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3584Re: Article on Tolkien in _Salon_

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  • Michael Martinez
    Jun 10, 2001
      --- In mythsoc@y..., "David S. Bratman" <dbratman@s...> wrote:
      > 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.

      I think a lot of people fling the phrase "Tolkien scholar" around
      without really having any idea of whether there is a correct usage
      for it. I've been called a Tolkien scholar by many people, but have
      never claimed to be one myself. I feel that anyone who doesn't go
      through a peer review process may have all their ducks in a row but
      is still a bit of a rogue.

      You, at least, participate in a more formal medium of scholarship
      than I do. And I don't think reporters come to me because I am
      a "Tolkien scholar" but rather because I am a "Tolkien writer". At
      least, that is how I've been portrayed in the news stories that have
      been brought to my attention ("Writer Michael Martinez says....")

      I now call myself an essayist, since I write essays and have
      published a book of essays. I HAVE written some scholarly stuff, and
      published a little of it, but I feel more comfortable as an outsider.

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

      Yes, well, I've often enough said you cannot prove a negative. But
      then, we seem to be referring to two different things. There is
      nothing in Tolkien fandom today like the groups of Star Wars and Star
      Trek and Babylon-5 fans who put on specialized conventions with
      masquerades and bring in actors and writers and producers to speak to
      them about those created universes.

      Middle-earth is growing but not in the same way. That process will

      > 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 remember when I first heard of the Mythopoeic Society, but
      that was many years ago. I joined it for a year around late 1997,
      IIRC, after a number of people had pressed me to do so for a few
      years. I contemplated submitting some of my research to Mythlore at
      the time, as I was publishing some research in other journals (of, I
      suppose, less stature than Mythlore, but people like my writing).

      Anyway, I knew of the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society,
      for many years before any of you heard of me. As for why my passion
      for Tolkien didn't spill into areas you'd have encountered it before,
      that's a long story that would bore even an Ent. I did not become
      active in fandom until 1992 or thereabouts, and have only gradually
      expanded my activity each year as my interests have connected with
      new topics. And my fandom activities started out small, as a "warm
      body, bless you" at a small Georgia convention.

      So, for years, my Tolkien research was limited only to my own
      pleasure, and occasional debates with friends.

      > 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.

      Actually, I agree with you on both points. But the word "quality",
      like many a good English noun, has long relied upon context for
      precision, and I did attempt to provide a context when I first
      started discussing "quality".

      Quality is always determined by value, and different value sets
      always apply different ratings of quality to the same things being

      > >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.

      I don't lump these things together, however, as I have striven to
      point out repeatedly. Furthermore, it may not have been your
      intention to imply that defending Tolkien establishes him as a cult
      author, but you did write (in response to me):

      >>I still run into this Tolkien cult
      >>nonsense and I just dismiss it. And I've pointed out to more than
      >>one reporter that when Shakespeare outsells Tolkien, I'll take the
      >>Bard a little more seriously than I have in the past.

      >That's a clever remark, but unfortunately it's also a cultish
      >defensive remark.

      In fact, in following up to you, I stressed the difference between
      quality measured by sales and literary quality:

      >Sales always equal quality in any entertainment medium, and there is
      >nothing cultish about the standard. The publishing, film, and other
      >entertainment industries have been using sales to measure quality
      >for decades.

      >Literary quality is just another, alternative arbitrary standard by
      >which to measure quality. It is no better or worse than sales.

      Something is of high quality if it meets some expectation for high
      quality. A badly written story which sells 1,000,000 copies is a
      high quality item (in terms of sales). Any major publisher would
      want more successes like that, regardless of the literary quality of
      the story.

      > >Attacks on Tolkien are few, far between, and extremely minor.
      > See above about "different contacts." I wish I lived on your
      > planet.

      It's called Earth. It does have its share of problems, though, such
      as occasional condescension in the face of different experiences.

      > >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....

      Yes, I know. I simply dismiss the media's "attacks" on Tolkien,
      since they aren't taken seriously by most people. The media is
      generally clueless and laughed at by the Tolkien
      community. "Generally" applies to both sides of the fence. There
      are exceptions on both sides.

      > ...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.

      It's all part of the world of academia. I've heard the same attacks
      pressed against Faulkner and Twain as against Tolkien, and different
      attacks. And I've seen plenty of defenses. Attack and defense are
      part of the academic method of "engaging in learned dialogue".
      Sometimes an attack is well-regarded.

      I've spent many an hour in a college library, pouring through
      literary journals, sifting through the overweighted ballyhoos of
      genteel professors who felt they had discovered something which would
      lay to rest all prior claims of authenticity or authority about a
      particular author. They are generally laughed at and derided in the
      next issue by their colleagues, or at least remonstrated for
      overlooking vital facts, or discarding entire sections of the
      relevant texts, etc., etc.

      Some of these dandified flame wars have also been archived on the
      Internet, but not many.

      Every time someone sets pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), they
      are writing the All-Time Greatest Revelation of True Knowledge. I
      think the best papers are the parodies that the academics write for
      their own amusement. As a crusading student I wasn't allowed to see
      those things, but I knew when the professors were discussing them. I
      still want to know what one Biologist meant when he exclaimed in the
      student center one day, "Paradigm! I didn't use that word! @$%
      ^$^#!!" and he got a round of laughter from his friends.

      > >> 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.

      We're drifting into differences of abstractions here. I use a very
      stringent rule of applicability with my terminology, undoubtedly
      because my computer science and mathematics professors drummed
      technical correctness into me. The study of literature doesn't
      demand precision the way abstract sciences do.

      > >> 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...

