Does Gender Matter?
Women, Tolkien, and the Online Fanfiction Community
About a year after the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien
and Middle-earth had
come into my life, I discovered the world of Internet-based fanfiction. I
had been exposed to a
little bit that was posted on the fan site TheOneRing.net, but I had assumed
it was a rarity.
Then I emailed a friend about her writings and received an eloquent,
passionate response. Armed
by her enthusiasm I dove headfirst into the Tolkien fanfiction community and
was astounded, not
only at some of the writings themselves, but also by the sheer number of
stories being written.
The more I read, the more questions I found forming in my mind. I wondered
if most of these
stories were written by women, as it seemed, though it could not be proved
since many writers use
pseudonyms. Consultation with a Tolkien scholar with a background in fandom
studies did confirm
that, on the whole, most fanfiction across genres is written by women. Then
I became more
curious: why were hundreds or even thousands of women writing new stories
set in Tolkien's world,
especially set within The Lord of the Rings (LotR), when there are so few women characters provided by Tolkien? Lisa Hopkins in her essay "Female Authority Figures in the Works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams" voices the sentiments I felt.
His [Tolkien's] books are of course notable on one level for their paucity of female characters:[…] And of the various forms of life that we encounter in the course of the books, it is notable that several species seem simply not to have any women: we meet no female trolls, for instance, the Entwives are missing, and an appendix to The Lord of the Rings informs us that dwarf-women are remarkably few in number- […] And yet this small number of women have a range of parts to play whose importance is remarkably disproportionate to their numbers […] What is perhaps even more remarkable is that women in Tolkien are not portrayed solely in the light of their relationships to men. (Hopkins, 364)
I decided to ask the writers themselves. My method will be described in more detail, but in overview, I researched the Tolkien fanfiction communities at yahoo.com and contacted the top ten by number of members, as well as the groups set up to write about Arwen and Éowyn in particular, and various other independent fanfiction sites. Over the course of two weeks I received 62 replies, and found myself awed, humbled, chastened, and surprised.
I am a woman and active member of Tolkien fandom. Before I discovered Tolkien fanfiction, I was an active participant on Tolkien Internet boards, flew cross-country to visit others of a like mind from a Tolkien chat room, and sewed my own costume and banner for a character from the Third Age (Finduilas of Dol Amroth). This essay will not, therefore, be objective. My position is that as written by Mia in her essay posted in June of 2000, "A Cyborg Subculture: Slash Fandom Online":
I cannot claim critical distance from my subject. Instead, I have chosen a participant ethnographical approach that engages with the model of […] criticism suggested by Jenkins, Jenkins and Green. [contributors to Theorizing Fandom] They argue that academic studies should take 'as a given that the fan community has meaningful things to contribute […] and their cultural studies will be enriched by listening to them speak.'
Method, Results and Terminology
In early February, 2003, I researched within groups.yahoo.com as well as uk.yahoo.com, ca.yahoo.com, and au.yahoo.com to see if there were Tolkien fanfiction communities based in North America and overseas. All of the fanfiction communities were within the North American yahoo.com setting. Since I was interested especially in those writers who were writing about Tolkien women characters, I also contacted the five groups that were women-focused or not as LotR focused. There are many individuals with their own sites and fanfiction communities so I attempted to contact many of them as well, and they are listed at the end of this essay. The survey that I posted consisted of a "cover letter" in which I introduced myself as being a member of the Tolkien fandom community about to embark on a scholarly paper on women writers of Tolkien fanfiction. I then included the survey of questions. I set up a Hotmail account to receive the surveys (email@example.com, dinenwen meaning "silent maiden" in Sindarin, the more common version of the Quenya language used by Tolkien's Elves) and from February 3rd to February 15th I received 62 replies. In the survey I indicated that I would not use any author's real names (unless they said that was how they wanted to be represented), so their pseudonyms or an anonymous indicator is used for all quotes from the responses received.
The focus of my questions related to the relationships of women writers of Tolkien fanfiction and the characters about which they write. Since the survey was sent by someone within the Tolkien fandom community, I believe that the responses received are more earnest and impassioned than they would have been if the questions were posited by someone acting in a more detached and clinical manner, thus distancing the responses. I phrased my questions within the context of this essay as a way for the opinions of these writers' voices to be heard, and I hope that this does so, with dignity and integrity. In researching the topic of fandom, I found many papers and books dealing with television- and film-based fandom, and many about the slash genre, but none that are unique to the Tolkien online fanfiction community. In a November 2002 article in the online version of Australia's The Age there is a reference, but only after leading the article with a Harry Potter fanfiction excerpt: "Young Harry may inspire the most scribes, but he is by no means alone in attracting attention. FanFiction.Net has more than 10,000 additions to Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings series." Consulting FanFiction.Net on March 16th, 2003, the number of stories in the Lord of the Rings category is now 16,820, an increase of 68% in 5 months.
