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!


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).



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.


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.



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!



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.


“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.


So about that theory that the Arkenstone is a Silmaril …

I hate to be the person who comes with a hot pin to pop the happy balloon of this theory but that’s what I’m about to be. I’m going to start out by clarifying that I take no issue with using this (or any!) theory for writing fan fiction or as a personal head canon. One of the points of fan fiction is to fit pieces together, to invent and create in such a way to develop and extend the texts beyond what Tolkien gave us, and I can certainly see the appeal of the Arkenstone stitching the seemingly microcosmic events of The Hobbit to the expansive mythology of The Silmarillion. I am troubled, though, that the theory that the Arkenstone was in fact a Silmaril is starting to be discussed as though this was a connection that Tolkien wrote into the text and that it is a fact that should be presented as such.

Here I come with my hot pin: It was not.

I am contending two posts here. The original post by Gwaihir the Windlord on the Barrow Downs (New evidence for the Arkenstone-Silmaril case) uses flawed reasoning and omits some very necessary context from the discussion of this question. A second post on Ask Middle-earth (Was the Arkenstone a Silmaril?) then borrows the same arguments, and despite purporting to present “any holes in such arguments,” does so without a lot of critical examination of them. Unfortunately, both posts are now being linked on wikis and other sources that fans use when trying to locate information about the texts as evidence that the Arkenstone is a Silmaril, so through a process that possibly neither writer intended, flawed arguments have been elevated to the level of fact.

The Ask Middle-earth post suggests that “The Arkenstone’s description sounds very much like a silmaril,” followed immediately by textual evidence that the Arkenstone actually doesn’t sound much like a Silmaril. This is followed by an unexamined rehashing of Gwaihir the Windlord’s made-up-out-of-thin-air theory that the Arkenstone may have been dimmer than a Silmaril because the stone was “depressed.” Gwaihir the Windlord writes,

The Arkenstone had been lying in the darkness of Smaug’s hoard for many, many lightless years; perhaps it was depressed. It’s energies would have been at a low ebb. While Feanor’s Silmarils were kept in a vault, I am sure he would have taken them out for an airing quite often, more than he let on about anyway, and at least a lot more than the Arkenstone was left in the hoard for. So they were joyous and kept shining like the stars, while the Arkenstone – not seeing much light in the Earth for all those millennia, then just sitting in the blackness of Smaug’s lair – shone with a lower wattage.

No. No no no no no. Just no. Really. No.

The Silmarils were not made of something like the glow-in-the-dark rubbery stuff that makes the bouncy balls you get out of quarter machines. The stuff that, if you leave the bouncy ball in your desk drawer for a week, it just looks like snot-colored rubber, but if you “recharge” it under a lamp, it will glow in the dark. The Silmarils are filled with the Light of the Two Trees:

And the inner fire of the Silmarils Fëanor made of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor, which lives in them yet, though the Trees have long withered and shine no more. Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before. (The Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”)

The fact that they are filled with the Light of the Two Trees explains my aversion to the argument that they might become “depressed.” This Light-with-a-capital-L was gifted to Varda by Eru. In the late text Myths Transformed, “To Varda Iluvatar said: ‘I will give unto thee a parting gift. Thou shalt take into Eä a light that is holy, coming new from Me, unsullied by the thought and lust of Melkor, and with thee it shall enter into Eä, and be in Eä, but not of Eä'” (section II). This is a late text but makes explicit an idea that was suggested in the earliest versions of what would become The Silmarillion. In The Book of Lost Tales 1, light “flowed and quivered in uneven streams about the airs, or at times fell gently to the earth in glittering rain and ran like water on the ground” (Of the Coming of the Valar). This Light eventually watered and produced the Two Trees. In his letter to Milton Waldman (151, dated around 1951), Tolkien explicates on this Light as a “primeval symbol” that is “sullied” when the Trees are destroyed, thus explaining the significance of the Silmarils. In other words, Light was something that existed as part of Eru’s creation, not the subcreation of the Ainur, Elves, Dwarves … anyone. To suggest that this light becomes “depressed” is preposterous.

