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Fan Phenomena

The Lord of the Rings


Edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell


Bristol: Intellect Books, 2015

Paperback. 120 p. ISBN 978-1783205158. £15.50


Reviewed by Annie Birks

Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers




Tolkien scholars are usually suspicious of anything revolving around mercantile exploitation of Tolkien’s legendarium. They may even sympathise with Christopher Tolkien, custodian of his father’s literary legacy, who once bemoaned “the gap between the beauty, the gravitas of the [original] work and what it has become” and, in the same press article,(1) declared: “such degree of commercialisation reduces the aesthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing”. He regretted that the book had been “eviscerated” to give birth to “an action film for the 15 to 25 year olds”. In other words, his father’s heritage had become a source of “intellectual despair” and his father himself had turned into “a monster devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the time”.  Furthermore at the time the article was written, he expressed his fear for the adaptation of The Hobbit which was likely to be of the same ilk.(2)

Nevertheless, whatever opinion one might profess on the matter, there is no denying that the films can be regarded as “another road to Middle-earth”(3) (cf. the tremendous subsequent increase in book sales) even though one could argue that Jackson might have replaced Tolkien, even erased him as “some of Tolkien’s defenders” feared.(4) In fact Fan Phenomena : The Lord of the Rings shows to what extent Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings could be seen as a further illustration of what Tolkien called “applicability”, which he opposed to “allegory”.(5) Tolkien claimed that his stories were not based on topical references or on allegorical significance. He overtly disliked allegory which he viewed as “purposed domination of the author”, preferring instead what he called “applicability” to personal thoughts and experience, which therefore guaranteed “the freedom of the reader”.(6) Fan Phenomena : The Lord of the Rings is precisely a reflection on this principle. It illustrates the powerful ripple effects of Jackson’s own applicability—Jackson is a Tolkien fan himself—and the cultural and economic forces which have been emerging over the years from both the books and (principally here) the cinematic adaptations in terms of involvement, impact and influence.  

One might therefore not be surprised to learn, right from the start, that the author/editor, Lorna Piatti-Farnell (PhD, MA, BA with Honours, Loughborough University, UK) is director of the Popular Culture Research Centre at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. The book clearly stands as a tribute not just to fantasy, Tolkien, Jackson and to “one of the most active and creative communities of fans in the world”,(7) but it is also a tribute to New Zealand, a land which is viewed by some as “the perfect location for the filming of The Lord of the Rings” [49]. By bringing together a group of ten academics (including herself), Piatti-Farnell provides us with well-researched, efficiently-structured and informative data on direct and indirect forms of applicability of Tolkien’s most popular work. One detail however jars with the academic tone of the research:  the constant use of the word “trilogy”. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was not a trilogy but one whole story published in three volumes “owing to length and cost”.(8) The use of the word “trilogy” might be welcome for the sake of convenience but it should have been qualified as being a deliberate choice in an introductory note or in a footnote to avoid exasperating Tolkien specialists—even though the three films are described as such.

Fan Phenomena : The Lord of the Rings is an entry in a series of books devoted to fan culture published by Intellect Ltd (UK, Bristol and USA, the University of Chicago). The title list includes subjects of “massive visual appeal” such as Star Wars, Star Trek, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones(9) On the publisher’s site, one is told that the concept is not meant to provide a comprehensive approach but that it rather “means to ‘decode’ cult subjects in terms of the appeal and far reaching connections each of them have in becoming part of popular culture”.(10) Piatti-Farnell’s entry meets the objective. The phenomenon is examined from ten points of view, each covering key aspects and presented in separate chapters relevantly illustrated.

In the first chapter, “Making Fantasy Matter : The Lord of the Rings and the Legitimization of Fantasy Cinema”, Alexander Sergeant, shows to what extent the success of the films is not just due to the talent and dedication of the creative team involved but also to “the literary prestige of the source novel” [11], with its shared references and universal values. Sergeant refers to Tolkien’s principle of applicability which gives fantasy its true role and explains how Jackson’s adaptations set a standard for the genre whose popularity comes hand in hand with “a new era of critical legitimacy” by managing “to showcase the merits of fantasy to a traditional intellectual establishment” [11].

