Fellowship of the Ring
Tolkien Fandom and Peter Jackson's LOTR
Originally appeared in Wired, October 2001
Fellowship of the Ring: Tolkien Fandom and Peter Jackson’s LOTR
In early 2000, young Jonny Grindlay and his dad drove down to the studio backlots of Wellington, New Zealand, to see what they could see. The 15-year-old was fascinated by Kiwi writer-director Peter Jackson’s production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, one of the most lovedand most purchasedbooks ever. That morning, peering through a fence, Grindlay spied a large spiked wheel sitting in plain view, and he snapped a shot of the prop with his dad’s digital camera. The boy soon posted the image on his fledgling Web site, the Realm of the Ring, one of hundreds of fan sites devoted to tracking Jackson’s opus.
And so began the mystery of the “wizard-kabob.”
Halfway around the planet, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Matthew Bass was scouring the Net for fresh news about the three movies that Jackson was concurrently shooting, the first of which, The Fellowship of the Ring, will premiere on December 19. Chancing on Grindlay’s snapshot, he immediately reposted the image on his more established TolkienMovies site. Even the blurriest spy photos were valuable in those days, when Jackson’s shoot had just begun, but Bass recognized that Grindlay’s image was something special. Avid Tolkien readers know LOTR the way preachers know the Bible, and nowhere in the Oxford don’s dense and detailed 1,200-page trilogy is there any mention of a spiked wheel.
Fans chewed over the meaning of the prop, which one wag at the Tolkien Online Web site dubbed the RSWDor “round spiked wheely-dealy.” But the forums didn’t really start buzzing until August, when New Zealand’s Evening Post published an unauthorized photo of a disheveled wizard skewered on what was presumably the same spiked wheel. The Post‘s suggestion that the wizard was the famous Gandalf was rejected by fans, who decided that the most likely candidate was the corrupt wizard Saruman, played by Christopher Lee in the film. At least Lee’s famous Dracula movies explained the spike through the chestprecisely the sort of corny in-joke that Jackson, the director of a number of funny horror movies, would make.
Some turned to Ian McKellen to clear up the mess. “No, it’s not me,” wrote McKellen on his Web site, which hosts an ongoing chat between fans and the actor who plays Gandalf. “Nor, as some have speculated, is it Christopher Lee.” This claim confused many people, though a few astute commentators noted that the often cryptic McKellen had said nothing about Lee’s stunt double. Then the indefatigable spies at TheOneRing.Net dug up a call sheet indicating that the bearded wizard was indeed Saruman. Others became convinced that the whole thing was a hoaxa joke made by Jackson for a blooper reel or, perhaps, as a red herring to dangle before snooping fans.
Saruman’s fate is not revealed until late in Tolkien’s tale, so the mystery of the wizard-kabob will not be fully resolved until the third film, The Return of the King, is released in December 2003. (The second installment, The Two Towers, will come out Christmas 2002.) But one thing’s for sure: Tolkien enthusiasts have the potential to make Jackson’s movie trilogy bigger than George Lucas’ original Star Wars triptych. Tens of millions of people have read LOTR, and it regularly tops reader polls as the best book of the 20th century. Many have read it dozens of times.
Currently, Jackson is hunkered down in a Wellington editing room piecing together The Fellowship of the Ring from thousands of hours of Middle-earth footage shot over a 15-month period. He knows that whatever he comes up with must appeal to people who don’t know hobbits from marmots. To that end, he has streamlined the story, pumped up the characters, and employed state-of-the-art effects. But Jackson’s trilogy will not become a blockbuster without also appealing to hardcore Tolkien readerswho tend to be a discriminating bunch.
Tolkien enthusiasm is the champagne of fandoms. Despite superficial similarities, Middle-earthheads do not compare with Trekkers and Star Warriors. For one thing, Tolkien fans have been around a lot longerpeople fell in love with Middle-earth when Lucas was still piloting go-karts. As readers of prose, Tolkien aficionados tend to go deeper than movie and TV fans. People across the globe analyze and speak Tolkien’s invented languages, reconstruct his immense genealogies, and study the reams and reams of Middle-earth lore like literary archaeologists. Others enjoy more typically fannish activities, bringing Tolkien’s world to life through painting, gaming, calligraphy, music, and live-action role-play. These people are having fun, but they are not kidding around. And now a $270 million Ring cycle has been made with them, at least in part, in mind.
J.R.R. Tolkien gave the world its first glimpse of Middle-earth in 1937, when The Hobbit became the Harry Potter of its day. But The Lord of the Rings trilogy, published almost two decades later, was no children’s book. Besides its high, mythic style, the book’s hobbit heroes move through a much larger and darker Middle-earth than The Hobbit depicted, a world suffused with as much melancholy as magic. As the evil lord Sauron musters his army of orcs and ringwraiths in the land of Mordor, the hobbit Frodo joins a small, ragtag fellowship in the faint hope of destroying a magical ring of power that has come into his possession. Sauron desperately wants the Ring, which will give him mastery over Middle-earth, and Frodo must sneak into the blasted land of Mordor in order to toss the item into the volcano from which it was forged.
Following the release of the final volume of the trilogy in 1955, the poet W.H. Auden called Tolkien’s work a masterpiece comparable to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but the famous American critic Edmund Wilson wrote it off as “juvenile trash.” Though the critical tide is beginning to turn, most academics continue to dismiss the book as puerile and reactionary. “The hostility is still there,” says Tom Shippey, a onetime Oxford professor who recently published an artful defense titled J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. “There are a lot of self-appointed experts in literature who feel it is their right to select what is to be read. It’s annoying to them to find that readers don’t do what they say.”
