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.


20 Responses to “Welcome to Middle-earth–Now Speak English!”

  1. Rhapsody says:

    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.

    I’ve always wondered about the aim and as to why people want to point out to others that a certain convention has to be followed. I learnt British-English and that was frowned upon as well, the reasoning was that fan fic readers were mostly American and as a writer one should adhere to that. It is most strange that when the language you have learnt and have mastered, suddenly has to be changed according to the reviewers view on what convention a fandom should follow. Still it is most upsetting, as if they wanted to say something about the piece of fiction and that is all they came up with… Perhaps a need to control others? Just a wild guess.

    Just a weeny question: Germanic and Romance words …

    Romance words? Or Roman/latin words?

  2. Dawn says:

    I think that is part of it. A goodly number of writers seem to think that they’ve found The Way and can’t envision why an author would choose to do differently. A goodly number of readers seem unable to understand that writers don’t cater to their specific preferences. (There’s always that BACK button! :D)

    Personally, I rarely even notice the grammar/spelling conventions authors use. A good story, to me, transcends that.

    Romance words? Or Roman/latin words?

    Yep, Romance as in the Romance languages, those derived from Latin, e.g., French, Spanish, Portuguese.

  3. Lois says:

    Well it is an interesting question. I’ve had to think about work origins a lot for my original work, because so many words that I use all the time are directly connected to proper nouns – spartan, for instance, which obviously comes from the Ancient Greek city-state, but in a world where Sparta didn’t exist, how valid is it to describe something as being spartan? Of couse, it’s always possible to claim that the work is a translation from the original, like Tolkien did, and that’s what I’m doing to get away with the use of words like sandwich! If I can quickly think of a decently concise work-around (which I can for spartan but not for sandwich), then I use it, but if I can’t I just use whatever I would say in everyday speech or writing. I have even been known to use military acronyms (where appropriate). So far I haven’t used OK, but that’s pure cowardice and I hope I could get away with it, because what’s wrong with characters using their own vernacular, which has then been translated into modern English? When it comes to reading fic I’d much rather read a well-constructed piece of prose in U.S. English (or even modern U.K. English) than a piece that’s been stuffed with unnecessary thee’s and thou’s because the author is trying to give it an olde-worlde feel. I might like to try reading a piece in Anglish, though, if someone had the time and energy to write it! Slang might be a different matter because it changes so quickly.

  4. pandemonium_213 says:

    Heh. I recall some discussion on the Lizard Council surrounding certain words that sounded “too Latin” for Tolkien’s world. I can’t recall which reptilian wag posted it (maybe Morthoron), but the examples of Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo, his sword Caudimordax, and the dragon Chrysophylax Dives from JRRT’s Farmer Giles of Hamsort of laid that to rest. Sort of.

  5. Independence1776 says:

    It astounded me a bit to read the British versus American English divide, because out of all the British-based fandoms I’ve been involved in (Tolkien, Merlin, and now lurking in Doctor Who), Tolkien’s the *least* contentious, and I don’t normally see it brought up in the circles I frequent.

    But then, I really shouldn’t be surpised. I was told once that I misspelled the title of one of my stories (Judgement) because I used the *British* spelling. Well, I use some British spellings because I prefer them, and literally may not be able to tell you which is which off the top of my head.

    Britpicking, too, is just like trying to find a good beta. Even if you get it done doesn’t mean it’ll be good. (The 22k long Merlin fic I had Britpicked recieved five or six corrections and no spelling changes.) And yet, people still penalize you for having it done “wrong” because it isn’t extensive enough or what have you. It’s really a no-win situation.

    Honestly, as long as the style remains consistant throughout an individual story, I don’t care. I will, in all likelihood, not notice unless there’s a word that sticks out as particularily American or British. (Sadly, one of those words is “loo.”) Spelling I don’t pay attention to– I recognise the differences, but don’t actually *note* them unless they’re a true misspelling.

  6. Spiced Wine says:

    Quote from Dawn: ‘Personally, I rarely even notice the grammar/spelling conventions authors use. A good story, to me, transcends that.’

