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Sunday, June 4, Tolkien and Diversity Presentations (report)

4 July 2021 | Tolkien on the webRobin Anne Reid

This post is my report on the second day of presentations for Tolkien and Diversity which was (from the reports I’ve seen) attended by 592 people from 48 countries, a record that was made possible the virtual (and free!) format! …

I would like to highlight the scarcity of presentations drawing on critical race approaches and the extent to which the majority of presenters were white. Tolkien studies and Tolkien fandom are not safe spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). We must do better. The challenge going forward will be how the Tolkien Society — and every other Tolkien organization — builds on this effort especially given that the backlash has already begun. 

Second: the short descriptions I give for each cannot begin to convey the scope, theoretical strength, depth of analysis, and beauty of expression of the presentations. Moreover, the dialogue and connections between presentations created a stronger sense of coherence than many organized sessions” — I suspect that we owe thanks to Will who selected and organized the sixteen papers into a two-day event.

I am more familiar with the theory and methods in some presentations than others which is why some summaries are longer than other and which also means I may err in my summary. To the presenters: if you see any way in which I misrepresented your ideas or arguments, please feel free to send me a correction (robinareid AT fastmail DOT com).

Third: one thing I noticed in a lot of the attacks on the Tolkien Society and the presentations is how they copied and pasted the titles but never mentioned the names of the authors. 

I am including both in my report not only because of academic standards (the first thing one acknowledges is the writer/​author), but also because, as I read through piece after piece mocking the titles and the unnamed authors, I began to see the rhetoric as dehumanizing, as attempting to wipe out any awareness of the human beings who love Tolkien, who spend hours reading, writing, and thinking about Tolkien, and who have to much to share and teach us about their readings of Tolkien.…


☜ Click for full post text.

This post is my report on the second day of presentations for Tolkien and Diversity which was (from the reports I’ve seen) attended by 592 people from 48 countries, a record that was made possible the virtual (and free!) format!

Note to friends: as Shaun noted, we could attend free, but the Tolkien Society must fund the event. I became a member last year, and will renew this year, and also donated as well. If you want to support what they’re doing I would encourage you to become a member or consider donating, or both!

You can read my day one Day One Report here

I am purposely keeping these reports brief (for me!) for various reasons (mostly to be sure I get them finished and posted)!

First: I’ve been presenting on Tolkien, organizing conference sessions (for the International Congress for Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, and for the Tolkien Studies Area of the Popular Culture Conference) since 2004. I have also attended Tolkien-themed conferences created and run at their universities by Christopher Vaccaro and Brad Eden. I have done two bibliographic essays in which I review all the scholarship on a specific topic (female characters for one, race and Tolkien for the other). 

Takes deep breath

I have never seen a stronger group of presenters than I have for this two-day seminar – sixteen presentations all of the highest quality. I have Theories about why that is that I may post about later!

This Seminar is likely to prove a major historical moment for what one commenter on The OneR​ing​.net called the diversity” wing of Tolkien scholarship: there are five presentations on gender/​queer topics; two drawing on Disability and Trauma studies; three on translations (Russian, Polish, Chinese, Spanish); three reception studies (two on Anglophone fandom, one on reception, fan and academic, India); two by Indian scholars; one on indigeneity and anti-racism; and two on alterity more generally. Those add up to more than sixteen because some presentations count in two different categories! I feel pretty safe saying that there has never been this large a group of presentations on such diverse topics by such a diverse group.

That said, I would like to highlight the scarcity of presentations drawing on critical race approaches and the extent to which the majority of presenters were white. Tolkien studies and Tolkien fandom are not safe spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). We must do better. The challenge going forward will be how the Tolkien Society – and every other Tolkien organization – builds on this effort especially given that the backlash has already begun. 

Second: the short descriptions I give for each cannot begin to convey the scope, theoretical strength, depth of analysis, and beauty of expression of the presentations. Moreover, the dialogue and connections between presentations created a stronger sense of coherence than many organized sessions” — I suspect that we owe thanks to Will who selected and organized the sixteen papers into a two-day event.

I am more familiar with the theory and methods in some presentations than others which is why some summaries are longer than other and which also means I may err in my summary. To the presenters: if you see any way in which I misrepresented your ideas or arguments, please feel free to send me a correction (robinareid AT fastmail DOT com).

