The Heretic Loremaster

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.

New Information on the Kindle Worlds Contract and Vetting Process

Huge thanks go to Rhapsody for bringing this one to my attention! I promise I’ll talk about something other than Kindle Worlds soon, but first I wanted to share this link, in which Barbra Annino, a professional author who wrote a Pretty Little Liars tie-in for the KW launch, talks about her experiences with working on the Kindle Worlds launch. (She comments outside of this thread as well, but this thread provides most of the information about her contract and the vetting process.)

Some details that come to light (and Annino notes that, while these are her experience, she believes it is how Kindle Worlds will work in general):

-Stories are contracted individually. So a writer will receive and sign a contract for each story she sells to Kindle Worlds. A writer is not offered a general contract to write for Kindle Worlds; the Kindle Worlds platform won’t behave like a self-uploading fanfic archive.

-Stories are accepted/rejected individually by an editor. Annino compares the vetting process to that of a fiction magazine.

-Annino says, “As for the copyright – an example is if I should create a character within this world, I am free to use that character elsewhere in my own work.” This leads me to believe that an OC created for Kindle Worlds could be used on archives outside of KW or even original fiction projects? She makes it sound like this is the case. This is a concern I’ve seen raised a lot and that I’ve felt is one of the more compelling arguments against participating in this project.

-Further down-thread, Annino says, “The particular licenses mentioned in the PR came from shows on the WB or ABC Family and are geared towards teens and young adults. I think that explains the no porn rule.” So it looks like–for these “worlds” currently on offer anyway–that content will be limited to what would be rated Teens or PG-13 on an archive.

-Annino makes the same point that Randy has made in multiple places I’ve seen, in that the contract is very similar to what the writers of tie-in novels or ghost writers are offered.

I still think Amazon has some work to do in making their terms clear to a community that doesn’t necessarily speak the language used by publishers and professional writers. But to see that this project is going to operate like publishers already do is a good thing, I think. One of my concerns, for example, was that Kindle Worlds would make it to easy to post stories, causing writers used to posting on fanfic archives (where one can edit and delete at will) to become too cavalier in offering up their work. Being offered a contract for each story will hopefully jog fanfic writers enough out of their routine that they stop, read, and think about the contract before signing. I want to see the final site look as little like something from traditional fandom as possible. Participating writers need to know they’re in a different world because they are: one with lasting and legally binding consequences! :)

I still think Amazon needs to do more work to make the terms clear to a group of writers who, for the most part, lack experience with publishing. Perhaps they will, either in educational materials on the site or in the contract itself. “All rights,” for example, is a meaningless term to most people. Most people have no idea what a copyright really is. Annino says, “This is not the best route for everyone, but I find that having all the information before making a business decision helps me make the right one.” Yes, yes, and yes. Let’s hope that Amazon does their part to make that happen.

Does Kindle Worlds Mean the End of Fandom? And Monster Shouting

One of the more intriguing questions being posed about Kindle Worlds is whether or not it poses a threat to fandom as we know it. A couple of arguments have been made. First and primarily, I am hearing that, once rights holders realize that they can corral and profit on fandom, they will banninate all “unauthorized” fanworks. The second argument I’ve heard is that Kindle Worlds will function to shine a light on fandom, calling attention to us in a way that is not flattering and may make rights holders realize that we pose a threat to their profits.

I think these are good questions to talk about and debate because we don’t know what the future holds, whether Kindle Worlds will obtain licenses for more than few works put out by Alloy, whether they will have success, or whether they will eventually fade into the night. How much of an impact will they have on us, including those of us writing in fandoms, like the Tolkien fandom, that are unlikely to ever participate in Kindle Worlds?

To take the first argument: Kindle Worlds will make rights holders sit up and realize that they can contain and profit on fanworks. In this scenario, they either set up with Kindle Worlds or something like Kindle Worlds to allow fans to produce “authorized fan fiction.” Anyone who creates fanworks outside of these bounds receives the dreaded cease-and-desist letter. Taken to its extreme, communities and archives collapse; the impact even on large multifandom archives like could be devastating.

Having gone to the bottom of that slippery slope, I want to first point out that this scenario is not much different than the Great Fear looming over producers of fanworks already. That Great Fear is that, one day, we will come home to a letter or an email containing a C&D letter from the rights holders of whatever fandom or fandoms we participate in, or that archive owners will receive the same and shut down. As an archive owner as well as a creator of fanworks, I can’t say that the Great Fear hasn’t crossed my mind on more than one occasion. A rights holder deciding that they want to allow only authorized fanfic isn’t much different from a rights holder deciding that fanfic is banned entirely. (I won’t say that it is actually better. Producing authorized, sanitized, corporate-approved writing is not an improvement, in my mind, over having to go entirely underground.)

So asking why rights holders don’t crack down more on fanworks is very similar to the hypothetical question of why rights holders wouldn’t crack down only on “unauthorized” fanworks. I am not an expert on the debate over the legality of tranformative works and certainly not a lawyer; however, I have seen the point made that rights holders haven’t wanted to “go there” on the transformative-works question because the odds are not necessarily in their favor, and the decision in such a hypothetical court case could definitively provide fans with more explicit rights than we currently have while occupying the legal gray area. The legal battle would be the same, whether over unauthorized fanworks or fanworks in general, and presumably, rights holders still don’t want to go there.

The point is often made as well that rights holders overlook transformative fanworks because they have come to realize that, even if they cringe over how fans play in their world, those fans are a source of sustained interest in their products and some of their best customers. Look at the Tolkien fandom. Tolkien has been in his grave for over 30 years. For the duration of that time, there has been a vibrant fandom associated with the works he created. These are the people who buy the endless new posthumous books (case in point: my copy of The Fall of Arthur arrived in the mail earlier this week), who will spend ridiculous amounts of money for any scrap of new information about Middle-earth, who propelled the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies to record success at the box office. Without the Tolkien fandom, built in part on creating fanworks, the movies would not open to midnight shows full of Elf-ear- and Hobbit-foot-wearing fans who will probably see the movie again two, three more times but would be reduced to just another sword-and-sorcery flick here and gone in a matter of weeks from theaters.

The point about Kindle Worlds, of course, is that it channels that fan activity toward profitable ends, and fan activity that is not profitable will be deemed unacceptable. But is it necessarily the case that fan activity that doesn’t result in direct revenue isn’t beneficial to a rights holder?