    Absolutely. I write British English, and would be archaic, because I like it, but my spellchecker on Firefox automatically underlines English spelling’s with red, so labour is underlined and right-clicking it gives you labor, honour *should be* honor. For a long time before I wrote fanfic, I didn’t have Word, Open Office and only a spellchecker which came with the message board I used, which was not very good. When I began to use Firefox and found that when I went into the edit mode of my fanfic, and had many typo’s, I simply changed every one, and got into the habit. As long as it is spelled correctly, either British or American-English, I don’t care! 😀

    I don’t, admittedly, use modern speech patterns, but that goes back even before my loving the language of the Silmarillion, and is entrenched. Every-one born First Age or prior uses ‘Thee’s and Thou’s’ in my work – I tried writing it less archaically, and just didn’t feel as comfortable with it, it did not fit my characters as I saw them. I honestly never considered the readers, as I wrote the first story for my own satisfaction, and by the time I had finished, it was established in my mind, and was not going to change it. It’s very important for me to feel comfortable with what I am writing, not to write for other people. I tried it and it was extremely frustrating.

    When it comes to reading I don’t notice, to be honest, if it is archaic or modern, if the stories grab me.

    I do remember when role-playing on a Tolkien site staffed with canon-purists being called on using the word ‘decimate’ because no-one in Middle-earth would have used the word XD. But sometimes words fit, and when a story draws me in, I cease to read; in a sense, I live the story.

  7. marta says:

    Fanfic is so tricksy on these issues. It seems that we have lots of people each trying to write stories that are authentically their own, but with characters that aren’t *uniquely* their own. I mean, you and I probably see Feanor in different ways. I wan’t you to read my Feanor and enjoy the story, but at the same time I want to write “my” Feanor. It takes a lot of maturity to enjoy the story under those circumstances.

    I do think the word issues go too far. I will try to avoid Britishisms in the dialect and inner thoughts of British characters (including hobbits), but that’s about it. I am amused that at least in the LOTR fandom, it is hobbits we say must be Britishized. Because for me, Britishisms = nobility and hobbits = much too rustic for that…

    Also, thought you might be interested: this post inspired me to write out some of my own thoughts on canon. It’s not a direct reply, more used your post as a kind of jumping-off point, but you might find it interesting regardless.


  8. Dreamflower says:

    I recognize the person whom you quoted in your post– in fact, I recall the original post and the discussion it engendered. I will refrain from saying some of the things I could say about it, but will go so far as to say that it is very much in character for that person.

    When I first started writing fic, I wanted to write as close to Tolkien as I could. As a dewy-eyed newcomer, I considered my fic to be first of all a tribute to him. But before long, the stories themselves became much more the driving force. I know I can’t succeed in imitating him– I strive mostly to avoid clashing with his style.

    (The exception to this is fic for The Hobbit, or that features Bilbo– imitating that style just “feels right” to me.)

    Another factor was a beta I had, who was death on Americanisms and a dragon on British spelling. Some British spelling seems natural to me; I grew up reading a lot of British authors, and “honour” seems to me the natural spelling of that word. In reading fic, though, the only two American spellings that throw me are “gray” instead of “grey” and “traveler” instead of “traveller”. But that’s just me and no reflection on the story. If the story is good, I notice it and move on; if the story’s not a good one, it’s just one more annoyance.

    Some of my favorite writers do not worry a lick over Americanisms and spelling and style. Because their stories and characters are true to the spirit of M-e, I seldom notice, and it doesn’t bother me. In my own writing, I am not that casual, but old habits die hard.

    Anachronisms will bother me more, but so much not the anachromisms of say, a freight train in M-e (*rolls eyes and whistles innocently*) or other such items, but what I would call “psychological anachronisms”. We fanfic writers are a much more “touchy-feely” lot than an Oxford don of the mid-twentieth century– but some go way overboard. When I read a hobbit saying he needs “closure”, I really wince.

    Sadly, even I have been guilty of some of that kind of thing. It’s far easier to notice in a re-read than it is when writing.

  9. Rhapsody says:

    Yep, Romance as in the Romance languages, those derived from Latin, e.g., French, Spanish, Portuguese.

    I hope you didn’t mind me asking, we studied the Indo-European language tree at college and I never heard of the term Romance used (but then most of the classes were in Dutch, I’ve learnt something today! I like that so much). We call it Italisch/Romaans (Italic/Romanic then?). Just to share a tad of geekiness, have you ever seen this awesome language tree (it’s from a Belgian site): Taalboom or Language Tree.

    A good story, to me, transcends that.

    Oh yes!

  10. Elleth says:

    For me as a non-native English speaker, the whole discussion is being blown out of proportion a little, but obviously that is from a very subjective standpoint. Of course the existence of British vs. American spelling, grammar and lexical items is something I am aware of, but having subscribed to neither variety completely (which I suppose comes from being exposed to many more varieties at school and university, having never lived in an anglophone country for longer than three weeks, and being a scatterbrain in general), it fails to be terribly jarring to me. That is barring more extremely non-standard varieties that are not used in the text as such: outside parody it would become difficult for me to take a fanfic writer serious whose Tolkien characters go around “howdy”-ing each other. Which I suppose means my position comes down to “everything in moderation, and some consistency would be nice”.

    Concerning the linguicism and linguistic purity idea itself – Dawn already pointed out that it was a load of rubbish (pardon the paraphrasing), though I am currently wondering if it can be partly attributed to two largely-similar receptions of Tolkien and his work (which of course aren’t the end-all and perhaps iffy in delineating authorial (and fannish) intent, but might explain some of the opinions). For the record, I am not trying to ascribe anything to anyone, but the following assumptions do make sense to me, and aren’t terribly different from Dawn’s own idea now that I reread her blog post:

    Tolkien-the-author, who identified as English and went about deliberately creating an ancient mythology for England, had his main characters speak in a West Midlands variant. Being aware of linguistic consistency in general (up to the point of having some Primitive Elvish roots match reconstructed Proto-Indo-European ones, but that is not strictly relevant for the discussion) he might easily be believed to have frowned upon that pesky US spelling in some fannish subcreations (read: fanfic) based on his English myths. The same essentially goes for Tolkien-the-translator, if viewed as internal to the narrative and translating the Red Book of Westmarch and other manuscripts from Westron, who would probably use British spelling as the closest possible approximation to the cultures and protagonists in the work (though again I am not presuming to have much of an idea of translation theory). A hypothetical American translator of the Red Book might have attached a different sociocultural context altogether and made it no less valid.

    This still fails to clearly answer the question about the “correct” approach to fanfic, if there is an exclusive one in the first place… I don’t think so. For one thing, Tolkien was expressively supportive of subcreation, and never (to my knowledge) specified which linguistic form that should take or not. Tolkien himself used sources as diverse as the Mabinogion and Kalevala and imposed a variant of his own style and ideas on them as it appeared most fitting; see for example the Lays of Beleriand and the different poetic/literary traditions Tolkien worked with in the Lay of the Children of Húrin and the Lay of Leithian).
    Leaving that iffy territory of authorial intent, this is just to say that the choice of style for fanfiction and other fannish subcreation is a personal one even if it is published (on the internet or elsewhere) and opened for scrutiny. This doesn’t take into account (and maybe doesn’t have to) bad writing and factual errors, but whether the language of a fanfic is emulating the original author and his ideas closely, or working with a more transformative style and idea (or even a mixture of both), as long as the style of writing fits the author, their intent and their story, does it matter whether a certain grapheme of some lexical item is a digraph or not? Personally, I think that attaching semantics to that difference appears just the tiniest bit absurd, meaning no offense, sir.

  11. Elleth says:

    And now that the above descended into a longer-than-planned diatribe, I completely forgot to attach an interesting/amusing tidbit on language purity… have a scientific text on atomic theory re-written to contain nearly exclusively Germanic-origin vocabulary.

    Uncleftish Beholding: http://groups.google.com/group/alt.language.artificial/msg/69250bac6c7cbaff

  12. Anna_wing says:

    I think it’s a false dichotomy to start with. Engaging Tolkien’s thought, writing transformative fic etc etc is a matter of content not style. The two have nothing to do with each other. It’s perfectly possible to write Tolkien fic of any kind in formal American English. In fact, going by his own canons of translation (for instance in respect of the Hobbits and the Rohirrim), I don’t see how he could object. It also, incidentally allows the famous express train in Chapter 1 of LOTR, to be easily explained away (for those so inclined) as an unwise vocabulary choice by the translator of the Red Book.

    Tolkien noted himself that the formality of Elvish speech could be attributed to their mostly having learned their Westron or whatever rather a long time ago, so that it is old-fashioned in comparison with contemporary Middle-earth idiom. So if you wanted, you could write your elves, and indeed your Dwarves, using pre-WWII American English and it would be perfectly appropriate in relation to, say, Hobbits speaking current American English. All the gradations of class, language, species and culture that Tolkien used different linguistic styles to reflect can easily be portrayed with judicious changes of idiom and tone reflecting geographical and cultural differences within the US.

    Though for me at least, apart from grammatical errors, nothing kicks me out of a story faster than an anachronistic metaphor or idiom (“the spotlight”, and “replay” are ones I remember in Tolkien fic).

  13. Dawn says:

    Lois: You’re right that this is an issue that comes up in writing in general, especially fantasy, I think, because we’re working in a setting outside of our own but also don’t have a historical reference to guide our choices. I tend to take the approach that you’re describing: I write in my own style using words comfortable for me and assume it as translation. I do sometimes make up words or idioms when I feel like the word I have for it would pull the reader too close to my world, as the author, rather than the world I’m weaving for the characters. I’d be interested to hear how to say “sandwich” without actually saying it! 😛 I might make up a word for that, if I ran into that problem in a story. (I’m trying to remember if I ever used it in Tolkien fic …)

    Pandë: I get the feeling that, among those who insist that only particular spelling/vocab conventions can show adequate respect for JRRT’s work, this is one of those issues where you might find some obscure passage, say in PE, translating Elvish into Latin, and people would still find a way to shrug it off. Maybe claim the source outdated or something. 😉

    Indy: “Loo” is probably one of the Britishest words I can think of. Incidentally, I’ve been using it since high school, at least, in regular speech, because I heard it and liked it. But in a story? I’d be cautious of my use.

    As I think the comments here show, many or even most Tolkien writers seem to share your opinion that the consistency of a style matters more than whether its British/U.S./Martian English. I have encountered a few, however, who feel the opposite and are rather … vicious about it. My jaw was hanging open when someone said in the conversation I quoted part of that she clicked out of stories when she encountered U.S. spellings. Ultimately, my conclusion was to shrug and declare that her profound loss, as there are many excellent stories by U.S. authors that she’s missing out on because she can’t abide the missing u in “color.”

    Spiced Wine: On archaic speech patterns, there are some authors who can do this amazingly. I’ve not had a chance to read as much of your work as I want to, but reading what you sent in for Birthday, I was never jarred, so I count you confidently among them. :) Some scoffing toward archaic language goes on in this fandom, probably because so many people force this style in their writing, and it feels forced, but I wouldn’t trade the excellent work done by some authors using these conventions.

    Decimate, eh? I have to admit that one wouldn’t particularly have come to my mind as too modern or not “Tolkien” enough! 😀 They are correct that no one in Middle-earth would have used “decimate,” but unless they’re writing in Quenya or another language of Middle-earth, I’m rather tempted to point out that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!

    And now I’ve just been waylaid for a half-hour by Marta’s post, and it’s time to get to work for the day, so I will finish replies later!

  14. SurgicalSteel says:

    Heh, I’m finding this to be particularly on point today given that I just received a review for a story in which I was criticized for having surgeons use what the reviewer referred to as ‘contemporary medi-speak.’ Most ‘modern’ medical terminology is actually old – I read old medical texts as a hobby and even in texts going back to the early 1600s (Ambroise Pare), I’ve never had a problem with the medicalese. Sometimes I’ve had an issue with the actual remedies, but the anatomy and the surgical terms, those really haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

    So I’ve basically been criticized for having surgeons speak and think like surgeons – and for being ‘too modern.’ It ‘detracted from Middle-earth.’

    My basic feeling on that is: if you don’t like it? That’s fine. You didn’t like it. My husband doesn’t like it when I make gumbo. He doesn’t say it ‘detracts from his enjoyment of the house,’ though, he just finds something different for his dinner. The ‘detracted from Middle-earth’ changes the whole tone of the comment for me from something that’s not horribly personal (like ‘this just isn’t my taste’) to something that is.

  15. Anna_wing says:

    Ursula LeGuin had some apt and interesting things to say about style in “Elfland and Poughkeepsie”, which I believe can be found in her essay collection “The Language of the Night”. It can be roughly summed up as “high style for high matters, low for low”. Manner should fit matter. Don’t write Elfland as if it were Poughkeepsie.

