Tolkien and the Culture Wars

We interrupt your regularly scheduled deep dive into postmodernism for a brief diversion into the latest anti-woke tempest in a teacup.

CORRECTION: when I started writing this post, I meant it as a “brief diversion.” It has grown in the writing and become decidedly non-brief. One might even call it very long. My apologies.

Because there was no way on earth casting Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf could possibly queer that character.

The Tolkien Society was founded in 1969 with J.R.R. Tolkien himself as its president; like most scholarly societies, it has hosted annual conferences at which people present papers exploring aspects of Tolkien’s and related works, and generally mingle to share their passion and enthusiasm for the subject. And like most of these such conferences, each year tends to have a different theme—looking over the society’s web page listing past conferences, we see such previous themes as “21st Century Receptions of Tolkien,” “Adapting Tolkien,” “Tolkien the Pagan?”, “Life, Death, and Immortality,” “Tolkien’s Landscapes,” and so on … you get the idea.

This year’s conference, to be hosted online on July 3-4, is on “Tolkien and Diversity.”

If this blog post was a podcast, I would here insert a sudden needle-scratch sound effect to indicate the sudden, sputtering outrage of all the anti-woke culture warriors who, fresh from their jeremiads about Dr. Seuss and perorations about critical race theory, are now charging that the woke Left has come for Tolkien because these SJWs will not rest until they have destroyed everything that is great and good about white Western civilization. Because, you know, a two-day conference in which people discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality with regards to Tolkien’s work will destroy The Lord of the Rings.

If that all sounds snarky and hyperbolic, well, I’ll cheerfully concede to the snark, but I’m not overstating the reaction. Survey the Twitter threads on the subject, and you’ll see the phrase “Tolkien spinning in his grave”1 an awful lot, as well as the frequent charge—made with varying degrees of profanity and varying familiarity with grammar—that all of these people who want to talk about race or sexual identity in Tolkien are doing it because they hate Tolkien and seek to destroy this great author and his legacy. Well, you might protest, that’s just Twitter, which is an unmitigated cesspool; and while you wouldn’t be wrong about Twitter, these reactions exist on a continuum with more prominent conservative outrage. The default setting for these reactions is the conviction that people engaging with such “woke” discourse as critical race theory, or queer studies, or feminism for that matter, do so destructively—that their aim is to take something wholesome and good and tear it down, whether that be Western civilization or your favourite genre fiction.

I shouldn’t have to argue that this Tolkien conference, with its grand total of sixteen presenters, isn’t about to do irreparable damage to Tolkien’s standing or his legacy. Nor would reading some or all of the papers ruin LotR or The Hobbit for you. The idea that it might—that this is some form of desecration that indelibly sullies the Great Man’s work—is frankly bizarre. It is, however, a kind of thinking that has come to infect both fandom and politics. Six years ago I wrote a blog post about the Hugo awards and the conservative insurgency calling itself the “Sad Puppies,” who were attempting the hijack the nominating process to exclude authors and works they believed to be “message fiction” (“woke” not yet having entered the lexicon at that point), i.e. SF/F more preoccupied with social justice and identity politics than with good old fashioned space opera and fur-clad barbarians. If I may be so gauche as to quote myself, I argued then what I’m arguing now:

… namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.

This is the same kind of thinking that had people wailing that the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters somehow retroactively ruined their childhoods, or that The Last Jedi was a thermonuclear bomb detonated at the heart of all of Star Wars.2 It’s the logic that leads people to sign a petition to remake the final season of Game of Thrones with different writers, as if such a thing were even remotely feasible.

By contrast, while I loved Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy, I thought that his adaptation The Hobbit was an unmitigated trio of shit sandwiches—not least because it displayed precisely none of the respect Jackson had previously shown for the source material. And yet, aside from inevitable bitching about how terrible the films were, when I teach The Hobbit in my first-year class this autumn, I do not expect to be hobbled by the trauma of having seen a work I love treated so terribly. The Hobbit will remain The Hobbit—and nothing Peter Jackson can do on screen or an overeager grad student can do at a conference will change that.

Conservatives love to harp on about the entitled Left and “snowflake” culture, but the current culture war pearl-clutching—when it isn’t merely performative posturing by Republicans looking to gin up their base (though also when it is that)—comprises the very kind of entitlement they ascribe to the people they’re vilifying. When the Sad Puppies try to crowd out authors of colour and queer voices at the Hugos; when Gamergaters attack female gamers; when a Twitter mob drives Leslie Jones off social media in retaliation for her role in the “female” Ghostbusters; when Anita Sarkeesian has to cancel an invited talk due to bomb threats; or when an innocuous conference on diversity in Tolkien—no different from the dozens that have been held on “queering Shakespeare” or masculine fragility in Moby Dick—excites the ire of those declaring that such an abomination somehow desecrates Tolkien’s legacy, what is being articulated is an innate sense of ownership. This is mine, the reactionaries are saying. How dare you trespass on my territory. The zero-sum sensibility is one in which any change, any new voice, any new perspective that is not consonant with the way things have always been, is perceived as a loss. Anything challenging the mythos built up around an idea—be it the acknowledgement of systemic racism in America’s history or misogynist subtext in the Narnia Chronicles—is a betrayal of that mythos.

