The Purpose of Spam

So, as a lot of you who read here already know, the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild and Many Paths to Tread were both hit by a fairly large spam attack this morning. Whenever this happens, it understandably provokes annoyance and anger. It sucks to open your email first thing in the morning to find a review on one of your stories, only to discover that it’s someone purportedly peddling Cheap NFL Jerseys From China.

However, it also provokes confusion. Common reactions are something along the lines of, “Why is this person spamming a Tolkien site, we aren’t interested in Rolex watches and Loubotin shoes and, even if we were, we’re not going to click on a site that’s spamming our story!!”

Well, I’m here to answer that question!

Comment spam has nothing to do with trying to get you to click on much less buy whatever they are peddling. No one spams your Boromir!lives AU with male enhancement drugs with the expectation that you will click on the links much less buy the drugs.

So what are they trying to accomplish then? Comment spam has to do with how search engine rankings work. Essentially, the more often your site is linked by outside sites, the higher your site appears in search engine rankings. Presumably, sites that other sites are linking to on a regular basis are producing important content that earns them a higher place in the rankings.

Unfortunately, like most everything else online, unscrupulous people will try to exploit and misuse a system that is actually pretty fair and logical in order to jump to the head of the line, so to speak. Imagine, for instance, that you have set up a website selling gold jewelry. Most people will find you by typing “gold jewelry” in a search engine. However, there are thousands of other sites selling gold jewelry that have been linked to by happy customers over the years, and they are ahead of you in line. No one looking for your product is likely to find you unless they make a concerted effort to dig deep into the bowels of the search results.

So what to do? You can boost the reputation of your company, get customers to write reviews and link to you on their website, and negotiate link exchanges with bloggers who are writing about fashion and jewelry. OR you can code a spambot that will register for an account on a site like a fan ficiton archive or a blog and sprinkle that site with links to your sites embedded in comments. Now your link is out there on dozens if not hundreds of different sites, looking to Google and other search engines like you have done the hard work of building a website with a solid reputation and bumping you further ahead in the line. Pfft.

(Another favorite tactic, on WordPress blogs anyway, is to list your site as the website in the comment and then write a generic comment like “Keep writing!” or “This is the best content on this topic I have seen!” Notice how easily this can be repurposed, whether my blog is about smart phones or makeup tips or Tolkien or auto repair. Yeah. People like this and their empty praise go straight to the dustbin.)

But this is why comment spam is a plague–and it is a plague–on websites like fanfic archives and blogs. It’s an unfortunate loophole in a system for ranking sites that, as I stated above, is actually quite fair.

The best thing to do if you receive comment spam is to report it. Most sites have a Report Abuse button right on the comment (both the SWG and MPTT do) that will send a note to the mods. On both sites, we monitor new registrations at least daily, but reporting spam activity will help us get on it as quickly as possible and can severely minimize the damage a spammer can cause. Sending one report for each spammer is adequate; you don’t have to report each spam review (although we don’t mind if you do) because these people can sometimes hit dozens of stories for a single author, and we don’t want you to spend half your morning filing abuse reports. Once we have one report for a user, we can find that person’s other reviews with the click of a button. If a site allows you to delete your own reviews, please don’t delete the spam comment, as that makes it impossible for us to track which user it came from; it may take us a couple of hours, but we will eventually delete the review for you, once we have the information we need and the more important tasks (like locking the account and blocking the IP address) have been taken care of. Other sites may vary slightly in procedures, but all should appreciate those who take the time to report spammers on their sites.

I hope that helps clear up one of the Great Mysteries of the Internet!

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The Saddest Part about the Whole Talkfictions Mess …

… isn’t actually that unscrupulous people use the Internet to make a quick and easy buck on the backs of others. Duh. It’s actually been kind of cute to me when I run across the occasional rant along the lines of, “Why are they doing this? Don’t they understand that they are hurting us and should stop?!” Like, yes, they know. They know and don’t give a damn. Welcome to the Internet?

… also isn’t the amount of time I’ve put into this (and I’m supposed to be on hiatus, lolol) and that I suspect at least Rhapsody and probably many, many more people whom I don’t know have put into this. These are my friends, my own kind: writers who lack legitimacy and very often aren’t given even basic respect by the general public. Every moment spent protecting what we do have is time well-spent.

What is the saddest about this whole thing is not only how uneducated many fan fiction writers are about their rights but how vocal they are in asserting that they/we don’t have rights and therefore can’t/shouldn’t do anything.

It is Fair Use Week, so this post seems timely in that regard.

Because, yes, you do have rights, even if you are “just” a fan fiction writer. The line of thinking seems to go something like, “We are using other writers’ worlds and characters, so what we make is open to anyone to do anything with, kind of like if it was in the public domain” or “What we are doing is already illegal, so we can hardly claim to have ‘rights’ after we’ve robbed other authors of theirs.” There is so much self-denigration implied in these arguments that it makes me a little bit sick and a little bit sad.

When all this first went down and those five sites disappeared after just a few days, I remarked to Rhapsody that someone probably thought we were just a bunch of dumb fangirls and would make easy marks and how satisfying it felt to prove them wrong. But so many fanfic writers have internalized the hatred and disdain aimed at their creative work that they do become easy marks because they stop believing themselves–and their work–worth defending.

The Organization for Transformative Works’ FAQ (scroll down to Legal) provides succinct answers to a lot of the common questions about the legality of fanfic. The legal issues surrounding copyright, fair use, and therefore fanfic are ridiculously complicated. There is, for one, the fact that every country has different laws. There is disagreement on whether fan fiction is derivative or transformative and how that influences its legal status. I will refer to U.S law here because I’m located in the U.S. and most of the major archives are as well (including Fanfiction.net, the archive violated by Talkfictions). The line oft-spoken is that “fanfic occupies a legal gray area.” All that means is that the courts have not decided either way about the legal status of fanfic (or other fanworks), although they have “held that transformative uses receive special consideration in fair use analysis” (source: OTW FAQ: Legal). Since a strong case can be made for the legality of fanworks, writing off your rights because you’re “doing something illegal” is preemptive and unfounded.