I have said since the outset and continue to say, based on the limited information that we have about how this project will work, that Kindle Worlds and projects like it will likely benefit from coexisting with existing fannish activities. First and foremost, it is likely that most of their writers and a good number of their readers are coming from these communities. Presumably, Amazon is smart enough to realize that the way to get people to hang out at your shiny new community center isn’t by burning down their homes so that they have nowhere else to go. As entities like Fanlib and Keith Manders have learned, fandom may not agree on much, but we can put up a united front when it counts, when we feel our existence is being threatened. I would argue that the best way for Kindle Worlds to derail their new project? Is to let it become associated with the closure of existing fan communities. I may have never even heard of Pretty Little Liars much less their fandom before the Kindle Worlds reveal two days ago, but let archives and authors in that fandom start getting C&D letters and they will become the fannish equivalent of the spotted owl to me, i.e., I have no problem with doing the Web equivalent of chaining myself to a tree in front of bulldozers to preserve them.

To the contrary, Kindle Worlds has the opportunity to benefit from existing fan communities. After all, we have done for free the difficult work of setting up communities where interest in the original work–even when that original work is no longer in production–is not only sustained but often self-renewing. As much as I enjoy Tolkien’s books, I’ve no doubt that my interest would be far less intense today if I didn’t have a community providing constant new commentary on those works, often in the form of fiction and art. The Fall of Arthur probably wouldn’t be sitting a few feet from my hand, i.e., the Tolkien Estate would not still be making money off of me, without fandom to sustain my interest. Fans who lose interest in the original world because of a dearth of opportunities to continue to interact with that world will not be lining up to pay for fan fiction from Kindle Worlds. However, were Kindle Worlds to actively recruit popular authors to their service–and it will be interesting to see, as the project unfolds, whether they will make overtures toward the so-called “big-name fans” to write for them (maybe offering better terms?)–fans who ordinarily wouldn’t think of paying to download fanfic might fork over that $3.99. But again, this cannot happen without active and vibrant fan communities to produce BNFs and their fangirls.

The argument is made: “Why pay for what you can get for free?” In other words, once fans hooked on fan fiction realize that they can go to traditional archives and read for free, what’s to keep them spending their money on stories from Kindle Worlds? But I’d argue that that question–Why pay for what you can get for free?–works both ways. Why would Amazon want to spend the money to build a fan community from the ground up to sustain their Kindle Worlds project when dozens of those communities for any given fandom already exist, and if Amazon presents their project correctly, they can benefit off of them for free? When I think of the hours that I have put into building just an archive and community for a small fandom, I could, at some points in the SWG’s life, come close to making a living on that work, had I been paid for it. If Amazon brings down traditional fandom, they will have to pay people to build something resembling it–and inevitably, what they create will be but a pale comparison since it will be driven by something other than the needs and wants of fans.

In all, am I fully happy with Kindle Worlds? No, I’m not. Could it have a negative impact on what we do? Sure it could … but operating in a legal gray area, as we do, that isn’t much different from what we face now. My feeling, thinking about it, is that Kindle Worlds and traditional fandoms will coexist. I feel strongly that traditional fandom benefits both rights holders and Kindle Worlds, and I think Amazon can afford to pay consultants smart enough to know that. Now will traditional fandom benefit from Kindle Worlds? On that I am less certain and will get to below.

The argument is also being made that Kindle Worlds could shine a light on fannish activity and makes rights holders aware of exactly how fans play with their original works. I’ll be quick on this one. None of us should deceive ourselves into believing that the rights holder in our particular fandom isn’t keenly aware of us. They are. We’re not in the closet anymore, people. Fan fiction has received coverage in the mainstream media. They know we’re here, they know what they’re doing, and they’re already keeping an eye on us.

However, for the reasons enumerated above, they either don’t want to go there because they don’t like the legal odds or they recognize that our happy utopian gift economy can have very real benefits for their dollars-and-cents economy. Pretending that Kindle Worlds is somehow going to startle the Tolkien Estate into awareness that fans are enthusiastically slashing Frodo and Sam is naive: They already know.

This is where I get into the monster-shouting bit. A few people remarked that my initial post Here Comes Kindle Worlds was reasonable and rational in tone. I wrote it at work. I can blog at work, but I can’t access most social media sites, so I was responding primarily to the press release and guidelines with very little idea of what other fandomfolk were saying. I posted my piece and then went and read some of the growing pile of commentary from fans. Much of it was thoughtful as always, but then there was the monster-shouting.

The monster-shouter was a character in Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which was one of my favorite books when I was an elfling. He roams around New York City after the arrival of the plague that wipes out most of humankind, shouting about monsters. Since I was an elfling, monster-shouter has been my go-to term for those who warn stridently about things that don’t exist, often in the face of legitimate threats. I knew that the Kindle Worlds announcement would bring out the monster-shouters, and it did. People who clearly hadn’t read anything about this before reacting to it with much running around and screaming with hands in the air. Had I been able to hear the monster-shouting from my insulated place at work, then I doubt the initial post would have been so neutral in tone.

Lyra’s If you kindle Worlds, will they burn up? is a much closer approximation to how I felt, post-exposure to monster-shouting. “Sweet Eru, we’ve known about Kindle Worlds … for ONE DAY,” Lyra writes, “and I’m already sick of the matter – to be precise, of the fannish reactions of the alarmist and rabble-rousing sort.”

Yes, the monster-shouters. Just like in The Stand, there is plenty to be concerned about Kindle Worlds, but that’s not enough for some people without inventing monsters of a world-ending variety to rail against. The frustrating thing about monster-shouting is that it distracts from conversations about what is real and of concern about Kindle Worlds. I have seen far fewer people, for example, talking about the implications of a project that specifically targets fandoms that attract young writers than I have seen making the monster-shouty assertion, “JUST WAIT TILL THE RIGHTS HOLDERS FIND OUT IT WILL BE JUST LIKE FANLIB ALL OVER!!!1!”