The Tolkien online fanfiction community shares many terms with other fanfiction groups to describe attributes and genres of writing. People familiar with these communities and media studies in general will be familiar with these terms that appear in the responses submitted by the writers in this survey. These include Slash, OC or OFC (Original Character or Original Female Character), Mary Sue, and AU (Alternate Universe). These have been discussed in such fandom studies books as Textural Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith's work, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. One term that is unique to the Tolkien fanfiction community is Silmfic, indicating that the story is set during the time period of The Silmarillion, or the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth. A glossary of terms can be found in the Appendix of this essay, the definitions written with the Tolkien fanfiction community in mind.
The Tolkien Online Fanfiction Community: Motivation
To get a sense of the motivation of the writers within the Tolkien online fanfiction community, I asked "Have you asked yourself what it is about Tolkien's works that have inspired you to write your own stories? If so, what is your inspiration?" The replies broke down into three main categories: those who loved the depth and complexity of Tolkien's world, including geography, languages, and the feeling that they were taking active part within a grand mythology; those wanting to write about the "what ifs" and fill in the gaps of time and untold stories of characters, both canon and original; and those others who included having an affinity for a particular race (hobbits and Elves were most often mentioned) or resonating to the transcendent and moral themes of the stories. There was some overlap in response, but in essence the replies were as follows: Of the 62 replies, 22 (36%) were in the Tolkien's world group, five (8%) were a combination of Tolkien's world/"what if," 17 (27%) were "what if"/gap-filling and 18 (29%) were other. The overwhelming reason to write appears to be the sheer density of material contained within Tolkien's Middle-earth, even to the point that the characters themselves are inspiration for creation of these stories.
"No doubt it's the incredible depth and richness of Tolkien's world - his books span thousands of years and tell so many stories, and hint and allude at so many more. I'd have to say it's a mix of what he wrote and what he *didn't* write: there are so many tales only told in brief, asides not fully explained, fascinating characters only "onscreen" for a short time, etcetera - yet he provides enough background information for various time period and cultures that backstories *can* be plausibly developed by enterprising writers." Vulgarweed
The Tolkien Online Fanfiction Community: The Recent Explosion
"I've wanted to go to Middle-earth since I first read about it at age 12; by writing stories, I can live there, at least for a while. Tolkien's work is so rich and complex that it provides a satisfying and believable universe. .. Not 'real'? Frodo and Sam and all the rest are as real as if they live and breathe beside us." Nienna Calaquendi
"I love the high ideals that Tolkien's characters stand for. It reminds me somewhat of the stereotypical Old West (I am a big cowboy fan). The personalities are so noble and intriguing, I want to explore them and experiment with what Tolkien has given us. Also, as I want to be a professional author myself someday, there is no better way to learn than by imitating the greats!" Ciryatare
When I posted my survey, I was very unsure how many or few responses I would receive. To create a benchmark, I asked two questions that I thought would help to categorize the replies. One was "How long have you been writing Tolkien fanfic?", and the second was "How old are you?" This group is self-selected, and more conventional methods of statistical analysis were not used. The first question ended up not being of much use, as 55 out of 62 replies, or 89 percent, were sent by people who have been writing and posting Tolkien fanfiction for a year or less. It is possible that the replies I received are skewed in that those who are newer to the medium are perhaps also more likely to reply to a survey such as mine, being caught up in the first rush of participating in the fandom world. Many of the writers indicated that they had been writers in other fandoms prior to the release of the Peter Jackson movies, and after seeing the films they found themselves compelled to write in the Tolkien fanfiction community. These are some of the replies to the first question:
"Not very long. Just about a year, I suppose. I've loved the books for 20 years. But I guess I wouldn't have written fanfic other than just in my head if there weren't such an enthusiastic community…There was a Tolkien fanfic scene before the movies, but it was MUCH smaller, and the explosion of it seems to have brought a *lot* of us longtime book fans out of the woodwork to write and share stories." Vulgarweed
"I've written in other fandoms (Blake's 7, Deep Space Nine) for more than ten years, and these are very bleak, very cynical universes. Writing fiction based on Tolkien's work appears to have allowed me to explore my more romantic and idealistic streak!" Altariel
"Entirely too long. But seriously, I've been writing Tolkien fanfiction since I was about nine years old, if you believe it. So that would be, what? 9 or 10 years… I remember always wanting to know more about the characters than what was in the books. So even from the time I was about six years old, I remember making up stories about the characters from LOTR." Glorfindel's Girl
For further clarification of the writers' focus since the movies seemed to have sparked the sudden outpouring of new fanfiction, I asked these three questions, "Do you write about one particular character most of the time? If so, is s/he more closely based on the book character, the movie character/actor or a combination?" and "Would you say that your fanfic more closely resembles the books, movies or both?" The replies were as follows: of 62 replies, 25 (40%) said that their works were completely book based (often self-referred as canon-purists), 11 (18%) said their stories were movie based, and 25 (40%) said theirs were a combination of the two. One person did not answer.