The fact that, in the minds of many creators, “gray areas” gets turned into “shadows,” implying illicit, hidden activity is indicative of the self-deprecation I have encountered again and again in trying to spread the word about this incident. And, as I noted above, this is not merely an ennui toward taking action on one’s own behalf; it often takes shape as an active attempt to prevent others from taking action on their behalf. Ironically, I have seen the vast majority of this on Fanfiction.net among the very writers with the most at stake. I get the sense sometimes that some of these authors believe that we are getting our due punishment for doing what we do.

So let me spell out a few basics that I wish I could inject into all of these conversations:

  • Unless you place your work in the public domain, then you hold the copyright to it. Yes, even if it is “just” fanfic.
  • It is your work. It does not belong to the original creator because you used Maedhros or Poe Dameron or set it on the Enterprise or at Hogwarts. Yes, the original creator retains their own rights to their original creations, but that doesn’t nullify your rights or mean that your rights or your work are somehow subsumed into theirs.
  • People do not have permission to post your work in print or online without your permission. Full stop. Fanfic, o-fic, it doesn’t matter–it really IS that simple. (Of course, getting those rights respected on the Internet–an international entity at best and a lawless one at its worst–is a much more complicated matter, but you have every right to try and don’t let anyone tell you differently.)

As someone who has come around to be proud of and celebrate my fanworks, it is hard to see other creators who seem to feel that they don’t even have the right to exist and even deserve their “just desserts” for writing fan fiction. But I can certainly understand why that is. I went through it myself.

There is, of course, the long-running tendency to demean fandom and fan fiction in particular. The mainstream media has come around a little–we get the occasional neutral or even positive article on fan fiction now–but decades of damage are hard to undue. There are also the painful words of authors whom fan writers respect–even create fanworks for their work, or want to–who surface every now and again to remind their most dedicated of fans that they are lazy cheats and usually bad writers and perverts to boot.

There is also the fact that most fanfic writers–and this is especially true on Fanfiction.net–are young. (The median age if respondents to my Tolkien fan fiction survey was 24; Centrumlumina’s AO3 survey showed a median age of 22-24. I don’t think many would doubt that Fanfiction.net users trend younger, possibly much younger.) I remember being an older teenager or young twentysomething: having arrived at the age where merely reading was not enough but where I was suddenly expected to read the right things. I remember my AP English teacher–otherwise a wonderful teacher whom I still respect and admire–declaring Stephen King, one of my favorite authors at the time, as unworthy of our attention as advanced students with maturing tastes. There was always the sense that what I loved and wanted to read and write about at that age wasn’t what I should be reading and writing about. No doubt many young authors on Fanfiction.net feel that way about their writing there.

Then there is the fact that the vast majority of fan writers are women (89% according to my Tolkien fanfic survey; 80% according to Centrumlumina’s survey; only 4% male according to both of our surveys), and women writers receive the message both overtly and subtly that their work is of less value than the writing of men. Men still dominate in mainstream journalism, publishing, and award nominations. Even when the mainstream media wants to give a positive nod to fan fiction, they nod overwhelmingly at the work of men, even though the overwhelming amount of fan fiction is written by women. Women’s writing is niche–think chicklit, think rom-coms–and is viewed as light, as frivolous, as a guilty pleasure, as trash, as something to be endured by men trying to placate (or get laid by) women. How men and relationships with (or between) men are written by women is seen as wrong, but how men write women or relationships with (or between) women goes largely unquestioned. A tender m/m slash pairing earns derision and scorn as “female wish-fulfillment” but shrill, humorless harpies as a comic device are still omnipresent in sitcoms, comedies, and even TV commercials and go unquestioned. It is no wonder that many fan fiction writers–who are including romance in their stories, eroticism, and are daring to look at the world through their female gaze–feel that their work is frivolous, stupid, and even shameful–and ultimately unworthy of being protected by the same laws and systems formed to protect the work of men.

I of course hope Talkfictions is taken down. It will be an enormous triumph for us as a fandom when it is because we will have done it by ourselves (unless the admins of Fanfiction.net decide to get off their asses and do something about it). But the saddest thing to me isn’t that there are thieves and scoundrels on the Internet but how many of their victims truly believe they deserve nothing better.

(This post on the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild LiveJournal is where much of the public discussion that uncovered Talkfictions occurred, and it is the post that I am updating first as soon as new information is discovered or new developments arise, so this is the post to refer to for the latest on what can be done about Talkfictions. We now have an email for the host, and I encourage all authors whose work was stolen by Talkfictions to file an abuse complaint with the host at abuse@quasinetworks.com; the link at the top of this paragraph has a sample email to send. I am also trying to keep my tumblr updated with new developments as they arise.)

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Fandom under Fire: Thoughts on the Fanfiction.net Theft

Probably everyone knows by now that there was a recent theft of stories from FanFiction.net and FictionPress.com. The fact that I can say with confidence that those authors affected by this likely already know about it (at least on the FanFiction.net end) is largely the point of my post.

In my decade or so of involvement in fandom, I’ve seen fandom experience crises like this on several occasions. As a quick recap for my non-fanficcers out there, it came to light about a week ago that several sites had set up mirrors of FanFiction.net and FictionPress.com content. The mirrored pages were, of course, riddled with ads and malware, as tends to be the case with these kinds of scams, but more importantly, they had stolen the creative work of thousands of people and were using it without their consent to turn a dubious profit. Since most fanfic writers–even those who detest FanFiction.net (like me)–have at least some of their content on that site, the effects were far-reaching. Most crises tend to impact just a portion of the fandom (like the buying up of LotRFanFiction.com by Keith Mander) or rile up all of fandom but don’t actually impact our rights as artists (like *insert famous author here* saying something ignorant about fan fiction). This was probably the biggest crisis I’ve seen in my decade in fandom, being both fandom-wide and of tangible consequence to thousands of authors.