Monster-shouting does no one any favors. I honestly don’t understand the idea of reacting to something you can’t be arsed to read two pages about. Okay, whatever. People often can’t be bothered to read a handful of guidelines about a project I’m running before either reacting emotionally to that project or asking me something that is in the guidelines–both the reacting and the asking, I would note, actions that take longer to carry out than reading the guidelines would have taken. What is it about reading and informing oneself that is so repellent to otherwise intelligent people, just because it has to be done on the Internet? But I digress. Monster-shouting muddies the waters of what would otherwise be a thoughtful discussion. It takes time and passion that could be more productively exerted. And it casts us, as a community already located on the periphery of what is deemed acceptable artistic expression and so apt already to be distrusted or easily maligned, as a bunch of ignorant hysterics. Even if we don’t care what outsiders think, we should should care that writers in the fandoms targeted by Kindle Worlds can find good meta about it, should they go looking for it. It’s bitterly ironic when someone rails about the possibility of writers being taken advantage of by the terms Kindle Worlds is offering while, in the same breath, polluting the discussion with monster-shouting.

I have found myself, in these past few days, feeling almost like a defender of Kindle Worlds, which I dislike because I’m not. But I also can’t sit by and let information that is straight-up wrong go uncorrected. Blame the teacher in me. I have a lot of concerns (although many of them are predicated on information we don’t yet have, like the actual contract for writers or elaboration on the vetting process) and am almost certain that I will not ever be completely happy with this project, although I also feel that something like this is an inevitable development, as fandom becomes more mainstream. But, ultimately, Kindle Worlds is a profit-driven project; its priorities are not and never will be promoting new authors or developing fan communities. In my mind, that makes it somewhat incompatible by default with traditional fandom and suspect among communities that recognize a very different currency than dollars and cents.

I have a lot of questions. I do wonder how traditional fandom will be perceived by rights holders if Kindle Worlds is a success. I have given my opinion here but would love to see more on why people feel the opposite than I do … and many do. What could Amazon do to make sure the writers go into this project with fully open eyes? Assuming they don’t, what is our obligation in fandom to step up and do that? What could we do? What is the likelihood that the terms will be used to take advantage of writers? They are pretty typical based on contracts offered writers of authorized tie-ins (and some have made the convincing argument that Kindle Worlds is closer to that than actual fan fiction), but then Alloy Entertainment has a pretty skeevy reputation, from what I understand. What about the fact that Kindle Worlds targets fandoms made up largely of young writers? Does this reflect a desire to exploit them, or is it more a reflection of how young people view transformative works as legitimate artistic expression and just as worthy for compensation as original fiction? What would make us, Fandom, fully happy with Kindle Worlds? Is that even possible? How does being paid for one’s writing change one’s perception of that story and of oneself as an author? If an author has access to a dollar-and-cents economy and a gift economy, which will she choose? What will be the tipping point where she chooses one over the other, i.e., at what point will a check in the mail replace the glow of happiness from prolific, positive comments or vice versa? How will Kindle Worlds interact with traditional fandom? How will authors who participate in Kindle Worlds be perceived in traditional fan communities? Will success with Kindle Worlds affect an author’s status in a traditional fannish community?

These are all questions on my mind that I hope, once the fervor of the initial reactions dies down, that we can discuss in the weeks and months to come.

Okay, some admin stuff. The spam issue should be solved (thank you, Sharon!), which means that most legitimate comments that were being flagged for moderation should post without moderation now. Welcome to new readers here! I am trying to launch this project again, as my semester comes to a close and my teaching career settles into something sane (i.e., not requiring me to take home hours of work each night). I will have more information in the coming weeks for anyone interested in writing or guest-posting here. In the meantime, you can follow new posts to this blog on LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, and Tumblr. And, yes, I know the site is archaic. It’s going to get dragged kicking and screaming into the year 2013–because it’s so 2009–over the summer.

Getting Paid for Your Fanfic? Here Comes Kindle Worlds!

JunoMagic posted a link this morning to the press release for Kindle Worlds, “the first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fan fiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.” (Here are the Kindle Worlds guidelines, again courtesy of Juno.) Yes, yes, you read correctly: Amazon is setting up a means for fanfic writers to publish their fanfic and make money on it.

My thoughts are still new and could change radically as we learn more about this project in the weeks and months to come. My first thought was, “Fanfic for profit?! I’m against that!” Because, in the past, I have spoken out against sites like FanLib, FanHistory, and LotRFF that seek to monetize fandom. But I haven’t been able to get likewise upset over Kindle Worlds. It is a different ball of wax, from where I’m standing.

First of all, the aforementioned for-profit fandom sites sought to harness fans’ passion for a show, movie, or book; their (essentially human) desire to create in that verse; and turn a profit on their energies without compensation to the fan. (I don’t count T-shirts with the company’s name on it to be compensation.) In many cases, these ventures were crafted to look like the non-profit archives fandom participants were used to frequenting, so fans weren’t even necessarily consenting to have their work used for profit. Neither were the rights holders, making these perilous ventures in the minds of many fans, with the potential to tar all fannish activity as a means to profit on someone else’s intellectual property. The mere thought makes me feel greasy.

Kindle Worlds, though, is expressly about granting what amounts to traditional publication to “fanfic,” including compensating authors with up to 40% of sales. In short, authors who pursue publication with Kindle Worlds know that they are entering for-profit territory. They are not posting on what they think is a new archive (or an old favorite … lookin’ at you, LotRFF!) only to discover that their story that has page clicks in the millions? Has been raking in a handsome profit for some business owner somewhere. Also, since the original rights holders are on-board, the idea that the project will draw negative scrutiny to fandom in general is not a concern.

There are some aspects of Kindle Worlds that I am watching with caution. First of all, there definitely appears to be a vetting process, as the press release declares “authorized stories” in the first paragraph. A vetting process is not inherently bad–many fandom outlets do the same, and of course, traditional publishers do as well–but I suspect that much of what is written in fandom will be rendered ineligible. The guidelines explicitly ban “pornography” (which I take to likely mean Adult or “NC-17″ stories) and crossovers. What about AU? What about slash? What about crackfic? I could see any of these story falling under one of these designations receiving a rejection simply because of its genre, leaving large swaths of fannish activity confined to non-profit sites, just like at present.