Six writers, or one-tenth of those who replied, specified that their writings were primarily based within The Silmarillion. These writers, therefore, were not influenced by movie characters per se as The Silmarillion has not been made into a movie. That said, there are some characters in The Silmarillion who do feature in LotR, the Elves Elrond and Galadriel in particular, and the acknowledgement of the influence of the appearance of the movie actors on these characters was indicated by a couple of respondents. I emailed the writers who indicated that they set their works within this work exclusively and asked for clarification of what this meant to them. The answers revealed that their stories were set within the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth, not set exclusively within The Silmarillion text. Two writers in particular did specify that they did or did not use Unfinished Tales as an additional reference, since Tolkien was continuing to tweak the genealogy charts of his characters until his death, and there are some inconsistencies between The Silmarillion which was published in 1977 and those other writings that were permitted to be published as Christopher Tolkien worked his way through his father's writings and brought more of the history to, and ongoing manipulation of, Middle-earth to the public.
As for age, the respondents tended to be under 20 or over 30. My interpretation for this is that women under 23 are predominantly in school and have more time for creative pursuits such as fanfiction writing, while many women in their mid to late 20's and early 30's are at the beginning of their careers and/or getting married and having children. Of the 62 replies, 37 (60%) were under 22, five (8%) were between 22 and 30, and 18 (29%) were 31 or older. Two people did not answer. There were two replies that seemed interesting in regards to self-representation as most people write with pseudonyms:
"I hate to admit my age, it makes me feel like a child when I don't really consider myself as one… but I'm 15. Please don't relate the age to the hordes of screaming fangirls going behind the man who played Legolas…as much as I liked him, I like to believe I have a little more control." Yours Truly
Does gender matter?
"Age? Well, plenty old enough to read slash!" Tiriel
I posited my questions to the women writers in the Tolkien fanfiction community precisely because I thought that gender would be a factor in their writing. The responses that I received, however, made me rethink the whole question and th e relevancy of it to those women writing Tolkien fanfiction. It is impossible to judge or summarize the Tolkien fanfiction online community as it, as with Internet-based communities in general, is in a constant state of flux. That being stated, my initial reaction to reading fanfiction was, "Where are the explications and 'what-if' stories that could be written about the women characters in Tolkien's world?" It was in slash-centric websites, where male/male couplings and relationships held sway, where I began reading Tolkien fanfiction, and that colored my questions as I posted them to the fanfiction community. I had heard of writers who eliminated women characters, especially within the Third Age time period, in order to better accommodate the male relationships, so I was especially keen to hear from those writers outside of the non-Third Age time period, those who write Silmfic as well as those fanfiction Yahoo.groups which appeared to be more women-character centric, such as Aragorn_Arwen and Éowynfic. Mary Borsellino, who in her story series "Pretty Good Year" focuses on Rosie Cotton/Gamgee as a main character, also replied. Her series posted at her website (listed in the Appendix) is especially of interest in that it now has multiple writers contributing to the serial that she began, making it a shared universe within the fanfiction community. Overall the responses I received were quite varied, and a pattern has been difficult to distinguish.
There are many strong women characters included in Tolkien's works, though it is acknowledged that there are more in The Silmarillion than in LotR. Éowyn is a shieldmaiden, and yearns for battle, yet after the war of the ring she marries and, it is assumed, retreats to a more conventional domestic life. Arwen's story of choosing love over immortality is mostly left up to the reader to find in the Appendices. The Lord of the Rings is primarily a story of male friendships and the very real struggle of good against evil, as well as bravery, loyalty, sacrifice, joy, all things present in an epic work. I was curious as to whether or not women writers felt miffed or left out, and if so, would they "correct" the situation in their fanfiction. This has been done by some modern women fantasy writers who grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1960's. In her essay, "Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring," Faye Ringel makes reference to this phenomenon:
"The late twentieth-century writers are unanimous in believing that Tolkien should have swerved from this presumption in his attitude toward women, whether expressed overtly in characters such as Rosie Cotton or Arwen, or implicitly by their absence. They ask: Where are the Dwarf women? Must the Companions of the Ring be male? Gilman [Greer Gilman] notes that from her first reading of LR, she was disappointed in Tolkien's women, but adds, 'he's English- it's what you have to take.'" (Ringel, 166)
Some writers indicated that they do indeed supplement canon characters with OFCs while other writers had no interest in writing about women characters regardless of whether they were in the stories or not. Others indicated that the characters written by Tolkien were sufficient and they were content to write about them. Once I began receiving replies, I realized that my personal bias was unfortunately implied within some of the questions themselves, due to my enthusiasm and recent exposure to this particular fandom. Below are some responses, affirmative and then negative, to the question "Do you involve Tolkien's (albeit few) women characters? Why or why not?"