One thing most critics don’t understand is that LOTR is more than a story. It’s a portal into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the most realized imaginary realm in the history of the fantastic. For millions of contemporary readers, Middle-earth serves the function that Eden once did for the common man, or that Dante’s Inferno did for the literate elite: It has become a collective map of a moral universe, a fabulous landscape that, in its depth and detail, floats just beyond the fields we know. Many fans would heartily agree with Margaret Howes, a 73-year-old veteran of Tolkien fandom and the guest of honor at the recent Bree Moot Tolkien convention in Minnesota: “Reading The Lord of the Rings is like looking into another world, a real world.”
Tolkien explained his method in the 1939 essay “On Fairy-stories.” He wrote that a skillful creator of fantasy “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: It accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.” Tolkien called them Secondary Worlds, but today we would call them, with a little metaphoric license, virtual realities. And Middle-earth remains the original and supreme VR, the ultimate imaginative simulation. Like today’s VR and game designers, Tolkien knew that successful Secondary Worlds were not wild flights of fancy, but products of consistent detail and clever techniquewhat he described as an “elvish craft” capable of suspending the disbelief of “both designer and spectator.”
If Middle-earth is an immersive simulation, then the code it runs is Tolkien’s invented languages, especially Quenya and Sindarin, which were spoken by the elves and provide most of the world’s place-names. Tolkien tinkered with his languages throughout his life, and this “mad hobby” lay at the core of his creative activity. In a famous letter, he explained that when it came to his fiction, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” And because Tolkien was an Oxford philologist, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and other Northern European tongues, his languages were exceptionally realistic, featuring consistent roots, inflections, and the sort of linguistic drifts that crop up over time.
This sense of verisimilitude was vital to Tolkien, who wanted people to “get inside this story and take it (in a sense) as an actual history.” To this end, Tolkien fleshed out Middle-earth with an exquisitely crafted topography; a rich cultural ecology of elves, humans, dwarves, orcs, and hobbits; and an immense historical backstory published posthumously, and only in part, as The Silmarillion. He spent countless hours working on genealogies, maps, and the appendixes that lard The Return of the King. To plot his story, Tolkien also used elaborate charts to keep track of days of the week, distances traveled, even the phases of the moon.
Such minutiae is fandom’s crack cocaine, and people couldn’t get enough. By 1956, Tolkien was already complaining about readers demanding geological data, Elvish grammars, and lots more maps. Musicians wanted tunes, botanists wanted technical descriptions of flora, historians wanted details about the political structure of Gondor. Though pleased that “so many should clamor for sheer ‘information,’ or ‘lore,'” Tolkien was a bit disturbed as well. Readers named houses or pets or children after his characters, while others sent him artifacts from Middle-earth: goblets, paintings, sculptures, photos of costumes, tape recordings, food, tobacco, tapestries. “I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a vast game is really good,” he wrote, admitting that he personally found such a game fatally attractive.
But the genie was out of the bottle. Tolkien fandom exploded in the 1960s, when badges like FRODO LIVES and GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT popped up on college campuses and the nascent Tolkien Society started serving mushrooms and cider at costumed “hobbit picnics” up and down the West Coast. Hippies in particular grokked the woodland mysticism of Tolkien’s elves, not to mention their fashion sense. But LOTR influenced technologists as well. By the mid-’70s, the printer at SAIL, Stanford’s AI lab, was outfitted with fonts for Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet.
The success of the books spurred a literary (and subliterary) boom in fantasy and science fiction. Like Tolkien’s own work, both genres are deeply concerned with world buildingnot just extrapolating possibilities or spinning yarns, but creating believable, engaging, and self-consistent worlds that absorb the reader. These genres were so popular with hippies, druggies, and computer geeks alike partly because all of these folks wanted, in different ways, to reprogram reality. Nowadays, with the ascendance of computer games, special-effects blockbusters, and online VR, it seems as if one of the most important functions of SF and fantasy novels like Dune and A Wizard of Earthsea was to prepare us for the coming culture of virtuality. And that makes Middle-earth the motherland.
“Tolkien was the first cultural completist,” says Kij Johnson, an SF and fantasy writer milling about the Doubtletree Inn conference room across the street from Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport. “He was the first writer to ask himself, ‘What is my whole world like?'” The question is important to Johnson because she’s here chairing a panel on world building for Norwescon, a major regional SF and fantasy convention. The discussion is designed to help budding writers craft the sort of rich and coherent fictional settings that Tolkien did. “The Lord of the Rings is like a primer for getting into fantasy worlds,” explains panelist Robin Hobb, who says she is reading the book to her 9-year-oldthe perfect age for full mimetic infection.
Although stressing how much fun world creation can be, the panelists warns that it can sink a story. “Sometimes that’s Tolkien’s flaw,” says Johnson. “He understands everything about his world and wants to tell you about it. And the world’s so good that you put up with it. That’s why we all made it through The Silmarillion. ”
Outside the conference room, the costumed hordes strut and mingle. A willowy Goth drags a coffin around on wheels, while a guy in Ice Age furs barks into a cell phone. There are busty wenches, Starfleet dweebs, and Stormtroopers with their name tags stuck on their asses, but there is nary an orc or hobbit to be seen. Everyone knows about LOTR, yet its influence is so pervasive as to be almost invisible. “The Tolkien zone is background radiation for SF fantasy cons, the Society for Creative Anachronism, anywhere you find people in cloaks and vaguely medieval garb,” explains 32-year-old Kelly Doran, who wears a Russian peasant dress and goes by the name Kelda the Incoherent.
LOTR fans are less noticeable than Xena or Star Wars followers because, for many Tolkien readers, the love affair is not particularly social. After all, the more deeply and emotionally one embraces an imagined world, the more private the experience can become. “Most people who get into Tolkien get into it on a very personal level,” explains Omaha Sternberg at the Denny’s across the street from the convention. At a nearby table, a half-dozen portly Klingons are scarfing down burgers and fries. “That’s why you don’t often find people dressed up like Tolkien’s characters at cons like this. It would almost be a heresy, because those characters are so real. It would be like trying to pretend you were a person right across the street.”
