jan howard finder: Prophet of Tolkien In Budapest?

By Bence Pintér: As a historian and journalist, I always found pleasure in flipping through old newspapers. In these times of lockdown, I happened to be fooling around in Arcanum Digitheca, Hungary’s “largest and continuously expanding” digital periodical database, looking for traces of old Hungarian fandom in the papers.

This is how I found my way to an article from 1973 in Magyar Ifjúság (Hungarian Youth – the official magazine of the Hungarian Young Communist League), about jan howard finder giving a lecture on Tolkien to Hungarian fans. An American fan giving lecture on Tolkien in Budapest long before the fall of communism and long before Tolkien was even published in Hungary?

That is an interesting story, I thought, then googled “jan howard finder file770”, since I never heard about him before, but was sure that I would find something here, and boy, was I right! So I gathered that maybe some of the readers of File770 could be interested in what jan howard finder told to the budding Hungarian fandom about Tolkien. But first let me present you some context with a little the help from Pálma Erdei’s fine dissertation about Hungarian sci-fi and fandom.

In Communist Hungary fannish activities seemingly preceded the official recognition of science fiction: the first Hungarian fanzine was created in 1968 at Berzsenyi Dániel High School, while the first state-approved science fiction collection, Cosmos Fantastic Books started publishing in 1969 at Móra, which was a publisher mainly of children’s fiction. (Of course there were some science fiction books published before this collection in the country, but few.)

The science fiction clubs also preceded Cosmos Fantastic Books: apart from the fanzine-making guys at Berzsenyi High, the first was founded in 1968 mostly by scientists, members of the Society for Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge (TIT is the Hungarian acronym for that one). At the end of 1973, TIT got 600 members, a network of clubs in major cities in Hungary, and a rather good fanzine named Pozitron.

The title of the article is ‘A fantázia új útjai’ (The New Ways of Fantasy), but you should know  that in Hungarian with ‘fantázia’ does not mean the genre, because we call that simply ‘fantasy’. Besides that, science fiction is also called ‘tudományos fantasztikum’, in which the first part means scientific, and ‘fantasztikum’ is a broader term which means sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

The journalist describes jan howard finder (an American chemistry teacher from West Germany, we are told) a ‘sci-fi specialist’ and a Tolkien-expert, then goes on to wonder about why The Lord of the Rings is science fiction. The answer to this question (drawn from finder’s lecture) is a bit confusing, since it do not try to sell LotR as sci-fi, but goes on detailing the plot. I assume that the translation was not really accurate, and/or the journalist was confused by these terms. Fantasy was not a thing in Hungary then, and rather similar ‘fantasztikum’ meant sci-fi as well.

I would not bore you with the plot summary, but it is funny: it’s like if I want to summarize LotR to my four-year-old. “…in the story there is a ring, which has various magical powers, and which was lost by the leading evil magician. The good side find the ring, but if somewone wears it, he is corrupted…” And so on and so forth. Later the journalist quotes finder to say: LotR is the reason why Western universities started to research science fiction, and also LotR is responsible for the rise in quality in science fiction.

In the next part Finder reflects on new wave: “Science fiction, like every genre, is in constant change. Science fiction concerning technology is only written in East Germany nowadays, because there this became the most notable subgenre. The latest development is ‘speculative fiction’. You should be prepared not just to write ‘speculative fiction’, but also to read it. Honestly, first I was really bored by the ‘new wave’, but soon I found that this is just a perfect ‘brain exercise’ Nowadays I am amused by ‘speculative fiction’.”

The he goes on to describe Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine by R. A. Lafferty, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and Zone Null by the Austrian Herbert W. Franke, which is wrongly attributed in the article to the German Wolfgang Jeschke. (There is a reason for that: the novel was in one volume with Jeschke’s short story collection.)

The journalist ends the article in this fashion: “One thing is sure: true SF does not mean space mysteries and space pulp anymore. The fans of SF only read sci-fi books sophisticated in style and message nowadays.”

While The Lord of the Rings was already a bestseller in 1973 for years, this is the first article in the Hungarian database which even mentions the massively successful book and its author. The Hobbit was published in 1975 in Hungarian, but until the publication of LotR in 1981, there were a total of six articles mentioning the book briefly. (One bears the title “Who is the Most Boring Writer?”, and is a translation of an article about which author is the most boring according to some students.) So it is no exaggeration to say that jan howard finder was like an evangelist prophesizing about a book that will be massively popular in Hungary also – twenty or thirty years later.