  16. Dawn says:

    Marta: I think you’re spot on in noting the maturity it takes to realize that other authors have different interpretations and realizing that your own interpretation is as offensive to some readers as other authors’ interpretations are to you. (Not “you” personally, of course. :) ) Something I’ve noticed on sites like ff.net where the writers aren’t as … erm, jaded as we are is that many more reviewers tend to overreact to what they view as “canon” violations. I tend to like the variety of interpretations I find in fandom. If I want to read my own Feanor, I write the story myself–that’s how AMC came about! :)

    DF: I had to laugh because I’ve been storing that quote for years, hoping that people would have forgotten that discussion and who made those remarks! 😀 I don’t know her; that was my first interaction with her. In the end, I felt it was her loss if she was missing out on excellent stories just because they used a different form of English than hers. Alas.

    I have a much more modern style myself because I like to delve into the psychology of the characters and feel that modern language is the best way to connect to a modern audience. But I think both styles can work. I’ve read amazing work by authors who use a more archaic style or a voice that sounds more “true to Tolkien.”

    As a beta, I can’t imagine “correcting” an author using her native spelling/grammar conventions. I have beta’ed for authors who use U.S. and British English, and I adjust my expectations to that. If a word looks “wrong” to me, I look it up and often find that there are multiple spellings used by speakers around the world. One of my goals as a beta is to never stifle the voice of the authors I work with, so I can’t imagine having the audacity to insist that they use an unfamiliar language form if that isn’t their natural inclination.

    Rhapsy: Of course I don’t mind! :) I first heard the term “Romance language” from my ninth grade Spanish teacher (who was from Spain), and it’s pretty commonly used here. The author I quoted is British, so it seems a pretty universal usage.

    I have a similar chart in my linguistics text–it’s really fascinating to see which languages relate most closely to each other! Our native languages are actually closely related!

    Elleth: The first time I heard the notion of Tolkien-based fiction (or websites) using only British conventions, I seriously thought it was a joke. I, too, had grown up reading both British and U.S. spellings, which is easy to do since most classic texts use British spellings, as do our Canadian neighbors to the north. It wasn’t something I really noticed, so it surprised me that some readers found my own language so off-putting. It pissed me off that they were so insensitive in how they expressed that.

    I agree with you on the issue of translation. If JRRT preferred the perspective of Hobbits and gave them his distinctively mid-20th-century British man’s voice, then who’s to say that my preferred perspective of YT Noldor can’t have the distinctive voice of a U.S. young woman writing in the aughts? 😉

    Thanks for the link to Uncleftish Beholding! I had heard of it but never read it. I got a good laugh out of that one! 😀 “Germanstuff” … heheh.

    AW: I have mixed thoughts on your assertion that “I think it’s a false dichotomy to start with. Engaging Tolkien’s thought, writing transformative fic etc etc is a matter of content not style. The two have nothing to do with each other.” I agree that it’s possible to write transformative stories in the style of Tolkien, if one so chooses. However, at the same time, I don’t think that authors who view their purpose as transformative feel the same pressure to do so that those in the imitative camp do. So I think that a more individual style tends to emerge among transformative writers. I haven’t quantified this (could one?) but have certainly observed the tendency.

    Skipping Steel for a moment to address your second comment, I think whether you write “Elfland” or “Poughkeepsie” depends, in part, on your purpose. If you want to create an Otherworld, a sense of elevation above the petty concerns of we mere mortals, then yes, an elevated style would be justified, as LeGuin suggests. What if your Elfland explores human behavior, though? JRRT’s Silmarillion Elves are among the most flawed and human of any that he wrote, imho. He elevated them because that was his purpose in creating a mythology, but fanfic concerning them often explores the humanity behind their (frequently bad) decisions. I think the “Elfland” style is too elevated to connect on that level. I tend to opt for Poughkeepsie. :)

    Steel: I must congratulate you! Your use of “medi-speak” apparently went in and magically rearranged the texts that JRRT wrote–some of them almost a century ago–and permanently corrupted them. Wow. That’s quite some influence! 😉

    I hope it’s obvious that I’m being very sarcastic because remarks like those are so overblown to be ridiculous. It’s like my remark to Marta about how there is far too much handwringing in certain fandom circles over interpretations with which one does not agree, and people tend to behave like “Mary Sue” or “slash” are so grave of threats to knock the Earth out of orbit … or U.S. English spellings, Feanor hugging his kids, and now, it seems, “medi-speak.”

