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True Fans, Truly Obsessed

When you get right down to it, no one on earth has fans quite like the late John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Ringaholics, Tolkienites, Tree-hugging Hobbit-knockers, whatever label you want will fit just fine. Of course, "fan" is a state of mind as much as it is obvious behavior… and you can color fan-hood any number of ways.

I’ve been to concerts where fans are utterly rapt by the performers. Dead Can Dance is a prime example. Rare is the musical artist who casts such a spell of reverence over the audience they act like they’re in church. Have you ever been to a large comic book convention? I have twice met Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman, at such functions. It never fails that he is quickly mobbed by stumbling, sweaty fan-boys everywhere he goes (alas poor Neil). Popular personality Cher has several websites furnished by her adoring fans. Some focus on her music, some her acting career, and one even profiles her cosmetic surgeon. You get the idea.

But Tolkien fans–that’s a whole different ball of wax. As a lifelong aficionado of Middle-earth I speak with authority when I say: something sets us apart. We are a breed so unique that others pale in comparison. In fact, we’re kind of nuts. Spell that N—U—T—S. As a group we spend more of our lives poring over Tolkien’s writings and artistry than is reasonable, and certainly more than we’ll admit. We live and breathe his fictional world as a basic factor in our lives, even using the term secondary reality to describe it.

It’s a genuine measure of our devotion when this man’s work has seeped into our everyday world. What compels someone (me for example) to permanently mark their body with a tattoo of fiery Elvish letters? Have you ever memorized any phrases of Quenya that inspire you or named your goldfish Frodo? How many times have you corrected someone in conversation: It’s not pronounced tahl-KIN, it’s tohl-KEEN. Go ahead, admit it.

Now a whole new generation of Tolkien fans will come to the fore, via the movies. The fact that Peter Jackson is even attempting to film the LOTR Trilogy raises the hackles of a huge population. You may call these people purists. They are worried the films will not be true to the source. Indeed, they despise any adaptation of Tolkien’s work, for the stage, radio, or any visual media. "It’s all blasphemy," they say. "Nothing can hold a candle to the original. Ultimately these people will fail to manifest the profundity of his work." There are Shakespeare purists too, who function much the same way. Personally, I greatly respect and anticipate Jackson’s films, but I don’t envy him one bit. He has the toughest of all possible audiences to please. It will be a near impossible feat.

In the other corner, the really overbearing beat-you-to-death-if-you-forget-an-accent kind of fans can get out of control. Take the debate of nasturtians vs. nasturtiums. Our very own Sir Ian McKellen–yes, Gandalf himself–has been embroiled in the fixation of zealous Tolkien fans. Not long ago he wrote a wonderful Grey Book entry on his official website (www.mckellen.com) and in his description of the Hobbiton set he mentioned the little orange flowers planted there.

He used the name Tolkien used, ‘nasturtians’ (Indian Cress), and then started to get email from some smart-ass who presumed to know better:

"Don’t mean to be picky, but nasturTIUMS."

And since Sir Ian is a detail-oriented man, he decided to do some fact checking. You really must when you’re dealing with these types. He asked for clarification from his webmaster, Keith Stern, who is easily the most avid Tolkien-buff on the Pacific Coast and has a keen eye for details. This was the correspondence that followed:

The spelling ‘nasturtians’ was a quirk of Tolkien’s but he was very definite about it–remember he was a philologist. In LOTR he refers to ‘nasturtians’ and never ‘nasturtiums,’ so if the set designers are using ums instead of ans then they have made a mistake (I don't think they have, as ums would have only yellow or white flowers).
Even the editors for Allen & Unwin’s printers changed the spelling to ‘nasturtiums’ when setting the first printing and felt Tolkien’s wrath as a result.
So, to Tolkien at least, ‘nasturtian’ was used to refer to Indian Cress (Tropaeolum Majus). ‘Nasturtium’ might be used to refer to Watercress (Nasturtium officinale). …If you want to remain effortlessly true to Tolkien, spell it with an an.
You will certainly find gardeners, herbalists, and experts who call Indian Cress ‘Nasturtium’ and that is the most common spelling, but for some reason Tolkien (who was an avid gardener) was touchy about the difference– therefore so am I.
Your emailer better have some documentation to back up his/her claim. My main source is Tolkien’s letter to Katherine Farrer of 7 August 1954.

And here’s the text of that letter:

I am afraid there are still a number of ‘misprints’ in Vol. I! Including the one on p. 166. But nasturtians is deliberate, and represents a final triumph over the high-handed printers. Jarrold’s appear to have a highly educated pedant as a chief proof-reader, and they started correcting my English without even referring to me: elfin for elvin, farther for further, try to say for try and say and so on. I was put to the trouble of proving to him his own ignorance, as well as rebuking his impertinence. So, though I do not much care, I dug my toes in about nasturtians. I have always said this. It seems to be a natural anglicization that started soon after the ‘Indian Cress’ was naturalized (from Peru, I think) in the 18th century; but it remains a minority usage. I prefer it because nasturtium is, as it were, bogusly botanical, and falsely learned. I consulted the college gardener to this effect:
‘What do you call these things, gardener?’
‘I calls them tropaeolum, sir.’
‘But, when you’re just talking to dons?’
‘I says nasturtians, sir.’
‘Not nasturtium?’
‘No, sir; that’s watercress.’
And that seems to be the fact of botanical nomenclature…"

So now perhaps you have an idea of how the man operated. His exacting attention to detail brings out the best in his stories. It also brings out the most rabid fans.

But why are we so involved?

The answer lies with JRRT himself. He was more than a writer, he was a historian. He did not simply impose a plot on his characters and roll out mechanical dialogue. Deeper than any author of the 20th century he delved into the meticulous creation of a world. A world replete with its own genesis, geography, civilization, organic infrastructure and upwards of nineteen original languages (and alphabet systems!). Although we have only five books set in Middle-earth, within them Tolkien really gave us many thousands of years of history, sweeping and self-inclusive. This was his great achievement: an elaborate history wrapped within itself a hundred times over. He spent nearly 50 years writing The Silmarillion, and at the time of his death he still considered it incomplete.

As much as I enjoy the work of Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. LeGuin, and occasionally Piers Anthony, they never came close to what Tolkien did. Where do you find millions of passionate Terry Brooks fans who are as nuts as we are? You don’t.

I know you’ve heard this phrase a million times but think about it once more: "the scope of Tolkien’s creation…" Think again and then reflect on the focused mind that brought it to fruition. We recognize this man as a creative singularity because we grasp the Herculean effort that went into his books. That’s the quality in his authorship that inspires us the most. We readers who see beyond the trappings of the ‘adventure tale’ and sense the affectionate labor within are truly receptive to Tolkien’s sagacity. That is why we are the fans we are. Other readers give him credit only as a writer of charming children’s books, in the manner of Harry Potter. Excuse me, those poor souls just don’t get it.

Right now, I look out my window and see the bright blue swimming pool below. There I see my friends, glowing with sun-worship and sharing strawberry margaritas. The light plays on the water and I hear laughter and camaraderie. But I’m not down there with them. Instead, I’m examining my first edition Silmarillion, double-checking my maps in Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-earth, and making sure I put the perfect little accents on every Nazgûl and Palantír. I am driven to be thorough, to show respect for Tolkien’s work, no matter the time or effort it costs.

Spoken like a true fan.

Much too hasty,


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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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