A few thoughts come out of this. First of all, I am impressed, even a little awed, by our effectiveness as a community in dealing with issues like this. Or the short version: Don’t fuck with fandom. As I write this, five of the six illegal sites have been taken down through our efforts, and we are working on getting the sixth removed. I became aware of the issue through a Tumblr post about it by Rhov that was picked up by the SWG’s tumblr. As of my writing this, Rhov’s post has more than 28,000 notes and 22,000 page views. On the Tolkien fandom side, Rhov’s alert began to trickle over to LJ, and it was picked up by Dreamflower of LotRGen/Many Paths to Tread, posted on Faerie by Spiced Wine, and posted on the SWG’s LJ by yours truly. In multiple of these places, information-sharing and brainstorming began, and within a couple of days, we had found ample hosting and contact information to actually have the sites shut down.

As word began to get out that the sites were going offline, I couldn’t help but imagine that the person or persons who orchestrated this was staring in dismay, jaw dropped, as their sites began to disappear. Their sites that they paid money to host and spent time to set up and that lasted, what? Less than a week? They probably imagined us as easy marks, as fluffy-headed fangirls who probably wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t be smart enough to care, and wouldn’t know what to do if we did. They were incredibly wrong on that.

Time and again, I have found fandom to be an invaluable brain trust. Someone always knows. And once that person shares information or a good idea, chances are that it will be picked up and shared. As a community, we are the quintessence of powerlessness. As far as we’ve come in recent decades, I still read far too many articles in scholarly publications or the mainstream media about fanworks that spend an undue among of time defending the legality and legitimacy of what we do. We are still often stuck defending our very right to exist. Many of us believe that we don’t have rights and that we should be grateful just to be ignored. No one cares when we speak up. No one is rushing to defend us or help us. More often than not, we’re on our own. But therein, we have numbers on our side, and many of those people are smart and savvy and aren’t content to be simply ignored. And despite our lack of power and the lack of respect for what we do, we do get things done as a result.

Once again and repeating the refrain I’ve been saying for the better part of a decade, I find myself sorely disappointed in FanFiction.net. When the news about the theft broke, I did not support flooding them with notifications and demands, as some were advocating. I’m a site admin myself, and I know how these things work behind the scenes. They are incredibly time-consuming and fielding message after message about it, no matter how well-intentioned, wasn’t going to be productive for the site admins. But I had faith that, as soon as they knew about the issue, they’d be working on it. After all, their intellectual property was also stolen, and these mirror sites had the potential to disrupt not only their sites’ profit but also reputation. They presumably had more at stake than we did The profit, if nothing else, I assumed would motivate them. I was wrong. As far as I can tell, they’ve done nothing–at least, they’ve posted nothing on their site or social media to make me think otherwise. I’ve tweeted them multiple times with no response.

The fact is that a DMCA takedown notice from two major websites to the hosts of these sites would have had much more clout than the trickle of reports of a stolen story here, a stolen profile there that we authors have been able to report. But once again, it seems that FanFiction.net has left their authors and their members to solve their big problems for them. This is beyond disappointing and reminds me why, when I get the urge every couple of years to resume using my account there, I decide against it.

And I have (and hate) to say it, but I was disappointed in the OTW too. Over the past few days, I keep finding myself asking, “What can we do to make getting this kind of information out more efficient and centralized? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single place that everyone in fandom knew and could check that could serve as a clearinghouse for information?” Because, despite our success so far, there were major weaknesses. Most of the activity occurred on Tumblr, which is a terrible platform for discussion and information-sharing. Within a day of word reaching an old-school Yahoo! mailing list and subsequently LiveJournal, the hosts of the sites were discovered. People could ask questions or share knowledge without wondering if that question was already asked or that knowledge already shared eighty pages of notes ago. The response was fragmented. Information made the rounds on Tumblr for days before making it to other fandom sites. And just yesterday, I found a group on FanFiction.net that was completely out of the loop, fumbling around trying to figure out what to do, and making suggestions that were dangerous (trying to log into the sham sites to modify their profiles) or just plain wrong (that the sham sites were perfectly legal and nothing could be done).

So I find myself wondering what can be done to bring us all under one umbrella, so to speak, so that when something like this happens, everyone is clear, “That is where I should go to find and share information on this.” And then I remember, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that very question after a crisis related to LiveJournal the reason the OTW was created??” Yet they were completely silent about this. Did they not know about it? How could that be? Their tumblr has been active, reblogging cute comics and fandom in-jokes, but managed to miss all of the reblogs within those 28,000+ notes about the theft of thousands of fanworks? Or didn’t think it was important enough? Either way, I’m disturbed by it. I’ve always cautiously supported the OTW, agreeing with their mission but skeptical of any large entity that seeks to represent a community as diverse as fandom (and concerned always that such a large entity will reach the point where they can’t even leave their own gravitational field), and in this case, it seems that promoting their own content and agenda trumped speaking up on an issue that was probably of greater concern to their members than interviews with fanvidders or this year’s International Fanworks Day. I keep coming back to the fact that AO3 has meant that many writers have left or can’t be bothered with smaller archives, yet in the Tolkien community, it was precisely those smaller archives who managed to find the time to care and share information about this, even though our organizations ostensibly had less reason to be involved than the OTW.

In any case, once again, someone tried to do us harm and we banded together to stop them. No big institutions came to our rescue. They didn’t even offer assistance. Through literally thousands of small actions by thousands of people, we did what we came to do. A bad actor was stopped by us and us alone. By us.

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Text Version of “The Loremasters of Fëanor” Now Available

Yesterday I hunkered down and did what I have been putting off for almost three months now: I put my paper from the New York Tolkien Conference into a finalized form that I am not embarrassed to show in polite company. Since I use a lot of digital sources during research, I have a shorthand that I use in citations so that it’s relatively easy to go back and add page numbers from the print versions. Relatively easy except that nothing done a few dozen times over is ever exactly easy. Also, I have to say that adding graphics to documents in MS Word is a pain in the ass that seems to have gotten worse over subsequent “improvements” of Word, and “Loremasters of Fëanor” has quite a few graphics.

