years old!

Deniz Bevan said...

Born in 79! And first read Tolkien at age 10/11.
Guess it's a good thing to sound a little younger? :-)

Wurmbrand said...

In the US, it was good to discover Tolkien's Middle-earth fiction in the paperback books published in the 1960s and 1970s, in that there was relatively little realistic-style artwork associated with them. Later the books were illustrated by "realistic" art or (more recently) by photos from movies. But in the 60s/70s in America, you had either the Barbara Remington designs (semi-abstract style) or Tolkien's own art on covers. -- Well, and Pauline Baynes's art appeared on the cover of The Tolkien Reader, which reprinted, with her art, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Baynes's art also appeared on covers of a paperback set issued with her beautiful map in a boxed set. Her art was representational without aiming for an offensive and limiting overly-realistic style.

It's true that Ballantine Books began to issue Tolkien calendars with waxwork-realism by the Brothers Hildebrandt after around 1976; the regrettable trend was beginning, which would lead to the unpleasing art of Darrell Sweet, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - I have to say that the Ballantine Hobbit cover by Barbara Remington strikes me as so bad that it is almost good - when I first saw it I reacted by laughing until I cried.

Of course, she was not given time to read the book but had to produce the artwork in a few hours - nonetheless it is so far off the mark that it beggars belief.

For those who don't know the picture, I will add it to the psot above.

Bruce Charlton said...

Trouble uploading it...

Here is the URL

Wurmbrand said...

The Remington design (with or without lion!) for The Hobbit did, bizarre as it is, link itself visually with her charming and evocative LOTR design, which I've always liked. In this way, her Hobbit design did convey a sense of promise. Inside, the publishers included Tolkien's maps, which fascinated a youngster like me. I loved Tolkien's own illustrations as printed in the hardcover edition from Houghton Mifflin, and photocopied them. Tolkien's drawings, like Remington's designs, were representational but not "realistic," and so united well with his prose in an appeal to the reader's imagination.

CorkyAgain said...

Actually it was that Remington cover that first attracted me to Tolkien's books, back in 1965.

It was my first year of high school, and I was in the school library looking for something to read while I waited for the bus to take me home. I thought it must be some kind of science fiction, and that's what I used to read back then.

@Wurmbrand - overall, I think the "professionalization" I described has been a good thing. Verlyn Flieger's books, for example, are much much better than anything I've seen in a zine (then or now).

Wurmbrand said...

Looking back, I wonder a little at my complacency about the absence of The Silmarillion, etc. I read LOTR several times between 1967-1977, knewe The Adventures of Tom Bombadil well, and owned The Road Goes Ever On -- at one time, its few sentences about Elbereth seemed pretty substantial. Also, around 1972 I bought a copy of Robert Foster's Guide to Middle-earth, which contained a few additional scraps of lore about (e.g.) Morgoth gleaned from Tolkien interviews, etc. I suppose that I might have been more desperate for additional Tolkien if it weren't for the fact that during the same period I read a lot of other fantasy. I won't say that Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, E. R. Eddison, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Ursula Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea, etc.)and others were as good as LOTR, but they offered quite a bit of pleasure and were all in print in paperback. More importantly, I and others had the seven Narnian books and the space trilogy from Lewis.. so there was a lot of rather good fantasy to read till The Silmarillion was published.

Wurmbrand said...

CorkyAgain, the best writing on Tolkien by professionals had indeed been excellent, and better, so far as I know, than any "fan" writing -- Tom Shippey's Road to Middle-earth being the best of them all. (See also Peter Schakel's book on Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis.) Some of the good books eventually published professionally were by authors who originally wrote as fans, e.g. Foster's Guide to Middle-earth, or, I suspect, writings by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull -- at least, both (I think) were writing for Beyond Bree in the mid-Eighties or so, which must predate any of their professional books. Shippey wrote for the Tolkien Society early on, too.

CorkyAgain said...


It seems you and I were reading many of the same things back in those days!

I still have my copy of The Road Goes Ever On -- the page on "Namariƫ" is well-worn, as befits its status as one of the main sources for info re Quenya in the pre-Silmarillion era.

Foster and I exchanged mail back in the 60's, fwiw, and a few of my silly (and utterly mistaken) linguistic speculations made it into the first edition of his book. Hopefully they've since been expunged!

Francisco Videla said...

Well, I don't know if Bruce stills reads the comments on this older posts, but I'd like to add something. I am Argentinian (so no, I'm not from the Anglosphere), and I am 28 years old. That means my first point of contact with Middle-Earth was through Peter Jackson's movies. And I was thoroughly fascinated by The Fellowship or the Ring, most of all (I still think it is the best adapted to screen of them all). I can't state in words what it meant to me. It was just like Lewis describes his first encounter with Phantastes by George Macdonald. It really baptized my imagination.
After the shock wore off, a week later, I immediately bought a paperback of The Two Towers and RotK afterwards. I admit that I didn't enjoy their film adaptations as much after reading the books, but at 13 I had read The Hobbit and at 16 the 1977 Silmarillion.
Ten years later, after a Spanish Literature degree and a conversion into Catholicism, I rediscovered Tolkien and re-read all his works. I am currently reading the Humprey Carpenter collection of letters and I plan (if my Spanish teacher budget and the evergoing economical crisis of my country allow it) to someday buy the HoME and immerse myself in Tolkien's word.

My point being that the movies didn't left me out of deep appreciation and interest in Tolkien's world but the opposite, as a sort of gateway into a Sub-Creation I love so much.

P.S. Congratulations on your blog, by the way. I stumbled upon it searching about Warnie Lewis's letter of 1949 and have enjoyed its contents for weeks. Keep up the good fight!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Francisco - I agree that Fellowship is one of the best movies ever made.