Sternberg wryly describes herself as “a domestic infant development specialist” (i.e., a mom). She first read LOTR in the sixth grade, and was always fantasizing about living in Middle-earth. “I was not a popular person in school,” says Sternberg. “I used Tolkien as a way to escape from the nonacceptance of the people around me.” But for Sternberg, Tolkien’s book offered more than escapeit offered integration. “Tolkien’s world was so rich that just putting it all together enabled me to connect into things, to better understand the real world.”
With its ineffable blend of longing and loss, Tolkien’s story of eternal hope in a melancholy world has an obviously spiritual dimension. Likewise, Tolkien fandom has often been compared, not always kindly, to a religion. Mithrilian is a 27-year-old Russian woman, now living in the US, who first stumbled across an abridged Russian version of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1988. The book brought her to tears. In 1990, she got her hands on samizdat translations of the second and third volumes. Photocopiers were scarce in Russia at the time, and she was given only four days to read 700 pages before passing them on. “I had a photographic memory back then,” she says. “I would close my eyes, call up the page, and read it to my friends.”
Mithrilian, who applied herself to learning English in order to read Tolkien in the original, explains the tremendous appeal that LOTR had for someone growing up in Russia. “Soviet people were raised as atheists,” she says. “Tolkien’s books offered me hope for our world, the hope that Tolkien’s elves call estel. Tolkien does not mention God in The Lord of the Rings at all, but you feel something really wonderful when you read it. Later I recognized it as faith.”
Tolkien was a devout Catholic, but he avoided the Christian symbolism that mars his friend C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series. For Tolkien, the creation of an authentic Secondary World was itself an expression of faith, since “we make still by the law in which we’re made.” But though a mortal and in some ways very earthly place, Middle-earth is as profoundly seductive as any heaven. Mithrilian is not alone when she says, “Given a choice, I would probably choose the life of a hobbit.”
Luckily for Tolkien fans, living the life of a hobbit or a wizard became a little easier in 1974, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Though D&D arguably owed more to Fritz Lieber’s Grey Mouser series than to Tolkien, countless Middle-earthers were delighted to take up virtual swords and explore Tolkien’s realm on their own. Gygax and Arneson had created a powerful set of tools for other world builders to use, thus ensuring that the basic elements of Tolkien’s heroic fantasy would propagate like a virus through fan culture. In the words of Rich Redman, a game designer at Wizards of the Coast, which now runs the D&D empire, “RPGs respond to the desire of fantasy readers to continue to experience and explore those worlds. Our job is to provide the mechanism to do that.”
D&D’s virtuality still rests predominantly in the player’s imagination, but the collision with the computer, which could submit the fuzziness of fantasy to the rigors of code, was inevitable. In the mid-’70s, one of the hackers at SAIL helped author Adventure, a computerized and vaguely Tolkienesque text-based game that spread like wildfire through the Arpanet and eventually mutated into the hit Zork. Today, hundreds of fantasy role-playing games are indebted to LOTR in their look and feel. Elendor, an old-school Middle-earth multiuser shared hallucination, remains one of the most popular text-based worlds in cyberspace. In addition, it’s no accident that the closest we’ve come to richly populated immersive virtual realitiesthe multiplayer games EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron’s Callall take place in Tolkienesque realms.
Today, the technologies of virtuality have shifted decisively from alphabets and print to digital sound and imagery, which is partly why Peter Jackson believes it’s finally possible to successfully port Middle-earth into cinema. The irony is that Tolkien himself, a confirmed Luddite, would have had rejected computers as strongly as he rejected trains and automobiles, television and refrigerated food. Tolkien’s unease with the world of modern technology deeply informs LOTR, a book flush with nature mysticism, and what Patrick Curry, the author of Defending Middle-earth, calls radical nostalgia.
For example, Gandalf rejects the whole of modern science when he proclaims, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” In contrast, the villainous Saruman “has a mind of metal and wheels” and spends his days building mills, chopping down forests, and blowing things up. Tolkien associated technology with a sorcerer gone bad because black magic and technology were, for him, pretty much the same thing. Both were motivated by a hunger for “speed, reduction of labor, and reduction … of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.” He disliked technology because he believed that the domination and control of the “primary world,” even in the utopian name of the good, brings tremendous suffering to Creation.
With these concerns in mind, Tolkien placed the modern problem of technology at the heart of his saga. The One Ring is the supreme instrument of coercive power, and though using it would enable the fellowship of the ring to defeat Sauron, its addictive potential is too great for even Gandalf or the high elves to risk. Frodo’s quest is thus really an antiquest: The final goal is not to achieve power but to renounce it. “One of Tolkien’s great themes is that power itself always corrupts,” explains Peter Jackson. “Ultimately there can never really be any good power.”
In his letters, Tolkien contrasted the black magic of technology with enchantment, the artistic creation of Secondary Worlds that satisfy desire and in turn bathe the primary world in wonder. Enchantment was the ultimate elvish craft, and the raison d’être of Tolkien’s whole production. But as Tolkien scholar Shippey points out, the don could not reconcile the fact that techno-magic and elvish enchantment both spring from the same source: the desire to create. After all, it was elvish lore that created the One Ring in the first place, lore the elves shared with Sauron because they believed it would help turn war-ravaged Middle-earth into a paradise.
For fans, Peter Jackson’s project generates a similar tension: Will it serve Sauron or the elves? Will the director’s production be dominated by the Hollywood machine, with its blockbuster “magic” of overblown effects and marketing science? Or will Jackson craft genuine enchantment? From the moment New Line announced the movies, fans flocked online to uncover the answers. They didn’t just want the scoop on Jackson’s productionthey were going to make sure it came out right.
