Sunday, 11 July 2021

Tolkien and Diversity – and Tolkienian Inclusion

Re-reading this post before publishing it, I find that it appears a bit rambling or unstructured, but I haven't been able to do much to improve on it. I suspect that this is, at least partially, a result of trying to express some views that, while deeply felt, I haven't had much occasion to express in a coherent manner. If true, that could probably also explain why I have felt the need to resort to concrete examples to explain what I mean. 


I have, on this blog, already tried to indicate that I support the efforts of the Tolkien Society to open the society to be more inclusive of voices that have found it difficult to be heard, and of perspectives and readings of Tolkien that have long experienced being summarily – and perhaps even angrily – dismissed. I am well aware that these efforts are not new, but they have so far been kept in the academic domain, where they have, for many reasons, not disturbed the broader Tolkien community.

As a life-long member of the Guide and Scout Movement, firmly grounded in the Movements inclusive values[1], I welcome this and I embrace it. But I also recognise how extremely difficult it is – even for those who preach the inclusion – to actually practice it, when it comes to being inclusive of those whose views differ. Actually, my experiences in the Guide and Scout Movement has taught me to appreciate the need to coexist in constructive dialogue with people who hold views that I might find abhorrent.

This has taught me that I am not really inclusive myself before I can remain in constructive dialogue with such people: firmly stating my views, and firmly disagreeing with them, while still allowing that they are entitled to their opinions and views (though not to deny or contradict verifiable facts ... I am a physicist, after all 😉).


With that in mind, I have seen some rather dismissive comments about those who support the more traditional readings – e.g. about males who disagreed with a homoerotic reading of the relation between Frodo and Sam. Now, I haven't seen the comments that occasioned those dismissive comments, so they may, of course, have been entirely justified, but they made me think.

How would I express the fact that I read the text differently?

How would I express the fact that I believe that Tolkien intended the text differently?

How would I ask the other person to allow that my reading is also possible?


A few examples, not necessarily of how I would react, but of how I would want to react – of how I believe that my Scout Promise would commit me to do my best, to strive, to react (the opinions portrayed are to some extent caricatured, the responses are my honest views & opinions).

Opinion: “Frodo and Sam's relation is homoerotic.”

Response: “Now that's an interesting reading – I can see how you can arrive at that understanding, though I have to say that I have always, myself, understood it differently." 


Opinion (referring to the opinion above): “This is an affront against Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic!” 

Response: “Well, I think this would come under the freedom of the reader that Tolkien himself allowed as ‘applicability’. While I am, for my own part, inclined to at least agree with you that Tolkien's personal reading would be different, I also think that this reading is possible, and in no way an affront to Tolkien. Actually I like to believe that he would be happy to learn that the homosexual community can find applicability and identification in his work, even if he probably didn't himself intend the relation to be homoerotic.”


Opinion: “Fan-fiction is the most interesting topic in Tolkien studies!”

Response: “I am really happy for you that you enjoy fan fiction. I have never really found it particularly appealing or interesting myself, but I think it's great that others like it. It's certainly a field that deserves academic research, though for my own sake, I have found it difficult to see how such studies can inform my understanding of Tolkien – maybe you can help me with that?”


Opinion: “You can only understand Tolkien by reading him through a Christian lens!”

Response: “Hmm ... for my own part, I have found that the Christian – and indeed Catholic – lens has helped me see and understand some things or connections in Tolkien's work, that I hadn't discovered otherwise, but I don't agree that this is necessary to understand and appreciate his work per se, nor do I think that this lens is more important than e.g. the philological/linguistic lens or the lens of the pagan Northern Spirit, or the Classical Greek and Roman mythologies. All of these lenses, and probably more, in my view, contribute equally to inform my reading and understanding and appreciation of Tolkien's work.”


And so on and so on. 

Surely you get the idea? 


I would have loved to have a paper at the Tolkien Society Seminar, “Tolkien and Diversity”, that would have promoted a firmly Catholic reading of e.g. The Lord of the Rings, though, in the spirit of the seminar, it would, of course, have been inappropriate for such a paper to claim a monopoly as a lens for understanding and appreciating the book. Unfortunately, there seems to have been no such paper proposed (I will refrain from speculating as to the reasons for this absence, as my speculations might end up being uncharitable) – next time (yes, I do hope that there will be a ‘next time’ for this important theme), I hope that we can see an even larger diversity of readings and reading lenses represented – one that also includes the more traditional lenses, so that we can have a scholarly dialogue between these perspectives.