The second chapter, “The Lord of the Rings : One Digital Fandom to Initiate Them All”, reveals the role that Tolkien fans played in popularising awareness of the films at a time when social media and social networks were not yet born (Facebook was launched in 2004 and Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Rings was released in December 2001). The author, Maggie Parke, explains the part played by the fan site “”, founded in 1999 by a group of fans eager to engage in the adventure. The dedication and passionate attitude of the film-makers themselves, of some actors (like Elijah Wood who actually registered as a member) and the illustrators are also examined. There is no doubt that this paved the way to the paramount interaction on digital platforms between filmmakers and fans for subsequent adaptations (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent …) [24].

Concerning this second chapter one thing comes to mind. One may wonder why people (especially academics in this case) resort to phrases such as “One Digital Fandom to Initiate Them All” (title of the essay), “One fansite to rule them all” (title of a paragraph), “one franchise to teach them all” (last sentence of the essay) not to mention the name of the website “” (just to quote a few examples) ….  given the  explicit association with the “One Ring” forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, “One Ring to rule them all”, whose raison d’être is utterly evil. It is regrettable that fidelity to the spirit of the text has been sacrificed for the sake of coming up with a catch phrase—somewhat paradoxical if not ambiguous.

The third chapter, “Reforging the Rings : Fan Edits and the Cinematic Middle-earth”, is dedicated to the phenomenon of fan-editing. The author, Joshua Wille, picks up on a well-known conversation between Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis when both expressed their wish to write stories that they would like to read.(11)) Fans who skillfully master modern technology re-edit certain scenes, thus expressing their personal ways of viewing the story. Often they tend to reshape the film to get closer to the original novels. To finish with, Wille covers a representative selection of fan films.

The fourth chapter comes as a useful theoretical complement to the third. In his essay “Walking between Two Lands, or How Double Canon Works in The Lord of the Rings Fan Films”, Miguel Angel Pérez-Gomez suggests a way of studying canonical or serious fan films by resorting to canonical chronology: primary text (Tolkien’s mythic canon), secondary text (Peter Jackson’s aesthetic canon) and tertiary text (fanon’s canonical fan films) [37].(12) He then introduces us to a practical way of classifying fan films(13) depending on when the invented events take place in the existing story. Five major groups stand out: the sequels, the prequels, the midquels, the transquels and the paraquels [38-39]. The selection of fan films described comes as a judicious illustration.

In the fifth chapter “On Party Business : True-fan Celebrations in New Zealand’s Middle-earth”, Lorna Piatti-Farnell turns to the French sociologists and philosophers Bourdieu and Baudrillard to analyse the “symbolic capital” of “Parties in Hobbiton” without forgetting the “economic capital” involved [51-52]. By doing so Piatti-Farnell interestingly expands the meaning of the famous expression “party business”. If going to New Zealand and visiting the site is accessible to anybody who has the financial means, the actual “Hobbiton party experience” is a step further. Choosing Hobbiton as a venue for personal celebration (wedding, birthday …) and concretely partaking in the narrative (wearing clothes resembling those of one’s favourite characters, eating Middle-earth food …) involve a “consumption of signs” bestowing “a higher value to the site” and a means of authentication to the fans [Ibid.].