When news of Jackson’s films hit the Net in August of ’98, the first object of obsession became the cast. “A lot of people had been casting these movies in their minds for 20 years, and they had something to say,” says Joram Manka, whose Ringbearer site swelled with rumors about Sean Connery as Gandalf and Frodo’s comrade Sam being turned into a girl. Arguing about the cast made for good sport, but the chat was more than speculation to many fans. They rightly suspected Jackson’s team of monitoring the Web scene, and thus hoped to actually sway the production’s decisions. Manka and other webmasters are convinced the strategy worked: Cate Blanchett, who plays the graceful and perilous elf Galadriel, was a fan favorite long before her casting was announced. By and large, fans were pleased with the rest of the decisions, with one major exception: Liv Tyler, who plays the elven maiden Arwen.
Though Arwen barely appears in the book, she marries the hero-king Aragorn, a major character, and the story of their love is beautifully told in one of Tolkien’s appendixes. “Arwen is a really serious character, elven, demure, and no one can put those kinds of qualities to Liv Tyler,” says Manka. “She makes crappy movies like Armageddon. She is outside the circle of goodness.” Far more disturbing than Tyler herself were the evident changes in Arwen’s character. A stolen casting sheet described the 3,000-year-old maiden as “riding hell-for-leather,” while a leaked early draft of the screenplay revealed that Arwen would wield a sword, slaughtering orcs at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Ian McKellen once again failed to clear up the situationwhen asked, “Can [you] dispel the rumors of Arwen being placed in battle scenes,” he answered simply, “I can.” But all doubt was finally removed when Liv Tyler confessed in an E! Online interview that she had filmed fight scenes.
Fans did not take kindly to Xenarwen, as Tyler’s character was soon dubbed, and the online outcry was vociferous enough to be picked up by the major media. But few reporters recognized the stakes involved. The transformation of Arwen into a warrior didn’t just tweak a character but tampered with Tolkien’s fundamental portrait of the elves as otherworldly immortals who, in their decline, were ceding the driver’s seat of history to mortal men.
Xenarwen was not the only irksome change found in Jackson’s script. The proto-hippie tree-hugger Tom Bombadil was cut, and some orcs will be shown emerging from gooey cocoons. Tracking such changes became the work of a handful of obsessive sleuths, including Ancalagon the Black, a mysterious figure, named for an ancient dragon in The Silmarillion, who popped up on Tolkien Online. Piecing together clues from spy reports, photos, interviews, and “Force of Hobbit,” John Forde’s regular LOTR column on E! Online, Ancalagon produced an exhaustive list of even the most minute changeslike when Gandalf bumps his head upon first entering Bilbo’s hobbit hole. Ancalagon reports that newcomers to his page invariably have one response: “Wow, you must have a lot of time on your hands!”
But it’s time well spent, because the list provides more fuel for the heated debates that rage across the myriad newsgroups, listservs, bulletin boards, and forums that act as the agora of Tolkien fandom online. “It’s a gigantic mosh pit,” says Gordon Paddison, New Line’s head of online marketing. “Everybody’s a genius, and nobody’s penalized for being a freak. Everybody gets to dialog, and you come out refreshed.”
Some of the discussions revolve around hoary controversies, like the origin of orcs, or whether elves have pointy ears, or whether the Balrog, a demonic monster who vexes our heroes at the close of The Fellowship of the Ring, has wings. But the most pitched battle sparked by Jackson’s movies is between the Purists and the Revisionists. Revisionists accept and even celebrate the fact that Jackson will change the story, while the Purists treat Tolkien’s books as holy writ. The most Purist of the major movie sites is Tolkien Online, and the most notorious single Purist on the Net is Kelannar. A 23-year-old student at Fordham Law School in Manhattan, Kelannar refused to give Wired his real name because of the hatred he has stirred up with his flame-baiting throw-down: “PETER JACKSON IS AN ARROGANT DIRECTOR WHO IS RAPING THE TEXT.” Though unwelcome on many a forum, Kelannar continues to attack what he sees as “a New Age politically correct girl-power garbage version of fantasy.” Like Tolkien a Catholic, he prays that Jackson will see the error of his ways.
Other Purists sought to sway the director through more ordinary means. On Tolkien Online, a petition that called for Jackson “not to violate the integrity of Tolkien’s work” gathered more than 16,000 virtual signatures. As fans see it, all the grumbling paid off. In an official announcement made in the fall of 2000, Jackson claimed that the production was sticking more closely to the books than had originally been planned, and that many of his “so-called clever ideas” were being abandoned.
Balancing fannish demands for authenticity with a naive viewer’s need for clarity is no easy task. Jackson’s strategy is simply to tell the tale while saturating the environment with insider detail. The walls of Balin’s tomb, for example, will be covered with runes that tell the history of the Mines of Moria. “If you can read dwarf runes, you’ll be able to read the tale from behind the actors’ heads.”
Jackson is also keen to get as much of Tolkien’s languages into the film as possible. Much of the dialog between elves will be in Sindarin, translated by David Salo, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The first Tolkien linguist to crack the deep structure of Sindarin, Salo came away impressed with the director’s commitment to a language that, at best, a few hundred people on the planet know. “He has been very serious about treating the languages correctly and realistically,” Salo attests.
Tolkien wanted LOTR to read as history, an imagined slice of our planet’s actual past. This gave Jackson his MO. “It’s just as if you were making a film about the War of Independence or Henry VIII,” he says. The result will be a film that’s less Dungeons & Dragons than Braveheart with elves.
Yet not everyone working on the project has strict fidelity in mind. “I don’t believe Tolkien was writing a history book,” says art director John Howe, a celebrated Tolkien illustrator. Howe describes Tolkien aficionados as the most “categorical and obsessive set of fans I’ve ever met,” and he refuses to let their nit-picking influence his design. “Can you imagine creating art by assigning authenticity marks? You can’t base your artwork on the polls.”