It is also a complete invention of Gwaihir the Windlord. It is not anything that Tolkien wrote or even suggested. Once again, this is a great approach to take to fan fiction (although, if I were Gwaihir the Windlord’s beta, I’d still probably object to this idea), but one doesn’t simply get to invent details in research writing. I expect more from my students, and I am frankly surprised that so many people seem to accept this idea without questioning its source.

The other major issue I take with Gwaihir the Windlord’s essay (and that is also echoed in the Ask Middle-earth post) is the dismissal of the quote from The Hobbit that the Arkenstone was “cut and fashioned by the dwarves” as possibly misinformation and distortion passed down across the years as folklore that was simply accepted and never questioned. Now anyone familiar with my fiction and meta based on Tolkien’s texts will probably object to my objection here. Viewing the texts as historical or mythological sources has been my bread and butter for these ten years and an approach that I very much like. Note “approach,” though. This isn’t something that is trotted out and applied when it is convenient or when one doesn’t like what the texts have to say; it is a broad and generalized approach that questions everything from a historical or mythological standpoint and, when possible, attempts to locate the source of information presented in the text and analyze it based on the agenda, biases, and access to information of its original author and its mode of transmission from that author to the person who recorded it in the form we have it.

Unfortunately, there is nothing broad or generalized about the approach here. It is used to negate information from the text that is inconvenient to the author’s theory. It is never used again, even though, in my opinion, the fact presented in Gwaihir the Windlord’s essay that most demands this type of reading is Bilbo’s assertion that “there could be no two such gems … even in all the world,” which Gwaihir the Windlord accepts in this instance (because, of course, it fits the theory!), even though questioning whether a Hobbit would be able to make such a judgment (versus simply responding in this way out of a sense of wonder) is certainly, I think, a valid question to ask.

Thus, two major legs on which this theory rests–the difference in appearance of the two stones and the carving of the stone by the Dwarves–are shakier than in fact they are presented in either essay. The difference in appearance of the two stones should alone lay the theory to rest that Arkenstone-as-Silmaril was something intentionally written by Tolkien. However, there are other problems with the theory that neither essay addresses.

Well, Gwaihir the Windlord actually hints at one: “No-one actually knew (maybe some High Elves had suspicions but didn’t disclose them, Gandalf and Saruman may have known, but the general public didn’t) that the Arkenstone (if it was) was a Silmaril.” This introduces a major shortcoming of the Arkenstone-is-Silmaril theory: This story unfolds in a world where a significant contingent of the population is not only immortal but actually saw the Silmarils before they were lost. The idea of a lost artifact possibly resurfacing and the mystery that surrounds the determination of whether the lost artifact and the discovered artifact are one and the same does not work in a world where multiple authorities exist who can make a definitive judgment on this question.

Middle-earth at the time of The Hobbit has several canon characters who would have seen the Silmarils: Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, Sauron, Galadriel, Celeborn, Círdan, and Elrond. Perhaps most intriguingly, it is possible that Thranduil would have as well. (Scarlet’s character biography of Thranduil on the SWG reviews the information we have about when Thranduil was born; Scarlet concludes that the texts point to the likelihood that he was born in the First Age, although more specific information on this–whether he lived during Thingol’s reign, in this instance–cannot be determined.) We know that Gandalf and Thranduil saw the Arkenstone. As far as I know (and The Hobbit and its supporting texts are not my area of expertise, nor was this post exhaustively researched, so I hope those who know better than me will correct me when I’m wrong!), none of the other canon characters I listed saw the Arkenstone in the texts. The canon does not name–but we know they must have existed–the hundreds if not thousands of Elves who lived in Doriath and Sirion in the time the Silmaril was there, as well as surviving Noldor (like Galadriel) who knew them in Aman and journeyed to Middle-earth with the exiled Noldor to pursue them.