Notes

  1. Readers whose impression of our movement is based on e.g. the attitudes of the Boy Scouts of America of 15 years ago might find this a bit puzzling, but please believe me when I say that they were not representative of the Movement as a whole. Back

Saturday, 3 July 2021

The Tolkien Society Seminar 2021 – part 2

I have been wanting to post more about the 2021 Tolkien Society Seminar on “Tolkien and Diversity” (I started writing “Diversity and Inclusion” ... that'd be my Scouting & Guiding background ?), but time has been scarce over the past few weeks for me to be able to say something coherent on this topic prior to the start of the seminar.

So, I will start out with a link to the programme of the “Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021

Due to family planning, I have been unable to follow the first papers until the break, where I had particularly looked forward to the paper by Sara Brown. Alas!

The four papers after the break have all been brilliant, and as Shaun Gunner, the Chair of the Tolkien Society, pointed out in his remarks closing out the first day, no-one have tried to rewrite the books or tried to speak for or on behalf of Tolkien himself. And that is exactly the point here. The presenters at the seminar do not attempt or claim to speak for Tolkien, or to re-write his work, and that is precisely what most of those who have ranted against the seminar are doing.


As for the pre-seminar discussions, others have, fortunately  been able to do more than I, and I will review a few recent contributions here, starting with Robin Reid's excellent blog post “Response to Backlash against Tolkien and Diversity Summer Seminar”. Also see her “ Overview of recent posts regarding "Tolkien and Diversity" (Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021)” as well as ”Catholicism, Tolkien, and Diversity

Brava, Robin! And kudos!

To a very large extent, I think that the main problem here is a fundamental inability to handle alterity. Those who rant against the seminar (henceforth “the ranters”) are generally engaged in exactly what Shaun discussed: they believe that they (and they alone) can speak for  Tolkien himself, and they project this belief onto the speakers at the seminar, believing that the speakers are trying to speak for Tolkien. There is a Danish proverb that speaks to this kind of projection: “Tyv tror hver mand stjæler”, which literally means “the thief believes (that) all men steal”. The point is that someone who is doing something morally reprehensible such as stealing projects this behaviour onto everybody, thus justifying their own stealing by their (mistaken) belief that “everybody does it.” I keep thinking this when I read the accusations being brought against the seminar and the papers by the ranters.

This displays an inability to handle otherness in so many ways that it's left to the reader as an exercise to list at least three ways that they (the reader) believes significant for this situation ??.


There have also been some nice articles relating to the queer aspect. The first that I saw was this one:
Lauren Coates, “Why Queer Readings of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are so Popular – and Important”, SyFy Wire.

This article seems to has been spread fairly widely already:
Molly Ostertag, “Queer readings of The Lord of the Rings are not accidents”, Polygon.

And this article appears to pick up on the theme, adding some thinking related to the future film adaptations:
Ben Child, “Future Lord of the Rings films should acknowledge the book’s queer leanings”, The Guardian.

While the question of “authorial intention” is debateable, I have no doubt that Tolkien would have been happy to hear that there was a possibility for queer people to find identification in his book through, at least, the “applicability of the reader”. And that is exactly one part of what the 2021 Tolkien Society Seminar is about: the ability of diverse readers to find identification and applicability in Tolkien's works, regardless of whether this was intentional by the author. Diversity in this case can cover any dimension along which humans have had the (bad) habit of making distinctions ... gender, race, religion, ethnicity, class, etc.

Molly Ostertag's argument that Tolkien intended Frodo and Sam's relationship to have homoerotic overtones is, I think, not entirely convincing, but if we tone it down a bit, there is, I think, a stronger argument to be made that Tolkien must have known about the applicability of their relations to the homosexuals of post-war Britain (he did, after all, have good and close friends who openly belonged to that community), and while not necessarily intending it, Tolkien must have accepted this applicability.


Another aspect that could be brought up is Tolkien's own embrace of diversity in his professional and private life. His warm friendships with, and professional support of, people who differed from himself. While I do not wish to attempt to speak for Tolkien, I think that a lot of what he did say can be read in many different ways, and it is, at least to me, not really clear that he would truly condemn (to put it mildly) the things that most of the ranters condemn (often anything out of the very narrowly heteronormative, anything non-white, etc.). Robin Reid, in her “Catholicism, Tolkien, and Diversity” blog post, provides quotations from Tolkien's and others' letters as well as from Verlyn Flieger's essay, “But What Did he Really Mean” from the 2014 Tolkien Studies XI. Flieger discusses many of the same points in her later MythCon Guest of Honor address, “The Arch and the Keystone”, which is more readily available from Mythlore vol. 38 no. 1.


I will leave this small group of other articles and blog posts that address the seminar uncommented. 