  17. Celeritas says:

    Was just trolling around the Webs when I saw this post and thought it was worth a comment, albeit a belated one.

    I think that some (not all!) of the criticism of Americanisms in Tolkien fan fiction is a lazy shorthand for criticizing the *unthinking* use of language. If an American woman is writing hobbit fan fiction but using British language, that implies that at least she’s thought about how hobbits “sound.” And I’m not going to lie; having a hobbit say, “Okay” is going to throw me out of a lot of stories.

    At the same time, having a hobbit use the word “loo” would also throw me out of the story, because that’s not *hobbit* English. If you’re writing another person’s characters and culture, I think it’s important at least on some level to imitate the speech patterns they would have used, and a *huge* part of hobbits’ characterization is derived from how they speak, even in the “original language” where Tolkien explains how Pippin’s use of the familiar with Denethor helped people believe that he was actually a prince.

    On the other hand, if an author is trying to go for a gritty, “realistic” take on the wars in the First Age, and therefore has an injured elf cursing liberally, it’d sound *better* to use 20th century vulgarities than come up with fake literal translations that don’t mean anything.

    So I think that you can legitimately criticize people’s use of language in fan fiction, but only in the sense of, “are you using this language to achieve a conscious effect?”

    So, put too many words like “decimate” and “medicine” in the words of an Eorling, especially an Eorling commoner, and I’m going to call you out on it, at least in my mind. If you’re using these words in Gondor, though, especially if you’re using them to contrast with the speech patterns of the much more Saxony Rohirrim, and I’ll congratulate you for using language to subtly draw attention to their differences.

    Finally, I think the criticizers are on firmer ground if they’re criticizing use of this in LotR fan fiction, especially of characters who have a lot of dialog there. This is strongest for hobbits, because Tolkien translated “through their eyes,” as it were. Remove that perspective and your Gondorians can sound less like Tolkien’s. And as for the Silm and especially the Valar… well, the sky’s the limit as far as that’s concerned.

    It’s just a matter of what you’re trying to do, and how deliberate you are in doing it.

    Finally–does there have to be a dichotomy between imitative and transformative? Isn’t all fan fiction to some extent both? And what about those who deliberately want to be imitative *and* transformative?

  18. Dawn says:

    So I think that you can legitimately criticize people’s use of language in fan fiction, but only in the sense of, “are you using this language to achieve a conscious effect?”

    I’d agree with that. My gripe is with the people who think that every Tolkien fanfic’s effect must be to take readers back into the world he created by imitating him as much as possible. :)

    Finally–does there have to be a dichotomy between imitative and transformative? Isn’t all fan fiction to some extent both? And what about those who deliberately want to be imitative *and* transformative?

    I do think that a person can write a transformative work while using a style that very much aligns with Tolkien’s. For example, I know some authors who write brilliantly in an archaic style and also write incredibly thought-provoking pieces.

    But when I talk about the two camps of “imitative” and “transformative,” I’m talking less about style and more about the author’s purpose. The imitative camp are those I also call the “one more moment in Middle-earth” writers: They write and read fanfic because they want to continue to occupy the world that Tolkien created, in the exact manner that he created it. So anything that feels “un-Tolkien”–whether that be story content or writing style–is not going to serve that purpose for them.

    The transformative folks, on the other hand, want to question and criticize the original works; they seek to read and write stories that allow them to look at the original stories from different perspectives. As I noted above, a story can do this while imitating Tolkien’s style, but I don’t think it can do that while sticking as closely to the content/purpose of his stories as those who want to continue to occupy Arda through fanfic require.

    I don’t think one is a better approach than the other; I’ve just often observed that various corners of the Tolkien fandom sometimes have trouble communicating with each other because of different beliefs about the purpose of fanfic.

  19. Celeritas says:

    Thanks, Dawn.

    And for the record, I was trying to branch into extending the imitation/transformation “divide” to the author’s purpose in general as well, since it seemed to be that you were doing that in the original essay. Initially it had taken up a bigger portion of my comment, but it swiftly devolved into an “I’m trying to do both and nobody reads my stuff waaaaah”-fest so I revised it.

    I agree that there are people who believe that the fandom should be more one than the other, but why can’t a fanfic keep the reader in the purist’s idea of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as it were, while simultaneously expanding her vistas? There are plenty of grey spaces and greyer times that can be explored without directly subverting canon, that can add *new* ideas and complement, not contradict, the old ones. Or do you think that such works will be labeled as transformations by purist readers and consequently be rejected?

