Often I will see a fandom challenge or a call for papers, and my first thought is YES I WANT TO DO THAT. Which is generally immediately follow by a mixture of terror and ennui because I have no idea what I want to do for it, and at that precise moment, it seems I have zero expertise in anything or nothing new to say and why should I even bother.
For a lot of writers, the task of just beginning–finding that Goldilocks topic that isn’t too broad or too specific but just right–is the hardest part of the process. I know it is for me. Once I have my topic and I begin writing, then the fun begins. This is the stage, for me, where I feel the most adrift and the most overwhelmed with doubts about my own skills as a writer and knowledge as a Tolkien scholar. I hope that my experience digging myself out of that hole will help others reach the sunlight and come away from the edge of the abyss to create a piece of meta they are proud of.
Write what you know. This is one of the mantras of fiction writing that I detest because it has produced reams of stories about navel-gazing academics and middle-class professionals and somehow contributed to the idea that speculative fiction is easier or less serious than so-called literary fiction. BUT in nonfiction writing, I think it is key, at least when you’re writing your first piece or operating under a tight deadline.
I make this mistake all the time. I see the aforementioned challenge or call for papers and immediately think of some grand idea that I know almost nothing about and that would take months if not years to master. Cue despair! It’s easy to fall into the fallacy of believing I don’t know anything about Tolkien. The problem, however, isn’t me; it’s my approach. There are certain topics I have been reading and thinking about for years–sometimes more than a decade! They have become so comfortable and familiar to me that they feel almost worn out. My perspective here is wrong, though: They are familiar and comfortable–TO ME. Few if any of my audience will find them nearly as familiar, much less worn out.
So this is where to begin. What have you been thinking about for years? Don’t be afraid to turn to your fan fiction. Do you have a lot of stories about a particular character? Then why not write about that character? Do you write often about a particular people or time period? A specific issue or theme, like power or death or hope? Is there a source that you use constantly–one of the texts in the History of Middle-earth, one of Tolkien’s letters, one of his lesser-known books or essays–when researching and writing your stories? Is there a Tolkien-related topic that you know so well that you’re quoting about it off the top of your head? Do you often make connections in your stories between the legendarium and our real world, whether Celtic mythology or feminism or botany? This is where you should be looking to begin.
Identify your purpose. Meta generally serves one of two purposes:
1) It is informative. It is meant to serve as a resource for other writers or to teach other fans something about the legendarium that they may not already know. In informative writing, you’re aiming to put information about a topic all together in one place or to break it down or organize it so that it is easier to understand. Examples of informative writing include a biography of Húrin, a compilation of information about all of the horses in The Lord of the Rings, or a summary of the Akallabêth.
2) It is persuasive. You are trying to convince your reader to see things the way that you do. Persuasive writing may necessarily include informative material as well; for example, I might review what we know about Nerdanel’s character before making the case that she is one of Tolkien’s strongest and most unappreciated women.
Think about which purpose best fits your topic. This will help you to focus your research and, eventually, your writing.
Think of your topic as a question. This is a trick I use often with my students. It’s easy to start writing on a subject and suddenly find yourself in the wilderness with no familiar landmarks in sight. You were writing about Tolkien’s cosmogony, and suddenly you find yourself ranting about the general misuse of religion in Tolkien scholarship. (This is purely an example, of course, and in no way based on personal experience. *ahem*) If you phrase your topic as a question and type it in a large bold font at the start of your draft, then you can constantly refer back and ask yourself: Does what I’m writing now help to answer that question? Or is what I’m writing now going to lead immediately into something that will answer that question? If you can’t say yes to either question, then back up to where you can and resume writing from there. Using this approach, it’s a lot harder to fool yourself into thinking that your tangent is actually relevant to your topic (like, sure, religion and cosmogony are often related, so of course that little digression on the overreliance on Christianity in Tolkien scholarship is totally still on-topic).
Here are some examples of topics written as questions:
- What connections does Tolkien’s Ainulindalë share with other creation myths from around the world, and how is it different? (See how it’s harder to justify my little rant once I phrase my topic as a question?)
- Why was Maglor the only son of Fëanor who survived the First Age?
- How are depictions of Arwen in fan fiction influenced by her portrayal in the movies and her portrayal in the books?
- In what ways do “Tookish” characteristics differ from Hobbit culture overall?
- Was it just of the Valar to ask Ilúvatar to reshape the world after the Númenóreans broke the Ban?
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get a Goldilocks topic right away. You know Goldilocks from the folktale: She didn’t like things that were extreme but “just right.” Ideally, your topic will be like Goldilocks: not too long, not too short, but just right.
Let me confess that I am horrible in finding a Goldilocks topic. My thesis advisor kept calling it my dissertation because, as she pointed out, at some schools, it would have been. Not long after, I received an editor’s comments on a journal article telling me that the topic could easily be a book; I ended up cutting that article nearly in half during revision. I have a bad problem with biting off more than I can chew but trying to chew it anyway.
Be open to adjusting your question if it becomes obvious that your question can be answered either with too little or too much for your purposes. This is something I’ve been deliberately working on as a writer and finding that it saves me a lot of angst. You often won’t know if your question can be answered in the time or space you have to answer it until you begin writing the answer to it. There’s nothing wrong with deciding partway through that you need to narrow your topic or open it up by rewriting your question. Keep an open mind: that question is not carved in stone!