In what could be described as “Chapter Five Continued”, Piatti-Farnell adds an interview with the tenth and current Chairman of The Tolkien Society, Shaun Gunner. In this interview, Gunner expresses his opinion on the films and brings some more feedback on the fandom community. He explains that there have always been tensions and heated debates between those who were hostile to the films and those who were “unabated” enthusiasts. But it appears that the release of the Hobbit films has softened the way fans view The Lord of the Rings films, which are now considered much better adaptations. According to Gunner, debates among fans rather focus on character and plot changes but what most fans seem to agree on is the scenery of New Zealand, which—namely thanks to the illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee— corresponds to the way we could imagine Middle-earth. Gunner has also noticed that over the years Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings fandom has distanced itself from Tolkien fandom. Some fans have not read the books and do not intend to read them. However Gunner insists on the fact that we owe Jackson an enormous debt by introducing Tolkien to audiences who would never have heard of him. Finally although he would very much like to visit the film location in New Zealand, Gunner bemoans that there is unfortunately a lack of interest in the places in England which inspired Tolkien. He does not necessarily agree with those who see New Zealand as the true home of Middle-earth. It is precisely this general lack of interest in Birmingham and its area that brings us to the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter six is indeed written by a Tolkien fan from Birmingham. In “There, Here and Back Again : The Search for Middle-earth in Birmingham”, Emily M. Gray gives a personal account of her “ongoing fascination” with The Lord of the Rings which started with her interest in Led Zeppelin’s songs [65]. As a “proud Midlander” she insists that the true roots of Middle-earth are “in an around the city of Birmingham”, with its industrial past and postindustrial present [70]. She invites us to go on the Tolkien Trail and see the places which shaped many of the locations in his fiction (Sarehole Mill, the two towers of Edgbaston …). Owing to its situation in the Midlands, and “surrounded by the Black Country, which was, by all accounts, a hellish landscape in its heyday”, Birmingham is scarred by the effects of industry on the natural world (“belching factories”, “air thick with the metallic smell of industry” …) [67]. The links with Saruman’s destruction of Fangorn Forest and the scouring of the Shire are easy to make. Jackson imagined the impact of such key themes on the (yet) unspoilt scenery of his own country, which partly explains why Gray feels powerful links with New Zealand.

In Chapter Seven, “Looking for Lothíriel  : The Presence of Women in Tolkien Fandom”, the two authors, Cait Coker and Karen Viars remind us that the novels have a sixty-year history of fandom, not just a history of teenage fans in the age of the Internet. Among the Big Name fans, they quote Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Therefore Tolkien fanworks started a long time ago, namely in the late 1950s. The early fans—mostly women—who wrote about and interacted with the texts appear to share many concerns with contemporary fandom. Although “publication fanzine(14) runs were small” [75], some texts were written by professional authors such as Marion Zimmer Bradley(15) If Tolkien himself “had a polite relationship with his fans” (even though he was sometimes uncomfortable with “how the books were adopted by the counter-culture movement”), the Tolkien Estate (the legal body which manages the author’s literary legacy) appears, as one might expect, very protective towards Tolkien’s works, not only in terms of copyright and legal issues but also in terms of “textual ‘purity’”, “hierarchy of quality” and “adherence to Tolkien’s legendarium” [76]. The two contributors take the opportunity to emphasise the fact that fanfiction has allowed “the treatment and agency” of female characters reflecting “the concerns of contemporary women” with their own struggles [79]. Such is the case for example of the female character Lothíriel (the wife of King Éomer of Rohan) and obviously such is the case of Walsh and Boyens’ addition of the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit which has “appalled many book (and film) fans to their cores—but pleased many others” [80].

In chapter Eight, “Lords of the Franchise : The Lord of the Rings, IP Rights and Policing Appropriation”, Paul Mountfort traces the history of the battles over Intellectual Property rights since Tolkien sold the film rights in 1969. Mounfort explains how some battles have led to court cases involving a number of parties such as the Tolkien Estate, Middle-earth Enterprises, the American film producer Saul Zaentz, New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson. Mountfort compares the whole affair to the “Old Norse tale of the cursed ring Andvari, centerpiece of the Nibelungen-hoard, over which brothers slew brothers and dynastic houses fell” [85]. In spite of the 1000% increase in book sales, it appears clearly that the Tolkien family is not trying their best to promote Tolkien’s work. “Just the opposite”, as Adam Tolkien (grandson of the author) says. “We want to put the spotlight on that which is not The Lord of the Rings” [86]. Their concern is precisely to purge “material that violates the purity of the source texts”. This stance leads of course to potential problems as the Estate forbids anybody to commercially exploit any form of fan fiction. The chapter ends with a puzzling case study in “policing appropriation” involving Mountfort himself [89]. In 2000, he asked for authorisation to publish a book aimed at youthful fans, The Lord of the Rungs Runes. If Tolkien Enterprises (now known as Middle-earth Enterprises) expressed their interest in the project, the Tolkien Estate refused to go ahead. Mountfort concludes his essay by bitterly expressing his disappointment and rejoicing that the Norse mythology sources that inspired Tolkien were not protected by any franchise policy at the time.

