Purported Event Will Counter-Program the Seminar on Diversity in Tolkien

A little over a week ago the topics of papers scheduled to be presented at Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021 on July 3-4  drew criticism from conservative news sites and bloggers for focusing on “the many possible applications of ‘diversity’ within Tolkien’s works, his adaptations, and his readership.” Now a website for The Society of Tolkien – a sound-alike name, whose domain was just registered on June 17 – claims they will run an opposing online seminar on July 3.

Bounding Into Comics’ John F. Trent, a conservative news writer, devoted an article to the purported event: “The Society Of Tolkien Launches Counter-Programming In Response To The Tolkien Society’s “Tolkien And Diversity” Seminar” [Internet Archive link].

There are as yet no papers on the Society of Tolkien’s schedule [Internet Archive link.] They say this is what they are looking for:

When J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle Earth, he filled it with characters, themes, and dangers that leapt from the pages to intrigue, excite, and give hope to his readers. In these sessions, we’ll explore these concepts to celebrate all that makes his works stand the test of time and what we should take from them today.

Topics are 15 minutes each and may include but are not limited to:

  • Analysis of characters, situations, and linguistics in the books
  • Military doctrine and tactics portrayed in the books or movies
  • Themes, lessons, and allegories drawn from or used by Tolkien
  • Works influenced by Tolkien’s writing
  • Works which influenced Tolkien’s writing
  • Middle Earth history

And they say topics should not include:

  • Concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing
  • The Black Speech of Mordor
  • General foolishness

The new website for the Society of Tolkien consists of only four pages — the home page, the program schedule (all “TBD” except for opening and closing remarks by “Danger Casey”), a “What is this?” page, and an accounting page [both Internet Archive links] listing $94 of website expenses they’d like to recover from donations.

[Thanks to Robin Reid for the story. Illo by Teddy Harvia.]

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44 thoughts on “Purported Event Will Counter-Program the Seminar on Diversity in Tolkien

  1. Apparently Tolkien was a great believer in anonymity as no one over at that site, despite the use of the First Person narration on their About page, identifies themselves. And checking them on out on the Internet registration database is the same — they’ve declined to identify just who they are though their postal address is In Reykjavik. Going to be hard to run a con, errrr, event and stay anonymous, isn’t it?

  2. Tolkien wrote: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence” so it’s rather unseemly to invite talks on purported allegories in his work.

  3. I suppose the objection to Black Speech is a bad pun. While the set of exemplars of Black Speech is very small, a little bit of work could be done on reverse engineering its grammar, and speculating on the possible models. (Turkish? Hurrian?) Maybe this has already been done, but a review could be in order.

  4. How nice. That will let the Tolkien Society get on with its work, while the SoT (an unfortunate acronym) gets on with relieving furious conservatives of their money. Scholarly papers composed in the next 2 weeks should be – interesting.

  5. Well, we did say “if you object so much, make your own event.” so they did. Good for them, they’ll get to see just how big are the hordes of people scared away by talk of diversity compared to the hordes who go to see it.

    I suspect this will be roughly as successful as Castalia House was at taking over the market share of Tor.

  6. They also may be facing some opposition from the Tolkien Society as it’s generally not considered a good idea to closely copy the name of an existing legitimate organisation operating in the same realm. The name’s close enough that a good lawyer could make a case that they were in trademark violation.

    They could have called themselves say the Tolkien Association and not had this conflict.

  7. @Cat Eldridge

    They also may be facing some opposition from the Tolkien Society as it’s generally not considered a good idea to closely copy the name of an existing legitimate organisation operating in the same realm. The name’s close enough that a good lawyer could make a case that they were in trademark violation.

    The Tolkein Society hasn’t trademarked anything, which makes it much harder to say their trademarks are violated.

  8. Cool. Instead of hijacking the first event (like the Pups), those that so desire are doing their own thing. Perfectly reasonable and I wish them well.

  9. bill says The Tolkein Society hasn’t trademarked anything, which makes it much harder to say their trademarks are violated.