***

But we should also talk more specifically about the conference itself, as well as the counter-conference quickly thrown together by “The Society of Tolkien,” a group formed specifically in defiance of the incursion of “wokeness” into Tolkien studies.3

Ideally, I want to put this in perspective, and make clear why those people losing their shit really need to do a deep knee bend and take a fucking breath.

To be completely honest, this entire kerfuffle over “woke” Tolkien might have never showed up on my radar had I not been tagged in a general invitation to join my friend Craig and his partner Dani’s weekly online “office hours.” Craig and Dani are both professors in Philadelphia; they host discussions about a variety of topics, mostly dealing with American conservatism and anti-racism, and they focused this particular discussion on the backlash against the Tolkien and Diversity conference. Among those joining were members of the Tolkien Society, including some people presenting at the upcoming conference.

It was a lovely discussion, and since then I’ve been inducted into the Alliance of Arda—which is to say, I requested to join the Facebook group, and been accepted. There has been, as you could well imagine, a lot of discussion about the “Tolkien and Diversity” conference, particularly in regards to the backlash against it. This blog post came together in part because of my participation in those discussions.

And before I go further, I just need to make something clear: these lovely people who are enthusiastically participating in this conference are not resentful SJWs looking to take Tolkien down a peg or five. They are not haters. They do not want to cancel Tolkien. These are people who love Tolkien and his works. They would be as distressed as their detractors if Tolkien went out of print or was eliminated from curricula.

But they are looking to expand the ways in which we read and understand Tolkien, and in a zero-sum perspective … well, see above.

The original call for papers (CFP) for the conference is prefaced as follows:

While interest in the topic of diversity has steadily grown within Tolkien research, it is now receiving more critical attention than ever before. Spurred by recent interpretations of Tolkien’s creations and the cast list of the upcoming Amazon show The Lord of the Rings, it is crucial we discuss the theme of diversity in relation to Tolkien. How do adaptations of Tolkien’s works (from film and art to music) open a discourse on diversity within Tolkien’s works and his place within modern society? Beyond his secondary-world, diversity further encompasses Tolkien’s readership and how his texts exist within the primary world. Who is reading Tolkien? How is he understood around the globe? How may these new readings enrich current perspectives on Tolkien?

For those unfamiliar with academic conferences, this is pretty standard stuff, and is followed by a non-exhaustive list of possible topics participants might pursue:

  • Representation in Tolkien’s works (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, age etc.)
  • Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Adaptations of Tolkien’s works
  • Diversity and representation in Tolkien academia and readership
  • Identity within Tolkien’s works
  • Alterity in Tolkien’s works

Again, this is pretty standard fare for a CFP. Nor is it at all outlandish in terms of the topics being suggested. Speaking as both a professional academic and someone who first read Tolkien thirty-seven years ago, I can think of a half-dozen ways into each of those suggestions without really breaking a sweat.

But of course, the CFP was only the amuse bouche for the backlash. The real meal was made of the paper titles. Here’s a sample:

  • “Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings
  • “The Problem of Pain: Portraying Physical Disability in the Fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien”
  • “The Problematic Perimeters of Elrond Half-elven and Ronald English-Catholic”
  • “Pardoning Saruman?: The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • “Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists, Oh, My!”
  • “Stars Less Strange: An Analysis of Fanfiction and Representation within the Tolkien Fan Community”

None of these seem at all beyond the pale to me, but then again I’m a professor and have presented numerous conference papers at numerous conferences, and these kind of titles are pretty standard. I can see where a Lord of the Rings enthusiast who never subjected themselves to grad school might think these titles absurd. True fact: academic paper titles are easily mocked, no matter what discipline, as they always employ a specialized language that tends to be opaque to those not versed in it.4

Case in point: I’m reasonably convinced that when former Globe and Mail contrarian and plagiarist Margaret Wente was at a loss for what aspect of liberal thought she would cherry-pick to vilify, she would comb the list of projects granted fellowships or scholarships by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and select the most arcane and convoluted project titles receiving taxpayer dollars and write one of her “And THIS is the state of academia today!” columns.

