Woke of the Rings

The Tolkien society is scanning the author’s work for signs of cishetero amatonormativity

Artillery Row

Unlike the Germans with their ponderous celebration of Goethe and Schiller, or the French with their adulation of Molière or Victor Hugo, the English celebrate their favourite authors with a lighter touch. Societies dedicated to the lovers of the works of a given author are common, but are generally private, amateur and low-key. Groups of amiable middle-aged to elderly bibliophiles with no particular academic pretension but a love for, and a generally encyclopaedic knowledge of, the writing of a particular person get together to enjoy convivial company and, as often as not, a posh dinner in London or Oxford once a year. Organisations such as the Sherlock Holmes Society or the Trollope Society publish slightly recherché background papers, such as Why Holmes Went German at St James’s Hall: The Reason Behind His Musical Taste, or From Winchester to Barsetshire: Anthony Trollope’s links with Hampshire. Addresses at formal events organised by these clubs are likely to be witty and reasonably erudite, but not over-intellectual or over-taxing on the audience.

What you won’t get from any of these amateur gatherings is anything like the high-pressure, jargon-ridden writing one sees in academic journals, or the deadly serious arguments, incomprehensible to non-initiates, that one increasingly hears in university lecture halls. They are emphatically societies, not research institutes.

It seems the society has at least temporarily allowed itself to be hijacked

Or at least most of them are. In the last year something very curious seems to have overtaken one of them, the Tolkien Society, founded in 1969 to celebrate the life and work of the author of the Lord of The Rings. Until 2020 the society was what you might expect: talks on music and Tolkien’s landscape, naming astronomical bodies after Tolkien place-names, the elvish language, and so on.

This year, by contrast, it has gone full-on woke, as witness the programme for its 2021 Annual Seminar, beginning on Saturday week. A straw in the wind came with the announcement of the theme, which read more than anything else like a formal call for papers from some new university anxious to make its mark on modernity with a trail-blazing conference. Contributions were demanded on Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and neo-colonialism, representation of race, gender, sexuality and the rest in Tolkien, and so on.

This call was answered with appropriate gusto. The programme for the event is too large to reproduce here: but we can give a flavour of it. It kicks off with Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings. We then have delights such as “The Burnt Hand Teaches Most About Fire”: Applying Traumatic Stress and Ecological Frameworks to Narratives of Displacement and Resettlement Across Cultures in Tolkien’s Middle-earth; and The Lossoth: Indigeneity, Identity, and Antiracism. The second day continues with more in the same vein: “Something Mighty Queer”: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien; Questions of Caste in The Lord of the Rings and its Multiple Chinese Translations; and something which should puzzle anyone, Hidden Visions: Iconographies of Alterity in Soviet Bloc Illustrations for The Lord of the Rings.

This menu, more appropriate to a series of dreary staff seminars in a second-rate polytechnic than an event set up for a club of book-lovers, has already attracted deserved derision. And it is indeed difficult to understand why it is being put on at all. Tolkien was, it is true, highly imaginative in the world he created for The Lord of the Rings in the early 1950s, but as far as I know there isn’t much material on transgenderism to be found anywhere in it, nor yet a great deal about traumatic stress or ecological frameworks. Again, the Lord of the Rings fan club will obviously attract some oddballs, like any such organisation; but one still wonders how many of its members are seriously interested in brushing up on alterity or cishetero amatonormativity (memo: could someone out there please tell me what either of these is?).

One wonders how many of its members are seriously interested in brushing up on cishetero amatonormativity

It is unclear what has been going on behind the scenes, but the best explanation seems to be that the society has at least temporarily allowed itself to be hijacked, at least temporarily, by a clique of people with a dreary swarm of bees in their bonnet. The speakers at the conference include a number of university faculty, from institutions ranging from the respectable (Texas A & M, Emory) to the frankly bizarre (Signum University of Leesburg, Virginia, an online outfit apparently specializing in Tolkien studies, imaginative literature, Germanic philology, and classic literature, represented by a lady from Colwyn Bay); some interesting New Agers (one self-described as an “assistant pig-keeper with dreams of being a knight”); and the odd freelance poet and writer.

How they managed it is anyone’s guess. We don’t, after all, have the Trollope Society promoting talks on “Problems of structural patriarchy in the Pallisers”, nor yet the Dickens Society pushing its members to buy pamphlets on “Fatboy and Tiny Tim: Food and Victorian Fat-shaming”; if we did the membership would immediately vote with its feet. Perhaps, in the case of the Tolkien society, it is simply a matter of the peculiar nature of the master’s oeuvre. Its heady brew of fantasy and millenarianism against the background of a Manichean conflict between good and evil, not to mention the easy transmutation of episodes from it into such things as online wargames, may well have something to do with it. Such matters don’t fit readily with the easygoing good humour and amateurism of traditional bibliophiles; in the nature of things they attract a certain kind of person with an earnest seriousness and a belief that Tolkien is far too important merely to be enjoyed. Perhaps the Tolkien Society has only itself to blame for the fact that it now seems increasingly to attract a mixture of geeks, New Age kooks and people who might easily double as humanities professors even if they aren’t.

It may go back to normal: only time will tell. Meanwhile, if you are interested in viewing this parade of peculiarity, registration for the conference is, it seems, still open. You might learn something: unlike many of the speakers, you might even find it amusing. I wish you good luck, and good hunting.

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