Third: one thing I noticed in a lot of the attacks on the Tolkien Society and the presentations is how they copied and pasted the titles but never mentioned the names of the authors. 

I am including both in my report not only because of academic standards (the first thing one acknowledges is the writer/​author), but also because, as I read through piece after piece mocking the titles and the unnamed authors, I began to see the rhetoric as dehumanizing, as attempting to wipe out any awareness of the human beings who love Tolkien, who spend hours reading, writing, and thinking about Tolkien, and who have to much to share and teach us about their readings of Tolkien. 

So, on to the presentations! 

Christopher Vaccaro Pardoning Saruman?: The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Disclaimer: This presentation is part of a larger essay that will be published in the anthology I am co-editing with Chris Vaccaro and Steve Yandell (‘We Could Do with a Bit More Queerness in These Parts’: Tolkien’s Queer Legendarium)

Chris’ title was one of the three I saw mocked most often in online commentary on the Seminar, the other two being Cordeliah’s and Danna’s. The patriarchal dudes were very threatened by the ideas of pardoning” Saruman, and one of commenters found Chris’ previously published essay on homoamory in Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings (a theoretical concept he has coined to add to homosocial, homoerotic, and homosexual). And of course there’s the scary Q word! (While there is no way to be sure of gender of online commenters, I did note that names attached to the writers and commenters of the pieces I read were mostly masculine sounding). Had any of them bothered to attend today to hear Chris’ presentation, they would have heard a brilliant analysis of the multiple versions Tolkien created of Saruman in the The Scouring of the Shire” (and Many Meetings”) chapters based on an analysis of the drafts at the Tolkien Archives at Marquette University. Earlier versions complicate the final version of Tolkien’s construction and punishment of Saruman by granting Saruman forgiveness and release rather than his death. In his essays, Chris draws on the medieval definitions of sodomitic vices” [newsflash to dudes: words change meanings over time!] which were pride, greed, and lasciviousness” to argue that Saruman’s alterior queerness” raises the question of Tolkien’s own ambiguous attitude toward the character. 

Sonali Chunodkar Desire of the Ring: An Indian Academic’s Adventures in her Quest for the Perilous Realm

Sonali’s presentation focuses on how Tolkien research and scholarship in India has changed since the first work began in the 1980s; before then, and I gather to some extent even today, work on such a popular text” was discouraged (an attitude that was common in Anglophone academia in the last century as well!). However, Sonali has clarified for me that today, fantasy fiction and other kinds of popular literature etc. are now considered a cool” topic, and their potential for yielding new, different insights in conjunction with various theoretical, methodological approaches is recognized.” In addition, the lack of access to English-language scholarship on Tolkien continue to what the second generations of scholars, like Sonali, are able to do in their research although recent developments (such as open-access journals and the Tolkien’s Society’s free virtual seminars) are making a global dialogue in Tolkien studies more attainable. In this context, Sonali discusses the complexities of Tolkien’s reception in India, including how translations fared; how the popularity of Jackson’s films have encouraged productions by Indian movie and television produces while supporting the image of Tolkien as an English author who wrote for white people. Sonali’s work challenges that image by analyzing the construction of the darker (brown-skinned) Harfoot hobbits, and Sam’s brown hands.” 

Robin Reid Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists, Oh, My!

I’m cheating here by just providing a shortened version of my proposal for my presentation!

This presentation is part of a larger project I began in 2018 that asks the question of how fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium who are atheists, agnostics, animists, or part of New Age movements interpret his work. Using a mixed methodology approach, I administered an online survey (approved by my university Institutional Review Board) asking for basic demographic information and respondents’ answers to open-ended questions. The questions allowed respondents to describe their beliefs or lack of belief; their experiences with and responses to organized religion, if any; their history of reading and of interpreting Tolkien’s work, and their responses to the tendency in popular and academic thought to assume that Tolkien’s Christian beliefs must shape readers’ interpretation of his work. I collected 112 completed surveys, but for this presentation I focus on how the 34% of the respondents who identified themselves as asexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, or queer and their responses to the questions about their experiences with religious institutions; their favorite work(s); what makes Tolkien’s work important to them, and how they deal with the assumption that his religious beliefs play a significant role in interpreting his work.