"I feel that there are enough women characters in Tolkien's works. Most of them don't have too much background, so it's a bit more time-consuming to build a believable backstory for them. I personally tend to write about the characters with more background, just so I can be more sure of not contradicting too much. Still, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales offer plenty of interesting female characters to write about. The only reason I haven't written much about them is due to lack of time." Aralanthiriel
"I like the idea of reading and rewriting the text from a feminist perspective - finding female characters to work with, and writing about their lives. I've not really done this as much as other writers have, I think." Altariel
"I actually have more fun filling in the gaps around the edges, putting (mostly female) people into places like the Prancing Pony, or the halls of Minas Tirith, or a dockside haven in Pelagir. At the moment, I'm simmering on an AU where the only child of Gilraen and Arathorn turns out to be a girl, rather than a boy." Meg Thornton
"I think that there is a need for some balance in the Tolkien Universe. There are many strong male characters, but few main females. And then, they resemble the stereotype of his time, I guess. What I don't like, I rewrite." Maram68
"Why not? To be painfully honest, because the woman characters just don't interest me to write them. I mean, I like reading about them in the books, and watching them in the movies (although not as much as the men I'm afraid) they do not interest me to write. Honestly I don't know why. Probably because I'd just much rather think about men. *blush*" Cassia
"Added to that is the emotional exploration of a male character, which to a female writer is the unfamiliar unexplored territory. It is interesting. In advertising it's often females who are used because it is assumed that it's what women want to be and men want to have. In fic women 'become' a male character and in slash it's what the other male characters want. Or I could just be perverted. Maybe its cos female characters by female writers always become Mary Sues." Alison Geller
"…on the whole, my writing stays mostly with the male side of things. After all, I cannot completely exclude Arwen or any other female character of the books since they did play some role in the masculine side of life Though my portrayals are strictly as book based as I can get. If Tolkien did not spend hours describing Éowyn's hair, then why should I?" Bill the Pony
"I don't find them as interesting as the interactions between the male characters. The problem is that Tolkien kept them out of the "action" so well, he made it difficult to incorporate them into any reasonable plotline in the story. And he kept them well out of the intense relationships that developed between the major characters. The only possible exception to this is Éowyn, but even when she traveled with them, she was dressed as a boy. This was done to death by Shakespeare, and since I don't consider myself anywhere NEAR that level, I tend to leave it to the experts." Anonymous
My questions about gender and authorship offended some people, while others felt it was a legitimate question to ask. I ended the survey with the opportunity for each survey participant to speak her mind, phrased as "If there is anything else you would care to include please write it!" The eloquence of many comments received should not be surprising given that this survey was posted to writers, many of whom indicated that writing is what they do for a living. A few replies that provide insight into the mindset of some writers within this fanfiction community are below:
"Why has my gender as a writer got anything to do with what I write? Am I not a person first? Why shouldn't female authors write male characters? Are men not people too? Why get so het up about this gender divide? Surely *everyone* can appreciate heroism, doubt, sacrifice, bravery etc. whatever set of private parts it comes with?" Marnie Goodbody
"Tolkien has LONG been considered the province of geeks only. I was a geek a long time before the movies came out and Tolkien got 'trendy'. I think it's only the TRUE geeks that really understand Tolkien's writings, rather than the story as its told in the movies. It's 'us' that actually have READ his writings and know the background to it, the whys, the fact that he had certain limitations to his writing (which really can't be considered 'good' by some standards), and the fact that he STILL managed to create such an incredible book, overcoming these obstacles. Unfortunately there is a lot of fanfic out there written by teenage movie groupies that take what Tolkien did and warp it to something that is not just 'bad writing' but not 'Tolkien'. They don't bother with anything BUT the movie view. And this, in my view, is a damn shame. They don't realise they are missing out on something really wonderful by reading and understanding the books. They see the movie as the be-all and end-all of Tolkien, and while the movie was astounding and wonderful in its holding to the world of Tolkien, there is so much more it can't possibly show." Anonymous
"I honestly don't 'get' much of the fanfiction that's out there, since it seems boring, flat, and shallow in the extreme. I want a story, and I want challenging ideas--I don't want someone else's erotic fantasy, clumsily written, thank you. I'd buy a bodice ripper if I did, and at least get some humor out of the historical bloopers […] I also disagree - vocally, but with supporting evidence - with all of the Sexist!Tolkien claptrap that is put forth, and my first published foray into the fanfiction world contains a number of suggestions for exploring canon or canon-compatible female characters in Middle-earth. (What about all those many 'lads and lasses' that Gandalf got to leave the Shire and go climb trees, visit Elves and even sail to other shores, for instance?) […] Like Lady Vaire, I try to weave *all* the stories, within my limited ability and time […] I'd rather read a well-told story on the experiences of those good-hearted folks, Barliman Butterbur and his employees, dealing with the Shire meltdown, than a Legolas romance with any character, be it an AU Aragorn or an equally AU tragic half-Elven princess fleeing an arranged marriage -- though I fear that I never shall unless I write it myself!" Philosopher At Large
I also asked whether these writers shared their passion for writing Tolkien-based fanfiction with others in the question "Have you told your friends and family that you write Tolkien fanfic?" The predominant answer was yes, as 36 people (58%) indicated that they did, albeit with varying levels of acceptability.
