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On Wednesdays, We Read Tolkien: The Lord Of The Rings Fandom In 2021

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Originally announced in 2017, Amazon’s television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been a hot topic in the fandom ever since. While there is no official word on a release date at the time of writing, and production was stalled out due to the global pandemic health crisis and injuries, 2021 has seen some updates. More than a dozen actors were confirmed as part of the cast, an official show synopsis was published as an exclusive on TheOneRing.net, and in a recent roundtable on women in film, Jennifer Salke of Amazon confirmed that diversity was a number one priority for the studio in attracting a global audience for its shows: 

“So, the more diverse the cast, the better; the more diverse and authentic the storytelling, the better. We also see it working the other way. […] It’s a global storytelling world, and these companies better get on board because it’s already late.”

What a joy to see someone acknowledge the obvious: that a story adaptation can and should include representation as broad and inclusive as its fan base. Which brings me to the Adventure at hand. Please join me for a tour through The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fandom — grab a snack, a pipe, and/or a cup of tea, and let’s meet our neighbors!

via GIPHY

Books Versus Movies (or, Why Not Both)

One of the first things I stumbled across when I started my survey of LOTR fandom was this Reddit post on r/tolkienfans from April 25, 2021, in which a 19-year-old asks what the Tolkien fandom was like before the internet and movies. The resulting thread has lots of personal stories as well as references; my favorites include a response from a 70+ year-old fan who helped start a college Tolkien society in 1969. That was 15 years after the books were first published in 1954; we’re now almost 70 years out from the books, and 2021 is the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. There’s no doubt that this is a fandom of longstanding — Fanlore has a 100-year timeline of Tolkien and the community response! And as seems clear from the Reddit thread and, well, basically everywhere else I looked, the Venn diagram of people who have read the books vs. people who have seen the movies is almost a complete circle. Because we can’t resist a binary, there are those who would claim divisions between movie-fans and book-fans, but from where I’m sitting, it’s a non-starter. People who came to the fandom through the movies then read the books; die-hard readers lined up for hours for tickets to the movies. Let’s just all be friends! (For reference, I also don’t care whether or not you’ve read The Silmarillion, and you can pry my Tolkien Fan Club card out of my cold dead hands.) 

How Did I Get Here?

If audio of fan-origin stories are your jam, have I got an archive for you. The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Archive, housed at the Raynor Memorial Libraries of Marquette University and publicly launched on Tolkien Reading Day, March 25, 2019, has 600 recordings of fans from around the globe sharing how they first came to Tolkien’s works. And that’s just the tip of the planned iceberg. William Fliss, the archivist and curator, aims to collect 6,000 recordings, to match the number of Riders of Rohan. Naturally! In an email interview with Book Riot, Fliss said: “[M]y hope for this project has been two-fold since the beginning: I hope it appeals to fans who want to hear what other Tolkien fans are saying. The worldwide Tolkien community is vibrant. Secondly, I hope it appeals to scholars studying the phenomenon of fandom, either fandom in general or Tolkien fandom in particular.”

Anyone can sign up to contribute to the archive, and each interview is posted and transcribed. The archive is searchable, and speaks to how diverse the fandom truly is. A simple search for “Japan” led me to a 38-year-old Japanese reader who first read The Hobbit in translation when she was 10. I also stumbled across an African woman raised in England who first read the books after graduating from college, and a woman who, as a disabled kid, found solace in Tolkien’s emphasis on “the significance of the seemingly insignificant.” You don’t have to look long or hard to find a range of ages, experiences, and backgrounds.

And that’s something that Fliss is celebrating. After requests came in to make the listening experience less clunky, he has launched a podcast, Voices from Tolkien Fandom, combining interviews around a common theme. The first episode features 15 fans, each from a different country. “I am beginning with an arc of 9 episodes — a Fellowship of episodes if you will. We’ll see where it leads.”

Let ‘Em Talk

Speaking of podcasts! You can’t have a fandom discussion these days without talking about fancasts, and the Tolkien fandom is a talkative one. When I searched for “Tolkien” on Apple Podcasts, the first 20-odd results all appear to be shows dedicated solely to Tolkien; we won’t even count the number of podcasts that touch on the subject in passing. I personally have guested on Mary Clay Watt’s That’s What I’m Tolkien About, for a discussion of whether or not Denethor was psychic, among other Return of the King questions. (Spoiler: the answer is no.) Watt is approaching it from the time-honored “I am new here, walk me through this” perspective, but if you want a more seasoned, authoritative guide, or perhaps a more generalist approach to Tolkien, you can have those too.