Anyway, those chores are now done and the paper is available in text form on Academia.edu.

Read “Loremasters of Fëanor: Historical Bias in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Transformative Works”
Download “Loremasters of Fëanor: Historical Bias in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Transformative Works” (PDF)

(Also, a reminder that a video recording of the presentation is also available. The text version, however, includes a few paragraphs that I deleted from the talk so as to fit in my half-hour allotment, as well as the graphics that I struggled to add, of course. But the video has me prattling in my Baltimore accent. So there are selling points for both.)

Here is the abstract for the paper:

Written from the point of view of in-universe narrators and loremasters, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien consciously imitate historicity, including the presence of historical bias. While historical bias in Tolkien’s works has received very little scholarly attention, it is a driving force in the activity of another group of Tolkien experts: writers of Tolkien-based transformative works or fan fiction. This paper presents data showing a correlation between a character’s receipt of bias and the amount of attention given him or her by fan fiction writers, concluding that characters who are perceived to have been treated unfairly in the texts often make appealing subjects for transformative works. This paper was presented at the New York Tolkien Conference held at Baruch College on 13 June 2015.

With this done, I think I can finally put this puppy to bed. Unless Myth Ink decides to do a proceedings, in which case I suppose I’ll have to trot it out one more time, but with citations and graphics done, that should be quick (I hope).

As always, comments on the paper are welcome!

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The “Quenta Silmarillion” Death Post

Causes of Death in the Quenta Silmarillion pie charts

The graphic above has enjoyed some popularity on my tumblr after I posted it earlier today. (Yes, those of you with posts with thousands of notes can laugh at my regarding 100+ notes as “popular.” I’m a blogger with bookish, loquacious tendencies and monofandom interests in a rather obscure fandom. It’s all relative!)

In any case, since it’s doing well there, I thought I should share it here as well. It’s not meant to be taken terribly seriously; I had collected all of the death scenes in the Quenta Silmarillion (there’s 65 70 of them) for my current paper on historical bias in The Silmarillion. Well, it turns out they’re not going to be as useful as I’d hoped, so I wanted to do something fun with them, and assuming there is room under your funbrella for Silmarillion death statistics on TGIF, this is it.

(The tumblr post goes into specifics on what I counted as deaths in battle, from interpersonal violence, and from animal attacks, as well as the criteria I used for the Silmaril and Túrin stats. There were, remarkably enough, some difficult decisions to be made as far as which character should go where. I’m sure we could quibble and argue over that, but this is a fun post, right? So we won’t. :))

So I kind of plopped these graphs up on Tumblr without a lot of analysis because I didn’t think anyone would read it anyway, but The Heretic Loremaster is a reading place, so we can stomach a bit more analysis and a few more words here, I hope. My first observation is that these graphs confirm what every person who has read The Silmarillion knows: It is a remarkably violent and depressing story. There are 65 69 death scenes in the Quenta Silmarillion alone. 65 70!!  In my little paperback Silmarillion, the Quenta is 279 pages long, which means that someone dies on average every four pages. Overwhelmingly, those deaths are violent deaths. There are no grandmas passing away quietly in their sleep after long happy lives in The Silmarillion. Bëor is the only character whose death occurs under completely normal and non-upsetting circumstances. (Even Lúthien and Beren, we are told, died quicker because of the Silmaril than they would have otherwise [“Of the Ruin of Doriath”].)

To put it into further depressing perspective: As a character in the Quenta Silmarillion, you are equally likely to die by your own hand as die of old age.

The second graph compares deaths related to pursuit of the Silmarils to deaths related to the mere knowing of Túrin Turambar. (Again, Tumblr has the specifics on how I determined this because there were also some gray areas here too.) As I was compiling what I’ve come to think of as The Death Chart, as I reached the Túrin chapter, I noticed I started having to toggle back and forth between my Kindle for PC and The Death Chart with depressing rapidity. I mean, anyone who has read the Túrin chapter knows it’s one of the darkest in the book, but with 12 deaths in the 35 pages of the chapter, that means a death occurs on average every three pages. Come on, Túrin! As I was doing all this switching back and forth and copy-pasting a seeming endless stream of death scenes, it occurred to me that, if you were a character in The Silmarillion, knowing Túrin might well be riskier than deciding to pursue a Silmaril. Since Túrin lived only 35 years (using the timelines in The Grey Annals and The Tale of Years) and the quest for the Silmarils went on for centuries, that’s pretty damned sad.

As some of you know, my current Major Research Project (aside from the omnipresent thesis that hangs over me like a fog of Angband) concerns historical bias in The Silmarillion. Indeed, The Death Chart was originally compiled with this project in mind. I wanted to see how The Silmarillion treats the deaths of various characters. Particularly, I was interested in knowing if the narrator of the Quenta spent more time talking about your death if he was biased in your favor and gave you the short shrift if he thought you were a jerk. This has proven really difficult to quantify, but as is often the case when compiling information and data, the endeavor got me thinking in a direction I hadn’t anticipated when I typed in Míriel as the first entry in The Death Chart.

The destructive outcomes of both Fëanor and Túrin are described at various points as among Melkor’s most evilest of deeds. (Those points are in “Of the Sun and Moon” for Fëanor and “Of Túrin Turambar” for Túrin.) How those characters are treated beyond that point, though, is different. The role of Melkor in the marring of Fëanor (and consequently his sons) is downplayed after its initial revelation. Instead, Fëanor becomes accountable for his actions (not that he shouldn’t be), and his behavior and that of his sons is depicted as “fey” or as mindless adherence to the oath, which develops so much agency that it feels almost like its own character. At no point, though, are the Fëanorians absolved of responsibility (nor should they be). In fact, the Fëanorians are held responsible not only for their actions but for a whole cascade of consequences attributed to the oath (not Melkor or the poor decisions of other actors). For example, when other leaders opt out of military action against Melkor because the Fëanorians are going to be there, then that–and the failure that will be attributed to their absence–is blamed on the Fëanorians, not the characters who actually made the decision to sit at home. In short, the Fëanorians bear a lot of blame, some of it just and some of it not.