"I've told my brother and my best friend. My parents will just give me grief about not writing 'Real' stories, or things of my own creation." Zetta
"Some friends, yes, and my family knows I write quite a bit […] Fanfiction is something I write when I need a break from *really* writing, because I know that it will never truly be *mine*. It is part of someone else's universe, and it is easy to 'stand on the shoulders of genius' than to write something else." Liezl Ang
The next most common response were the 14 people (23%) who replied "some" or "yes and no," as the authors indicated that they had chosen to reveal their writing either to friends or family, but not both. Their replies indicated varying levels of support from friends and family, and for some, the ability for anonymity is key to their writing.
"I've told my close friends and my boyfriend. I wouldn't tell my family, or less-close friends because they'd be interested in reading it (and hence, would find out it's slash). It's a personal thing for me, because it's fantasy. That the internet makes it easy to remain anonymous makes it more acceptable to discuss it in this kind of forum." Anonymous
"Haven't told anyone I write /fic; friends too old & stuffy to understand. Family too, really. Don't actually know anyone with an LOTR fixation! Thank heavens for the net." Tiriel
The remaining 12 writers (19%) did not share their own writings with anyone close to them. When a reason was given, it was due to it being seen as unacceptable by the friends and family of the author.
"No, they consider I waste enough time on nonproductive pursuits as it is. I should be finishing one of my original novels instead." Philosopher At Large
Slash and Tolkien
Some of the authors who replied to this survey have dabbled in many fanfiction genres; some prefer one particular format. There are many categories of writing in the Tolkien fanfiction world, but the genres mentioned most often in the survey responses were: slash, drama, angst, h/c, AU, action/adventure and romance. Even within this particular fanfiction subculture, different people think of these categories in quite different ways.
Within the Tolkien fanfiction community slash seems to cover many things, from explicit NC-17 rated sexual encounters to extended musings on the many friendships present throughout Tolkien's works, especially those within the nine-character fellowship of the ring within LotR. This genre is not limited to male characters, however, and there appears to be a growing desire for "girlslash" with writings that focus on two or more women characters and a sexual plot. While slash has an implied sexual overtone, writers' views on what constitutes slash varies from writer to writer, as indicated in the following replies to the question, "Do you write in one particular style or multiple styles? (slash, h/c, AU, etc.)"
"I find slash fascinating to read, possibly because it's ostensibly written by young women for other young women; maybe we're just on the same wavelength!" Miss Kitty
Other Sub-genres and the Online Tolkien Fanfiction Community
"I write stories that are not easily classifiable… My largest stories deal with bi/homosexuality in Shire culture, but are not what I would term "slash". They address sexuality, rather than depict sex." Anglachel
"All my stories to date have been slash, partly because it is such fun to write, and partly because sexuality is one of those tantalizing glimpsed-out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye's in Tolkien." Vulgarweed
"I've written humor, adventure, romance…pretty much the entire gamut. Except slash: I just don't see characters in Middle-earth spending all their time playing psychosexual power games. Those folks have more on their minds." Viv
"Well, mostly hobbit slash (though only G/PG), because I so admire the deep love between Sam & Frodo and I can imagine that this love included sexual feelings as well, whether those were expressed or not. Another reason for me to be in the slash fandom is the understanding and accepting of homosexual love in this fandom that I never experienced in that way in the 'real world.'" Samantha Richter
Galadriel vs. Mary Sue
"Mary Sue" is the common term for fanfiction in which an OFC is introduced and acts out the fantasy of the author in her stead. In the replies that I received, the most derisive comments had to do with those who wrote in this genre. Within the Tolkien fanfiction communities, these self-inserts tend to involve the author and Legolas, to the point where a term has been coined: "Legomances." Mary Sues can be fertile ground for writers for Tolkien fanfiction, however, if the term is expanded to encompass any OFC, and these stories are sometimes encouraged as they require additional creativity on the part of the author. One Tolkien fanfiction site, Henneth Annûn, has had writer challenges for Mary Sue fanfiction, to prove the point that such stories can be written well. As others have written, often women authors of Mary Sues are inserting themselves into Tolkien's world to add some feminine qualities to the stories, while others want to imagine themselves romantically involv ed with the more movie-based characters.