    You don’t actually have to trademark something to have trademark protection. Actual ongoing usage is enough to give implicit trademark protection. So another party using the words “Tolkein Society” to undertake the same mission could indeed be in violation of their trademark.

    And Christian Brunschen is right in saying that they likely can’t use it without the explicit permission of the Tolkien Estate. I certainly wouldn’t have tried.

  10. I’m doing the paper on queer atheists (agnostics and animists), so I am in an excellent position to point out that in fact “queerness” as a concept does exist in Tolkien’s work no matter how much some people might declare loudly that it does not.

    And by concept included in his writing, I mean that the words “queer/queerness” occur 13 times in the HOBBIT, and 60 times in LOTR — in both narrative voice and character dialogue, with a range of connotations/meanings, not all negative (Sam says that Tom Bombadil is queer, specifically that the hobbits could “go a good deal further and see naught better, nor queerer” when Tom leaves them outside Bree.)

    And the Oxford English Dictionary has pages of etymological information and varied meanings assigned to the word queer (in two noun and two adjective entries) that are all backed up with manymanymany quotes from sources where the word was used for centuries before Tolkien’s time, during, and after. And yes, the meanings changed and layered, but to try to argue that queerness was not a concept that existed until very recently is contradicted by loads of evidence. And many words change meanings over time which is why the OED is such a useful source (plus Tolkien worked for it!).

  11. Cora Buhlert says Maybe they could call it “Middle Earth Fringe”.

    They could but I wouldn’t want to go against Middle-earth Enterprises which controls usage of the brand. That company once successfully sued a the U.K. pub named The Hobbit, and a Birmingham cafe called the Hungry Hobbit as well.

  12. Something like :”Arda Fringe” or “Valinor Fringe” might work…but I doubt that any conservative outfit or group of people would want to go anywhere near the word Fringe anyhow.

  13. From the titel I get more of a The Corroding Empire vibe than a Fringe vibe. I think the want to make it posible to scam people into thinking they are the real think and making money for them. So somethink worse. I may be wrong.

    @robinareid: Congrats. This is interesting, but what is your paper about modern usage of the word or how Tolkiens time would have understand it? Of course to make it even more complicated, the word may have mean somethink differently, what we mean with the word did exist, just wasn’t talked about.

    Btw, some of the themes may be very modern, others should have played a role. You can not tell me that Physical Disability and Traumatic Stress weren’t topics that should play a role in a book that deals with a war, writen by someone who participated in a big one.

  14. @Cat Eldridge

    You don’t actually have to trademark something to have trademark protection.

    True, and I was very careful in my phrasing because of that.

    To follow up on what StefanB said, do any of the usages of “queer” and its derivatives in Tolkein reflect an overtly sexual meaning?

  15. @StefanB and Bill: Good questions/complicated to answer!

    First, the Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists presentation (which is a 15 minute talk to allow time for discussion) is about a survey I did of atheist, agnostic, animist readers of Tolkien. For this talk, I’ve pulled out the 38 (of 112) respondents who said they were members of one of the gender, romantic, or sexual minority communities (GRSM, an acronym I use instead of the growing LGBTQUIA+* term). The focus in this project is on analyzing how these readers interpret Tolkien. Academics are all about defining terms: here’s a short excerpt from my presentation about the only definition I give in the talk:

    Alexander Doty’s film monograph, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (Routledge, 2000), pages 6-7, where he lists six different definitions of “queer/queerness” that he has found in Queer Theory and scholarship. The definition that best fits the work I am doing in this presentation is 2.A: an “umbrella term: a. to pull together lesbian, and/or gay, and/or bisexual with little or no attention to differences (similar to certain uses of “gay” to mean lesbians, gay men, and sometimes, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered people).” My data shows that about 70% of my respondents are bisexual and/or pansexual, with the remaining 30% being asexual, gay, lesbian, or queer.

    Having analyzed my data, I can assure all and sundry that except for some very general references to fanfiction, there is NO sexy talk of any sort in this project!