Túrin’s story is very different. Túrin was likewise an unwitting tool in Melkor’s designs. But unlike Fëanor, accountability for his actions is never fully assigned to him. As he wreaks havoc across his chapter, we are led to believe that his role in that havoc is not really his fault. Likewise, character after character forgives him, offers him aid, and is hurt in the end. He is regarded with pity, like the awkward child with too-big feet who breaks something every time he gets up to sharpen his pencil. In Túrin’s case, he is breaking lives and whole realms, but who’s keeping score? He is still pitiable, basically a decent guy doing his best and hitting a string of bad luck. The same understanding and forgiveness is never extended to the Fëanorians.

Even his death suggests that we are meant to see him positively, as a sad victim of circumstances rather than someone whose character flaws and very poor decision-making put hundreds of people–including his loved ones and the entirety of Nargothrond–in harm’s way. One fruitful observation that came of The Death Chart is that funerary customs are described only for the good guys. We never hear about how, say, Celegorm was mourned or memorialized by his brothers, even though it is reasonable to assume that he was. Túrin is buried in a mound, a custom that, to this point, has been used almost exclusively to memorialize kings. He was also given a carved stone, a rather unique memorial in Middle-earth. He was, in short, someone worth remembering.

I don’t think that this means that Túrin was worthier than Fëanor, or that Fëanor was worthier than Túrin. Both characters exemplify men with pride and ambition who were led astray through the machinations of Melkor and subsequently made some very poor choices that led to the deaths of a lot of innocents. The similarities in their stories and the differences in their depictions points to the role that the fictional in-universe narrator plays in The Silmarillion in controlling how various characters are seen by readers. This can be seen in the death data. Fëanor and his sons are excoriated for the destruction they cause. Túrin–who, if we consider the concentration of his havoc over relatively few years and the fact that he is only one guy (versus eight), is far worse–gets a king’s burial.

Finally, a few people over on Tumblr have left questions (in the tags, grrr …) about who comprised each category. I’ll include a list of all the deaths in the Quenta Silmarillion below the cut and where I assigned each person. If I’ve overlooked someone, feel free to let me know. I’ve already found one I’ve missed–Lalaith!–since making the graphs. (ETA: And Anonymous on Tumblr caught three more: Angrod, Aegnor, and Bregolas, all of whom should belong in the battle category. Thanks to Brooke for noticing the absence of Finrod’s companions; since I am going with named characters, I’ve added Edrahil, but if you are keeping score at home and would like to include them all, that’s nine in addition to Edrahil in the animal attack category. Thanks to Jenni for catching Halmir, who creates the Unknown category I’ve been trying to avoid. Also I noticed that Haleth was missing, who adds one more to the cheery old age/natural causes category./ETA) I’m not going to quibble over where characters were assigned (although I will answer questions), but feel free to carry on those kinds of conversations and debates in the comments if that suits you. And, of course, feel free to play with this list and data to your heart’s content (just please credit me for the research and let me know what you do with it).

(more…)

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What the Valar Reveal about Gender Roles in Tolkien’s Legendarium

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow SWG member about sexism in Tolkien’s legendarium. The LotRProject statistic that only 18% of the characters in the legendarium are women is well-known, but he pointed out that the Valar are split 50-50 in terms of sex. This is an interesting point and one I hadn’t considered before in light of what it shows about gender roles and sexism in the legendarium.

The Valar are interesting as a case study to begin with because they have a prototypical status, both in terms of illustrating Eru’s intentions (being Eru’s direct creation, and the creations most closely associated with Eru) and in establishing cultural norms for certain groups, such as the Eldar, Dwarves, and Númenóreans, with whom they had prolonged contact. Even among the groups with whom they were not deeply involved–the Avari, for instance–even the fleeting contact that they managed to have may have exerted an influence. Their omnipresence relative to other groups in Arda makes it possible for the cultural norms they establish to have far-reaching influence.

Their 50-50 split in terms of sex, on the surface, didn’t seem particularly unusual to me. After all, as Children of Eru, the Valar exemplify the natural order as established by Eru. Since we know that Arda was meant to be equivalent to our world, and we know that humans are roughly 50-50 in terms of sex then, that alarming 18% statistic notwithstanding, we can assume that the normal state of affairs for the Children of Eru is likewise roughly 50-50 for biological sex. The 50-50 split of the Valar confirms this.

What is interesting, though, is that the Valar were not intended to occupy Arda. The Ainulindalë tells us that those who descended to Arda chose to do so. Among the ur-culture of the legendarium, then, women and men had equal interest in shaping a world subcreatively. This is a good thing, right? The original state of affairs suggest that women and men have equal desire and affinity for the kind of subcreative work that Tolkien valued.

It is a good thing–it justifies the work many of us fanfic writers have done in trying to make the voices of Arda’s women heard as “canon”–but a deeper look also shows it to be much more complicated than that. Once we get to Arda, this equality quickly evaporates. Among the Aratar–the Valar “of chief power and reverence”–men dominate. The Valaquenta identifies the Aratar as Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Námo Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë. Three of them–or 37.5%, just over a third–are women. Melkor originally belonged to their number. If we add him back in, the number of women among the Aratar drops to an even third (33.3%).

How should one interpret this? So women and men had equal interest in working in Arda, but the men did the better work? Or the more skilled and powerful men had more interest in descending into Arda, whereas the skilled and powerful women tended to stay behind with Eru? Or the men, as a whole, were more skilled and powerful than the women? Or some cultural force elevated the men (or the value of men’s work) or diminished the women (or the value of women’s work)?

