Saturday, November 12, 2016

REVIEW (Part 1): Special Issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3

Still reeling from the shock and horror of last Tuesday, but academic blogs, as they say, go on. Issue 3.3 of The Journal of Tolkien Research was a special issue dedicated to adaptations (primarily game and popular culture adaptations) of Tolkien's work. I gotta say, I really liked the general concept of the special issue. Although I myself have very little interest in ever writing an article on popular culture, it is still something that can tell us a lot about audiences and how those audiences look at and view Tolkien. It's a very new area of research and maybe might help define the identity of JTR, carving out a critical space that Tolkien Studies seems unlikely to delve into.

Any critical comments I might have are very minor, and they relate to typos and some inconsistent citation.  (JTR's style guide for citation seems both crazy and unhelpful.) But I would like to start this review on what may be one of the best -- if not the best -- article on Tolkien written this year, although with the obvious caveat that the 2016 issue of Tolkien Studies has not come out yet. Because the article is so fantastic, I'll spend a lot of space on it.

Walls-Thumma, Dawn M. “Attainable Vistas: Historical Bias in Tolkien’s Legendarium as a Motive for Transformative Fanworks.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-61. Web.

One of the important unexplored areas of criticism on Tolkien, I believe, centers on examining Tolkien's use of historiography. My upcoming article in TS looks at this issue, and it looks like Walls-Thumma has had the exact same idea, although she attacks it from a completely different angle. The first half of her essay is the most intellectually stimulating -- DWT looks at the issue of historiography in the published Silmarillion in-depth, ultimately claiming that most of the extant text gets filtered through Pengolodh's perspective. 

The second half is less relevant for my own research interests, but nonetheless well-thought-out and significant. Here, DWT looks at how fan fiction responds to the issue of historical bias. The correlation -- using real honest to goodness empirical evidence! -- isn't as strong as DWT hoped, but it's still there. Perhaps the most surprisingly revelation to me was that 85% of fan fiction is produced and consumed by female fans.

First Half

Walls-Thumma begins by quoting E. H. Carr’s well-known statement that the first question history readers should ask themselves “should not be with the facts it contains but with the historian who write it” (qtd. in 1). What comes next is a systematic analysis of historical bias in Tolkien’s legendarium followed by a discussion of fan fiction, which often attempts to handle this bias. 

For the fans, the big question is the degree to which they’re free to deviate from the published authorized texts, with people taking the range of options from absolute freedom to nearly none. The central question is one of authority, and “Tolkien fan fiction writers differ in the amount of deviation from the source text they are willing to tolerate in a successful Tolkien-based fan fiction” (3), which affects the forums in which they can share their work on-line.

For my money, the best discussion comes about historiography. As in ancient sources, the pseudohistory of The Silmarillion ascribes single causes to events (4), and these “singular causes mimic the approach taken to history by ancient writers and indicate the possibility of historical bias” (4). Her method for detecting bias is as follows:

  • (A) Subjects either lavishly treated or skipped over entirely suggest positive or negative bias, respectively.
  • (B) Descriptions of characters or events that defy credibility, either due to lack of first-hand knowledge or positive/negative emotional coloring. In such cases, “the historian has not achieved the level of objectivity needed to rise above his personal and cultural preferences and is using historiography to manipulate readers’ perceptions of those subjects to better align with his own” (4).
    • (Incidentally, I employ both these methods in my own article on The Silmarillion.)

 In particular, although Alex Lewis argues for the House of Elrond as a source of bias, DWT argues for Pengolodh from Gondolin as offering the primary vantage point. Considering that Tolkien alternately ascribed various texts to Rúmil or Pengolodh, this shows “that Tolkien deliberately considered and assigned which loremaster was most appropriate for each text in his pseudohistory” (6). As a man in a hidden, xenophobic realm, Pengolodh must have come by his sources second-hand, usually through oral tradition. Since he also relied on a relatively autocratic ruler like Turgon, he likely favored Turgon’s points of view — hence, “Turgon’s staunch hatred of the House of Fëanor would have created an intellectual climate that did not exactly encourage looking too sympathetically upon the motives and actions of the Fëanorians,” and it’s doubtful that Pengolodh would have risen high “in Turgon’s esteem for challenging the status quo” (11). 