Joel Merriner Hidden Visions: Iconographies of Alterity in Soviet Bloc Illustrations for The Lord of the Rings

Joel’s work is in one of the under-represented areas of Tolkien studies, illustrations in translations of Tolkien’s fiction. Joel analyzes the iconography of illustrations by three illustrators of the 1980s Russian and Polish translationsd of The Lord of the Rings as examples of visual alterity in the context of the socio-political context of the Cold War. I lack the background to really understand what Joel was saying though found his discussion of specific illustrations fascinating despite feeling alienated by the illustrative choices made. I would like to be able to read his published work, with the analysis placed in close context with the illustrations, if that were possible. 

At the end of the seminar, Will announced the theme of the next Tolkien Society seminar, in November which (I think!) will be online, and which will be on Translation and Illustration — that’s an incredibly exciting theme both for being an area where much more work needs to be done and for being a topic which will, inevitably, integrate of the theories and methods associated with diversity” given how many languages around the world Tolkien’s work has been translated into. 

Eric Reinders Questions of Caste in The Lord of the Rings and its Multiple Chinese Translations

Like Joel’s presentation, Eric’s focuses on one of the gaps in Tolkien studies, the translations, focusing on a number of different translations of Tolkien’s work into Chinese, focusing primarily on how translations deal with the problematic language Tolkien used for Easterlings (sallow skin, slanted eyes). Eric also discusses commentary by Chinese readers posted online to discuss how they perceive the language relating to racial categories, and how Tolkien’s terminology is understood given common Chinese attitudes about race and the West. 

Dawn Walls-Thumma Stars Less Strange: An Analysis of Fanfiction and Representation within the Tolkien Fan Community

Dawn, who created and runs the Silmarillion Writer’s Guild, not only does scholarship on Tolkien’s fiction but also on fanfiction. She did a 2015 of Tolkien fanfiction fandom, and then redid it, in collaboration with Maria Alberto, in 2020, gathering information on how the demographics, beliefs, and activities of one of the oldest/​largest fanfic fandoms has changed over time. Her focus today was on the response of those in the fandom over time, as reported in the surveys, to attempts by fans who are members of marginalized groups to do reparative readings’ of Tolkien’s legendarium, stories that attempt to repair or address racism, sexism, and homophobia in the source text. 

Danna Petersen-Deeprose Something Mighty Queer”: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien

Disclaimer: This presentation is part of a larger essay that will be published in the anthology I am co-editing with Chris Vaccaro and Steve Yandell (‘We Could Do with a Bit More Queerness in These Parts’: Tolkien’s Queer Legendarium)

Danna’s title was one of the three I saw mocked most often in online commentary on the Seminar, the other two being Cordeliah’s and Chris. The patriarchal dudes were very threatened by the concept of cishetero amatonormativity” (and, of course, the Q word). The dudes attempted to dismiss the terms as jargon/​gibberish rather than recognizing specialized language coined by theorists in postmodern queer studies (and remember every single word that exists was made up by somebody!). Danna’s work is on the cutting edge of queer theory – just as Chris Vaccaro’s work on homoamory” is. In addition, Danna brings intersectional feminist and queer theories together to analyze relationships between characters (Bilbo, Frodo, and Rosie; Legolas and Gimli; Sauron and the powerful men and Elves he seduces in the Second Age) as non-traditional (that is, not normative/​normal), and not always involving sex or romance (that is not conforming to the traditional normative mode of cisgender and heterosexual love). Moving beyond individual characters Danna notes the number of ways in which some of Tolkien’s created races challenge essentialist concepts of gender: the Dwarves (all having masculine” traits including beards); the Elves (all beardless with long (“feminine”) hair), and the Ainur who choose their bodies. When Frodo and Sam’s queer and loving relationship is what leads to the destruction of the Ring and Merry and Éowyn are able to defeat the Lord of the Nazgul because neither is a man,” Tolkien’s destabilization of standard sexual, romantic, familial, and gender expectations is clear. 

Martha Celis-Mendoza Translation as a means of representation and diversity in Tolkien’s scholarship and fandom

Martha’s presentation was a wonderful finale to a fantastic two days of scholarship and was the third presentation on translation, representation, and diversity. I have never seen that many presentations on translation in any Tolkien conference or group of papers I’ve read: I am glad that the theme for the November seminar will be Translations and Illustrations.” Martha covered the complicated issue of translation Tolkien in Mexico where there are sixty languages, as well as the multiple version of Spanish that exist in South America

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date recorded 📅2021-08-12
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