    However, I’ve been working on other queer Tolkien projects for a while. I am co-editing an anthology with two medievalist friends of mine titled ‘We Could Do With a Bit More Queerness in These Parts’: Tolkien’s Queer Legendarium. (The quote is from the Gaffer, in the “Long Expected Party” chapter).

    I have the data on Tolkien’s use of queer/queerness in the HOB and LOTR (it’s not used at all in the SiLM, not surprisingly), for an essay I’m doing for the anthology. I say “data” because it comes from a corpus of Tolkien’s work (an electronic annotated database) created by another friend of mine (which is perfectly legitimate for scholarly purposes because it’s not online/available to anyone except the creator who kindly pulled out all the text in the novels that have the keyword queer/queer* in it.

    I’ve just started doing the analysis which involves identifying whether the word/phrase is used in the narrative voice, or in character dialogue; if in dialogue, what character is speaking (or reporting the dialogue of another character), what part of speech (noun or modifier), and what/who is being described as queer (Bilbo, Frodo, Tom Bombadil for example, or the Old Forest, Buckland, Hobbiton, etc.), and what other words are collocated (associated) with “queer/queerness” in the clause or sentence, and whether the associations are negative or positive (in my reading of the word in context).

    And with a word that is contested in terms of so many conflicting meanings as “queer,” it becomes very “slippery” in terms of claiming what was meant in any given usage. So I’ll have to defer answering the question of overt meaning for a while (though I’ll note that there is very little in Tolkien that is “overtly sexual” in any meaning of the word–including straightness! That was one of the complaints of the modernist critics — that there was no sex in it! They were not entirely wrong–it just depends on what you think “sex” in a novel should look like.)

    The word is often used negatively–but of course (as Verlyn Flieger pointed out in one of her presentations), a character’s opinion is not automatically the author’s. For instance, the Hobbiton hobbits think the Bucklanders are queer; Farmer Maggot thinks the Hobbiton folk are queer (and that Frodo should never have been/gone there)!

    One of Doty’s six definitions of “queer” is anything that is non-normative (similar to the dictionary meaning of “queer” as anything that is different/Other, not just limited to sexuality)–by that definition, Bilbo and Frodo in not marrying, in learning languages, in leaving the Shire to travel all around with Dwarves and other “queer folk,” are queer — in not conforming to what is expected of normal hobbits. But of course that type of queerness turns out to be positive for what they achieved!

    Bill: I will note that to limit the word queer to “overtly sexual” is a negative stereotype that has existed for decades and that current queer scholarship and activism oppose for all sorts of reasons. I’ll also note that none of the current scholarship I know of is interested in arguing whether character X or Y is/is not gay, homosexual, queer etc (which was the case in some earlier essays), nor in arguing about the author’s intentions or his religion.
    StefanB: the word may have mean somethink differently, what we mean with the word did exist, just wasn’t talked about.

    Thank you–yes, the OED draws from print sources only, and cannot give anything like a deep analysis of the multiple meanings of any word (people don’t restrict themselves to the dictionary meaning). It’s just a better source than dictionaries that just give the current basic meaning without all the complicated background.

    Saying “X word didn’t mean Y in Tolkien’s life” is complicated (he lived for decades! Things changed!), and also implies that Tolkien’s meaning/attitudes toward the word, the concept, the sin, whatever, were the same as everybody else’s which is not true. Heck, there are still multiple conflicting definitions today-some people see “queer” as a slur, while others see it a triumphant affirmation (and all gradations in between).

  16. @MSB: The Tolkien society publishes conference proceedings, and I’ll be submitting my piece to the proceedings — it may take a while to make its way into print, but the good news is that these proceedings are always very affordable.

    You can see information about past proceedings here: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/society/publications/other/

    I’m also going to be working on a book about The Whole Thing, meaning analysis of all the 112 responses I got, not just focusing on the queer readers.

  17. @robinreid: Please put out a link to the Proceedings afterwards – I’d like to pick up a copy (or ecopy)

  18. The Keywords Project has a useful history of the word “queer.” The sense “non-normative” is baked in from the get-go; the sense “homosexual” dates (in writing) to the 1890s and was thus almost certainly in use a decade earlier—making it as old as Tolkien himself.