Thus, also, “Living in an isolated community that was highly partisan on the subject of certain people, Pengolodh was steeped in a worldview that attributed many of the struggles of the First Age to the greed and pride of Feanor and his sons and the downfall of Gondolin to a series of unwise and malicious decisions by Aredhel, Eöl, and Maeglin” (11). We are thus “left to conclude that most of that history was compiled by a loremaster who directly witnessed almost none of it and relied upon sources who corroborated his deep cultural bias” (12).

Next, DWT counts the number of times characters get mentioned by name in the text -- again, a great means of detecting bias in my opinion. She finds that only “one of those top ten slots is held by a member of the House of Fëanor: Fëanor himself” (13). She agrees with Lewis's observation about Fingon's deeds that the “surprisingly small amount of attention [given to him] in the texts” is due to his close affiliation with the House of Feanor. Pengolodh also gives overwhelming attention to “the three hidden realms: Gondolin, Doriath, and Nargothrond” (15) and also Nevrast, which is only surprising until we recall that that is Pengolodh’s birthplace. 

Also, although the text makes clear that the Fëanorians took the most dangerous lands of Beleriand, the ones most likely to be invaded by Melkor, the “[h]idden cities that Pengolodh could not have visited himself earn sumptuous descriptive detail while Fëanorian realms that admitted high levels of traffic go unrepresented” (16). 

“For the sons of Fëanor in particular, the blank space in the text that represents much of their existence in the history of the First Age only serves to throw into relief their malicious deeds at the end of the First Age . . . and nullify their positive contributions to the history of the First Age” (16).

Second Half

Fan fiction, therefore, tends to incorporate significant point of view shifts. DWT looked specifically at Silmarillion-based fan fiction, and then she conducted a survey of Tolkien fan fiction readers (yes, real empirical research!) (1,052 total valid participants). The most astounding discovery, at least for me, was that 88.5% of these readers identified as women. According to the information, few identified “correcting [negative] historical bias” as a motive, but she found a like-motive expressed in the answering of other survey questions. “That three archives—including the two archives between the most Silmarillion-base fan fiction—showed moderate correlations between historical bias and a character’s popularity suggests that, while certainly not a universal for all Tolkien fan fiction writers and communities, historical bias does motivate the creation of fan fiction for many writers” (34).

“David Carr’s exhortation to use historiography to give voice to people marginalized or erased by history is very similar to the use many Tolkien fan fiction writers make of historical bias as an entry point for their stories” (36). Henry “Jenkins’ theories presented fanworks not as an act of trespass but of shifting authority from the author alone to including readers and fans as well” (36). Given the gender composition of fan fic writers, many of these writers tend to be aware of gender bias most of all. “When a male characters garners the favor of the narrator, fan fiction writers tend to lose interest in his character. This is not true of women characters" (40). Overall, “the presence of historical bias in the texts sanctions the shift of authority from the author (and his fallible narrator) to the fan” (41).

All in all, a brilliant essay.


  1. Hey, I'm the Dawn Walls-Thumma of whose work you so kindly speak in this review, and I wanted to thank you for your review and your kind words. I'm glad you found something of value in the article. (And to find someone else who appreciates empirical research! I began my academic life in the social sciences, so it's almost reflexive to want that kind of evidence.) The historical bias section was actually cut almost in half from what I original submitted to JTR, and there is data that I ended up not including in that final article. I'm presenting it at the Vermont Tolkien Conference in a month and hope to publish the whole thing later this year.

    Thanks again!

    1. Hey Dawn -- no problem, it was my pleasure! I'll be interested in seeing the rest of your article. Vermont's a bit of a hike for me, but let me know when it gets published in full. Take care!