It’s been a while (too long!) since I posted Tolkien Fanfic Survey data. I’m not going to make my usual mistake of promising regular posts at a certain interval, but while I’m on summer break, I’d like to get more of this information out there.
This week, I took a look at the sources Tolkien fan fiction writers use when crafting their stories.
If you prefer the same information in text form, you can find it–and discussion of the data–below the jump.
The data on sources for Tolkien-based fan fiction punctures a couple of myths about fan fiction: 1) that fan fiction writers really only care about throwing characters in bed together and don’t care about their sources and 2) particular to Tolkienfic, the specter of the movieverse fan.
Tolkien Fanfic Writers Are Well-Read
On the first point, the data shows that Tolkien fanfic writers are well-read. They work with multiple books, including the challenging posthumously published and “supplemental” texts, and the longer they write Tolkienfic, the more books they are likely to pick up and work with. Here are the percentages of Tolkienfic authors in my survey who used* each source in their fan fiction (n = 640):
|The Lord of the Rings||89%|
|History of Middle-earth||52%|
*Note too the word used here. I did not ask which sources authors had read but which they used in their fanfic. In all likelihood, the number who had read these texts would be higher, possibly much higher, if I’d asked about that.
Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was the most-used text as a source for fan fiction. But the data for the posthumously published books surprised even me, as a Silmarillion writer: 78% of authors used The Silmarillion and just over half used either Unfinished Tales or The History of Middle-earth.
When I venture into the broader Tolkien fandom, my impression is that readership of these books is not nearly so high. (Please note that these are impressions, not backed up by data!) It’s not uncommon to encounter a decades-long Tolkien fan who has not read The Silmarillion, either because they have little interest or because they can’t get through it. And it’s rare to meet a fan whose not a fanficcer whose read one of what I call the supplementary texts: the collections of drafts, notes, and unfinished works that comprise Unfinished Tale and The History of Middle-earth. That’s not to say that these fans are doing fandom wrong, just to point out that one cannot assume that Tolkien fans will necessarily seek to read everything he published, and “Tolkien fan” usually means “has read LotR and The Hobbit.” In the scholarship, the same is true. Increasingly, Tolkien scholars are addressing The Silmarillion and the supplementary texts, but it’s not uncommon to find scholarship that ignore these completely, especially older scholarship.
Pure Movieverse Authors Don’t Really Exist
As most people know, I became a Tolkien fan because of the Lord of the Rings films, which encouraged me to read the books–including The Silmarillion–and The Silmarillion prompted me to begin writing fan fiction. When I entered the Tolkien fan fiction community back in 2004, hot on the heels of the LotR film trilogy and after a mass influx of new fans,** movieverse fans were a source of angst and panic in the fanfic community. Authors who thought the Elves really fought at Helm’s Deep and didn’t know who Glorfindel was and melted over Figwit instead of Faramir as was proper were looked down upon, and archive policies often aimed (explicitly or not) at excluding them. The term canatic was popularized by my friend JunoMagic at this time for a reason: the attitude toward canon errors–and movieverse fans by implication–suggested that fanfic writers were unspooling and rewriting Tolkien’s beloved books one blond-haired Legolas at a time.
**I have not crunched the numbers of date of entry into writing Tolkienfic using the complete data set. However, the preliminary data set that I presented at Mythmoot III shows a spike in fanfic participation around the release date of the LotR films–even a decade later and after many of these fans had likely long departed from the fandom! (See page 3.) The preliminary data set has stayed pretty close to the full data set whenever I’ve compared the two, so I see no reason not to distrust it now … although I will get on the ball and make/publish a graph for entry data using the full data set.