  19. Pleased as well to see that the SoTs are bravely marching back to the 1980s of Tolkien criticism.

  20. Rob Barrett says Pleased as well to see that the SoTs are bravely marching back to the 1980s of Tolkien criticism.

    Given that their brains started apparently atrophying about that time, that’s appropriate.

  21. I wish people could register their disagreement with others without saying or implying that those others are (a) evil and/or (b) mentally defective. Remarks about people’s brains having atrophied, for example, signal within a group that All Of Us are cleverer, morally superior, etc. — and assume that everyone in the room will find the remark gratifying. As it happens, that’s not true at least this time. I’m really quite fed up with this kind of smug talk no matter whether I agree with the speaker or writer’s opinions or not. Come on, people, you can do better than that, or at least I hope so.

  22. I don’t think one needs the authority of the author to legitimate any particular reading of a text, but Tolkien’s well known comment about allegory seems relevant here. It’s a quote that I really struck me when I reread the novels, and it seems particularly relevant here.

    “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    Tolkien places a great deal of the freedom of the reader to interpret the novel based on their ‘thought and experience.’ Literature should inspire a creative engagement on the part of the reader, one that allows the reader to actively interpret the novel. He connects that to the concept of ‘applicability,’ which he sees connected to ‘history, true or feigned.’ He opposes that with allegory, which is rejected because it precludes this kind of freedom according to Tolkien, replacing it with ‘the purposed domination of the author.’

    In short, by insisting on Tolkien’s authority as the author, they reject his preferred engagement with his work.

  23. @Andrew (not Werdna): I have made a note in my paper file to be sure to announce it over here (but also reminding people that the virtual seminar is free, although registration is required, as well!).

  24. @robinareid — thanks for your response.

    to limit the word queer to “overtly sexual” is a negative stereotype

    I was not aware of this, did not intend to cause offense by homing in on that meaning, and apologize for having (possibly) given offense.
    I (and I think many others) tend to put “queer” into one of two categories: one which means strange/unusual/weird, and another which means not straight, sexually. Both are oversimplifications, and the Doty 2.A definition you quote above is a much more precise way of stating it. My question was an attempt to find out if Tolkien used only the former meaning, or possibly any of the latter (realizing that he may have used it in any of other contexts, as well.)

  25. @robinareid: Thanks for the reply, interesting stuff.

    I wasn’t aware that the modern meaning is kind of that old (In a much more negative way). Thanks Rob Barrett.

    I am a bit in the middle of anylysing a text. We all have our own interpretations of texts, but on the other hands what a writer wanted to say can be interesting, too. An interpretation that ignores that (Extreme case: Puppys and If you were a Dinosauer my love) can be a problem. Other point, I think it can be funny to analysis that, could also be interesting.

  26. When I first read the description of the programming for this event, I thought, “What a load of poppycock!” and then forgot it. It’s nothing to me how others spend (or waste) their time.

    However, I happen to be re-reading LotR and just came across this line:

    “‘My friend,’ said Gandalf, ‘You had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man who she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff that he leaned on.” (Emphasis added)

    Who know? Maybe there is a possible transgender or two-spirit interpretation of LotR. Wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.

  27. “Eoywn had spirit and courage of a man so she can’t be a cis-woman” is an argument that never fails to enrage me, and for that reason I avoid with determination anything likely to involve discussions of gender in LotR. I hate being told that women can’t be brave.

  28. @Miles and Nancy:. I know the “Hands of the King” presenter; their essay is one of several at the event which we accepted for our queer Tolkien Anthology. The paper is a out a fan fiction not about the legendarium.

  29. I’ve never quite understood how a guy as apparently anti-allegory as Tolkien could write an overt allegory himself (‘Leaf by Niggle’). I suspect that, like so many other things in life, it’s different when I do it…

  30. The Society of Tolkien has its second web event, “Mapping Middle-earth” by Kiran Saulnier, a Course Assistant at the University of Victoria.

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