I am downright concerned over the purchase of “all rights”: “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright” (Guidelines, “Start Writing Now”). For those unfamiliar with traditional publishing, publishing venues like literary magazines or anthologies typically obtain rights in only limited areas directly relevant to that particular publication. For example, an anthology may obtain first North American rights, meaning that it is the first venue in North America to print the story; the author could, therefore, sell first European rights to a British publication. Others may obtain digital rights, anthology rights, reprint rights, or audio rights. All rights, though, includes everything, so while you’re happily making 50 cents per download on your fanfic, Amazon is taking your great idea, making a blockbuster film, and they don’t have to share any of the revenue from that with you, because they–not you–own the film rights. Or they’re using your story for a new episode of the show, also without compensation. They spell that out in the same section linked above:

When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.

It is up to each writer, of course, to decide what rights she or he is willing to sell. I made up my mind a decade ago to never sell all rights, but that is my decision and won’t be right for everyone. I just hope that Amazon is communicating fully to writers what exactly they are purchasing. While the explanation above is a step in the right direction, I’d still like to see an FAQ or similar document to spell out exactly what “all rights” means, what a writer can do with her work (can she remove it from the site? post it on a non-profit site? sell reprint rights, assuming Amazon isn’t always the only site purchasing fanfic? distribute copies to friends for free?) and what she will not be able to do. I hope Amazon realizes that fannish culture presupposes a lot of freedom for the author, and that fanfic authors may not necessarily be familiar with the restrictions that selling a work to a publisher entails.

What about the “morality” of making money on fanfic, from the author’s perspective? I don’t have a problem here, actually, although I suspect I may end up in the minority on this one. Would that all artists with talent could make a living–or even part of a living–on their work. I think it’s a shame that we value art so little that a short story that took weeks, months, or years to craft may sell to a literary magazine for little to nothing (yet our society always manages to cough up the millions required to sustain athletic teams. Just sayin’.)

As for its impact on fandom in general, especially the selected fandoms that will participate in Kindle Worlds … I am less sure here. I could see people who ordinarily would not touch fanfic–there is a stigma, after all–becoming enthralled with “official” fanfic and then being more open-minded to its free (and in many cases, probably higher-quality) counterparts on non-profit archives on the Web. I don’t see attrition in the opposite direction: People who participate in existing non-profit fan communities giving up involvement there in order to read exclusively on Kindle Worlds. After all, even less than a dollar per story could result in a dollars-per-day reading habit, which could be likewise accomplished for free on a non-profit site. The community and social aspect of fandom is also not something that I see being easily replicated on Kindle Worlds–or replicated at all–and that is a huge driving force behind fannish participation. Fandom is so wonderful, in a large part, in my opinion, because it is so communal and collaborative.

My chief concern would be a talent-drain among authors in the selected fandoms and especially genres acceptable to the project. If you write stories acceptable for Kindle Worlds, and you can make money on your work and don’t mind giving up all rights, then why would you offer it for free? This could essentially have the effect of removing popular authors from the community aspect altogether or paring down those genres of fanfic most acceptable for a project like Kindle Worlds (i.e., canon-compliant genfic).

I haven’t read a lot of commentary on this yet because I am just home from work, and most social-networking sites are blocked at my school. So this is all off the top of my head. I expect monster-shouting to ensue, but I don’t see reason for panic yet and have described myself as “cautiously optimistic” about the whole thing elsewhere. Even though Kindle Worlds claims to be offering “fan fiction,” based on the press release and guidelines I’ve read, they’re only sampling a very, very narrow portion of what’s commonly written under the heading of “fanfic.” I think a question to ask, before letting the monster-shouting begin, is how many of us write stories that fit the guidelines, were Tolkien fanfic to be accepted? How many of us would relinquish all rights to our work? How many of us would give up the community element? In those who raised their hands three times, we have the impact on our community, were Tolkien fanfic, hypothetically, to join the list of accepted fandoms.

ETA: While I was on hiatus, I started getting a ridiculous amount of spam on this site. I need to invest in better spam protection, but that isn’t something I have time to research and implement right now. (Actually the whole site needs an overhaul, but that’s an epic adventure for this summer!) Anyway, as a result of my trying to at least get spam to not appear on the site, most comments go to moderation. I’m monitoring this, but if you comment and it doesn’t show up, please email or message me, so that I can rescue your comment from all the spam comments about car covers and handbags and dui attorneys in san diego that it is (quite miserably, I’m sure) keeping company with.

ETA2: With the help of my sister, I have activated spam protection and, as a result, have turned off the setting that was causing most comments to go to moderation. Thanks, Sharon! Please continue to email me or message me if your comment does not appear.

On Muses

I just read a post by sarajayechan on the JournalFen fandom_discuss community about the use and general fandom annoyance with the term muse. Her first paragraph sums it up pretty well:

So in the fanfiction world, “muses” are apparently frowned upon. Authors who have convos with the characters in their authornotes are scorned, people who imagine the characters talking to them or whatever are considered stupid and delusional, and I remember someone once saying “authors with REAL TALENT just make themselves write, only second-rate writers use ‘muses’” (something along those lines).

I admittedly use the term muse a lot in describing my creative process. I even coined the phrase (that I sometimes see on icons that I didn’t design) that “Muses are imaginary friends for grown-ups” after learning that, yes, people look at you sideways when you start talking about your imaginary friends. When you talk about your muses, though, that tends to clarify imaginary activity as having a creative and not social intent. Some people even look vaguely impressed! :D

Once again, I find the sliver of fandom that I occupy, albeit peripherally, these days, to be at odds with “fandom at large.” But then, I don’t think that the part of Tolkien fandom where I play even uses the term muse in the sense that sarajayechan and commenters discuss in her post. Certainly, I’ve never heard of “soul-bonding” or communing with muses on astral planes. I’ve never even seen an author carry on a conversation with a character in her or his author’s notes.

Instead, I find that I and people with whom I associate tend to use the term muse in different ways.