Jackson echoes the sentiment, but he also feels that the intense feedback enabled by the Internet is worthwhile. “Fans have so much information and communicate about films for so long that it will hopefully force filmmakers to make much better movies. The voice of the audience is heard: They don’t want crap.”
One of the best Tolkien movie sites is TheOneRing.Net, or TORN. Spearheaded by an ambitious 23-year-old Canadian student named Michael Regina, aka Xoanon, TORN made its reputation based on the strength of its spy reports. By building up a network of New Zealand snoops, many of whom were not Tolkien fans, Regina got his hands on call sheets, audition scripts, CG shots, unauthorized photos, and loads of insider scuttlebutt.
One of TORN’s principal contacts in New Zealand is Erica Challis, a 36-year-old horn player for the Auckland Philharmonia who goes by the nickname Tehanu. Regina met Challis online in early ’98, and she agreed to scrape up information for the site as well as contribute essays. “At first there was very little to be found out,” she says. “They held their cards close to their chest.” One day she hiked three hours through the bush south of Auckland to get to the Hobbiton set. The grueling trudge netted her no more than a bum knee and a glimpse of a parking lot. But people liked the snapshots she had taken, photos of the stunning landscapes that will, in some sense, become Middle-earth. So in 1999, she set out on a three-week trek through New Zealand’s South Island, shooting locations she’d discover by chatting up caterers and Porta Potti guys.
Challis returned from her jaunt to a bit of a shock. Apparently, higher-ups in the production had read some of the reports she had posted about scrambling among the blackberry patches surrounding the Helm’s Deep set. The production team delivered her a “trespass notice” forbidding her to set foot in the area. Though Challis was not the only spy so served, her case became a cause célèbre. Jackson’s team subsequently reversed course and invited Challis into Hobbiton (sans camera). “All the other Web sites couldn’t believe it,” she says. “They were so angry that they refused to report my visit.”
Challis and her cronies put New Line in a bind. On the one hand, their hunger for leaks and spy shots is anathema to studio publicists, who attempt to manage information flow with the precision of nanotechnologists. On the other hand, productions like LOTR can’t afford to alienate core followers or attract the sort of negative publicity that tabloids lust after. Moreover, movie buffs have become increasingly sophisticated about extracting data from major productionseven shooting your flick on the bottom of the planet doesn’t help. Despite a desire to maintain strict control over its property, New Line found it couldn’t beat the fans. But what does it mean to join them?
Gordon Paddison is New Line’s point man in the jungles of online fandom. Besides maintaining the studio’s official Lord of the Rings Web site, he keeps up an active discussion with 40 or so fan sites, answering hundreds of emails every day, sometimes well into the night. “If you decide to engage in a dialog with fans, you have to understand that you don’t control the dialog,” says Paddison. “The beast changes colors as it goes.”
New Line launched its official Web site in May 1999, an absurdly early date for a December 2001 release, and started chatting up enthusiasts even earlier. Paddison explains: “We go where the fans are and give them stuff.” The site offers downloadable wallpaper, screensavers, even greenish, neo-medieval skins for your browser and MP3 player. But New Line’s cleverest move was to release the first trailer for the film exclusively online. For the seven days leading up to the trailer’s release on April 7 of this year, Paddison sent out a midnight batch of countdown banners to a circle of 35 or so Web sites. When the clip launched, the official site scored almost 1.69 million downloads in 24 hours. TORN, which almost immediately posted a frame-by-frame analysis, got more than a million hits. Given these kinds of numbers, it’s hardly surprising that New Line rolled out the red carpet for both Manka and Regina’s business partner, Chris Pirrotta, inviting them to a special 23-minute preview at Cannes this year. “Fans are great niche marketers,” explains Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at MIT and an expert in fandom. “In the same way that Saturn or Harley-Davidson seeks to build affiliation with its consumers, media companies are starting to see fans as affiliates and trying a variety of strategies to allow them more access to materials.”
The problem is that many of the images posted on fan sites raise sticky intellectual property issues. Officially, Paddison asks his webmaster buddies to respect the material on the studio’s site, but he doesn’t hunt that many people down. Unofficially, he is impressed with how creatively some fans appropriate the materialslike making QuickTime shorties by intercutting snippets of the official trailer with fan art, music, and images. “That stuff is cool,” says Paddison. “The thing that really bothers me is people who strip the site and do nothing interesting with it.”
Paddison is so mellow that some webmasters even feel comfortable bitching to him about the rapacity of rival fan sitesa complaint that, in private, Paddison finds outrageous: “These people are fighting over my copyrighted assets that somebody else rebranded and put on their fucking site?” Nonetheless, Paddison remains politic when emailing the wronged webmasters. “That’s a drag,” he’ll say.
Only occasionally does Paddison play the heavy. Late last year, TORN received a pirated copy of the videotape that Jackson’s team used to sell the project to New Line. The tape contained early digital models of Gollum, a sniveling, devolved hobbit who plays a crucial role in the story of the Ring. Jackson decided to cast Gollum as a fully computer-generated character, and the creature’s spidery appearance is one of the production’s most closely guarded secrets. When Regina posted images of the evil-looking guppie on TORN, Jackson went ballistic. Paddison was immediately on the phone, “strongly suggesting” to Regina that he remove the image. Regina, not wanting to bite the hand that feeds, readily complied.
The eternal quest for spoilers goes to the heart of the increasingly convoluted relationship between the corporate holders of intellectual property and a networked culture based on sampling and appropriation. Yet even as fan culture gains influence, it may be losing ground. “The IP rights of the studios are expanding almost hourly, and the rights of citizens to critique, participate, and retell the stories of the culture have eroded away,” says Jenkins, who notes that there is no legal distinction to be made between most fan activity and theft. “The law is out of whack at this point.”