    And I realize that I’m doing a lot of strawmanning here: only the brutest transformers contradict canon outright. (I’m thinking that Russian fic in which Aragorn was the puppet of the evil evil elves or something?) Most of the other works I’ve encountered simply offer alternatives that are plausible within the context of Tolkien’s text and the fictional transmission it went through to get to him.

    Quite frankly, these take a LOT more research than any “purist” fic. I don’t mean to insult you or any of those others who take this approach. But not all works that don’t question the veracity of Received Canon (up to and including controversial chestnuts like LACE) are blind; they can still be critical of characters’ actions and explore the unintended consequences of these acts, which the narrator might not have been aware of.

    So how would you characterize, for example, Dreamflower’s Olenard North-Took, who invented that anachronistic symbol of bourgeoisie, the umbrella? Or one of my favorite fics, “The Fairy Wife,” which explains the Tookish Fairy Wife by having a hobbit family migrating west rescue a elf-maiden and explores what the use of osanwe would entail if it’s being practiced by minds that haven’t been properly trained in courtesy? Both of these, and plenty of other of fics that I’ve read, still adhere to the supposed content/purpose of Tolkien, but I didn’t *just* spend “one more moment” in Arda. I learned all sorts of things about the possibilities latent in Arda, that I couldn’t have gotten just through contemplating canon.

    I’d be curious to hear your take on the fic that tries to do both, because I do believe it’s possible. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing.

  20. Dawn says:

    Or do you think that such works will be labeled as transformations by purist readers and consequently be rejected?

    Being about as far from purist as it comes, it’s hard for me to say. :) My stories tend to occupy one big gray area; I wrote a 350,000-word novel, for example, on a time in the life of the Feanorians that is only just implied in the original text. It doesn’t tend to get a positive reaction from those tending toward purism, who seem to feel like the characters are too “OOC” (wouldn’t they have to be, since the most discussed of them in the original text is still only mentioned a few dozen times and never at the ages at which I’ve written them?), but of course, I write in a very narrow niche of the fandom. I can’t say what the reaction in the LotR fandom would be, for example.

    Both of these, and plenty of other of fics that I’ve read, still adhere to the supposed content/purpose of Tolkien, but I didn’t *just* spend “one more moment” in Arda. I learned all sorts of things about the possibilities latent in Arda, that I couldn’t have gotten just through contemplating canon.

    I’d say that these are transformative. They take you past the texts, to explore new possibilities.

    I tend to focus on the questioning/critical aspect of transformative fanfic since this is what I write, but I do think that those stories that push into gray areas, that expand the world beyond the original author’s vision, are also transformative. Even if they adhere to JRRT’s style–even his purpose in writing–they offer more than the comfort of a story well loved and told again in a familiar style that is the imitative camp. (Perhaps they’d be more palatable to a reader in the imitative camp than, say, my admittedly heretical stories. But as you say, they do more than give “just one more moment” in Middle-earth. But it’s hard for me to say for certainty, without doing more concrete research than my own experience, that there is a continuum, although it makes sense that there would be, more in the degree of transformation that the author allows into her story.) They necessarily require invention beyond what is given us by JRRT.

    The best example of imitative fanfic that I can think of I encountered a few years ago when I tried to read all of the First Age stories for the MEFAs. I encountered one story that, as I read it, seemed very familiar … at which point I realized that not only was the author directly retelling me what was in the Silm, but she was even quoting JRRT in places in order to do so. This story had tons of reviews, was clearly liked by many people, and liked well enough by at least one of them to be nominated for a MEFA … but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the appeal. If I wanted to read something like that, I’d just crack open The Silmarillion copy that’s always on my desk and reread the original for the umpteenth time.

    But reading what others were saying about the story, I realized that my reason for reading/writing fanfic and the author’s reason (and, presumably, that of many/most of her readers as well) were different. She would likely be just as puzzled–possibly even offended–by my stories as I was by hers.

    I think many readers probably like a bit of both stories. I doubt there’s many of us occupying either extreme. (I’m probably one of them. I need a degree of “transformativeness” in order to enjoy a story. If I want to hear JRRT’s vision, I read JRRT’s books. But to each her own. :) )

Leave a Reply