OFCs are not derided across the board, and as comments below indicate, many writers are indeed adding new women characters into the expanded world of Middle-earth as envisioned by fanfiction writers. Many writers use a combination of OFCs and bringing more obscure canon women characters to the fore, especially when writing gap-filling works. There is a lot of possibility within this genre, as many of the mothers and daughters and everyday female citizens of Middle-earth exist in the books in name only, and Tolkien tended not to illuminate their psychological processes. Perhaps the personalities of those writers who prefer to do research and approach their Tolkien fanfiction from an analytical perspective are those writers more likely to fill in the gaps with fringe women characters, as it takes more effort. Or, as others have expressed, they write about them precisely because of the challenge to their creativity, sometimes to create a sort of counter-balance to the sheer number of male characters. Some responses about this are below:
"People who whine that they can't write female characters in JRRT fanfic because *he* doesn't write them extensively are just lazy. Or don't want to admit that they just want to write about hot guys […] Add sneer that they are sorely lacking in imagination, too. Read works by […] to get a clue as to how powerfully female characters can be written without making them into play toys of the guys." Anglachel
"I try not to take too much artistic license with my work, because I don't want to defile everything that Tolkien has written! He didn't give us very many female characters to work with, and if I work with one and develop them too much, it might not be what Tolkien had in mind. I wouldn't want that to happen." Ashley Davis
"… the whole Tolkien world is based in a sort of Medieval view of our world, give or take a few fantasy issues, and in middle ages women just weren't that important. Men were the warriors and the 'strong' ones in society, which is a ghost women of today are still struggling with. I, personally, like to identify myself with the warriors, and I like a good battle before a romance, which is what women were always involved on […] I liked Éowyn because she was woman/warrior in a society that didn't allow that.. if there were more women like her, perhaps I would write something there." Yours Truly
"I think it's essential to have more stories about Tolkien's female characters, although not necessarily stories with romance as their primary genre, if that is the genre at all. There should be more stories exploring these women and their pasts." Evening Nightshade
"I have created a few female characters of my own to supplement what I might feel is missing in Tolkien's work, and am quite pleased with them. I especially like the idea of female elven warriors. I think the big difference between my female characters and, say, Éowyn is that they're never women trying to act just like men. They are just strong female characters." Ciryatare
Putting Arwen out with the Entwives
Early in my discovery of Tolkien fanfiction I heard of writers purposefully removing some of the women characters, usually under the auspices of being able to elaborate on the male/male friendships so prevalent in Tolkien's works, especially LotR. With that in mind, I asked the question, "If you write AU fanfic, do you purposefully eliminate Tolkien's women characters? If so, why?" As the replies came in, I realized that AU, like the word "canon," varies greatly from author to author, and many writers were unsure as to whether or not they considered what they wrote to be included in that category. In addition, 25 of the 62 respondents (40%) wrote that they did not write in that genre at all. Only twelve people (19%) indicated that they did purposefully eliminate some of the women characters. Their reasons for doing so primarily focused on wanting to explore more fully the male relationships already present in Tolkien's works, especially from a psychological viewpoint. Some authors indicated that they did not want to take the time to more fully "flesh out" the women characters, but most wanted to write about the male relationships and so simply removed the women from the new plotline.
"Yes. They don't have anything to say. The men are the action and their foibles, worries, failings, greatness and emotions are the meat of the story to me […] Sorry to sound so down on this but the reason I do slash is that I am interested in men and their emotions. I have found that I cannot read het anymore after slash. I just can't be interested." Arcatpus
"I eliminate his and use my own. He doesn't develop any of them past Galadriel, and even her to a lesser degree than the boys. It's all about character development and what you can do with what the author gives you." Jae Noble
In 40 percent of the replies, 25 respondents, the authors indicated that they would never remove a woman character from any story that they wrote. Several of the replies were indignant in tone about the authors who do that in fanfiction, though it appeared to be common knowledge that within certain genres, the practice was not uncommon. Many people expanded on their answer to show that they were conscientiously building up the women characters in their stories, whether Tolkien's characters or new ones created for new stories.
"NO! Even when writing slash fic (Legolas/Aragorn) I always keep Arwen in there. All the characters have a purpose. And Éowyn's one of my favourite characters." Hathor
"Oh no, and I wouldn't. The ones he *did* give us are pretty excellent - I love Éowyn and Galadriel in particular. I love Lobelia Sackville-Baggins wailing on the Shire-usurpers with her anachronistic umbrella!" Vulgarweed
"I'm doing quite well with the ones he gave me!… This is a question about those people who eliminate Rosie in order to write Sam/Frodo porn epics, isn't it? Bah, I say to that. Bah. Rosie deserves porn epics too!" Mary Borsellino
Muses of Middle-earth
The use of the word "muse" jumped out at me in three of the replies to this survey, perhaps because I did not expect to see it used within this writing community. The three references were these: "my standard muse-trigger is usually 'what if,'" "I write, probably, the most on Legolas […] who now is my muse who picks on me when he wants me to write something." "I find that the Elves are my muse more than any other race." A Muse is traditionally known as one of the nine Greek goddesses who generously give or withhold creativity to those active in the world of the arts, literature and sciences. For writers of their own stories set in Middle-earth, these muses are very personal, and usually male. I emailed each author who had referenced her muse to get some clarification, and they each said that it was simply their term for their usual source of writing inspiration. The world of Middle-earth is, as Tolkien himself describes in his essay "On Fairy-stories," in the realm of Faërie, so it should not be surprising that authors sub-creating in that realm use a term such as "muse" to describe their inspirational spark. Perhaps like their more ancient Greek counterparts, these muses are quite active in the imagination of the author, as anyone choosing to write more stories in such a well-developed otherworld must have an inclination to the fantastic. I was a bit startled at the bold intersection of myth and Middle-earth present for some fanfiction writers; in reply to a review I submitted to an author (Isabeau Greenleaf) about a story featuring Gimli, she replied: "Thanks for the review, Thevina! I like Gimli, but he's never been my favorite character, so I was rather surprised one day when he hijacked my muse. Rather looking forward to him doing it again someday."