Emblematic of the Wente treatment was an article in the National Review by Bradley J. Birzer, a history professor and author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (2002). Writing about the upcoming Tolkien Society conference, he says,

While I have yet to read the papers and know only the titles for reference—some of which are so obscure and obtuse that I remain in a state of some confusion let’s, for a moment, consider “Pardoning Saruman? The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” In what way is Saruman, an incarnate Maia angel, sent by the Valar to do good in Middle-earth (Saruman really fails at this), queer? Is he in love with himself? True, with his immense ego, he might very well have been. Is he in love with Orthanc? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the text to support this. Is he in love with Radagast the Brown? No, he considers him a fool. Is he in love with Gandalf the Grey? No, he’s jealous of Gandalf and had been from their first arrival in Middle-earth. Is he in love with his bred Orcs? Wow, this would be twisted. Is he in love with Wormtongue? If so, nothing will come of it, for the lecherous Wormtongue has a leering and creepy gaze only for Eowyn. And, so, I remain baffled by all of this. Nothing about a queer Saruman seems to make sense.

Let’s begin with his admission that he hasn’t read any of the conference papers—which is fair, considering that, as I write this post, the conference is several days away—which means that if any of the presenters are at all like me, they’re just starting to write the papers now. But … do you really want to dive in so deeply based solely on a title? There was a story frequently told of a professor I knew at Western University, my alma mater: in answer to a question he’d asked, a student raised his hand, and said, “Well, I haven’t read the book yet, but …” and then went on confidently for several minutes while the professor nodded along. When the student stopped talking, the professor paused, and said, “Yeah. Read the book.”

Birzen’s choose-your-own-adventure speculation on what the paper might be about is no doubt entertaining to his readers who think, like him, that the whole concept of a queer Saruman is absurd, full stop. But here’s the thing: you don’t know. You don’t know what the paper is going to argue. You don’t even know if, despite the fact that he’s the only named character in the title, the paper has anything to say about Saruman’s queerness. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that considering someone a fool or being jealous of them doesn’t obviate the possibility of sexual desire for them, or the idea that demi-gods are somehow asexual (the Greeks would have something to say about that), perhaps consider that the paper isn’t about specific characters being queer? The pre-colon title, after all, is “Pardoning Saruman.” If you handed me this title in some sort of conference-paper-writing reality TV show, in which I have a few hours to write an essay conforming to the title, my approach would actually be to talk about the mercy both Gandalf and Frodo show Saruman, as something subverting a masculinist approach to punitive practices. Queerness, after all, isn’t merely about sex, but about a constellation of world-views at odds with heteronormativity; that Birzen reduces it to a question of who Saruman wants to fuck reflects the impoverishment of his argument.

But who knows. Will the paper be good? Perhaps, though that actually doesn’t matter much. Academic conferences are not about presenting perfect, ironclad arguments; the best papers are imperfect and lacking, because those are the ones that excite the most discussion. Conference papers tend to be works in progress, embryonic ideas that the presenters throw out into the world to test their viability. At its best, academia is an ongoing argument, always trying out new and weird ideas. Some fall flat; some flourish.

At its worst, academia becomes staid and resistant to change. Which brings me to the “Society of Tolkien” and its counter-conference. Their CFP reads as follows: “When J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle-earth, he filled it with characters, themes, and dangers that leapt from the pages to intrigue, excite, and give hope to his readers. In these sessions, we’ll explore these concepts to celebrate all that makes his works stand the test of time and what we should take from them today.” Or, to translate: no theme at all. Suggested topics include:

  • Analysis of characters, situations, and linguistics in the books
  • Military doctrine and tactics portrayed in the books or movies
  • Themes, lessons, and allegories drawn from or used by Tolkien
  • Works influenced by Tolkien’s writing
  • Works which influenced Tolkien’s writing
  • Middle-earth history

So, in other words: stuff we’ve seen before numerous times. But what is slightly more interesting is the supplemental list of topics that will not be considered for the conference:

  • Concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing
  • The Black Speech of Mordor
  • General foolishness

Speaking as someone who has attended numerous academic conferences, I can attest to the fact that “general foolishness” is always welcome to break up the monotony. As to “concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing,” that’s a pretty difficult territory to police. As one of my new Tolkien friends points out, the word “queer” appears in both The Hobbit and LotR multiple times—not, perhaps, meant in the way we mean it today, but still—where precisely does one draw the line?

I’m particularly intrigued by the prohibition against “The Black Speech of Mordor.” Because … why? Are they concerned, as were the attendees at the Council of Elrond when Gandalf spoke the rhyme on the One Ring in the language of Mordor, that the very sound of the language is corrupting? Do the people of the “Society of Tolkien” want to prohibit any presentation that might end up being sympathetic to Sauron? Or are they, as I joked in Arda’s comment section, worried that a paper about “Black Speech” could be a Trojan horse sneaking in critical race theory to the conference?

I said it as a joke, but I’m by no means convinced that that was not the reasoning behind the prohibition.