Although New Line marketeers like Paddison refer to LOTR as a “property,” they seem to understand that it’s also a worlda collective space of the imagination that, like the Bible or Greek myths, cannot really be dominated by any one entity. Even Tolkien acknowledged late in his life that Middle-earth “does not belong to me.” At the time Tolkien wrote this, in 1971, people had long been exploring and extending the peculiar reality of his world on their own terms. Middle-earth was proving infinitely extensiblea situation that Tolkien himself helped create by never completing his description of Middle-earth’s history, geography, languages, and cultures. By not finishing his great picture, he hoped to “leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” Though Tolkien himself would not have always appreciated the results, those other minds and hands have been keeping busy.
“Middle-earth is no longer simply the world that J.R.R. Tolkien created,” says Michael Martinez, a Net-based Tolkien researcher and guru of the Xena: Warrior Princess community. “It’s a large canvas to which many artists have added their perspectives and interpretations.” Martinez is a small, chipmunk-cheeked fellow, who, when I visited him, was living in a yellow ramshackle house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I entered his tiny, bare office, Martinez was hunched over a laptop, answering an email about the references to lions in Middle-earth, of which there is one.
Martinez calls himself a pseudo-historian. He is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, a print-on-demand collection of essays that cover everything from Dwarven surnames to hobbit economics. Though he uses some tools of literary analysis in his reading of Tolkien’s work, literary criticism per se does not interest him. “Critics look for the inner message, the inner meaning of the story. What I do is treat Middle-earth as if it were a real thing.”
Martinez first got into Tolkien when he was a teenager in the mid-’70s, a high school dropout living in Augusta, Georgia, and selling soap to businesses. He came across Tolkien’s reference to The Silmarillion in LOTR, and was incredibly frustrated to discover he couldn’t go buy the book. The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s name for the great myth cycle that tells of the creation and early history of Arda, the world that includes Middle-earth and other lands. Tolkien’s work was unfinished at his death in 1973, but in 1977, Christopher Tolkien published an edited version of his father’s grand and terribly sad saga. Some have likened it to a telephone book written in Elvish, but Martinez was blown away. Ignoring Christopher Tolkien’s warning against trying to force consistency on Tolkien Senior’s massive corpus, Martinez began to piece it together. “There are more vast empty spaces than contradictions.”
Many of these spaces were filled up in the ’80s and ’90s, when Christopher Tolkien released the 12 volumes that constitute The History of Middle-earth. The complete edition of this monster, which includes early versions of LOTR, clocks in at 5,392 pages. The History thickened the reality of Middle-earth all the more, even as the series showed how much Tolkien tinkered with his story along the way (Frodo, for example, was initially saddled with the unfortunate name of Bingo). As Wayne G. Hammond carefully documents in his contribution to Legendarium, a recent scholarly collection devoted to The History, Tolkien did not hew to a grand design. “Rather, he tended to feel his way, working out through trial and error the ‘true’ story among different versions that came to mind. Indeed he sometimes felt that he was not so much writing stories as discovering something already written.”
That feeling of palpable reality is shared by many LOTR fans. Martinez himself has woven Tolkien’s loose threads into an unpublished, as-yet-untitled 600-page history book, complete with endnotes, citations, and appendixes. Though a Purist, Martinez also believes that Middle-earth should be a living tradition. “There are people who want to preserve it and make it a sort of artifact,” he says. “But we got into it because it’s open-ended. If we try not to develop it any further, we are cutting ourselves off.”
In this spirit, Martinez supported Jackson from the get-go, defending him against more doctrinaire Purists in various newsgroups and forums. As a grizzled veteran of the Great Balrog Wings Flame War of ’97-’98, Martinez can spar with the best of them, but he grew tired of taking the heat. The last straw was an image of a knight in full-plate armor that appeared in the trailer. “The knights of Middle-earth wore chain mail,” Martinez snorts. “They didn’t wear full-plate armor.”
At the same time, Martinez also recognizes that defending a Purist Middle-earth may be a lost cause. He illustrates the point with a story: Once, in the dealer’s room at a science fiction con, Martinez was complaining to the president of Toy Vault about the green-skinned orc figures the company had released. “Orcs aren’t green,” argued Martinez, even as an eager fan snatched up the item, proclaiming, “Sure they are!” As Martinez puts it, “How do you argue with that?”
Purists also face the difficult fact that the great master himself sold off some of the farm in 1958. The film and merchandise rights for LOTR and The Hobbit went to Tolkien Enterprises, now controlled by Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records and the inspiration for the John Fogerty lyric, “Zaentz can’t dance but he’ll steal your money.” In addition to suing a low-rent Long Island clown named Gandalf, Zaentz has been responsible for the lion’s share of Tolkien-related licensing in recent decades, including Jackson’s movies and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated flop.
The licensed products that most boldly extend Tolkien’s “vast game” are, as one might expect, games. Scores of computer games have used Middle-earth settings, but the most detailed elaborations of Tolkien’s world exist in old-school pencil-and-dice fantasy RPGs, which have been siphoning ideas from Middle-earth ever since Gary Gygax slipped Tolkien creations like hobbits and the Balrog into the original D&D. Trying to capitalize on D&D’s popularity, Tolkien Enterprises granted an exclusive license to Iron Crown Enterprises to produce MERP (Middle-earth Role-Playing) in 1982. MERP modules came with beautiful maps but included loads of erroneous information and a lousy game system that emphasized quick-and-dirty action. According to Chris Seeman, a gamemaster and editor of the Purist MERP zine Other Hands, “It was like spending a zillion dollars to create a wonderful setting and then having a soap opera take place in it.”