"Now, in *all* the fandoms I mentioned, I'd say the writers are about 97% female. It really doesn't matter whether there are female characters or not […] My theory is that bookish girls grew up reading so many stories with boy protagonists that we have developed an ability to imagine and identify cross-gender. My _imagination_ doesn't feel gendered at all, if that makes any sense; when I am reading or writing, I am not very conscious of *my* gender, or in fact of myself at all; that's the beauty of it! […] Even women who would never dream of writing fanfiction are pretty familiar with the experience of having a crush on a fictional character - and of course with women's attractions, physical attributes are only a small part of the story. We need to _know things_ about that person. Make them up, if necessary." Vulgarweed
The writers in the Tolkien online fanfiction community, as in other online fanfiction communities, appear to be mostly women. This was a surprise to me initially due to the predominance of male characters in Tolkien's works, especially in The Lord of the Rings, the time period in which much of the current fanfiction is being written. After consulting some of the canon works on the history of fanfiction as those by Jenkins and Cicioni, I discovered that this was the rule, not the exception. I sent out a survey to the current women writers of Tolkien fanfiction to see whether or not their writings were affected by the number of women characters in Tolkien's world, and the results I received were very mixed. Overwhelmingly, they write because they are inspired by the world that Tolkien created, and neither the gender of the characters nor of the authors is of primary concern. However, many authors acknowledge the paucity of well-developed women characters in Tolkien's writings, especially within LotR. Some have chosen to add new characters when writing their own fanfiction, others have filled in background stories to both the primary and secondary women characters. Several writers pointed out that the themes present in Tolkien's work transcend gender, and their gender as writers should also be irrelevant, that their stories should be judged by quality of writing alone. Is gender relevant to the authors of the tens of thousands of stories present in the online Tolkien community? The answer appears to be both yes and no. Some of the women authors within this fanfiction community write with their gender in mind, and are acutely aware of relating to Tolkien's few, yet integral, women characters. Other writers, however, distinguish their gender as irrelevant to the creative process, and pursue their stories with the characters present in Middle-earth, regardless of their gender. The one conclusion that can be drawn from this survey is that the writers in this fandom are not easily categorized, as their responses are as different from each other as are their stories in style and content, even though all are connected and inspired by Tolkien's Middle-earth.
Works Consulted and Appendix
Bitter, Victoria. Hosted.Insanity This website, re-accessed on 10 March, 2003, is no longer there. Originally accessed 3 February, 2003, at which time I emailed the author to let her know I wanted to quote her in this paper. She never replied. Further research at this site, Victoria Bitter's LiveJournal, reveals that she has withdrawn from the fanfiction world. "Sunday, November 3rd, 2002. 5:06 pm It has been unofficial for several months now, but I regret that I must now officially withdraw from online fandom…not just LotR, but all of it. I cannot go in to the various reasons, but I will always miss and treasure the kind and talented friends I've made here. This will be my last post."
Casimir, Jon. "For the love of…" The Age 1 Nov. 2002. The Age Accessed 31 Jan. 2003.
Cicioni, Mirna. "Male Pair-Bonds and Female Desire in Fan Slash Writing" Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity. Ed. Cheryl Harris, Alison Alexander. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1998.
Ellen, Barbara." Lord & Ladies: Film Women are Flocking to Heroic Epics." The Times [London] 10 Jan. 2003, Sec. 2, 13 and reader replies, "Women and Tolkien's epic" The Times 14 Jan. 2003, 36.
Green, Shoshanna, et al. "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking: Selections from The Terra Nostra Underground and Strange Bedfellows," Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity. Ed. Cheryl Harris, Alison Alexander. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1998.
Hopkins, Lisa "Female Authority Figures in the Works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams" Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992. California: The Mythopoeic Press and The Tolkien Society, 1995.
Jenkins, Henry. "The Poachers and the Stormtroopers" Spring 1998. The Poachers and the Stormtroopers Accessed 21 February, 2003.
Mia. "A Cyborg Subculture: Slash Fandom Online" Slash Fandom Online June 2000. Accessed 21 February, 2003. I sent an email to the author on 23 February, 2003, and I have yet to receive a response, so the last name of the author is unknown. Her website indicates that she has been on hiatus from that site since January of 2001.
Ringel, Faye. "Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring," J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Ed. George Clark, Daniel Timmons. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Plotz, David. "Luke Skywalker Is Gay?" 14 Apr. 2000. Slate article Accessed 21 February, 2003.
Glossary of Terms
AU: Alternate Universe, a story in which the original plotline is changed. Many stories can fall into this category, from anything that deviates at all from Tolkien's original text to bringing in characters from outside Middle-earth into the stories.
Canon: The actual definition varies from author to author, but essentially this means that the author is referencing the actual words of the original author, in this case, anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Within Tolkien fanfiction, this term is commonly used to indicate a difference from writings that are movie-based.
H/C: Hurt/comfort, a type of story in which the main character experiences some kind of physical trauma and is then cared for by another character.
Hetfic: Stories that include a heterosexual pairing of characters, usually used to differentiate itself from slash.