In chapter Nine “Writing the Star : The Lord of the Rings and the Production of Star Narratives”, Anna Martin focuses on another form of fan interest encouraged by marketing strategy: Real Person Fan fiction. Contrary to fan fiction which deals with book or film characters, RPF is based on real people (movie stars, band members …) In the case of actors it seems that the sine qua non condition to RPF and the production of star images is the “resonance” between the character and the actor [99]. Everything therefore revolves around the celebrity culture phenomenon which on the one hand inspires fans and on the other hand fuels the production and marketing of star images. Martin explains to what extent film bonuses greatly contribute to create intimacy with the actors (by means of anecdotes, interviews…) Fans get the impression that they can grasp the real person behind the actor and feel inspired to write RPF. According to Martin, just like fan fiction in general, RPF is usually centred on love and sex. It appears that, “in the context of The Lord of the Rings RPF, the stories are usually homoerotic in nature” [103]. The chapter ends with an interesting case study featuring Vigo Mortensen.

The last chapter, “Understanding Fans’ ‘Precious’ : The Impact of The Lord of the Rings Films on The Hobbit Movies”, mainly focuses on the reception of The Hobbit. The author, Abigail G. Scheg, aims to demonstrate that “it was the rampant success of The Lord of the Rings movies which made it impossible for The Hobbit to be as successful a film endeavor.” [107] To begin with, she focuses on technical considerations: The Hobbit was shot at 48 frames per second as opposed to 24 for The Lords of the Rings, which theoretically made The Hobbit “much more life-like” and better in 3D, but also more susceptible to show imperfections in make-up and more specifically more difficult to reverse the age of actors like Legolas, who was not supposed to appear older than in The Lord of The Rings … [108]. Moreover a number of action scenes involving, for example, “Legolas’s rock-jumping capabilities” received negative feedback, partly because of their “sheer unbelievability” [109]. All the more so as “one of the significant charms of Tolkien’s stories was that he did create a thorough and well-rounded world” [Ibid.]

What could be added to support Scheg’s observations is that Tolkien’s major concern was to preserve what he called “the inner consistency of reality(16) and therefore to ensure that people could simply get inside the story “and take it (in a sense) as actual history”.(17) He held the view that if the story-maker’s art is successful, then literary belief is guaranteed: the reader enters the Secondary World thus created and if what is related accords with the laws within that world, the reader believes it while he is inside. However, “the moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed”.(18)  And the reader is back into the Primary World “looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside”. It is precisely this sort of disbelief that Scheg seems to highlight about the adaptation of The Hobbit. The chapter proceeds with a number of reviews on the general reception of both adaptations and ends with the idea that, nevertheless, “The Hobbit will undoubtedly become a classic movie series, praised by movie lovers, Tolkien aficionados and LOTR fans”[…] and that “fans will ultimately find themselves recognizing the Hobbit series as another one of their precious(19) films.” [113-114]

All in all, Fan Phenomena : The Lord of the Rings is certainly a useful and enjoyable source of information for both the general reader and any Tolkien scholar whose line of research does not necessarily address fandom. The ten essays fuel our understanding of what Tolkien called applicability (together with its ripple effects as The Lord of the Rings is herein approached primarily via the cinematic adaptations). The book demonstrates to what extent these fans do not just like the story but also “show a desire to be involved, to comment, to speculate, and, given the opportunity, to become part of the narrative of Middle-earth” [5]—hence their passionate production of fan edits, fan fiction, RPF, their trips to and true-fan celebrations in New Zealand, their fervour to search for roots….  Obviously one feels that the phenomenon could easily spread on a scale going from sincere flattery to unhealthy obsession but such could be said of any type of fandom. The carefully selected bibliographies at the end of each chapter will undoubtedly allow anyone interested to gain more insight into the reception of Tolkien’s works, Jackson’s adaptations and more specifically into fandom and its many ramifications.



