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3581Re: [mythsoc] Re: Article on Tolkien in _Salon_

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  • David S. Bratman
    Jun 10, 2001
      >At 06:30 AM 6/10/2001 +0000, Michael Martinez wrote:

      >Your credentials are different from mine. I founded a popular
      >science fiction and fantasy fan site. Of course, my pointing that
      >out may only underscore your point for you. Why would the media seek
      >me out to talk about Tolkien fandom if I wasn't perceived as an
      >online leader of or representative of Tolkien fandom, the "cult" I
      >say doesn't exist.

      I don't know what you think my credentials are, and I suppose I'm not sure
      what the interviewers think they are either. I was referred to Mooney as a
      Tolkien scholar, but he cited me as the editor of a Tolkien fan magazine:
      not very different credentials from yours. At any rate, despite my
      university affiliation (I'm a librarian), I'm actually an independent
      scholar - like Doug Anderson or Carl Hostetter - not a professor, so I
      don't expect outside observers necessarily to take me seriously as a
      scholar, even if the real professors are sometimes kind enough to do so.

      >Nonetheless, with all my fan contacts, I've yet to find anything
      >among Tolkien fans which resembles the fan groups devoted to other

      Well, maybe you have different contacts than I do. I've been, as I
      mentioned, reading Tolkien and contacting other Tolkienists for over 30
      years, and I never heard of you until a couple months ago, when I found
      your book listed when searching Amazon for new books on Tolkien. That's
      neither your fault nor mine: it just indicates the broad and disparate
      range of Tolkien fandom, and the danger of arguing a negative, that
      something does not exist.

      Just to improve my understanding of your Tolkien world, though, may I ask
      when you came across the Mythopoeic Society? Have you ever been a member
      of it, or of the (British) Tolkien Society, or any of a number of other
      print-based organizations? This is not to imply that there isn't Tolkien
      fandom outside the world of print-based organizations; far from it. But if
      I can go 20 years without having heard of you, I wonder how long you went
      without having heard of us; and if you did hear of us, why your obviously
      passionate interest in Tolkien did not earlier spill more prominently into
      places where we'd come across it.

      I don't think it will be useful to argue the definition of "quality" any
      more. Your definition is so broad as to render the term meaningless, in my
      opinion. If you wish to use the word "quality" in addressing me, please
      always attach an adjective so I know what sort of quality you're talking
      about. I think I've already demonstrated at too-great length that even
      those who like and defend "junk" (the term "eye candy" is often used by its
      defenders) differentiate enjoyability from quality (all right, literary
      quality - literary quality by their own standards, not someone
      else's). The adage, "one man's junk is another man's treasure" only
      demonstrates different types of value, not different types of quality. A
      book that's junk for reading may be an absolute treasure as a
      doorstop. That doesn't make it a book of quality, only a doorstop of
      quality. And a book may be enjoyable for other reasons than its
      quality. I've gotten huge treasurable enjoyment out of reading completely
      incompetent Tolkien scholarship: that doesn't make it scholarship of
      quality, or even a book of quality. Variations in evaluation may also be a
      result of different scales of specifically literary quality. It's there
      that the disagreements about Tolkien lie, and that would be a much more
      fruitful avenue of discussion than pursuing this definition up its own

      >That people defend Tolkien doesn't make Tolkien's readers a "cult".
      >By that definition, any author or playwrite's readers would be
      >a "cult".
      >That is the point. Shakespeareans are a cult if Tolkienists are a
      >cult. There can be no exceptions to such a generalization.

      Those who argue that Tolkien is a cult author are not doing so on the
      grounds that he's being defended. It's the nature of the defense, and the
      nature of the interest in him, that cause this reaction, fairly or
      otherwise. But if you lump together literary quality, popularity,
      enthusiasm, and sales as just different aspects of an undifferentiated
      "quality", you may not see this.

      >Attacks on Tolkien are few, far between, and extremely minor.

      See above about "different contacts." I wish I lived on your planet.

      >If the battle which seems to demand a defense of Tolkien is taking
      >place in academia, well, that's just academia. They are always
      >arguing about something, and today's academia has a generation of
      >Tolkien fans who express their appreciation through dissertations,
      >theses, and classes. I've been contacted by teachers, professors,
      >librarians, and graduate students around the world for years who want
      >to use some of my material. Tolkien is a juggernaut in the popular
      >imagination, but he is hardly weak and ineffectual in academia.

      I wasn't talking about academia, but media. But OK, let's talk about
      academia. It's certainly true, and delightfully so, that Tolkien is an
      author studied in great detail and with great enthusiasm in some academic
      circles, but these are extremely limited ones. When Tom Shippey inveighs
      against the academic dismissal of Tolkien, he is referring to something
      decidedly concrete, which I've heard testimony of from elsewhere. This
      can't be dismissed as "well, academics are always arguing about
      something." It's an argument of a different nature from, say, whether
      Milton was of Satan's party, or even whether Milton scholarship is passe.