While I can never go back in time and survey fan fiction writers at the close of the LotR film trilogy, this survey was run during the tail end of the Hobbit film trilogy, and so the results are, I think, nonetheless illustrative. The survey was also heavily promoted on Tumblr, where there was more Hobbit film fandom activity that on the other Tolkien sites that promoted the survey (not as heavily), so I suspect I’ve captured more Hobbit film fans than I would have if I ran the survey again today or if it hadn’t received this level of attention on Tumblr. Despite this, the survey suggests that pure movieverse fans are exceedingly rare. Only three authors out of the 640 who responded to this question used only the films as sources. That’s less than a half a percent–or, put another way, you’d have to assemble 200 Tolkienfic writers in a room to have a chance of finding one writing only movieverse fic. (And based on what my data shows about the progression of most Tolkienfic authors through the texts, it’s possible that you wouldn’t even find them at all today: that they would have moved on to writing bookverse as well or simply stopped writing Tolkienfic.)
This doesn’t mean that Tolkienfic writers don’t use the films–the data show that a majority of them do–or don’t start out inspired by the films or writing mostly/entirely based on them, but this is a short-lived state, and those writers who stick with Tolkien fanfic overwhelmingly read and begin incorporating the books into their stories.
The Progression of Source Texts
As I was working on the data for this week’s post, one statistic caught my eye: 78% of writers who used The Hobbit as a source (n = 369) also used either Unfinished Tales or The History of Middle-earth. In fact, this group used those two supplementary sources (UT and HoMe) more than any other group I looked at, even Silmarillion writers. (73% of authors who identified The Silmarillion as a source [n = 365] also used UT and/or the HoMe.)
But when I looked at the authors who had listed The Hobbit as a source and removed those authors who also listed The Silmarillion (n = 103), I found the lowest use of those supplementary sources: Only 17% of Hobbit writers who did not use The Silmarillion listed UT and/or the HoMe.
This suggested to me that Tolkienfic writers tend to enter at the same place in the sources and then follow a progression through the sources. Looking at data on how long writers in each respective group had been writing supported this progression.
There are two points of entry. Some authors begin writing fanfic because of (and at least partly based on) the films. This was the group of authors who wrote using The Hobbit but not The Silmarillion: 95% of them also used the Peter Jackson Hobbit trilogy as a source. These authors who were using The Hobbit but not The Silmarillion had written Tolkienfic for a median average of three years.
(If you’re wondering about those three authors who had not yet progressed to the books at all, one of them had been writing for two years, and two of them had been writing for one year. That’s a tiny sample size, but the median average of that is one year.)
The other point of entry is The Lord of the Rings books. Authors who used LotR but not The Silmarillion as a source also wrote for a median average of three years. These authors used the supplementary texts the second least with only 20% using UT and/or HoMe. In the group of Hobbit authors, the low use of the supplementary texts makes sense, as these texts have relatively little to offer an author working primarily with The Hobbit. The same is not true for LotR authors, however: Several chapters in Unfinished Tales and four volumes of The History of Middle-earth pertain primarily to LotR. Yet this group of LotR authors did not progress to UT and the HoMe.
Instead, authors interested in moving beyond The Lord of the Rings next delve into The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. It is important to note that, aside from filmverse fans, The Hobbit is a secondary text and few authors create fan fiction based on the sole inspiration of the Hobbit book. In fact, only one participant in the entire study identified The Hobbit book as the only source they used.
Moving into The Silmarillion appears to be the point where authors pass the gateway to geekdom, as I called it in my infographic. Reading The Silmarillion is the only factor I could identify that predicted a high level of use of UT and the HoMe. Silmarillion authors had been writing a median average of five years, and they appear to have used those extra two years to read and study deeply enough of other texts in the legendarium to begin incorporating them into fanfic. Writing for a median average of six years were those authors who identified The Silmarillion and UT and/or the HoMe as sources also, suggesting that authors are working with The Silmarillion for long before wanting the extra information these supplementary texts offer; Silmfic authors progress pretty quickly to using UT and the HoMe in their stories as well. (It helps that one can use these texts without having to read them in their entirety, unlike the more novelistic texts.)