No matter the explanation–and I’m not sure that I can argue definitely for one over the other (although I encourage those who think they can to have a go in the comments)–this is troubling because, again, the Valar can be viewed at prototypical or, at the least, highly influential throughout Arda. Either inequality is part of the natural order as created by Eru or the Valar were modeling it and possibly passing on a toxic cultural trait to other societies throughout Arda. This kind of makes the sexism-presented-as-equality in Laws and Customs among the Eldar actually make some kind of sense.

Another way to look at whether the Valar model equality is to look at who is actually doing stuff or being talked about in The Silmarillion. To measure this, I counted up the number of times each Vala is mentioned in The Silmarillion. I did not count mentions in the Index and other Appendix materials. The chart and graph below show the data. I did not include Melkor on the graph or in the averages because 1) he is an extreme outlier and would have skewed the data and 2) his role as the chief enemy also sets him apart from his less antisocial brethren. (Also, Tolkien did not consider him one of the Valar.)


Importance of Valar in The Silmarillion by Sex and Status

 


 

Once again, the guys dominate. Here are some observations:

  • Even the woman with the most mentions in The Silmarillion (Yavanna, with 58 mentions) has fewer than the average for the men (59.6 mentions).
  • Varda’s stats strike me as particularly egregious. She is identified as being held “most in reverence and love” by the Elves in the Valaquenta, yet she is only mentioned 34 times, fewer times than all of the male Aratar. Manwë, her husband, receives four times as many mentions.
  • Yavanna achieved perhaps the greatest act of subcreation in The Silmarillion when she sang the Two Trees into existence. (Tolkien considers Varda’s stars the greatest [see below], but surely the Two Trees are a close–a very close–second.) She is the only female Vala who can hang with the male Aratar on my graph, and she still cannot touch Manwë and Ulmo in terms of attention in the text and is mentioned only one time more than her husband Aulë, who while accomplished, is hardly achieving at Yavanna’s level. Tolkien lists Yavanna before Aulë in the list of the Aratar, but the attention he pays her in the texts does not accord with her status.
  • But impressive acts of subcreation aren’t a guarantee of actually getting page-time in the book. I come back to Varda again here: Tolkien calls her creation of the stars the “greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of the Elves”). Yet she is neglected compared to all of the male Aratar.
  • The only male Vala whose mentions are in the single digits is Irmo. Interestingly, Irmo’s specialty (healing) is typically a woman’s role.
  • Should we even discuss the poor Valier who are not among the Aratar? These four women put together cannot come close to even Tulkas, who chases things around and punches them. But we barely even know what these four women do. Their few mentions in the text assign them perfunctory roles or discuss who they are married to. Something surely motivated them to descend into Arda and get their hands dirty, but we never really learn what that is.

As I noted at the outset, the obvious sexism among the Valar sets a poor precedent for the other peoples of Arda, who very often hold them as exemplars. But the Valar are prototypical in more than one way: If you do the exercise above for any group of characters in the texts, you will come up with similar results: Male characters receive the page-time. Women do not.

This would not be a post by Dawn if I did not mention loremasters and narrators and how that influences all of this. The Valaquenta is explicitly an Elvish text; it is subtitled “Account of the Valar and Maiar according to the lore of the Eldar.” So, one could argue, we are not seeing the Valar as they were but as the Eldar (or, more accurately, the Eldarin loremasters) were seeing them.

How accurate were these Eldarin loremasters? It’s hard to say. Since, to the best of our knowledge, they were all men, they could have taken the same approach as have many male chroniclers throughout history, giving preference to the kind of activities typical to men while overlooking those typical to women. (Which would explain why Tulkas gets the attention he does while Vairë is only mentioned twice.) But most of the activities of the Valar have little to do with these stereotypically masculine roles. For example, Ulmo, Yavanna, and Oromë all venture into Middle-earth; we only hear in detail what Ulmo and Oromë do there. So I have a hard time laying this one entirely at the feet of the loremasters. And even if I do, who very likely taught the loremasters much of what they know? The Valar.

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The Loremasters of Fëanor: Historical Bias in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Transformative Works

Here is the video of my presentation at the New York Tolkien Conference on Saturday, June 13. I am unfortunately hiding behind the monitor on the podium for most of the video–the perils of recording with a handicam in rooms that aren’t necessarily ideal for recording–but the audio is relatively clear throughout, and that’s really what matters. You’ll just have to take my word that I looked beautiful. :)

Below the jump is a synopsis of my paper, as well as the data that I displayed on the Powerpoint that you probably can’t read unless you have the eyesight of the Elves.

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New York Tolkien Conference Recap

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This past Saturday, I journeyed to the north in true Fëanorian fashion for the New York Tolkien Conference. What a great day it turned out to be! This was the first year for the conference (and, yes, they are interested in running it again), and for me, it was a success: obviously a huge effort pulled off with only minor snags. The Baruch College facilities were lovely, and the access to technology was great–I am a high school teacher at heart and struggle with the idea of presenting without visuals, and that was no problem here. Even my first day back in heels after two years of being brought low by inflammation issues went better than expected!

The keynote speaker was Janet Brennan Croft of Rutgers University and the editor of the journal Mythlore. As a Silmaniac and therefore a book nerd, I am generally ready for analysis of the books to replace the analysis of the films that we’ve seen over the past few years–the books are just more my schtick, the reason I’m here–but I very much enjoyed her presentation “Barrel-Rides and She-Elves: Audience and ‘Anticipation’ in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy.” I have noted–even defended the films on the basis of–the difficulty of adapting the films not only to the books but to each other, i.e., The Hobbit has to be matched in plot, character, and tone to the Lord of the Rings films, which escalates an already complex endeavor to labyrinthine. Croft’s talk, however, expanded the analysis beyond the correspondence of source material to consider topics such as how the plot had to be structured to allow each film to begin and end at a high point and how characters had to be rewritten to match audience expectations. One of my favorites of the points she made was how Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films were written to match the “American hero monomyth,” an adjustment of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces to describe Hollywood film heroes. This archetype proposes a crisis that includes institutional failure, followed by the rise of a solo and rather unassuming hero: Applying this theory, one can understand the alterations made to the characters of Denethor (who embodies the failed institutions) and Aragorn (who becomes the unassuming everyman hero who takes the task upon himself). Looking at The Hobbit, similar patterns emerge: Thranduil (institution) and Tauriel (hero), the Master of Laketown (institution) and Bard (hero), Thorin (institution) and Bilbo (hero).

I’ve proposed my share of defenses of Peter Jackson’s choices for the films and raised by eyebrows at others that seemed cheap, easy choices aimed at a lowest-common-denominator moviegoer that I’m not sure truly exists. Croft’s presentation made sense of some of the things that–to a bookverse fan like myself, coming to the films primarily hoping for an adaptation that captures that magic I’ve found in those books–can seem inexplicable or even offensive. She still didn’t explain the giant molten-gold Dwarf statue but perhaps one cannot expect that from a presenter who, after all, is still one of us mere mortals!

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We Are Fëanor? Thoughts on Reading Moral Ambiguity into the Characterizations of the Fëanorians

[Crossposted to Tumblr]

Several weeks ago, I got irritated at a piece about The Silmarillion in a well-known blog that cast Fëanor in the role of the unmitigated villain. It was a rare show of negativity for me, and I almost didn’t post it because of that. But I did, and I’ve been thinking about why this particular interpretation of Fëanor as some evil entity irritates me to the point of uncharacteristic venom (especially since I’ve been known to roll my eyes at people who can’t be arsed to go out to vote because it’s raining but will tip over cars because of a football game or encourage teenagers to self-harm because they don’t like their fan fiction).

But, on this issue, I rather feel like I’ve come full circle. I’ve now been participating in the Silmarillion fandom for ten years, and what caused me to take the plunge and start working in earnest on the series of character studies that would become my novel Another Man’s Cage was irritation with an opinion expressed on FanFiction.net about Maedhros’s villainy.

I feel like to reduce Fëanor (or his sons) to villains flattens one of the most interesting questions posed in The Silmarillion to where it isn’t even worth asking: What causes a person to “fall”? In his letter to Milton Waldman (#131), Tolkien wrote, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” Tolkien had his own idea about what caused a person to fall, and in the case of the Fëanorians, he was explicitly concise, writing (again to Waldman) that “[t]he fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons to these gems [the Silmarils].”

My own interest in the question goes deeper than that: What caused that “possessive attitude”? What causes any of us to develop the traits that define us as individuals and cause us to do what we do? In psychology, there is the truism about nature and nurture. This is not an either/or matter, and to put the full weight of analysis of a character’s motivations in the “nature” camp–as presenting him as a pure villain, corrupted from the moment of birth, does–takes all the fun from the story for me. It’s the same as stripping a character of free will. People do actions because they must, because they lack choice. Where is the conflict in that? Where is our ability to connect to them as fellow humans, likewise conflicted and saddled with choices that we do have to make without recourse to “nature” as an excuse when we fail?

But to acknowledge that a character like Fëanor is capable of villainous actions without existing purely as a villain is a scary proposition for a lot of people, I think. We like to imagine people like Fëanor as somehow different from us in their capacity for evil deeds. We–those of us who are good by nature–would never rob, murder, and betray our fellow humans like that. There is something extraordinary and wrong in the nature of Fëanor that he can and does.

In my non-fannish life, I teach English at a special-ed high school that serves boys with emotional disabilities. “Emotional disability” is a term from U.S. special-ed law, an umbrella vast enough that it is essentially meaningless as a label beyond its legal uses in ensuring special-ed services are provided for kids that public schools would otherwise rather not have to deal with. Some of my students have severe psychiatric illnesses: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression. Others are aggressive and disruptive (“conduct disorder” is the label they’re given). Others have already, in their short lives, tangled with the criminal justice system to such an extent that their home schools regard them as too dangerous to be trusted alongside “normal” kids. No one holds 5K fun runs for my students, no one puts “Schizophrenia Speaks” magnets on their cars, and there is a dearth of celebrity spokespeople trying to rouse sympathy for the 15-year-old kid who carjacks someone at gunpoint. Honestly, most people view my students as a blight, as simply biding their time before going to jail or getting killed themselves.

A few weeks ago, I found out that one of my former students had been arrested on murder charges. I only taught this kid for about six months in the ninth grade (age 14) before his mother advocated for him to return to his home school so that he could play sports. He was a bright kid, energetic, at that stage of growth where he was all coltish legs and oversized feet, and constantly smiling. He gave me a nickname that, to this day, sticks among the students who attended the school when he did. Like all of my students, he had his days. He’d sometimes come to class with his face a blank mask and refuse to speak to anyone, the anger beneath that mask like a storm cloud covering the sun. He sometimes fought with his peers.

He also allegedly shot and killed a drug dealer, point blank, while that drug dealer sat in his car. He is 17 now and is being charged as an adult, so I was able to Google his name and read the article in the Baltimore Sun. The article was basic enough–another African American boy from Baltimore whose life is probably over–but the comments chilled me.

People called him a monster. I remember someone labeling him a “soulless kid.” More than one person demanded his death: an eye for an eye. Someone with the capacity to kill didn’t deserve to live. Spare us the risk and expense of a person who isn’t even really a person but a blight upon humankind. People looked at him and didn’t see a child or a flawed human: They saw his actions. They looked at him and saw a villain, someone different from them in his capacity for something they couldn’t fathom doing. I saw his actions too, of course, but I also remembered the smiling kid who would bound into my room, calling me the nickname he gave me, who once signed a thank-you card to my mom–who’d sent a tray of homemade cookies to my students–with “love” and hearts. How could the two coexist?

They can, and that’s the frightening part. That’s the power of words like “villain” and “evil”: They make atrocity the other. They hold at bay the awful reality that any one of us could become my student, could become Fëanor, given the right set of circumstances. Any one of us could be a person whose on-the-whole-good life is obliterated by a single act, in a single instant, that comes to define us. As the old saying goes, “But for the grace of God I go.”