After years of being hassled by Tolkien buffs for its errors and dumb ideas, ICE decided to get authentic, and eventually hired Seeman as editor. He produced rich Middle-earth modules that true believers could love. But there was one problem: The 400-page modules, crammed with arcana, didn’t sell. “The books were getting more expensive as they got bigger and bigger,” says the 33-year-old Seeman. “And so the number of people playing the game got smaller and smaller.”
Tolkien Enterprises revoked ICE’s license in September of 1999, the same month that the computer game publisher Sierra On-Line fired a development team that had been slaving away on a multiplayer Middle-earth game designed to go head-to-head with EverQuest and Ultima Online. Both cancellations may have reflected the rush to exploit the expected New Line windfall. But Sierra’s problems were strangely similar to ICE’s, demonstrating the difficult balance that Tolkien merchandise must strike between Purist accuracy and mass appeal. According to game industry dish, Sierra’s original development team was striving to make a sober and authentic Middle-earth. This meant asking gamers to play in a more ascetic fantasy world than usual, one that did not contain many elves or much magic and did not allow dead characters to be resurrected. It was all a bit too authentic for Sierra’s management, which decided to start from scratch with another team.
As far as Seeman is concerned, gamers trying to build new worlds for heroic fantasy play are just wasting their time: “If you are going to create a fantasy world, why not start with one that already exists?” For the past three years, Seeman has led 20 men and women, including an archaeologist, a Unix geek, and a stockbroker, through a MERP campaign set in the uncharted Northern Waste of Middle-earth. Like Tolkien, Seeman, who is finishing up his doctorate in Near Eastern religions at UC Berkeley, tries not to follow an explicit plan. “The pleasure of running this sort of a game is that it makes you feel like you are doing what Tolkien did,” says Seeman.
Unlike Trekkers and Star Wars enthusiasts, who turn out loads of fiction, surprisingly few people have explored Middle-earth in story form. One exception is the notorious Black Book of Arda, written by two young Russian women in the early 1990s, which retells the events of The Silmarillion from the perspective of the evil characters Melkor and Sauron. But the most interesting literary productions by fans use Tolkien’s invented languages. Just as Latin students try their hand at penning odes, Tolkien linguists write verses in Quenya and Sindarin, often inscribing them in Tolkien’s calligraphy and publishing them in tiny literary magazines such as Tyalie Tyelellieva and Vinyar Tengwar. (There’s even a Quenya elegy for Princess Diana.) According to Helge Fauskanger, a 30-year-old Norwegian whose Ardalambion Web site features a downloadable course in Quenya, learning Elvish is the closest you can come to seeing the world through eyes of the elves: “The study of Quenya can be a quest for this vision of something beautiful and noble beyond the normal capability of our mortal and finite selves.”
Still, the Elvish scene is riven by all-too-human controversy. In 1999, Fauskanger received an email from an associate that included scans of two Quenya texts by J.R.R. Tolkien: unpublished translations of the Lord’s Prayer and “Ave Maria.” After writing a dense analysis of the texts, which are some of the longest Quenya writings by Tolkien known to exist, Fauskanger sent his 60-page manuscript to Christopher Tolkien for feedback. He also asked if he could publish a facsimile of Tolkien’s original handwritten texts along with his own work. In return he got a curt letter from Cathleen Blackburn, the lawyer for the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate Limited, which continues to manage Tolkien’s literary properties. Blackburn told Fauskanger that he could not legally disseminate his analysis, let alone a facsimile. Old flame wars on the TolkLang list were rekindled: Can you copyright an invented language or just particular texts in that language? Fauskanger believes he was well within the boundaries of fair use, but the Norwegian has no desire to alienate the estate. He just wants to publish an exceptionally obscure text in a tiny journal for no money.
The issue is compounded by the fact that a tremendous amount of Tolkien’s linguistic material remains unpublished and in the hands of a fan cabal. In the early 1990s, the estate made thousands of pages of Tolkien’s notes available to a handpicked crew of linguists known loosely as the Elfconners. The group includes a NASA scientist named Carl Hostetter and a Berkeley record store clerk named Arden Smith. After promising not to share the material with others, the Elfconners were supposed to prepare and publish at least a portion of these writings. But a full decade after the Elfconners first received copies from Christopher Tolkien, the clique has published only a few early lexicons in their increasingly irregular journalsa situation that recalls nothing so much as the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy. To make matters worse, the Elfconners have behaved as informal copyright police, pressuring other linguists not to publish their dictionaries and grammars. “It’s against all principles of scholarship and decency for one scholar to try to use the law to prevent another scholar from publishing,” says David Salo, who has yet to publish his 366-page analysis of Sindarin for fear of an estate suit. Unfortunately, all the Elfconners approached by Wired turned down requests for interviews.
Needless to say, Quenya grammar books are not high on the must-have list of your average Tolkien collector. But while only a few will ever taste the joys of Elvish, most Middle-earthlings have danced a jig to Tolkien-inspired music. LOTR is full of songs and poems, and though the estate keeps a tight rein on Tolkien’s own lyrics, loads of fan music have been written and recorded. The sounds are all over the map. Alongside Johan de Meij’s LOTR symphony stands the Appalachian Bilbo ballads of Kevin Henry, the Celtic treacle of Brocelïande, and the garish prog rock of Glasshammer. But the most popular subgenre of Tolkien music is, weirdly enough, black metal. Carrying the torch first lit by Led Zeppelin, acts like Summoning, Rakoth, and Cirith Gorgor serve up blistering Mordor mashes that would have horrified Tolkien himself. The scariest character in this scene is Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian black-metal meister who led the one-man band Burzum, which means “darkness” in the orc tongue. He also went by the name Grishnakh, a particularly nasty orc captain from Sauron’s dark tower. Vikernes is now in prison, having knifed a fellow metalhead to death.