Mary Sue: A story that features a female non-canon character who is the author self-inserted in the story to act out her particular fantasy.
Nuzgûl: A unique Tolkien fanfiction word for "plot-bunny." A plot-bunny is an idea for a fanfiction story, often put out by an author who isn't able to focus on that topic but wants somebody else to write on it. A collection of such "bunnies" can be found in a "Nuzgûl hutch," and within some fandoms authors are encouraged to "adopt a Nuzgûl from the Nuzgûl hutch." Nuzgûl is from a typographical error spelling of Nazgûl.
OC or OFC: Original Character, or Original Female Character. A new character created by the author to supplement a story.
PWP: Plot, What Plot? Usually in reference to a slash story that focuses on the sexual interplay of the characters, with plot and psychological analysis secondary to the story.
Silmfic: Tolkien-based fanfiction set within the time frame of the First and Second Ages, with most canon references coming from The Silmarillion.
Slash: A term from the 1960's originally referring to fanfiction stories that paired together Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, as in "Kirk/Spock." Slash within the Tolkien community indicates that the story is about a same-sex pairing, though the actual sexual content varies widely and includes male/male, female/female, and interspecies, such as man/hobbit.
WIP: Work In Progress. A story not yet ready for reading as deemed by the author.
The top 10 Tolkien fanfiction groups by number of members in early February, 2003 were:
|Name of group
||Number of members
|Legolas Aragorn slash
The five women-character focused and non-Lord of the Rings fanfiction groups were these:
|Name of group
||Number of members
|Aragorn And Arwen
This is the cover-letter email and survey I posted on February 3, 2003.
"Hello, my name is Kristi and I'm a Tolkien fan…
Jokes aside, I do love Tolkien, to the point of co-founding a smial of the Tolkien Society and sewing a costume for "my" character, Finduilas of dol Amroth. I frequent TORn and their chat room, Barliman's. And now I am sitting in on a class on Tolkien being taught by the other co-founder and good friend of mine. Though I am not taking it for credit, I am writing a research paper. This is where you come in.
I only recently (in the past couple of months) discovered the seemingly bottomless pool of Tolkien fanfiction. I am amazed and intrigued! What I want to elaborate on and ask you about is this: Why are so many women compelled to write Tolkien fanfic since Tolkien's work is so male-dominated, and why is it that the fanfic itself tends to focus on the male characters? I have a survey of questions for women writers of fanfic. If you are willing to take the time and fill it out and send it to me, I would be most grateful. I want to discover what it is about Tolkien's work that inspires you to write your own stories, as well as why (on the whole) you write about the male characters instead of, say, filling in stories of Éowyn's childhood. Please let your voices be heard- I want to write about you. I've only scratched the surface of your fanfic and I have been overwhelmed by the obvious devotion and time you have put into your stories. I hope to hear from you- and please feel free to pass this along to any women Tolkien fanfic writers you know, regardless of genre: I am hoping to include people who write in all of the major genres, from G-rated "missing piece" stories to explicit slash.
I have an email account set up to receive the questionnaires, or to answer any questions that you may have. It is firstname.lastname@example.org. I very much look forward to hearing from you!
aka. Thevina Finduilas
Women Tolkien Fanfiction Writers Survey
~ How long have you been writing Tolkien fanfic?
~ How many stories have you written/published?
~Have you asked yourself what it is about Tolkien's works that have inspired you to write your own stories? If so, what is your inspiration?
~Do you write in one particular style or multiple styles? (slash, h/c, AU, etc.)
~ Do you write about one particular character, most of the time? If so, is s/he more closely based on the book character, the movie character/actor or a combination?
~ Would you say that your fanfic more closely resembles the books, movies or both?
~ Do you involve Tolkien's (albeit few) women characters in your writings? If not, why not?
~ Do you feel that if there were more women characters in Tolkien's works that you would write fanfic that involved them?
~ If you write AU fanfic, do you purposefully eliminate Tolkien's women characters? If so, why?
~ Have you told your friends and family that you write Tolkien fanfic?
~What is your age?
~ Do you mind being quoted? If not, would you prefer to be quoted under a particular pseudonym (please list it) or a random number?
***No real names will be used in this paper***
~ If there is anything else you would care to include please write it!"
Below is only a small sampling of online Tolkien fanfiction sites:
I received a tremendous amount of unsolicited but appreciated statistical information from the chief programmer of Henneth Annûn, enough to write another essay. Of interest to this paper is that the Henneth Annûn Story Archive (HASA) is able to provide searches via drop-down select boxes on the front page of the website. She indicated that from mid-November to February 3rd (when she replied to my survey) they had collected a sample of 54,087 searches. Included within the top 25 characters searched on the site, four were women, and two, Éowyn and Arwen, were in the top ten. I asked her how long HASA had been online, and she replied "HASA went live to the public on July 2, 2002. When it launched, it was getting about 15 visitors per day, almost all site members. It is now getting 2350+ visitors per day." (email correspondence, March 15 2003) It will be interesting to revisit this website in particular and the Tolkien fanfiction community in general in five year's time and see how it has changed.