Appendix A of LotR states that “the rumour of the wealth of Erebor spread abroad” (“Durin’s Folk”). Therefore, there does not appear to have been an attempt to keep the Arkenstone a secret in the 1,771 years between the founding of Erebor in TA 1999 and its overthrow by Smaug (who indeed, according to Appendix A, targeted the mountain because of rumor of its riches) in TA 2770. Erebor was also a major kingdom; it more likely than not that the Dwarves of Erebor had diplomatic and trade relations with other kingdoms and settlements of Middle-earth, including those of the Elves. Even if none of the canon characters who had seen the Silmarils directly saw the Arkenstone, it is possible, even likely, that many of their advisors and messengers who had contact with Erebor and probably did see it knew the Silmarils as well. They certainly would have carried back and shared such significant information. The Istari were also in Middle-earth at this time, and Sauron was afoot, first in Dol Guldur and then Barad-dûr. It is a near certainty that at least one of those survivors of the First Age would have caught wind of this great find by the Dwarves, and if there was any chance that it was a Silmaril, would have provoked extreme interest and action.

I think what bothers me the most about the dismissiveness toward the fact that the Arkenstone would have likely been identifiable as a Silmaril, if it was, by many among the Elves and Ainur of Middle-earth is the certainty that this would have been treated as trivial knowledge. As though Galadriel would have been eating breakfast and Celeborn and said, “Hon, did you hear that Thráin found Maedhros’s Silmaril? How fascinating! Please pass the orange juice,” and that would have been the end of it. Acknowledging the likelihood of knowledge that the Arkenstone was a Silmaril rediscovered reduces the Silmarils to mere baubles, pretty trinkets, without significant history or meaning to those who had contact with them in the First Age and earlier.

In fact, as anyone who has read The Silmarillion can attest, the exact opposite is the case. Every single person I listed as having seen the Silmaril(s) before they were lost knew–and many had firsthand experience with–the terrible events inspired in a large part by those stones. The Elven characters experienced exile, loss of loved ones, and displacement from their homes because of the Silmarils. They watched an entire age defined not by progress and preservation but by war and the shame of multiple betrayals and kinslayings, ended by inundation of their homeland in the last and most calamitous of those wars. To think that these characters would have thought nothing of the rediscovery of a Silmaril defies belief for me. In the power play that characterized the Third Age, would characters like Sauron and Saruman have simply let such a storied artifact lie unpursued, knowing how valuable it would be to certain individuals and its history in dividing allies and kins and sowing treachery? Would Gandalf–whom we know saw the Silmarils and the Arkenstone both–allow such a potentially dangerous element to be simply buried back under Erebor?

No, the rediscovery of a Silmaril is a game-changer and one that would have likely mobilized several key players in Middle-earth to action. It is unlikely that the Arkenstone would have been permitted to lie long enough to ever be claimed by Smaug if it were a Silmaril. The fact that we never hear of the Arkenstone again after the events in The Hobbit suggest that, no matter its importance to the Dwarven people, its broader significance to the other peoples of Middle-earth simply isn’t there. This is not how a Silmaril would be treated.

Finally, the textual history of The Silmarillion and The Hobbit removes any possibility that Tolkien intended the Arkenstone to represent a Silmaril. The publication history of Tolkien’s books can be a little misleading because they weren’t written in the order they were published. The Silmarillion, although the last of the “Big Three” to be published, was the first of the Big Three to be written. The Music of the Ainur, written between 1918 and 1920 and found in The Book of Lost Tales 1, contained the first mention of the Silmarils (then Silmarilli): “… the finest of all gems were Silmarilli, and they are lost.” Over the course of his life, Tolkien revised what would become The Silmarillion over and over again. The text for The Hobbit was in existence by 1932, many years after the Silmarils and their story first came into existence (introductory remarks to Letter 9, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).