  • It becomes a shorthand for discussing the creative process during which one connects deeply enough to a character to write that character convincingly. I find the idea that “authors with REAL TALENT just make themselves write” to be hogwash. I was nattering under friend-lock on my journal last week about character writers versus plot writers. This sounds like it comes from the plot writers to me. Just as it is easier or harder to connect with certain people, it is easier or harder to connect to certain characters, in my experience. For example, I relate to Fëanor, with his creative compulsions and sense of injustice in the world, more easily than I do to Fingolfin, who is accepting of the Valar and life in Valinor in a way that I can’t imagine myself being. I can write out the explanation that I just did when discussing how Fingolfin’s PoV chapters in AMC are weaker than Fëanor’s. Or I can just say that I have a Fëanor muse but haven’t found a Fingolfin muse yet. Viola. I think most people in the communities I frequent would understand that this refers to a difficulty connecting to Fingolfin’s character, not that I haven’t started setting an extra place for him at supper.
  • The term muse can be used playfully, sometimes to deflect criticism. “My Maglor muse wasn’t happy that you made him flee from battle!” sounds less confrontational than, “I think it’s OOC to have Maglor flee from battle,” which opens up the whole can of worms about canon and interpretation and all that that we’ve been over a thousand times before. I’ve certainly seen the term used in this way.
  • It can be used just plain ol’ playfully. I might say, for example, that one day, Pengolodh just let himself in the front door, plopped down next to me, and started dictating “Illuminations.” I don’t actually mean that I imagined the front door opening or even that I imagine an Elven loremaster in the chair next to me (which is perpetually piled too high with books to occupy anyway). It’s just a lighter way to express the sudden out-of-the-blue whallop of inspiration that can feel like getting hit by one of those Shire freight trains: One day, you’re not in the least bit interested in writing a particular character, and the next, you suddenly think s/he is the most interesting character in the world.

Some people have brought up in the comments on sarajayechan’s post that muses are a way for writers to deflect responsibility for their own creativity … or lack thereof. Inspiration and creativity can feel magical, like they come unprovoked out of the ether and recede again just as quickly. My own experiences suggest that my creativity, at least, has a strong neurochemical basis … but it still feels magical, and attributing inspiration or lack thereof to something outside oneself becomes a handy way to explain the inexplicable or (in my case) avoid hard truths like, “I’m not writing because I’m dysthymic or stressed out.” Instead, I’m not writing because Maedhros isn’t back from his Caribbean cruise yet.

So what are your experiences with muses? Do you use the term? What does it mean to you? Have you encountered fans or writers who believe that they actually connect with muses? Have you seen disparagement, in fandom or otherwise, of the term muse? Do you think it’s a cop-out, a shorthand, or something else entirely?

Gender Equality and Elves

Marta has a post up (The Problem with Eowyn) that is in reply to a post by Anna Wing (Eowyn, Female Agency, blah blah) about the possible gender issues in Tolkien’s depiction of Eowyn. Not being an expert on the LotR canon, I don’t feel that I can contribute to the discussion on Eowyn, but some of the comments drift into gender equality among the Elves, and about that, I have a few things to say.

There is a myth that the Elves had a gender-neutral society, and this premise is often then used to defend Tolkien’s own regard of women. But the Elves don’t have a gender-neutral society. Yes, we have a passage in the dogged Laws and Customs among the Eldar that states,

In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (12) (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal – unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri. There are, however, no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned. There are indeed some differences between the natural inclinations of neri and nissi, and other differences that have been established by custom (varying in place and in time, and in the several races of the Eldar).

I see this quote cited perhaps more than any other when people attempt to prove that the Elves had a gender-equal society. I won’t even touch on the problems with the L&C in general right now. We’ll assume that it’s a reliable document that can be taken at its word.

Yes, JRRT concedes that Elf-men and Elf-women are capable of the same things. How big of him. In the very next sentence, though, he immediately begins to backtrack on that, claiming that women mostly invest their energies into children rather inventing and creating things. Next, incidentally, their “natural inclinations” direct them to a life of what is traditionally woman’s work. Not that there is anything wrong with what is traditionally woman’s work, says the woman studying for that ultimate woman’s career in K-12 education. But the notion that women, by their very nature–and their procreative capabilities–are better suited for certain pursuits has been used in our real world history to deny them access to other types of work. This isn’t egalitarian. It’s an attempt to put a rational face on sexism.

And despite the fact that Elf women can do everything the guys can do doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to. One needs to look no further than the ascendancy of Fingolfin to the kingship over his sister Findis to see that the kingship of the Noldor wasn’t work for a woman. There is, furthermore, a pervasive expectancy of female obedience. Turgon believes himself within his rights to deny Aredhel from leaving Gondolin. Lúthien–the poster girl for JRRT’s supposed enlightened view of women–was expected to be obedient not only to her father but also to Beren, when he insisted that she not follow him on his quest. (She didn’t listen either time, but that’s beside the point; a mortal a fraction of her age and abilities felt it his place to order around an Elven princess of considerable wisdom and skill.) Even Fëanor, when arguing with Nerdanel at his departure, says, “Were you a true wife, as you had been till cozened by Aule, you would keep all of them, for you would come with us. If you desert me, you desert also all of our children” (Shibboleth of Fëanor). In other words, a “true wife” is one who follows her husband, against her own conscience even.

In Quendi and Eldar, we have another passage of interest when considering how Elves perceived gender equality:

But three Elves awoke first of all, and they were elf-men, for elf-men are more strong in body and more eager and adventurous in strange places. …

Imin, Tata and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouses lying asleep on the green sward beside them. Then they were so enamoured of their beauty that their desire for speech was immediately quickened and they began to ‘think of words’ to speak and sing in. And being impatient they could not wait but woke up their spouses. Thus, the Eldar say, the first thing that each elf-woman saw was her spouse, and her love for him was her first love; and her love and reverence for the wonders of Arda came later.

As in L&C, we have again comments on the “nature” of women–that they are less adventurous than men–and the blatantly sexist declaration that women were literally born to love their spouses above all others. Yes, I realize that Q&E is supposed to be read as a legend, not history. Nonetheless, if these are the legends being taught by the supposedly egalitarian Eldar, it might explain where Fëanor got his ideas about what makes a “true wife” and the other hogwash about feminine nature presented in documents like L&C.

I often see people asserting gender equality among the Eldar when discussing the larger can-of-worms question about how JRRT perceived women in general. JRRT died before I was even born, and it is hardly my place to profess to know his private views. However, his letters and what we can see of how he depicted women in his writing certainly don’t suggest that he had particularly enlightened views. His relationship with his wife, his remarks to his son Michael in Letter 43, and his blatant disdain of feminism suggest that his ideas are actually fairly close to what he expresses in L&C and Q&E: That men and women have inherently different natures, and where women are concerned “it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male” (Letter 43).

