J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and "The Freedom of the Reader"

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I SEND YOU THE ENCLOSED impertinent contribution to my troubles," J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his publishing house Allen & Unwin in 1966 upon receiving a manuscript for a sequel to The Lord of the Rings from a fan who proposed to publish the work. Tolkien went on:

I do not know what the legal position is, I suppose that since one cannot claim property in inventing proper names, that there is no legal obstacle to this young ass publishing his sequel, if he could find any publisher, either respectable or disreputable, who would accept such tripe.

I have merely informed him that I have forwarded his letter and samples to you. I think that a suitable letter from Allen & Unwin might be more effective than one from me. I once had a similar proposal, couched in the most obsequious terms, from a young woman, and when I replied in the negative, I received a most vituperative letter. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien [Letters] 371)

What these (very brave) fans sent to Professor Tolkien were works of fanfiction: texts based on another or groups of texts that form a canon of characters, settings, or plots. Tolkien's response was instinctive and, like many authors, understandably defensive of his work, even though many studies have covered how Tolkien himself re-used mythic and medieval sources--a move that, as will be discussed, arguably makes his work fanfiction. Plenty of scholarship has dealt with Tolkien's derivativeness, especially from medieval canons, but almost nothing has been written about Tolkien's artistic strategies as fanfiction. (1) Although the scholarly Tolkien community has tried to distance itself from association with fan practices and activity, (2) much can be gained by applying fan theory not only to Tolkien's fans, but to Tolkien himself as a "fan" of medieval language and literature as well as an advocate of the freedom of the reader, an important cornerstone in fan studies. In fact, Tolkien's attitudes toward fanfiction writing turn out to be a good deal warmer than we might expect from the letter quoted above. Although Tolkien would of course have used different terminology in place of "fanfiction" (or even "source studies," preferring instead to use "sub-creation," "deep roots," and to talk instead about the "Cauldron" of story), he seems to have been at least theoretically open to the idea of fanfiction--even of his own work, and even in spite of the above example.

Internet sources can offer useful and relevant materials for discussing the nature and purpose of fan activity, reflect how Tolkien's approach to his works may have resembled such activities, and help us to speculate about how he might have viewed similar fan activities. The Tolkien Music List, for example, is an online collection of songs, artists, and album titles of music that are fanworks of Tolkien's legendarium, either in name or by theme. The home page quotes Letter 131 in part, where Tolkien (apparently rather magnanimously) writes that he had initially planned to "draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama" (Letters 144-45). Reid's study of competing discourse in Tolkien fandoms notes another fan's use of this quote in an online space, and claims that "this sentence, [as used] by a fan who cites Tolkien's authority for writing fan fiction (a complex subject in today's world of copyrights, intellectual property, and 'Cease and Desist' letters feared by fans) is a sophisticated rhetorical choice. Superficially, it can be read as a standard/academic/masculine appeal to an outside (in this case, canonical) authority" (Reid 359). From this alone, we are tempted to assume not only permission, but even a mandate from Tolkien for fanworks of his texts (though not necessarily fanfiction in the strictest sense) (3) to be created in art, music and drama (implicit still is to leave prose and poetry to Tolkien). …