When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, it initially began as a story constructed to entertain his children. He eventually submitted it for publication and was rather astounded by its success. His publisher requested a sequel, and Tolkien despaired that he had anything more to say about Hobbits. (All of this is in his Letters.) Having revealed his work on The Silmarillion, he began to try to drum up interest in the publication of The Silmarillion. “Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [The Silmarillion] – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge,” he wrote to his publisher in 1937 (Letter 19). In an earlier letter to his publisher, Tolkien noted, “The magic and mythology and assumed ‘history’ and most of the names (e.g. the epic of the Fall of Gondolin) are, alas!, drawn from unpublished inventions” (Letter 15).

What these letters show is that The Hobbit was not written to share a deep connection with The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion was solidified in Tolkien’s mind by this point, so when he wrote The Hobbit, it was natural to pull in names and details from those myths when background was needed, but Tolkien presents Bilbo’s story as existing merely at the fringes of these larger stories and only accidentally so: “The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite independently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged” (Letter 131 to Milton Waldman). Given the tenuousness of the connection between the two stories, it is impossible that Tolkien intended the Silmaril and the Arkenstone to be synonymous. The fact that the Arkenstone is not mentioned in LotR and is not mentioned anywhere in the Letters–despite Tolkien’s explicit attempt to connect The Hobbit and LotR to The Silmarillion as he attempted to find a publisher for it and his explicit elucidations to publishers and fans of details of his work–is likewise telling of its significance to the larger myth, or rather, lack thereof.

At the end Gwaihir the Windlord’s essay, the question is posed: “I wonder whether Tolkien deliberately made this connection between the Arkenstone and the lost Silmarili. Maybe he did; but then again, he may not have.” The answer actually is quite definitive here: Tolkien did not intend such a connection. The textual history of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion negates such a connection. There are numerous details in the texts themselves–the difference in appearance between the stones, the attested roles of the Dwarves in carving the Arkenstone, the lack of concern and action of any of the Elves or Ainur in Middle-earth after the Arkenstone is found–that suggest that the two stones are not the same. In writing fan fiction or developing head canons, perhaps these textual details can be overcome through the invention of details or the selective application of the historical approach, much as Gwaihir the Windlord does in the linked essay; as far as understanding the connection between the Silmaril and the Arkenstone as an intentional, deliberate construction by Tolkien, as something factual about the texts that deserves to be presented as such to fans looking for objective and text-based information about Tolkien’s mythology, these objections coupled with the textual history of the two stories in question become insurmountable.

[Crossposted to Tumblr]


Mary Sue in Fantasyland: The Legitimacy of Female versus Male Fantasy

One of the issues I like to follow in the broader sci-fi/fantasy/geek subculture is the recent attention to that subculture’s problem with sexism. Since I tend to keep things here focused on Tolkien and fan creation of transformative works (versus the many other ways that people express their fannish appreciation), then I haven’t talked too much about it here. But this article on Slate magazine’s XXFactor blog about sexism in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America caught my eye today because, although the Tolkien fanfic and fanart communities are predominantly female, it refers to a sexist occurrence that I have observed among us and that appears to be part of the larger issue with sexism that geek culture is facing.

The whole article is worth a read (it’s pretty short), but this passage particularly jumped out at me, speaking of the experiences of steampunk paranormal romance author Delilah S. Dawson:

Dawson describes volunteering at a convention where a guest of honor called the sorts of stories she writes “vampire porn” and told her “that women like me were ruining his genre”—even though, as it turns out, that author wrote sexually charged works himself. Gratifying his own fantasies, for that author, was a perfectly legitimate use of science fiction, but women to gratify theirs, even in well-developed fantastical worlds, was completely out.

Now aside from the too-tightly-laced conservative contingent of the Tolkien fandom, most people in our community are supportive of women who write erotic fiction. However, there is a phenomenon that I still observe in our fandom that definitely reflects the idea that fictional expressions of fantasies by men and young men is okay, while the same by women and young women is not.

Good ol’ Mary Sue.