I don’t feel the need to apologize for Tolkien’s views or allow my utter disagreement with them attenuate the joy that I take from playing in his world. Nor do I feel that acknowledging that there is sexism in Middle-earth means that that world needs “fixing,” which often seems to be many people’s conclusion when someone like me insists that she sees sexism there. That is not the case at all. I don’t discuss gender issues in Tolkien’s world with any revisionist intent but, rather, because as an important work of literature that we connect with because we see ourselves in its characters, Middle-earth echoes those same attitudes can be seen on Modern-earth, and knowing to see them for what they are allows us to begin fixing them where it actually counts.

(My thanks go to Oshun and Pandemonium both for their always clear insights on gender in Tolkien’s world and helping me to form my thoughts into hopefully coherent words!)

Welcome to Middle-earth–Now Speak English!

I am jumping through the last leg of hoops in terms of completing my teaching certification, one hoop of which requires me to take two basic linguistic courses. Admittedly, it is probably the most pleasurable hoop to jump through, since it is an area I have wanted to study for some time anyway.

While reading The Stories of English by David Crystal last night for the History of English class I’m taking, I encountered a section on the idea of “language purity,” particularly as it relates to English:

Thre is a curious myth widespread in the world: many people believe that their language can somehow be ‘pure’–comprising a set of sounds, words, and structures that can all be traced back continuously to a single point of origin–and that anything which interferes with this imagined purity (especially words borrowed from other languages) is a corrupting influence, altering the language’s ‘true character.’ In the case of English, it is the Germanic origins of the language, in their Anglo-Saxon form, which are supposed to manifest this character. …

There are certainly important stylistic differences between Germanic and Romance words … but support for any notion of a ‘return to purity’ is misplaced. No language has ever been found which displays lexical purity: there is always a mixture, arising from the contact of its speakers with other communities at different periods in its history. In the case of English, there is a special irony, for its vocabulary has never been purely Anglo-Saxon–not even in the Anglo-Saxon period. (p. 57)

I have encountered the notion of linguistic purity on numerous occasions in the Tolkien fandom. I want to start out by saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who want to attempt to draw predominantly from a certain linguistic tradition in their writing, if that is what satisfies them and they feel best expresses what they want their stories to say. Apparently, according to Crystal, they’re in good company with the likes of Edmund Spenser, Charles Dickens, and George Orwell. What I’ve always objected to is the rather snobbish insistence that adopting such a style is somehow the superior choice or, worse yet, requisite for a truly respectful treatment of Tolkien’s works.

One of the very first comments I received on AMC noted my use of U.S. English and the reviewer’s distaste with that. I treated it in a rather jokey manner–as the new girl in town, I didn’t know what to expect from reviewers and didn’t want to piss anyone off–but the comment never sat right with me. My initial reaction was to think, “Duh. I write in U.S. English because I was born, raised, and learned to write in the U.S.” I brushed it off, but the remark stuck with me, obviously enough that I remember it more than five years and many hundreds of comments later.

Some years later, on a mailing list for a Tolkien fanfic group, the discussion turned to grammatical and spelling conventions used in fandom, and the following remark was made concerning the use of “American” spellings and grammar:

I am put off reading fanfics based on Tolkien’s work with American spellings, and in particular, American speech patterns.

. . .

I’m not suggesting that everyone has to learn British spellings overnight, but it baffles me when I see people go to the trouble of doing long and complicated Quenyan [sic] or Sindarin translations but can’t be bothered to stay true to Tolkien’s style of spelling and speech patterns.

. . .

I’m sorry for suggesting then that [a] site about fanfiction written based on works by a British Professor who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary might want to use British spellings.

This conversation became quite heated (not that I played any part in that *ahem*) and lots of interesting revelations came out of the woodwork. Several U.S. writers acknowledged that they had tried to train themselves to write using British spelling and grammatical conventions, with mixed success. Others noted that they didn’t read stories that used U.S. spelling and grammar conventions. I later learned that this was apparently a big issue in some corners of fandom, with authors not only avoiding U.S. conventions but attempting to avoid vocabulary with etymologies that did not hail back to Anglo-Saxon, especially French-derived words. I found myself surprisingly angry over the whole thing. The idea that the language with which I had been raised and in which I had written all of my life was not adequate for writing fan fiction was deeply offensive, as was the notion that it was somehow inferior to another set of spelling/grammar conventions. I noted that the language in which an author writes is tied deeply to her identity and that it is troubling, to say the least, to expect people to suppress their identities in service of imitating another writer, no matter how much one might admire him.

Dipping my toe into linguistics has been satisfying in the sense that it has validated my feelings in many ways. For one, yes, language is essential to identity. As a writer, my language is central to who I am, perhaps even beyond the attachment I’d feel toward it if I wasn’t a writer. For another, the notion of one language being “better” or “purer” than another is a load of hogwash.

From a canonical perspective, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of what I perceive to be a pretty deep divide concerning the motive for writing Tolkien-based stories and the approach taken during the construction of those stories. There seem to be two schools of thought here. One says that stories should be imitative and try to put the reader back into the world exactly as Tolkien constructed it, right down to a perceived “Tolkienesque” style. The other approach says that Tolkien-based stories should be transformative, fill in the blanks, and question or critique Tolkien’s ideas through fiction. I’m not saying that one approach is more valid than the other.

From my perspective, falling squarely into the transformative camp, nothing is more counterintuitive than suppressing my own style as an author in order to imitate a style of writing used by another author. For one, it seems to me an exercise in futility; I best create evocative text in my own language, not a language belonging to someone else, to which I have no emotional attachment and in which I do not perceive the world. For another, it is a distraction to my purpose, which isn’t trying to sound like Tolkien or re-create the experience of reading his books with my stories but expressing ideas related to his writing–again, a task best accomplished, for me, in my native language. As an author, I am not an invisible presence behind the scenes in my stories, trying to create the illusion that I’m JRRT and not Dawn Felagund. No, my stories concern who I am and my beliefs and experiences as much as they concern the world JRRT crafted. That requires the use of my own style, my own language.

Was the Elvenking in The Hobbit originally meant to be Thingol, and not Thranduil?