***

CODA

When I was enrolling for my fourth year of undergraduate study, I saw a course in the calendar on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I signed up unhesitatingly: it was, as I joked at the time, the one course at the university where I could probably walk into the final exam without ever having been to class and still get an A. I did however have a little bit of anxiety: I had first read LotR when I was twelve, and reread it several times through my teenage years. I did not reread it for the first three and a half years of my undergrad, so inundated was I by all the new texts and authors and ideas that saturated my days. I was concerned, on returning to this novel that had taught me so profoundly how literature can have affect—how it can transform you on a seemingly molecular level—that I might now find LotR deficient or less than it was. Since starting my English degree, I’d had that transformative experience again numerous times: Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and George Eliot, Yeats and Eliot and Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende, Tom Stoppard and Bertholt Brecht and Ibsen, Woolf and Joyce and Faulkner, to say nothing of a raft of literary theory and criticism from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida and De Man. How would Tolkien measure up? And how, having taken classes on postcolonial literature and women’s literature, would I react to Tolkien’s more problematic depictions of race and gender?

Here’s the thing: I needn’t have worried. Yes, all the problematic stuff was there, but so was the deeper complexity of Tolkien’s world-building, the nuanced friendship of Sam and Frodo, the insoluble problem of Smeagol/Gollum, as well as Tolkien’s bravura descriptive prose that I appreciated in a way I could not when I was a callow teenager. There was also my greater appreciation of Tolkien the person. My professor posed a question to the class: why do you think Tolkien—scholar and translator of Norse and Teutonic sagas featuring such indomitable warriors as Beowulf—why did he, when he wrote his great epic, make diminutive halflings his heroes? Heroes who, she continued, proved doughtier than such Teutonic-adjacent heroes as Boromir?

Could it be, she suggested, that he was annoyed by the deployment of Norse and Teutonic myth by a certain 1930s dictator to bolster the fiction of a master race?

She then read to us Tolkien’s response to a Berlin publishing house interested in publishing a German translation of The Hobbit, but wanted confirmation of Tolkien’s Aryan bona fides before proceeding. Tolkien’s response remains one of the most professorial go fuck yourselves I’ve ever encountered:

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung [ancestry].

All of which is by way of saying: Tolkien was a product of his nation and his era. He was a complex person, and would almost certainly blanch at the Tolkien Society’s current roster of conference papers.

But then, he’d probably blanch at many of the ones in years past too.

NOTES

1. Anyone even halfway familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien would tell you that he most likely started spinning in his grave the moment he was interred and hasn’t paused much since. Some authors are generally indifferent to people’s interpretations of their work and are happy to let fans, academics, and adaptors have their own ideas; others retain a proprietary sense of their work, and will respond to negative reviews or interpretations they think miss the mark of what had been intended, as well as being antagonistic to the idea of someone else adapting their work to stage or screen. Tolkien was quite firmly in the latter category, often engaging in lengthy correspondence with fans in which he corrects their understanding of The Lord of the Rings with his own, especially with regards to allegorical or symbolic readings (with few exceptions, Tolkien adamantly maintained that there was no symbolism or allegory in LotR, and no correspondence to contemporary world-historical events). He was also quite bearish on the idea of adapting The Lord of the Rings to film, even though there was an American project in the works in 1958; in his letters, Tolkien communicates his antipathy quite clearly. One can only imagine what he would have thought of the allusions to Middle-Earth in the music of Rush and Led Zepplin, or Ralph Bakshi’s vaguely hallucinogenic animated film (much beloved by the guardians of “classic” SF/F). Whether he would have appreciated Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy is less certain, though the dilatory and overstuffed debacle of The Hobbit was surely responsible for seismic events in the vicinity of Tolkien’s grave. Compared to Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled, King Thranduil’s war moose, Legolas constantly defying the laws of physics, and the dwarves’ battle with Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain (I could go on), a paper titled “’Something Mighty Queer’: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien” is small beer.

2. That there is so much hate levied against The Last Jedi, while Revenge of the Sith apparently gets a pass, baffles me.

3. As one commenter observed, the fact that some people split off to form “The Society of Tolkien” is such pure Monty Python that it truly puts the absurdity of all this into context.

4. And it is by no means limited to academia. On the day I wrote this post, I also drove my partner Stephanie, who is a talented guitarist, out to Reed Music in Mount Pearl so she could purchase a Fender Telecaster. Unlike Steph, I am utterly unmusical. As we drove, I idly asked her what the difference was between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster. She then proceeded, very animatedly, to descend into guitarist-speak for the next ten minutes. After a certain point, she looked at me and said, “You didn’t understand any of that, did you?” To which I replied, “No, about ten seconds in, you started to sound like the adults in Charlie Brown specials.” But as I write this, she’s in the next room playing “Sultans of Swing” on her new guitar, and, really, that’s a language I speak just fine.

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Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, wingnuttery

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