Just as the Klingons have become the most vital wing of Trekkerdom, so have Tolkien’s bad guys offered some of the richest opportunities for fans to explore and extend the cultures of Middle-earththough they don’t generally take it as far as Vikernes has. One of the most compelling Tolkien Web sites is Mordor: The Land of Shadow, which uses Photoshop and Flash to give its images and monster manuals an eerie, half-real quality. And the most interesting recent recording out of Middle-earth is the Swedish orc group Za Frûmi’s debut CD Za shum ushatar Uglakh. Though full of exotic woodwinds, drums, and creepy keyboards, the record most resembles a radio playexcept that the voices you hear are all grunting in Za Frûmi’s highly modified version of Orcish.
The three young men in Za Frûmi don’t just make records. They also take part in the fullest embodiment of Tolkien’s fantasy world: live, improvised role-play. During the summer, they join hundreds of Swedes, ranging from teens to grandparents, who march deep into their country’s vast woods in order to hold Middle-earth gatherings. “We have great, deep forests, which are really sort of trollish,” explains Donald Persson, the band’s didgeridoo player. “The climate helps to get into the mood.”
Costumed Tolkien gatherings are popular throughout Northern Europe and the former Soviet Unionthousands of Middle-earthers have reenacted episodes from The Silmarillion in the forests outside Moscow, while the repressive government of Kazakstan is now detaining “Tolkienists” alongside hippies, anarchists, and punks. Tolkien gatherings are serious affairs: One elvish feast that Persson attended took months to prepare. The central meal included honeyed bread, mulled wine, roasted boar, blueberry pie, and Psilocybe mushrooms. People shot arrows, danced, and bathed naked in the streams, taking care to remain in character at all times. This meant that participants not only removed all references to the modern world (smokers switched to pipes) but abandoned Swedish for their own version of Quenya.
The boys from Za Frûmi enjoy these elvish fetes, but they really get off on playing orcs. “I like the orcs’ cultural way of life,” says Persson. “They are crude and primitive but still in some ways more advanced than us.” Sometimes dozens of orcs congregate in smaller, more esoteric gatherings, garbed in elaborate costumes featuring latex, prosthetics, and Orientalist armor. In addition to mounting raids and practicing their vocabulary words, the orcs sometimes stage shamanistic rituals around the fire. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to remember it’s not really happening,” says Persson. “It’s not dangerous in any sense. People would not actually start killing one another. But you can get so deeply in character that you forget yourself.”
This, in the end, remains the first and most lasting appeal of Tolkien’s vast VR: escape. Of course, escapism also tends to be the first criticism leveled against all serious fans, especially by people who are uncomfortable with the deep pleasures of fantasy. But Tolkien himself pointed out that escapism comes in two flavors: the flight of the deserter and the escape of the prisoner. Cynics and overly sober adults often believe that escapism is just irresponsible flight from reality. But acolytes of the imagination know that fantasy can open a way out of the prison-house of our mundane habits of seeing and being, a way that can lead, for a time, to an otherworld that feels more real and resplendent than the one outside the window. And this is especially true when the otherworld in question is already packed with millions of souls.
The three head honchos of Tolkien Online are sitting in the original Bob’s Big Boy of Burbank, California, telling me about their plans for the December 19 premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring. Two weeks before opening nightthat’s 336 hours, folksthey will plant themselves in line before the appropriate LA moviehouse with as many fans as they can muster. Veterans of an acrimonious six-week Mann’s Chinese Theater line for The Phantom Menace, the Tolkien Online folks are working hard with other webmasters to make their line a better experience. “We want to be more than some people smelling up the sidewalk,” says Jonathan Watson, a buttoned-up fellow in a red plaid shirt.
Watson’s partner in crime, Ted Tschopp, a goateed guy in glasses, explains the logic behind the line-up. “People want to participate in the universe they love. That’s something Tolkien himself was really into, the idea of subcreation, of participating in the act of creation.” For Tschopp this means getting as many people as possible to come together and camp out on a sidewalk. “Let’s unplug from the Internet for a second. Let’s come together and meet face-to-face and share our love for Tolkien. Instead of promoting the movie or the books, let’s come together as a community and have a good time.”
“We feel a great sense of involvement in these movies,” explains chief news correspondent David Mullich as he tucks into his Big Boy Combo with blue cheese dressing. “We feel an ownership in the book, because we’ve read the book and we care about it. Because of the openness of New Line and the actors and Peter Jackson, in addition to all the fan sites out there, we feel like we are participating in the films. And we should be.”
Guys like Mullich raise one of the most fundamental questions of our moment: What does it mean to own culture? For media companies, ownership means an exclusive right to squeeze dollars out of materials gripped by the ever-growing tentacles of copyright. But fandom is essentially an open source culture, even as it feeds on corporate media. Fan ownership is really stewardship, a commitment that does not center on individual control but on shared imagination and collective processone that includes passionate consumers alongside actors, directors, bean counters, and PR flacks. In a sense, fans have always been preparing for today’s more participatory and open-ended media universe: It’s no accident that Trekkers and Deadheads were among the first to colonize the Internet. But it’s equally true that fandom harks back to a time when we sat around the campfire and swapped the old, untrademarked tales of heroes and gods.
“Today we have lost mythology,” says Tschopp, who, like Watson, is a practicing Christian. “A hundred years ago people all went to church. Even if they didn’t believe it, they bought into the overarching story that was involved. Today there is no meta-story. One reason people like Tolkien is because they want a myth that’s true, and they see it there.”
“Have we read this thing too much or what?” interjects Watson, laughing.
Mullich admits that he has become obsessed with Tolkien since he heard about Jackson’s film. “My wife has never seen me like this. One side of me thinks it’s great, but the other side is not so sure. It’s like that Saturday Night Live sketch where William Shatner tells the Trekkies to get a life. Maybe we need to get a life.”
“Nah, this is life,” says Watson. “What is life? Having fun, reading great books, talking to people. That sounds pretty good to me.”