The fascinating question for me becomes: What must happen to bring a person to that instant?

This is the point of Fëanor’s story for me. Tolkien is explicit in identifying Fëanor as the “mightiest of the Noldor, of whose deeds came both their greatest renown and their most grievous woe” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor”). How can the two coexist? Based on the letter to Waldman, Tolkien saw the matter of Fëanor’s fall thematically or symbolically: “By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. … A marked difference here between these legends and most others is that the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision.” The Silmarils, then, represent perfection; their theft and eventual loss represents a marring of that perfection that is coincident with the fall of Fëanor and meant to symbolize the same thing: “And [the Valar] mourned not more for the death of the Trees than for the marring of Fëanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil” (“Of the Return of the Noldor”).

I, however, see the matter of Fëanor’s fall psychologically, as something that must have been generated through the interaction of nature and nuture/environment. If the greatest of the Noldor could fall so far, what does that say of the capacity of those of us lesser–of you, of me–to do the same? What does it say about us as humans that the atrocious and the sublime can so comfortably inhabit the same mind? That who we are is so malleable that the greatest among us can be molded into monsters? This is scary stuff.

To me, this isn’t just a jumping-off point for meta and head canons and fanworks about the Fëanorians. It is a question with very real-world implications, as the anecdote about my former student shows. Our species has always produced its Fëanors. We can label them and other them and exile them from the human family, or we can understand what pushes someone toward one outcome or another. And once we understand, perhaps we could keep smiling 14-year-olds from becoming cold-blooded killers. This isn’t an easy issue to grapple with, but the very complexity of it–and its importance–is what makes it interesting to me.

The idea that fanworks allow us, as creators, a way to interpret the texts through the lens of our own experiences and use our fanworks to bring to the forefront what is important to us (versus what was important to the author) is nothing new. Henry Jenkins’ 1992 Textual Poachers popularized the idea of fanworks as a means to read and interpret texts through the fan’s experiences versus the author’s authority. This is exactly what I find myself doing with the story of Fëanor. Like many nerdy kids, I was cruelly treated as a child, by both my peers and some of the adults who should have protected me. As an adult, I am a teacher of young people who have likewise been cruelly treated in many cases and explicitly sidelined as too disturbed to benefit from the same educational setting as the majority of their peers. Perhaps because of this, I have always been almost obsessed by cruelty, particularly what in us as humans allows it. When I first read the story of the Fëanorians, I was shocked by their acts, as most people would be. But I also couldn’t get out of my mind this respected and beloved family as they existed in Valinor and what happened between their early existences as husbands, fathers, and beloved friends and their later existences as kinslayers. So when I started writing stories about the Fëanorians, this was my focus: to show them not as villains, nor as victims maligned and forced into their fates, but as humans whose flaws and circumstances and choices all interacted to produce the people they were and the people they became.

This is why I find myself so uncharacteristically reactive to the “Fëanor is evil” trope that has clung with all the tenacity and irritation of a cockleburr through my decade in the Tolkien fandom. It feels like a cop-out to see the label and not the person behind it. It seems counterproductive to see an action while ignoring what produced that action. And it seems dishonest to pretend that people who commit atrocities are always wholly different from the rest of us. I look back at my life and can infer the experiences and circumstances that produced the person that I am, but I also know that I feel pride and jealousy and antagonism at times, and if the experiences and circumstances of my life had been different, perhaps those would have been the traits that were nurtured and I would be a wholly different person. The story of Fëanor speaks to that. If he could fall, any of us could fall. “But for the grace of God I go”–or we could any one of us become a Fëanor. That is scary, yes. And so I write, to understand that it may not come to pass.

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“Transformative Works as a Means to Develop Critical Perspectives in the Tolkien Fan Community” (Paper Presentation)

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Mythmoot III conference in Baltimore, Maryland, an annual fantasy studies conference hosted by the Mythgard Institute. Mythmoot started as a Tolkien studies conference but branched out a bit more this year to include more presentations on speculative fiction texts that aren’t Tolkien. When the initial call for papers went up, one of the suggested themes was “Tolkien in the 21st Century,” a theme that looked at how contemporary fans respond to his work. Now, so far, I have not mixed too much of my academic and fannish lives. At last year’s Mythmoot, I gave a talk on cosmogony and the Ainulindalëfor instance. This year, that “Tolkien in the 21st Century” theme gnawed at me a bit, helped along by the fact that the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild is actually going to turn ten this year. (I know! Crazy! We can all remember when it still had perpetually skinned knees and smelled of peanut butter and wet itself occasionally. Like it was yesterday.) Anyway, in light of my baby turning ten and the enticement of the “Tolkien and the 21st Century” theme, I decided to let my two identities come out to play together and give a talk on Tolkien fan fiction.

What I didn’t want my talk to become–keeping in mind that I would be addressing people that were highly literate and Tolkien but not necessarily familiar with or supportive of fan fiction–was a “let’s gawk at the weirdos” harping on what newcomers to Tolkien fanfic tend to view as the more audacious genres, followed by a “but we’re not all like that!” defense. Because, as anyone who reads here regularly or knows me knows, I believe that all stories have value. So I decided to take the approach of looking at how Tolkien fan fiction encourages immersion in the texts and world and, for many writers, results in the development of analytical and critical skills where those texts are concerned. I put together a survey of Tolkien fan fiction writers and readers, and much of my data did support my thesis.

The video of the presentation is below. Here is the handout and, if you prefer audio only, here is an MP3 of the presentation. The full-text paper will be published in the conference proceedings, available for free online, as well.

Also, the Tolkien fan fiction survey will be ongoing until December 2015 (when my IRB approval runs out). Since I’m not going to do anything else with the data until after finishing my MA this fall, then I definitely welcome as many participants as wish to take it. Both readers and writers of Tolkien-based fan fiction are eligible. The Tolkien fan fiction survey is here.

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