What this suggests is that filmverse authors who write Tolkien fanfic for more than a short time progress quickly into using the books. Some authors begin with the books: usually LotR. And while not all authors progress through all of the books, a great many of them do, regardless of whether they start with filmverse fanfic or LotR bookverse fanfic. Granted, this survey probably did not capture filmverse fans who wrote for a brief duration before losing interest. A friend of mine once compared most media fandoms to a flash fire: intense but brief before authors move on to the next show or film to capture their attention. It’s possible that my survey missed these “flash fire” authors or that they wouldn’t have been invested enough in the Tolkien fandom to feel like I wanted their opinions on this survey. But the Tolkien fanfic community in general (like a lot of bookverse fandoms) resists this flash-fire mentality, which isn’t surprising given the amount of commitment that the source material requires.
A Note on Other Sources
Some may have wondered what happened to Tolkien’s other Ardaverse books, especially The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Children of Húrin. Neither of these were on the list participants could choose from, although they could add them in if they wanted, and some did–but only a few. Other participants added various secondary sources, such as fan-run websites, discussion groups, wikis, and social media sites like Tumblr. Others specifically mentioned that other fans’ headcanons and fanons were sources they used.
At first, I dismissed these responses under the assumption that these participants hadn’t understood what I was asking. I wanted to know which of Tolkien’s books they used to write fanfic. Didn’t they get that? And then I realized that I was very much framing my “correct” response to the question–which asked simply “What sources do you base your fan fiction on?”–from the vantage point of a scholar, not a fan: someone who attaches greater authority to the author and other experts (like Christopher Tolkien or Humphrey Carpenter) rather than fans. (This was not an comfortable realization for me to come to, believe me!) But participants who took the time to note that they used other fans’ interpretations in forming their own were shifting authority precisely as fan scholars have suggested fanfic writers do, away from the author and scholars/experts and toward fellow fans or democratic concepts like “fanon.” If I run this survey again, I would add not only the Letters and Children of Húrin to the list but might dig deeper into the idea of fandom authority. I asked some questions about this on the survey, so I will hopefully be able to crunch and publish some of that data in the weeks to come.
Tolkien fanfic authors are an exceedingly well-read bunch. They use texts that not only veteran Tolkien fans tend to avoid, like The Silmarillion, but routinely work with texts that many scholars have been content to ignore, like Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth.
As I noted above, this doesn’t mean that fanfic authors are “better fans” (and it certainly doesn’t mean that fans who don’t work all the way through the progression–39% of authors did not use UT or the HoMe in their stories–are somehow inferior or producing poorer-quality stories … although the median years writing for this group was only two years, so they may have simply not gotten to these more difficult texts yet). However, I think it reveals how purposes for reading differ between “Tolkien fans” and the smaller subset of “Tolkien fanfic writers.” All Tolkien fans begin reading for the pleasure of inhabiting such a richly imagined world, but Tolkien fanfic writers also crave information. They want details about characters and the world Tolkien built so that they can write deeper stories. This leads them to pick up texts where the payoff when reading for pleasure alone–the title alone of Unfinished Tales is off-putting in that regard–is relatively low. Because they are not reading solely for pleasure or to become immersed in Middle-earth (hard to do when you’re being interrupted every few paragraphs by Christopher Tolkien bearing commentary!) but also to mine for information: They are reading more like scholars.
They are also falling victim to what Tolkien called in one of his letters (#247) “unattainable vistas.” The Lord of the Rings, where most fans start when reading Tolkien, provides a story that is immensely satisfying on its own. If one can resist the hints at a deeper world, then one can end there. But progressing on even to The Hobbit, the horizons broaden, and those unattainable vistas become harder to ignore. The relatively skeletal Silmarillion provides not nearly the sense of satisfaction, and that is why it becomes the gateway: to achieve that deeper understanding requires going into Tolkien’s drafts, notes, and unfinished ideas in UT and the HoMe.
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
You may use, share, repost, or reprint the statistics and information in this post in any nonprofit project. If you do so, you MUST credit me with my name (Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic/professional contexts or Dawn Felagund in fannish contexts) and link to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category on my blog: http://themidhavens.net/heretic_loremaster/category/tolkien-fan-fiction-survey/
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See the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost for more information on this project, permissions, et cetera, et cetera.