I am glad to see more people are unwilling lately to accept without question that writers–primarily young writers–creating “Mary Sues” is anything worth getting upset over. When I started in the Tolkien fandom eight years ago, Mary Sue was subject to more hatred than if Keith Mander and Diana Galbadon were hired by Amazon to eliminate non-profit fandom, rainbows, and Golden Retriever puppies all in one day. However, this new magnanimity toward Mary Sue is far from universal, and in some fandom corners, the vitriol against Mary Sue trucks on, as ever it has, along with the bullying of young authors determined guilty of writing characters who fit this label.  Fanlore defines a Mary Sue as follows: “A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters. Mary Sues are generally presumed to be idealized self-inserts rather than true characters, although they may actually be intended as proxies for the reader.”

Viewed as admirable? Competent in too many areas?? And the author is imagining herself in these ways, you say??? Now we don’t want that!

When I was new to fandom, Mary Sue was defined to me as an original character who exerted too strong an influence on a story. It may be that she forced another character out-of-character. It may be that the plot changed to accommodate her. It may be that the story focused on her rather than the [male] canon characters who surrounded her.

In other words, a young woman dared to write a story in which she, not a male character, was the focal point. The disdain towards this wouldn’t be so awful were it not commonplace to accept alternate universe (AU) scenarios, and were the idea of the boy-turned-wunderkind not nearly archetypal in modern culture. Harry Potter is, of course, the first example to come to my mind–an otherwise ordinary boy discovers that he is not only special but then gets to save the world–along with the male superheroes who are socially outcast twerps until they don a colorful costume and become capable of superhuman physical and romantic feats. Then there’s the endless march, in the last decade, of entertainment in which a thoroughly ordinary, even underwhelming, man gets beautiful women and extraordinary opportunities knocking down his door. This is a male fantasy: that a beer gut and the inability to grunt words more than two syllables long is not a barrier to marrying a supermodel who will bring you and your buddies beers during the game. Yet the vitriol is lobbed at Mary Sue.

I’ve been told that Mary Sue is a problem because her writers tend to overemphasize the character’s good looks and put a romantic relationship with a male at the center of the story. Firstly, why should we expect teenage girls to tell the stories of ordinary-looking women when the mainstream media has been unable to do so? It’s nearly impossible to find a woman in a mainstream movie or TV program who isn’t gorgeous; when she doesn’t fit our culture’s standards of beauty, she becomes a Melissa McCarthy or Rachel Dratch: relegated to roles where her appearance is part of the joke. (For the record, I adore both of these very funny women.) That young women writers imitate this standard is hardly something they can be blamed for. Secondly, it is certainly an adolescent tendency to focus narratives on success with the opposite sex, a realm perhaps scarier, in the minds of many young people, than a jaunt to Mordor. Again, this is fantasy, and no writer should have to be told that imagination and fantasy can be used as a form of rehearsal for experiences and emotions that are novel, intriguing, and even frightening. While such behavior in boys is sometimes viewed as humorous or endearingly desperate, I have never heard the fantasies of young men subjected to the kinds of censure to which Mary Sue is routinely subjected.

And the fact still remains that Mary Sue is not defined by her beauty or by the romantic component to her story: She is defined by her effect on the story. She is essentially an assertion by a young woman that, “I am important and I value myself enough to believe that I can accept and sustain such a central role in an important narrative.” She is a female fantasy of a world where a 16-year-old girl can walk with the Fellowship, heal Aragorn and rescue Boromir, and still marry Legolas at the end. She is, in many ways, the young woman’s fantasy of “having it all.” Ironically, when we choose to direct our time, energy, and passion toward eliminating her under the pretense of serving as some arbiter of “quality fiction” or, more generously, of “helping young writers improve their craft,” then we prove just how firmly planted in Fantasyland Mary Sue really is.

Adminish Note: I continue to wage war on spam but the opposite of my previous problem. Now, real comments are being filed as spam. Even mine go into the spam can, so no offense! I am hoping it is because I hadn’t updated my software in *cough* years. I’ve updated and hopefully that will fix the problem, else I’m going to have to contact support and possibly disable Akismet again if they can’t give me the answer I need to hear. Anyway, I will be checking the spam folder at least daily. If you post something and it doesn’t show up, do feel free to email me; otherwise, I’ll catch it and approve it during my usual rounds.


Complex Characterization vs. Victimization (Or How to Write Complex Characters without Becoming an Apologist for Heinous Things)

The other day, I saw a quote about how inside every villain was a victim. Responses ranged from celebratory to scandalized, with the latter making the (valid, imho) point that responding to an awful act by trying to find how the perpetrator was somehow made a victim comes awfully close to becoming an apologist for those actions. Yet admittedly, we all want to write complex characters and simply slapping on a label of “villain” isn’t very helpful either.

This is an argument that surfaces periodically in the Silmarillion fandom, where the tendency is–and always has been, in my experience–for many fans to want to align themselves as anti-Fëanorian or Fëanorian apologists, at opposite, dualist extremes. The former argue that fundamental flaws in Fëanor himself led to his deeds: He was too proud, too rash, and inherently violent. There is really no redemption for him; it’s simply the way that he is. The latter group, in response, tries to shift blame elsewhere: to the Valar, to Fingolfin, to Indis, to Finwë, to the Teleri, to Míriel, to Nerdanel. They emphasize how Fëanor was a victim: If the Valar hadn’t meddled and let Finwë remarry, if Finwë had been content with one child, if the Teleri hadn’t pushed the Noldor in the sea … the story would have turned out differently. Bad things were done to him, and in the process of defending himself or responding, he committed crimes, but ultimate blame for those crimes lies on those who provoked him in the first place.

I think both are overly simplistic. Anyone who has read my fannish work knows that I write quite a bit about the House of Fëanor but also that I don’t fall into either camp. Fëanor and his family fascinate me more than any other characters in Tolkien’s writings and not because they’re villains or victims but because writing about them causes me to ask the question that captivates and torments me as a writer: What causes a person to commit a truly awful act?

There seems to be a misconception, in my experience, that turning a villain into a victim by combing the canon for an excuse or just straight-up inventing one (because Indis certainly doesn’t do anything in the texts to justify the role as the evil stepmother that she is frequently assigned in fandom) leads to complex characterization. It doesn’t. It simply shifts the same good-evil dualism elsewhere: Now the villain is a Good GuyTM and someone else is a Bad GuyTM who caused all the Epic Bad to happen but still leaves the larger question of why people do bad things unanswered. It doesn’t reveal the knot of emotions, the interplay between the character’s personality and his or her environment, the cultural and familial and other factors that made that action seem, even for the briefest moment, to be the correct thing to do.

The question, I think, should be, How can I restore this character as a Good GuyTM? but rather, What goes on in this character’s mind that lets him commit this action and still look at himself in the mirror the next morning?

Because we all do wrong-headed things at times and yet do them anyway and live with ourselves. For example, we know that Maedhros was bitterly opposed to the third kinslaying, yet he went ahead with it anyway. Why? What went through his mind as he rode out that morning? He survived for a good bit of time after the kinslaying, still acting with enough deliberation that we cannot claim that he was broken by his guilt and shame. How did he manage that? What went on in his head when he couldn’t sleep at night, or when he woke in the morning and had to make the first steps into a new day?

A key idea to keep in mind when writing a character who has done bad deeds, in my opinion, is to keep in mind that most people will go to great lengths to preserve their self-concepts and, in particular, their perceptions of themselves as good people. I see this in my work with students who come from some truly horrible circumstances and who have often done their share of bad things. There is more than a shuffling of blame–although there is that–but some pretty intricate psychological gymnastics that allow the young adults I work with to emerge from the other side of a crisis psychologically whole. A young man steals a car at gunpoint, for example, and yet returns to school with his self-concept intact. He doesn’t view himself as a bad person, although most people would apply that label without thinking. His ability to maintain his sense of himself as a good person doesn’t happen through a simple matter of shifting the blame elsewhere and making someone else the bad guy, although that can be part of it. It is a complex interaction of rationalizating, making excuses, projecting, lying and distorting the truth, minimizalizing the severity of the act, claiming transformation into a “new man,” deflecting responsibility, blaming others, seeking atonement, experiencing anger and guilt, acknowledging the crime, accepting punishment, witnessing to others, and pouring energy into positive pursuits, the end result of which is a person who can face himself at the start of each new day. It is in that psychoemotional stew leading to that point where the most interesting stories of our fictional “bad guys” lie.

(And, for the record, most of my students who meet the description above will re-offend.)

I’ve realized through the years that most of my writing is motivated by attempting to uncover why people are cruel to each other and why violence and hatred is so often the seemingly inevitable result of conflict. Granted, I am an oversensitive soul in some regards. The other day, a fruit fly flew into my wineglass, and in the attempt to chase it out, it divebombed into the wine. As I fished it out, I said, “You’re lucky I want to drink that wine or I might have let you drown yourself for being so stupid!” But even as I said it, I knew I was wrong and said as much: “Yeah right, I couldn’t sit here and watch a living thing drown.” My husband used to tease me when we were teenagers by cutting up gummy bears while pretending to make them plead for their lives. I’d put my hands over my ears and sing loudly. He stopped the time I cried over it and he realized it actually did upset me.

So yes, there is a certain fascination for the woman who literally cannot hurt a fly to consider how others surely just as human as I am hurt and kill and still manage to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. That fascination derives from the uncomfortable fact that, if they can do it, then somewhere within me, perhaps I can do it as well. And so I have made my fannish “career” writing the Fëanorians as sympathetic characters, despite the fact that I do not and cannot approve of their actions. Why?

The Fëanorians were born in Valinor, a land meant to represent a life as close to perfection as possible on Arda Marred. While we can talk till we’re blue in the face about why Valinor may not have been ideal for everyone for a variety of reasons–and why Fëanor’s experience was obviously exceptional in that regard–the fact remains that he was given the equivalent of a privileged upbringing, and he himself was considered a paragon of the Eldar. How did he fall so far? That his story resonates for so many people speaks, I think, to the fact that we recognize that people who are not only not evil but truly exceptional humans can nonetheless do horrible things. Where does that leave the rest of us mere mortals?

Good characterization, I think, hints at the answers to this question. In good characterization, we see people who, even if not at all like ourselves, nonetheless possess believable emotions, motives, and responses to what happens around them. I am not an Elf, a male, the father of seven sons, or the greatest craftsperson to ever walk the earth, but in stories where Fëanor is effectively characterized, I can relate to him nonetheless on the basis of our shared humanity. (This is why I am generally opposed to writing the Elves as incomprehensible to humans; at least in stories where Elves are central characters, this all but ensures that your readers will not connect with some of your major characters. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

The Fëanorians always have and probably always will be among the most popular characters in the Silmarillion fandom, and writing them well, to do them justice, is something a lot of people aspire to do, myself included. I would argue that attempting to establish them as innocent or as victims does very little to advance meaningful discussion about them or to create excellent stories about them, and it also doesn’t do much to answer one of the most fascinating and relevant questions that their story begs us to answer. Tolkien himself wrote, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall,” and while his statement has certain religious overtones to it, even as one who doesn’t ascribe or wish to advance his spiritual beliefs, there seems truth in that statement nonetheless (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 131 to Milton Waldman”). When our reality consists of a twenty-four-hour news cycle delivering constant news of war and genocide and shootings and terrorism and torture, and our everyday lives are punctuated by the smaller hurts and injustices we subject each other to, we are compelled to ask how we can be so routinely awful to each other and maintain our humanity. I don’t want to excuse any of that; I do wish to understand it.