The following entry is a guest post by Dreamflower. Dreamflower has been a Lord of the Rings fan since 1967, when she was 15 years old. She has read the books countless times over the years, but did not begin writing fanfic until 2004. She’s written many stories, nearly all of them hobbit-centric; in addition she is a co-mod of the LOTR_GFIC community and of the Many Paths to Tread archive. Her stories may be found either at her author pages at Many Paths to Tread or at Stories of Arda. LOTR and fanfic are her main hobby, but she has several other hobbies as well: calligraphy, cooking, needlework of all kinds, sewing, decorative painting and polymer clay are some of her other creative outlets.

I was privileged this past Christmas to receive The History of the Hobbit as one of my gifts.  The set included The Hobbit, and The History of the Hobbit, Part One: Mr. Baggins and The History of the Hobbit, Part Two: Return to Bag End.  Like HoMe, HoTH consists of examinations of the earliest manuscripts of TH.  Unlike HoMe, these volumes were not edited by Christopher Tolkien, but by John D. Rateliff.  I found these volumes much more “readable” than HoMe.  Mr. Rateliff’s style is more engaging and less dry than CT’s.  And of course, he had a less difficult job.  Unlike the many drafts of material that CT had to wade through, covering many decades of his father’s work and many alterations, as well as multitudes of scraps of paper with scribbled notes, Mr. Rateliff had two early handwritten drafts and two typescripts, and just a few handwritten notes.

One of the fascinating things I learned is that while JRRT was somewhat ambivalent originally as to whether the world of The Hobbit was the same as that of his larger world of Arda, there were more traces of Arda in the early drafts than in the later ones.  For example, in the earliest draft, when Gandalf (whose name at that time was not Gandalf, but Bladorthin, and at the time Gandalf was Thorin’s name!) was explaining to the Dwarves how he came by his father’s map in Dol Goldur, he credits Beren and Lúthien with overthrowing the Necromancer!

“Never you mind!” said Bladorthin: “I was finding things out, and a nasty dangerous business it was.  Even I only just escaped.  However, I tried to save your father, but it was too late.  He was witless and wandering, and had forgotten almost everything except the map.”

“The goblins of Moria have been repaid,” said Gandalf; “we must give a thought to the Necromancer.”

“Don’t be absurd” said the wizard. “That is a job quite beyond the powers of all the dwarves, if they could  be all gathered together again from the four corners of the world.  And anyway [others >] his castle stands no more and [his >] he is flown. [added: to another darker place]—Beren and Tinúviel broke his power, but that is quite another story.” (“The Adventure Continues”, p. 73)

At any rate, throughout the text, Mr. Rateliff points out many places in which the world of TH intersects with his older and as yet unpublished work that eventually became The Silmarillion.

When he gets to the part where Bilbo and the Dwarves are lost in Mirkwood, and encounter the Elves, we are treated to an examination of the Elves in TH, and how JRRT did not quite seem able to make up his mind if they were his Elves or the more common sorts of medieval and Elizabethan Elves better know by readers of the time.  It would be difficult to give all of the evidence that is covered in that chapter, but here is a passage he quotes from the second draft:

…most of [the wood-elves] are descended from the ancient elves who never went to the great FairyLand of the west, where the Light-elves and the Deep-elves (or Gnomes) and the Sea-elves lived, and grew fair, and learned and invented their magic and their cunning craft and the making of beautiful and marvelous things.

This passage was greatly expanded in the First Typescript:

Are the wood-elves wicked? Well, not particularly, or indeed not at all, though they have their faults, and they don’t like strangers.  It is quite true that they are rather different from other elves; for most of them, as well as the few elves that live in hills and mountains are descended from those of the ancient tribes of the elves of old who never went to the great Fairyland of the West, where the Light-elves and the Deep-elves (or Gnomes) and the Sea-elves lived for ages and grew fair and wise and learned and invented their magic and their cunning craft in the making of beautiful and marvelous things before they came back into the Wide World.  Here the wood-elves lingered in the twilight before the raising of the Sun and Moon, and afterwards they wandered in the forests that grew beneath the sunrise.  They loved best the edges of the woods from which they could escape at times to hunt or to ride and run over the open lands by sun or moon or star; thought after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk.

-1/2/30:3-4, rejected ending to the First Typescript.

(“In the Halls of the Elvenking”, p. 405)

[All subsequent quotations are from this chapter.]

There is a long explanation after this, of the differences in the three Elven kindred, which is probably far more familiar to those of you who are more interested in the first two Ages than the Third, than they were to me.  But he does go on to explain that it seems clear that the Elvenking was of the Teleri, or Sea-Elves, including an explanation for the Elvenking’s golden hair.

Mr. Rateliff goes on to what I found the most interesting theory in this portion of the book:

If Tolkien’s wood-elves as a whole harken back to folklore beliefs about ‘the Fair Folk’, then in his depiction of the Elvenking he is drawing on a specific modern literary source: his own unpublished writings.

He goes on to point out a number of similarities between the Elvenking’s Halls and the caves of the Rodothlim, who later evolved into the Elves of Nargothrond.

Then he goes on to say:  “A much closer parallel to the wood-elves can be found in the woodland realm of Doriath, located in the heart of a dark forest known for its impenetrability, a place where most travellers get lost and perish miserably.”

He points out that Doriath was a place of the Sea-elves, and that at its heart was the cavern-stronghold of Menegroth, reached only by a guarded bridge over a stream.  He also quotes from “The Tale of Tinúviel” in BoLT, a description which sounds uncannily like the description of the Elvenking’s Halls in Mirkwood.

The strongest parallel between Doriath and the wood-elves’ realm, however, is the Elvenking himself, who strongly resembles one of the most famous characters in the legendarium: King Thingol Greycloak, ruler of the woodland realm of Doriath and high king of the Elves of Beleriand.

To understand, then, exactly how the wood-elf king in The Hobbit relates to the earlier stories, it is necessary (as so often) to make the mental effort to exclude from our minds knowledge of what Tolkien later resolved while working on the sequel, or that subsequent layer created as much as  twenty years afterwards will prevent us from seeing clearly what he was doing at the time he created the character—that is, when writing the story of Mr. Baggins adventures as a stand-alone work deriving in varying degrees from his already voluminous writings about Middle-earth.  Seen in this light, while the Elvenking strongly resembles King Thingol in general, the evidence for and against the identification is contradictory.

Two elements Tolkien goes out of his way to include in the narrative support the argument that the two kings are one and the same, while two unstated facts argue against it because of the dissonancy they would create between things we know to be true of Thingol that do not appear to apply to the Elvenking.