101 Tolkien Meta Topic Ideas
Okay, so if you’re still stuck, here are one hundred and one possible approaches to Tolkien meta. One hundred and one seems like a rather awesome number, but the list will still be woefully incomplete because it still comes from just one brain with all the limitations and biases that brains have. Feel free to share additional approaches in the comments!
- treatment of a character, episode, or topic in film
- differences between the book and the adaptation
- reasons for particular changes in the adaptation
- evaluation of the effectiveness of an adaptation
- use of visual elements to communicate ideas and themes from the books
- use of music/auditory elements to communicate ideas and themes from the books
- why a particular actor was a great/poor choice for a character
- why a particular location was a great/poor choice for a setting
- anything on an adaptation not by Peter Jackson!
- how the story might change if a key plot point changed
- how the story might change if one of Tolkien’s earlier versions were used
- how the story might change if told from a different character or group’s point of view
- how Tolkien’s personal history influenced an aspect of his work (Mommy issues, Daddy issues, views of women, etc)
- what influenced Tolkien and reflects in his work
- biographical evidence for Tolkien’s opinion on a subject
- summary of biographical information related to a specific topic (Tolkien’s relationship with his daughter, ideas about teaching, experiences in war, etc)
- a biography of the character
- inferences about a character about whom we know little
- why the character made a particular difficult or controversial decision
- how the character evolved in Tolkien’s various drafts
- why the character is underappreciated by most fans
- how the character tends to be depicted in fanworks
- differences between the character in the movies and in the books
- defense of a character Tolkien portrayed negatively
- criticism of a character Tolkien portrayed positively
- history and development of a particular character group or culture
- inferences about a character group about which we know very little
- political attributes of a character group (leadership, power, hierarchy, etc)
- social behavior within a character group (marriage, sex, friendship, class, etc)
- weapons and warfare practiced by a cultural group
- clothing and fashion of a group
- calendars, holidays, and rituals of a group
- history or cause of conflicts between groups
- why a group held a particular opinion/belief or made a particular decision
- depiction and significance of characters occupying a specific role (mothers, healers, kings, etc)
- animals in Middle-earth
- hierarchy and oppression between groups
Fandom and Fan Fiction
- how a character or episode is interpreted/depicted in fanworks (fiction, art, cosplay, RPGs, etc)
- fanons related to a character, culture, episode, etc
- argue for or against a prevalent fanon
- changing ideas in fandom on a character or topic
- history of a fannish institution or website
- history of a debate or episode within fandom history
- pre-Internet/non-Internet fandom
- fandom subcultures
- fandom trends (slash, femslash, Angbang, etc)
- fandom norms/traditions/conventions
- transformative works on a topic (homosexuality in Middle-earth, alternate ideas on the role of tech and science, etc)
- differences between the Tolkien fandom or fanfic community and fandom/fanfic in general
- detail the importance of a specific location
- influence of a geographical feature (mountains, river, coastline, etc) on a culture or event
- inferences about climate in a particular region/location
- inferences about flora and/or fauna in a particular region/location
- use of symbolism
- use of metaphor and figures of speech
- stylistic elements that create mood and tone
- analyze a poem or a song
- analyze a prose passage that you find particularly effective or moving
- key conflicts and their significance to the meaning of the texts
- influence of point of view on the texts
Literature, History, and Myth
- mythological influences on a character or episode
- literary influences on a character or episode
- connections between Middle-earth and Modern-earth history
- influence of a particular historical culture group (Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Norse, etc)
- who/what influenced Tolkien and how
- who/what was influenced by Tolkien and how
- archetypes (hero’s journey, great flood, underworld, etc)
- influences of a literary genre (epic, romance, lay, etc)
- feminist/queer/postcolonial/etc interpretation of a character or episode
- how the story as a whole or an episode comments on an aspect of modern life (technology, environmental degradation, changing social/gender roles, etc)
- thorny questions related to sexism, racism, etc
- teaching with Tolkien
- the books’ relevance in the 21st century
- analyze the texts, a character, or an episode using a moral/ethical system that Tolkien didn’t follow
Names and Languages
- theories on the meaning of a name or word
- aspects of a language of Middle-earth (development, grammar, fictional history, etc)
- connections between Middle-earth and ancient Modern-earth languages
- what a language shows about the culture that speaks it
- alphabets and writing
- word lists for a language or related to a topic
- creating names in a particular language
- character group’s beliefs related to death, afterlife, rebirth, etc
- metaphysical questions
- the nature of good and evil in Middle-earth
- the role of fate and free will
- the nature and role of God, the Valar, and the Ainur
- creation, subcreation, and creativity
- justice on Arda
- review of material related to a particular scientific field (flowers of Middle-earth, constellations, etc)
- application of a scientific field or theory to Middle-earth (botany, meteorology, psychology, etc)
- solve a scientific dilemma from the texts
Texts and Canon
- summary and analysis of a chapter or text
- an exhaustive review of everything on a particular subject (swords, horses, music, exile, etc)
- details on and the significance of one of the important objects in the legendarium
- review or argue in favor of one of Tolkien’s contradictory ideas (origin of Orcs, Balrogs and wings, Gil-galad’s parentage, etc)
- trace the development of a particular story, character, or concept across multiple drafts
- the history and editorial construction of a text (book, essay, chapter, episode, etc)
- allusions in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to Silmarillion mythology
- how a story or episode shows a particular theme (love, loyalty, power, death, etc)
- what a character or group illustrates about the moral or theme of the book(s)
- advocate for the importance of a theme in the legendarium
Art credit: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1863-1935) (ArtDaily.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons