Tolkien fandom is an international, informal community of fans of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, especially of the Middle-earth legendarium which includes The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
There are heavily contrasted internal divisions within the current "movement", which have racked the fandom up to the present day and show no signs of reconciliation at any point in the future. Written preference for any one of a pair of two diametrically opposed internal factions can be met with swift reprisal, although the differences are not necessarily or in all cases divisive.
A Ringer is recent coinage for a fan of The Lord of the Rings — somewhat in the same line as fanboys, fangirls, otaku, and Trekkies, but markedly different. One of the differences is that, whereas also every Star Trek fan is called a Trekker or Trekkie, not all Lord of the Rings fans agree on the designation of the group. Many people who consider themselves fans of Lord of the Rings do not find the posthumously published works of Tolkien like The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-earth to be interesting. Therefore, in some cases Ringer might apply to someone who is a fan of the Lord of the Rings books or movies, but not of Tolkien's extended work.
A Tolkienist is someone who studies the work of J.R.R. Tolkien: this usually refers to students of the Elvish languages (see Tolkien research). A Tolkienist can also be described as a hard-core fan of Tolkien's work, one who studies the work with the same amount of interest (or more) that others study non-fictional subjects. Many fans prefer this term, as it isn't limited to Lord of the Rings. As with the term Ringer, there is no group consensus on this designation.
There are also other, less widely used terms describing Tolkien fans, such as Tolkienite, Tolkienophile or Tolkiendil (an Anglo-Quenya compound). A very early term which was never widely adopted was LotRian.
Mainstream and Media Fans
The major divisions can best be explained in a chronological context.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was published in 1954 and The Hobbit prelude in 1937, and bootleg paperbacks eventually found their way into colleges in the U.S.A. in the 1960s. The "hippie" following latched onto the book, but a great many did so for possibly misguided reasons; some openly stated that they felt the Dark Lord Sauron represented the United States military draft during the Vietnam War; an impossibility given the fact that the work was written by a World War I veteran during World War II and published over a decade before escalations in Vietnam. This led to "mainstream" groups to label LotR as some sort of "hippie book", which was simply not the case: even Tolkien called them The Deplorable Cultus, stating that "Many American fans enjoy the books in a way which I do not".
Still, many people throughout the world simply fell in love with the book (as it has been translated into numerous languages), and although not everyone agrees that The Lord of the Rings actually created the entire fantasy genre of novels, it was certainly and undeniably a profound influence. It formed almost a "Myth of Er", in that it created a new genre where there was none before. Many fantasy series such as "The Sword of Shannara" and Dennis L. McKiernan's Mithgar series were created by fans of LotR.
Then, came what some Tolkien fans like to term the "Dark Times". Based on the hippie youth culture prevalent at the time, in the late 1970s Ralph Bakshi and others developed a series of animated films based on the Lord of the Rings. The problems that serious fans have with this movie cannot be fully listed: Period music and animation was used that didn't fit the work, the Hobbits were portrayed as childlike and in the case of Sam Gamgee, like a troll. Pacing was poor, and the acting was wooden. Worse, it was marketed as children's fantasy, when The Lord of The Rings is meant for an older audience. The series of movies was never finished, as the first one was a critical flop (and was thought by its distributor to be a financial flop as well, although this was not actually true). (It should be noted, however, that fans, hungry for any material related to The Lord of the Rings at all, watched the movie anyway.) The last effect was that the "mainstream" viewed LotR as "hippie-nonsense" even more, and the work that was probably one of the most mature fantasy novels became viewed otherwise.
Still, a massive fanbase of readers developed over the years. Many could be described as fanboys or geeks, under their Wikipedia definitions. Translated into dozens of languages and spread across the globe, The Lord of the Rings has never been out of print since its publication. The existing fanbase in the mid-1990s consisted of devoted fans, completely unused to having truly new material or any sort of mass-media acknowledgement, who paid strict attention to detail and continuity within the mythology.
With the release of the Peter Jackson live-action movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, each of the three movies release in serial from December 2001 to December 2003, The Lord of the Rings has gained a much broader audience.
Today, estimates vary wildly, but it would be fair to say that the fanbase is at least half female. A large number of fans have also arisen who have not read any of the books.
Organized Tolkien Fandom
Although there were active Tolkien enthusiasts within science fiction fandom from the mid-1950s, true organized Tolkien fandom only took off with the publication of the second hardcover edition and the paperbacks in the 1960s.
Articles on The Lord of the Rings appeared regularly in the 1960s fanzine Niekas, edited by Ed Meskys. The first organized Tolkien fan group was "The Fellowship of the Ring", founded by Ted Johnstone at Pittcon, the 1960 Worldcon. They published four issues of the fanzine i-Palantir before the organization disbanded.
The Tolkien Society of America first met "in February, 1965, beside the statue of Alma Mater on the Columbia University campus," according to a 1967 New York Times interview with Richard Plotz, the Society's founder and first Thain. By 1967, Meskys had become Thain and the society boasted over 1,000 members, primarily in the New York area, and was organized into local groups or smials, a pattern that would be followed by other Tolkien fan organizations. The society published a newsletter, Green Dragon, and The Tolkien Journal (edited by Plotz). In 1969, the society sponsored the first Tolkien Conference at Belknap College. The Tolkien Conference was not a "science fiction convention" but rather a scholarly event.
Across the continent, Glen GoodKnight founded the Mythopoeic Society in California in 1967 for the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantastic and mythic literature, especially the works of Tolkien and fellow-Inklings C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. The society held its first Mythcon conference in 1970, which featured readings, a costume competition, an art show, and other events typical of science fiction conventions of the day. The society's three current periodicals are Mythprint, a monthly bulletin; Mythlore, originally a fanzine and now a peer-reviewed journal that publishes scholarly articles on mythic and fantastic literature; and Mythic Circle, a literary annual of original poetry and short stories (which replaced the Society's earlier publications Mythril and Mythellany).
Orcrist and The Tolkien Journal published three joint issues (1969-1971). The Tolkien Journal and Mythlore published several joint issues in the later 1970s and eventually merged.
The Tolkien Society (U.K.) was founded in the U.K. in 1969, and remains active as a registered charity. The society has two regular publications, a bi-monthly bulletin of news and information, Amon Hen, and an annual journal, Mallorn, featuring critical articles and essays on Tolkien's work. They host several annual events, including a conference held at Oxford, Oxonmoot.
Both the U.K. Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society were and remain organized into "Special Interest Groups", focusing on one area such as languages, and into local or regional groups who continue to meet on a regular basis. The journal Parma Eldalamberon, founded in 1971, is a publication of one such special interest group of the Mythopoeic Society.
There is also a long tradition of organized Tolkien fandoms in Scandinavia. The Tolkien Society Forodrim was founded in Sweden in 1972, and has an especially active group interested in Tolkien's languages, Mellonath Daeron. Arthedain, the Tolkien Society of Norway was founded in 1981 and issues a journal Angerthas.
The major categories, in no particular order, are:
- Fans who read the books before the movies were released (or buzz about their release started in 2000), or at least not as a result of the ensuing hype.
- Fans who read the books after the first movie was released.
- Fans of the movies who have never read the books.
Fans who read the books before the movies came out fall into two or three categories (note that the terminology varies but the basic groups are the same):
- The Purists a.k.a. The Old Guard: Fans of LotR who felt the movies strayed too far from the books, and are nowhere as good as the books.
- On the other side of this "Great Schism" are fans of the books who also love the movies, and everything about them.
- Possibly the majority are those that like the books more, and disliked changes made in the movies, but on the whole could justify them for the medium of cinema and are willing to accept them on condition.
Further, there is a new wave of fans that did not read the books beforehand, but after hearing about or seeing the movie, have read the books and liked them. Although they sometimes lack the zealot-like devotion of pre-movie fans, they nonetheless seem "legitimate" fans to the Old Guard.
Finally, there are the fans of the movies who have not read the books. Some have just never had the time to read such a long work as the Lord of the Rings, but nonetheless understand that it is an adaptation. Many are (and are treated as) quite respectable fans. There are, however, exceptions.
One division of those fans that have read the books is:
- Fans who have read only the Lord of the Rings (and probably also the Hobbit)
- Fans who have also read the additional material such as the Silmarillion and the long series of uncompleted writings starting with the Unfinished Tales and culminating in the History of Middle-earth series.
This second group can be further divided:
- those who accept the published Silmarillion as Canon, and quantify or ignore the rest
- those who see the published Silmarillion as faulty in many parts, and who see stories from UT or the HoME as canon.
- those who accept that the mind of Tolkien was never fixed on a particular version, and who are happy to do without any "canon".
See Canon for an extended discussion on this second split.
There is also a subcategory, called 'Tolkienian linguists', which are people who are interested in Tolkien's fictional languages, mainly Elvish. These people study seriously the languages as if they were real ones (much like how Tolkien himself made them, with a virtual yet realistic etymology, evolution, grammar, vocabulary and alphabets).
A notable division occurs in that field among the
- purists and the
The former believe that Tolkien's languages, however sophisticated and well-made, are not intended to be regularised for practical use, but only for scholary study. The latter try to establish a standard and consistent system of the languages, often discarding Tolkien's experimental and abandoned forms, and often expand the vocabulary and grammar by reconstruction in order to translate names, phrases and poems. To the purists, these expansions are frowned down upon, as much as fan fiction, and they consider such attempts of systematisation futile.
The reconstructionists also prefer for this reason only the most later forms of Tolkien's creations, believing that earlier forms of his languages belong to a different universe (in a way that the Book of Lost Tales belongs in a different universe than the Silmarillion) and concentrate their studies on them. The purists prefer to regard all the forms of his languages as conceptual evolution of a single creation. Notable known reconstructionists include David Salo, the linguist who was mainly responsible for the reconstructed Quenya, Sindarin and other Tolkien languages in the movies.
An accusation from the purists against the reconstructionists is that the latter, trying to systematise everything according to logic and fit everything in their theories, come to hasty and biased assumptions that often contradict Tolkien's writings. Notable purists include Carl F. Hostetter, the editor of Vinyar Tengwar.
Effects of the films
The number of fans (and the number of people who will admit in public to being fans) has increased enormously due to the benefits of mass media and advertising, as has the number of people who have read of or at least heard of the books.
However, some of the new "Tolkien fans" are apparently unaware or uncaring that the films were based on a book. On points where the books and movie diverge, many book fans will accept changed scenes more or less, but new fans who have never read the books usually base beliefs about the mythology on the movie, beliefs which are contradictory to established canon. For example, movie fans might think Arwen is a warrior, which, while not entirely impossible within the actual story, is certainly not supported by any material published by Tolkien. (Similarily, all Elves are not automatically strong warriors and archers.) Arwen's strength in the book is emotional and possibly spiritual.
Highly debatable issues
Then there are the divisions inherent to the story; the "Do Balrogs have wings?" debate had reached legendary (and to outsiders often comical) proportions. The books are ambiguous on the matter, but the movies follow the interpretation that they did have "wings of shadow". Could they fly? Did they even need wings to fly? The bad blood (and bad jokes) caused by this debate persists to this day.
Other popular debates include "Do Elves have pointed ears?", "Who or what is Tom Bombadil?", and anything to do with any change or adaptation made for the movies.
Smaller internal divisions (some would say "spirited discussions") of this nature have fueled the online community for as long as there have been online communities. Tolkien discussion took place in many newsgroups from the earliest days of Usenet and an alt.fan.tolkien group was created in 1992, followed by rec.arts.books.tolkien early in 1993.
The most popular fansite is currently TheOneRing.net, which is very popular even with the cast and crew. TORn, as it is called, was originally a small movie-news site that gained in prestige as movie-rumors became reality. The filmmakers put special effort into winning over the fans, not simply tolerating but actually actively supporting fansites. Of these, TheOneRing.net is the most well-known and is probably responsible for popularizing the term Ringers. Fans who have avoided the hype surrounding the movie therefore may not use the term, so it is probably preferable to say "Tolkien fans" or "Lord of the Rings" fans when in doubt.
Another popular fansite is LOTRPlaza, which is a role-playing site that doubles as a forum to discuss everything from whether balrogs have wings to the best way to learn Sindarin.
Currently some fans are pushing for the adaptation of The Hobbit prelude as a feature film, although this may not start for another five years at least.
After that, there is a strong drive to have the Silmarillion adapted, although the Tolkien Estate has not sold the film rights. The Silmarillion could provide enough material to easily create two more trilogies*… at least, but is especially troublesome as it is not a single story.
*Strictly speaking, The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy but rather a single book that, for purposes of publication, is divided into three volumes. This is another issue of frequent debate.