      I hadn't explained my view, let alone elaborated on it. I was, in
      fact, rather glibly referring to my view without explaining it,
      chiefly because I haven't been able to spend much time on the Net for
      the past couple of weeks. If I had more time, I could write more
      concisely and perhaps would need to do less explaining.

      > But I should have phrased this differently: perhaps "I think we
      > have entirely different ideas of what the popular conception of
      > Tolkien is."

      I can agree with that.

      > >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.

      And I am hardly contradicting myself. I didn't discover Tolkien
      until 1975, and at the time I was very involved with people in the
      commune movement who said things like, "Oh, yeah, Tolkien. I read
      him in the 60s." Not that I was an expert on communes and Tolkien
      fads, but he just wasn't getting that much attention in 1975.

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

      So, on which campuses is Tolkien still a college phenomenon? I've
      got quite a few college contacts, still. I haven't heard of any
      Tolkien raves in at least the last 20 years.

      You're being very broad and generic, and nothing you say in that
      respect will convince me there is some sort of Tolkien cult craze
      going on. The college crowds are into things like Anime, gaming,
      Harry Potter, Xena, Babylon-5, etc.

      People from all over the world (including the United States) contact
      me every day. I hear from a lot of Tolkien fans. They just fail to
      mention how their lives have been affected by Tolkien (in any of the
      ways you refer to). I don't hear from as many Wiccans as I used to
      (which I deem to be fortunate, as I always felt badly for them when I
      explained that Andre Norton's Witch World novels have nothing to do
      with Wicca, except for possibly a few borrowings of concepts).

      Admittedly, a cult phenomenon doesn't have to have any connection to
      the Internet. But I'm actively promoting a book about Tolkien and
      Middle-earth. I sat in a bookstore yesterday and talked to people
      about my book, Tolkien, the upcoming movies, etc., etc. Saw no sign
      of any cult (as in any sort of obsessive interest in Tolkien). A LOT
      of people knew Tolkien. Many were still surprised to hear that
      movies are coming out.

      But the most obsessive comment I heard from anyone was, "I'm still
      getting the soundtrack for Princess Mononoke" (this said to a

      I'm looking for the Tolkien cultists, actually. They might buy my
      book. :)

      If they are out there, they are very few in number, and they are NOT
      the people the media have in mind when they glibly dismiss Tolkien's
      readers as a "cult". The Tolkien cult to which I have referred is
      the imaginary cult the media goes looking for. They are looking for
      the dedicated fan groups like the Klingons, Storm Troopers, and
      Federation officers that are shown on television.

      Such people just are not a part of today's SF fandom. If ever they
      were, they were just participating in something which has now faded
      into the past.

      > >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.

      Then we're back to the point I made: if we are a Tolkien cult, then
      every Shakespearean is part of a Shakespearean cult. Every Norman
      Mailer fan, every person who looks forward to the next Jack Ryan
      novel is a member of some sort of cult. These people are obsessed.

      And we don't need to dwell on it. Which is why I dismiss it when the
      media approaches me looking for contacts in the "cult". I don't have
      any. I can put them into contact with thousands of Tolkien fans,
      many of whom have never heard of me. I can't put the media into
      contact with any obsessive fans who comprise some sort of popular
      cult. I don't know anyone like that, I don't know OF anyone like

      > 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".

      The word is used mostly of religious beliefs and practices. It is
      also applicable to obsessive behavior. SF fandom has a lot of
      obsessive groups. I have seen how Klingons can argue about honor and
      loyalty for days on end. They are very politically aligned, too.
      Just like the Klingons portrayed on television.

      What do Tolkien fans obsess about? The linguists, I suppose, come
      closest to meeting that criterion. But they don't strike me as being
      any more cultish about Tolkien than a typical historian. That is,
      the best Tolkien linguists seem to be pretty well-grounded in
      historical languages.

      [Re: NYT reviews, as 1 outlet of many, don't refer to any Tolkien

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

      1 or 2


      > >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.

      I would accept anything verifiable.

      > >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.

      Tolkien's popularity, however, is not a cult. The cult you allege
      exists is supposedly only a subset of Tolkien's readers: members of
      communes, people dressing up as Hobbits, etc.

      Just because someone says there is a cult doesn't mean there is. If
      there IS a cult, it shouldn't be hard to find. The cultists weren't
      exactly beating down our doors to get into Dragoncon's Tolkien and
      Middle-earth track last year, and I haven't heard from them yet
      (unless we're going to call the linguists cultists -- I can agree to
      that, though I don't mean to be condescending toward them).

      I could use a few costumed hobbits and rangers.

      > >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.

      Is it always your response to be insulting and inflammatory when you
      cannot get your own way? We WERE talking about the media, and no one
      bothered to suggest that we were discussing the Russian media, so
      it's hardly "sleight-of-hand" to try and keep the reference to the
      media who have contacted you and me. I believe the people who most
      upset you recently were American Prospect, were they not? And how
      closely associated is the New York Times with Russia?

      > 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.

      Then what the heck have you have been arguing on about? I merely
      pointed out that I don't cater to media perceptions about a Tolkien

      > You go further and say there
      > is no cult at all. Alexei and I point out that there is.

      But not where we've been talking about. If you have to go so far
      afield to find a Tolkien cult, then perhaps you should stop and
      consider whether it's really worth arguing over.

      > >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.

      Nonetheless, it does imply rather strongly that you feel qualified to
      label as mindless some unspecified mass of people who watch movies
      rather than read books.

      I take a dim view of people who resort to quick and easy insults.

      It's better to say you disagree with someone else, than to imply
      you're better than they are simply because you don't agree with them.
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