QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
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.
Ive 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 theyre
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 fansthats 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,
were kind of nuts. Spell that NUTS. As a group we spend
more of our lives poring over Tolkiens writings and artistry than is
reasonable, and certainly more than well admit. We live and breathe his
fictional world as a basic factor in our lives, even using the term secondary
reality to describe it.
Its a genuine measure of our devotion when this mans 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: Its not pronounced tahl-KIN, its
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 Tolkiens work, for the stage, radio, or any visual media. "Its 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 Jacksons films, but I dont 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 McKellenyes, Gandalf himselfhas 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
He used the name Tolkien used, nasturtians (Indian Cress), and then
started to get email from some smart-ass who presumed to know better:
"Dont 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 youre 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 Tolkiens but he
was very definite about itremember 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 & Unwins printers changed the spelling to
nasturtiums when setting the first printing and felt Tolkiens 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
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 Tolkiens letter to Katherine Farrer of 7 August 1954.
And heres 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. Jarrolds 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 youre just talking to dons?
I says nasturtians, sir.
No, sir; thats 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?
I know youve heard this phrase a million times but think about it once more:
"the scope of Tolkiens 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. Thats
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 Tolkiens sagacity. That is why we are the fans we are. Other
readers give him credit only as a writer of charming childrens books, in the manner
of Harry Potter. Excuse me, those poor souls just dont 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 Im not down there
with them. Instead, Im examining my first edition Silmarillion,
double-checking my maps in Fonstads 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 Tolkiens work, no matter the time or effort it
Spoken like a true fan.
Much too hasty,