      >> I know of nobody who argues that there was no Shakespeare. I do
      >> know of people who claim that the name was a pseudonym,....
      >Pretty much the same thing. Either there was a William Shakespeare
      >or there wasn't. Either one man wrote the plays or more than one
      >author wrote them.

      I know of nobody who argues that more than one author wrote the Shakespeare
      plays - even a now-obsolete fad for claiming that his works were the
      product of a committee of prominent Elizabethans is not the same thing as
      saying that he did not exist (instead, he was a committee) - except insofar
      as some of his lesser-known plays are collaborations and that he lifted
      some text directly from his sources, points acknowledged by conventional
      Shakespeare scholars. Arguing that the name was a pseudonym is not pretty
      much the same as arguing that there was no Shakespeare. Indeed, the most
      striking thing about the pseudonymists is how fervently they believe there
      was a Shakespeare, and that he fits the personal characteristics of their
      own favored candidate.

      >> I think you have no idea what I consider the popular conception of
      >> Tolkien to be. See below.
      >And perhaps you have no idea of what *I* consider to be the popular
      >conception of Tolkien. See above and elsewhere.

      I didn't when I first wrote. I did when I wrote my herein-quoted
      reply. My statements were a response to your elaboration of your
      view. But I should have phrased this differently: perhaps "I think we have
      entirely different ideas of what the popular conception of Tolkien is."

      >That WAS the 1960s. The "cult" was replaced by a wider audience in
      >the late 1960s and 1970s. The "cult" was just a passing phenomenon.

      First you say that you never encountered any Tolkien cultism perceptions
      until quite recently. Now you say that the 1960s cult doesn't count.

      I wasn't just talking about the 1960s. My examples were largely from the
      1970s and 80s, and are still valid today.

      >When The Silmarillion was published, it sold 750,000 copies from the
      >first printing in the United States alone. That is NOT a cult
      >phenomenon. And Unfinished Tales also became a bestseller. Many
      >people enjoyed both books immensely.

      And many didn't. And I already pointed out that the large sales of what
      many people perceived as an unreadable book was itself seized on as
      evidence of a "cult". This happens whenever a bestseller is strongly
      looked down upon. I don't recall the word "cult" being used about "The
      Bridges of Madison County", but the same perception was there.

      For someone who insists upon using the word "quality" to indicate any sort
      of appreciation or liking whatsoever, you're oddly narrow about your
      definition of "cult".

      >And there are now archives available on the Web for many news
      >organizations, some of which go back to the 1950s or beyond. The New
      >York Times, for example, created a special Tolkien section which
      >collected all its Tolkien articles. The "cult perception" is lacking
      >in their articles.

      That's one outlet. I could point to others, but why bother?

      How many volumes of "The History of Middle-earth" did the NYT review?

      >I've yet to see any documentation of such a cult. There is certainly
      >no mention of them among the fan groups I'm associated with. The
      >examples you list below are not clearly associated with one another.

      Which is why I won't bother to provide anything else - you won't accept it
      if you see it.

      >The difference between a cult and a fad, however, is persistence.

      Tolkien's popularity has lasted nearly 50 years since LOTR was published,
      35 years since the boom. Since this can no longer be dismissed as a fad -
      believe me, they tried to do so - now they call it a cult.

      >And fantasy gaming owes a great deal to other authors, not just

      Indeed, which is why I wrote "in a sense". Actually, many of these authors
      owe more to fantasy gaming than the other way around.

      >That's twice you've mentioned Russia.

      I only mentioned Russia once, I believe. Alexei Kondratiev mentioned it
      entirely independently, calling it "a Tolkien "cult" (fully justifying the

      >The Russians deserve
      >consideration, but even live-action Tolkien war games in Russia don't
      >define the cult that the media is looking for. How many of those
      >games are even mentioned in the West's news media?

      Now this is a curious sleight-of-hand argument. The actual existence of a
      cult is a different question from whether the media perception of one is
      accurate. The media are defining, or beginning to define, as a cult
      something that isn't, we're agreed on that. You go further and say there
      is no cult at all. Alexei and I point out that there is. You say that
      doesn't count because it's not what the media are looking at when they say
      "cult". But the media doesn't have to be looking at it for there to be
      one. And if your guess about future media reactions to Tolkien is correct,
      they'll probably find it.

      >But people are not mindless because they watch movies. By that
      >definition, anyone who watched a Greek play in ancient Athens would
      >have been mindless.

      Oh, I never said that. I said, "it's much easier for the mindless to watch
      a movie than read a book." That doesn't make all viewers mindless. Don't
      falsify me in this manner, or you shall see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.

      David Bratman
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