(1) REROLLE, Raphaëlle, “Tolkien, l’anneau de la discorde”, Le Monde, Cahier du « Monde » N° 20983 (July 7, 2012). My translation from the French.

(2) See BIRKS, Annie, « Peter Jackson’s Adaptation of The Lord of the Rings : Cash or Kudos? », in Hither Shore :Tolkien Adaptations, (dir. Thomas FORNET-PONSE, Thomas HONEGGER), Düsseldorf, Scriptorium Oxoniae, 2014 : 26-43. This article analyses the results of a questionnaire answered by 2 352 students in the city of Angers (Loire Valley, France)

(3) See Tom SHIPPEY’s essay, “Another Road to Middle-earth : Jackson’s Movie Trilogy”, in Understanding The Lord of The Rings : the Best of Tolkien Criticism, (Rose A. ZIMBARDO & Neil D. ISAACS, eds.), New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

(4) SHIPPEY, Tom. “Temptations for All Time”, Review of The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson. Times Literary Supplement (December 21, 2001) : 16-17.

(5) TOLKIEN, J.R.R., The Fellowship of the Ring : The First Part of the Lord of the Rings. London: Allen & Unwin, [1954] 1981 : 11–12 (Foreword).

(6) Also see BIRKS, A., “Authorial Presence in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Minor Fiction : Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major Revisited”, in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, (Ailsa COX, ed.), Bristol: Intellect, 2012 : 31-41.

(7) The University of Chicago Press Books,

(8) See Letter N°165, p. 221 in CARPENTER, Humphrey (ed.).  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Tolkien wrote in a postscript: “P.S. The book is not of course a 'trilogy'. That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost. There is no real division into 3, nor is any one pan intelligible alone. The story was conceived and written as a whole and the only natural divisions are the 'books' I-VI (which originally had titles).”



(11) See Letter N°294, p. 378 in CARPENTER, Humphrey (ed.).  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, op.cit. : “L. [Lewis] said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.’ We agreed that he should try ‘space-travel’, and I should try ‘time-travel’. His result is well known. My effort, after a few promising chapters, ran dry: it was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend. The final scene survives as The Downfall of Númenor. This attracted Lewis greatly (as heard read), and reference to it occurs in several places in his works: e.g. ‘The Last of the Wine’, in his poems (Poems, 1964 : 40). We neither of us expected much success as amateurs, and actually Lewis had some difficulty in getting Out of the Silent Planet published. And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked – in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other’s fiction”.

(12) In the online Urban Dictionary, “fanon” is defined as “a term used in fanfiction to describe commonly accepted ideas among authors even if they are not actually expressed in the canon work.”

(13) Pérez-Gomez refers to a topology established by Mark J.P. Wolf, Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin and author of Building Imaginary Worlds : The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012).

(14) "Origin: 1940s (originally US): blend of fan and magazine”. “A magazine,usually produced by amateurs, for fans of a particular performer, group, or form of entertainment” (Online English Oxford Living Dictionaries).

(15) Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999).

(16) TOLKIEN, J.R.R., Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, London: Allen & Unwin, [1964, 1967] 1975 : 70.

(17) "CARPENTER, Humphrey, J.R.R. Tolkien : A Biography, London: Allen & Unwin, [1977] 1978 : 199.

(18) Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, op. cit. : 40-41.

(19) Again one could wonder why, in this particular statement, the author resorts to this adjective explicitly related to Gollum’s perception of the “One Ring”. Cf. comments on chapter 2 also concerning references to the “One Ring”.



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