The two elements he says argue for the Elvenking being Thingol is  (1) The mention of the three Elven kindred, which means that the wood-elves are part of the mythology of Arda, of the “great Fairyland of the west”.  “In fact, only one Sea-elf in the whole legendarium ever visited Valinor and returned to live in Middle-earth, this being the figure originally known as Linwë Tinto (BLT I, 106) then Tinwë Linto (ibid., pages 130-131) or Tinwelint (‘The Tale of Tinúviel’, BLT II, 8) then from “The Lay of Leithian”, onwards as King Thingol.” and  (2) the enmity displayed between the dwarves and the elves.

The original ending to the first typescript included this passage:

…they did not love dwarves and thought he was an enemy. In ancient days they had had wars with some of the dwarves whom they accused of stealing their treasure.  It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different account and said that they only took what was their due, for the elf-king had bargained with them to shape his raw gold and silver and had after refused to give them their pay. If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems, for though his hoard was rich yet he had not as great a treasure as other elf-lords of old, since his people neither mined nor worked metal or jewels, nor did they trade, not till the earth more than they could help.  All this was known to every dwarf, though Thorin’s family had had nothing to do with the old quarrel I have spoken of.

Mr. Rateliff says this is a clear allusion to the Lost Tale known as “The Nauglafring: The Necklace of the Dwarves.”

But this, he says, leads to the first of the two elements that are evidence against the argument: in the original tale, Thingol’s death is a part of the story.  He goes on to say, however, that this is not as certain as it appears, and quotes another passage that implied he still lived.

The second element which is important in the tale of Thingol, but left out of the Elvenking’s story in TH, is the absence of a major player in the story: “There is no  Faërie Queen at the Elvenking’s side in Mirkwood.” Thingol’s queen, Melian the Maia, was a vital part of his story, and her absence here might seem a strong argument against the Elvenking being Thingol.

Mr. Rateliff’s own conclusion is that JRRT left his options open, never identifying the Elvenking by name, so that he could have been either the older character or a new one with many of the same characteristics.  And years later when he wrote LotR, he decided that they were indeed two different characters.

I’ve only briefly summarized his speculations here.  I thought it something that it might be fun to share, and I’d love to see other people discuss the possibilities that it opens.

Lúthien: A “Mere Maiden”?

I am in the midst of reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I have never read in full. They are very illustrative and have spurred many ideas for future HL posts (and I am only one-third through!), but I encountered one statement the other day that refuses to rest in my mind until I write about it.

JRRT was more than a “man of his time” where his regard of women is concerned. A self-described reactionary, many things from his personal life and his writings point to the fact that he was a rampant sexist in excess of what one would expect even from a man who was well into adulthood before women earned the vote in his country. Yet whenever the question of JRRT’s sexism comes into a discussion, someone trots out Lúthien as an example of how, though not all of his books provide fair depictions of women, his sexism clearly wasn’t entirely unmitigated. Lúthien, after all, is not only gorgeous but has enough super-magical powers to outsmart the Dark Lord, bring Beren back to life, and move Námo Mandos to mercy. She’s a superhero in a cape woven from her own hair. JRRT’s defenders like to point to her as evidence that he valued women’s strength and independence (because, no matter what you think of the Beren and Lúthien story, she clearly possessed both).

I don’t normally put much stock in an author’s intent, as I think I make clear here on a fairly regular basis. Texts must stand on their own, independent of what their authors wished them to say when writing them. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever started a sentence with that loathed phrase beloved of canatics: “Tolkien clearly intended …” So this will be a first.

In 1951, JRRT had finished The Lord of the Rings and was corresponding with Milton Waldman in hopes that Collins would publish LotR along with The Silmarillion. In Letter #131, JRRT describes his opus, from the Music of the Ainur to the conclusion of LotR. In discussing the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, we get this revelation:

It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown.

Firstly, a show of hands as to who thinks Beren did most of the work in retrieving that Silmaril? Beren would be in a wolf’s belly if not for Lúthien, to say nothing of her later “help,” without which he would also have been dead, many times over. (Impressive for a mortal.) But what struck me here as particularly revealing of JRRT’s attitude towards women is his note that Lúthien is “a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty.”

The sentence before this clarifies what JRRT sees as the significance of this particular story:

Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak … .

So, in short, the fact that Lúthien is descended from one of the Powers that JRRT celebrates as exceptionally wise in the very same letter means nothing. (Of course, that Power is also a woman.) Neither does her heritage as the daughter of Elwë, one of the Elves selected as ambassadors to Aman. All of these facts–and her deeds–are attenuated by her status as a “mere maiden,” and the heroics that so many of her fans embrace and cite as evidence that JRRT understood women as competent beings, even a little bit.

(Here we go.)

Tolkien clearly did not intend this. Based on what he told Waldman, he wanted her story to serve in the same capacity as Sam and Frodo’s, illustrating how even the weak can overthrow the powerful. He assumed that his readers would understand this based on her femaleness alone.

Nor do I think that the published story can in any way be defended as a change of heart in favor of recognizing a clearly powerful character as such, rather than a product of her circumstances that serves as an apt vehicle for one of his most valued themes. According to Douglas Charles Kane1, paraphrasing Christopher Tolkien’s notes in The Lost Road, the published Beren and Lúthien story was based on two texts, completed in 1951, the same year that JRRT wrote to Milton Waldman. In short, the story was likely fresh in JRRT’s mind, and the published Silmarillion shows no major edits in favor of shifting Lúthien from a weak to a powerful character. (Furthermore, the basic structure of B&L was among JRRT’s earliest works in The Book of Lost Tales.)

Lúthien is certainly the best evidence that JRRT wasn’t a complete and unapologetic sexist, and I’ve seen it used as such many times. I’ve probably even used it myself in presenting The Silmarillion as a work that presents women more fairly than do The Hobbit and LotR. This quote not only debunks that idea but flips it on its head. When we see Lúthien, after all, we are not supposed to see one strong enough to overcome impossible odds in pursuit of her goals. We are not supposed to see a hero who earned her place as a cornerstone in the legends of her people. Nope, she is a mere maiden. She proves to the rest of us that, on occasion, even the inherently weak can “help” the privileged and powerful accomplish good things.

1. Douglas Charles Kane, Arda Reconstructed, p. 173.