Even the “actual” hobbits have a podcast now — Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd recently launched The Friendship Onion, for a look back on their time on-set and promising interviews with cast and crew, as well as answers to fan questions.

via GIPHY

Text Me

Regardless of how you got here, it’s clear that once you’ve arrived, many cannot resist the urge to dig into the text itself. Tumblr, fandom site extraordinaire, is a perfect example. Spend a little time surfing the #LOTR tag, and you’ll see a wealth of commentary. Posts go from the flippant but extremely accurate, like this gem from April 2021:

“aragorn i understand ur projecting onto beren and luthien and worrying about the love of ur life sacrificing her immortality for you but like, someone asking you about the story of luthien and all you say is “she died” is the most reductive shit ever. this woman broke into satan’s house, called him a bitch to his face, stole his most valuable objects, and ran off to marry her malewife. show some respect.”

bagginshield

…to a deeper dive into how exactly Legolas was able to bring Gimli to Valinor, complete with citations, or parallels between Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Frodo’s post-journey health. Frodo lives, y’all. 

If message boards are more your bag, TheOneRing.net seems to be the biggest and most active in terms of dedicated spaces. They’ve got topics ranging from the Reading Room, for critical analysis and discussion, to threads for the movies, to a Fan Art section for talking about your art, fic, etc.

Also speaking of! As is only proper, fans are putting their own spin on the text with fic. At the time of writing, AO3 (my personal favorite repository of fanfic) returned 17,268 results for “Tags: The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien,” and there are 1,335 from 2021 alone. As is so often the case with fan fiction, many focus on non-canonical pairings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular pairings tend to be Frodo/Sam and Legolas/Gimli, but the rarepairs are absolutely fascinating. Radagast/Sauron, anyone?? And many are doing more than shipping. One of my favorites, for example, stars Aragorn and Arwen’s daughters in a gorgeous femslash series, “Our Garden of Dreams,” which also brings some sorely-needed nuance to the Haradrim.

Draw Me Like One Of Your Eldar

I could have spent actual days (weeks? months!) exploring LOTR fan art — there are a wealth of styles, character interpretations, mash-ups, and setting swaps that make it an endless delight. It was incredibly hard to narrow down what to highlight; but for my money, here are some not-to-be-missed contributions that really showcase the breadth of talent and inspiration on offer.

First up has to be Fox Crows’s racebent hobbit boyfriends, done in stunning black and white with ink. Then there’s this Eowyn/Faramir but lesbians combo, which made me laugh as well as giving me a new headcanon. Would you rather see modern Legolas and Gimli go on a camping trip? Done. I may never recover from Brazilian artist Jardim da Yavanna’s chibi Gandalf and Balrog, how dare they be so cute?? And then there’s this stunning series from Awa, who has reimagined Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel.

These are just the tip of a glorious iceberg, and I encourage you to do your own deep dives on Tumblr and Instagram in particular. Have fun storming the Search tab!

Will The Real Galadriel Please Stand Up?

Last in our tour — but far from least — is cosplay. I am always blown away by the care and creativity that cosplayers put into their work, and the LOTR fandom is no exception. ToxieCat’s Thorin Oakenshield cosplay? Perfection. Is this Pass The Brush featuring, among others, c0c0cosplay as Galadriel and beetletrix as Sauron (!!!) the best Tolkien Pass The Brush ever? It might be. And it’s been a few years since it was posted, but I cannot resist linking out to Kyujo Cosplay’s time as a regal dwarf. The perfect (facial) hair! The dress details!! 

But Wait, There’s More

As I keep saying, this is but the briefest of forays into the modern Tolkien Fandom. One could spend actual years exploring the various realms, finding new corners, and engaging with your fellow travelers. After the time spent putting this together, I felt overwhelmed by the true breadth and depth of the fandom, in the best possible way. It’s one that crosses age, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, and cultural background, and hearing from such an inclusive group broadens my perspectives on the books and movies in turn. Like any other community, there are dark corners, and fans who insist on gate-keeping or that nebulous “historical accuracy” — but there’s plenty of light as well. Here’s to the joys of fandom, and may there be many future installments for us to enjoy, analyze, and remix to our hearts’ content!

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