There is a quote from translator of the lecture in the article, who told the journalist that she wants to translate LotR, but it will be hard. In fact she will not be the one to translate the epic: most of the geographical and other names, and the first eleven chapters was translated by noted translator Ádám Réz, while the rest of the book was translated by future president Árpád Göncz (prose) and famous poet Dezso Tandori (poetry).


[Editor’s note: WordPress does not support one of the characters in Tandori’s first name, therefore a Latin character has been used instead. Apologies for the incorrect spelling. Also, finder spelled his name using lower case letters, thus the headline.]

6 thoughts on “jan howard finder: Prophet of Tolkien In Budapest?

  1. I knew finder had been in Europe quite a while, but not that he’d been evangelizing while he was there. (Not that I’m surprised….) Fascinating!

  2. Thanks for this interesting article. If you find anything else in your search of Hungarian newspapers, please let us know!

  3. wombat was a truly unique guy. He started tours of the LotR sites in New Zealand. He was the first chair of Albacon (Albany, NY).

    He started a practice of every time he bought a new car, he would pick it up in Chicago, then drive Route 66 to the end in LA as his break-in trip. He was coming through Albuquerque – where I live – and we hung out at a classic old-town hotel that was hosing an antique car show. He was one of the few who could out-talk me. There was a couple who just moved to town. I gave them some local info and lore, then wombat started in. In 2 hours, I got in a couple of comments, but it was pure wombat story telling.

    He was a true friend. We shared a room at the Worldcon in Denver. He crashed in my house a couple of times. It was always a joy to hang out with him. The year he died, Albacon was a relaxacon and I was able to attend. We shared many wombat stories, cried some good cries, and was able to support his girlfriend Otter.

    He was a Guest of Honor at several cons, including ConFrancisco. He was a frequent Masquerade judge, and panelist. He attracted a crowd when he was in story-telling mode – which was often.

    From his wikipedia page: He edited the 1982 anthology Alien Encounters (1982) Taplinger ISBN 0-8008-0168-7 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Howard_Finder)
    I read it and was very impressed at the selection. I have participated in the Contact Conference, which is an anthropological academic conference on what a First Contact might involve. So – I was already interested in the topic. There is a story where one of the humans is an anthropologist. His advise is ignored, and it does not turn out well for the humans.

    We miss you. You touched many fans. You taught us many things, both formally and jut being yourself. Ad Astra.

  4. jan told me a short version of his adventure into Hungary, and how beautiful Budapest was, even if it was a bit dingy at the time. The people were friendly, the fans were awesome. jan’s life motto was “why not?” so going into a comnunist country was just another adventure. And yes, proselytizing was what jan did when it came to LoTR.

    Thank you for one more piece of corroboration to jan’s many outrageous stories. Those of us who knew him well knew the more outrageous the story, the more likely it was to be true.

    Hi, bandit! Thank you.

  5. John Hertz responds by carrier pigeon:

    Thanks to bandit for Wombat stories. Many of us have them.

    Among much else I judged Masquerades with him, including Worldcons’.

    This is an exhilarating task but it’s plenty hard. You have to be perceptive during the show, articulate in the judges’ chamber, fair, wise, and quick.

    If there are fifty entries and you spend one minute discussing each you’ve been out for an hour.

    Without fail, once we retired for deliberation all the Wombatisms (which some people loved him for) fell away and he was wholly workmanlike.

    Still there were moments. One show opened with a huge AT-AT (all-terrain armored transport, from Star Wars) lumbering onstage.

    As I recall – maybe somebody will post a photo – it was seven feet high. The real ones, I mean the real imaginary ones, are ten times that.

    A tiny doll dangled from a cord: Luke Skywalker with his hoist cable.

    “Original” entries, things no one has seen, and “Re-Creation” entries, based on known images, are challenging in different ways. Everybody knew how this one should look. It did. It was awesome.

    And, as the band Chicago sang, it was only the beginning.

    The Wombat was next to me at the judges’ table. “It isn’t fair,” he moaned. “I want to go home.”

  6. Pingback: A magyar népmesék épp meghódítják a fantasyt, és ez egy elég jó dolog – Könyv Kuckó

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