Mike Glyer, “Purported Event Will Counter-Program the Seminar on Diversity in Tolkien”, File 770.
Anna Smol, “Upcoming Tolkien conference sessions (Tolkien Society Seminar and IMC Leeds)”.
John Rateliff, “Diversity and Counter-Diversity in Tolkien Scholarship”.
Troels Forchhammer, “Tolkien Society Seminar 2021 – “Tolkien and Diversity””.


Finally, as discussed above, the backlash against the seminar has been savage and, to be frank, has missed the point so badly that it is embarrassing to read. I will nonetheless provide a few links, most of them without comment, and none of them to the original post, so as not to generate traffic and page-hits to these sites.

Michael Foust, “Tolkien Society to Examine Diversity in The Lord of the Rings”, Christian Headlines.
The presumption of Albert Mohler in his utterly nonsensical description of what “this means” is, frankly, staggering – besides being, of course, completely mistaken.

The rest of the ranters are, to be honest, just that – incoherent and fact-resistant rants against straw men and windmills that only they can see ... (honestly, you're probably better off not reading these, but for completeness).
John Daniel Davidson, “In An Affront To Its Namesake, The Tolkien Society Goes Woke”, The Federalist.
John F. Trent, “The Society Of Tolkien Launches Counter-Programming In Response To The Tolkien Society’s “Tolkien And Diversity” Seminar”, Bounding Into Comics.
John F. Trent, ”The Tolkien Society’s Summer Seminar 2021 Will Focus On “Tolkien And Diversity””, Bounding Into Comics.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Tolkien Society Seminar 2021 – “Tolkien and Diversity”

First: crikey! Has it really been nearly three years since my last post ...! Sorry! 😳

What prompts me to write at this point is seeing reactions to the announcement of the speakers for the 2021 Tolkien Society Seminar on “Tolkien and Diversity”.

Now, let me be honest with you from the outset: it is very few (less than an handful) of the papers that I would, personally, be interested in attending, but that is really besides the point here.

Or perhaps it is actually precisely the point, because even if I am not necessarily personally interested in the individual papers, I am truly happy that the Tolkien Society is addressing this topic, and I am very happy that there are people who wish to speak on all of these topics, and that there will be an audience within the Tolkien Society for all of these papers.

Over the years we have seen many attempts by various special-interest groups or movements to appropriate Tolkien and/or his work, by which I mean attempts to claim that not only did Tolkien support their particular cause, but reading his work from that particular ideological perspective was actually the only ‘proper’ way to read it (and anyone claiming otherwise didn't understand his work). Examples of this ranges from the Hippie movement and the eco-environmentalist movement to neo-conservatives and far-right racist groups and from Roman Catholics to Pagans. All of these have seen examples of people claiming that Tolkien supported their views and that theirs was the only ‘right’ way to read and understand Tolkien.

If anything, it shows how diverse the applicability of Tolkien is.

Let's revisit this concept, which Tolkien speaks of in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But 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.

What we see in the vicious comments on the 2021 TS Seminar is an inability to appreciate that the applicability of one's own reading to one's own particular and personal experience is not universal.

For instance, that Tolkien as himself a Roman Catholic does not mean that he would agree with the particular religious position of any given Roman Catholic today. Actually, I think that there are some hints in his writings that his firm faith allowed him to be quite inclusive of other people whose faith was different – something we have also seen in Scouting and Guiding in Europe, where many Muslim immigrants feel more comfortable in Scout and Guide associations with a Christian religious affiliation than in a so-called ‘open’ associated (i.e. an association that does not have a specific religious affiliation). The same, obviously, applies to any of the other positions.

Furthermore, we can see that Tolkien's thinking evolved throughout his life, and we cannot allow ourselves to blindly believe that the view Tolkien held in the historical context of, say, 1942, would also be the ones he would hold in the context of 2021.

With all of this, I think that many of the protests against both the broad theme of the 2021 Tolkien Society Seminar, “Tolkien and Diversity” and against the specific papers to be given are both worrying and problematic. They are worrying because they appear to associate Tolkien with a close-mindedness that I think was alien to him (there is, for instance, the description of Hobbits in the 1963 draft letter to Mrs. Eileen Elgar, no. 246 in the published Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), and they are problematic because they seem to represent a refusal to allow the intellectual investigation of a theme (these are people who would, 10 years ago, have tried to prevent research into the impact of human activity on our climate).

When I see the kind of comments that are posted on this topic, I worry that the critics may be right – the critics who only see the same things that these commenters are seeing, but who reject this world-view (as do I!), but then I see the considerate and appreciative recognition of the author from eminent scholars such as Verlyn Flieger and Dimitra Fimi, and I am relieved and believe again that it is possible to engage with Tolkien and his work with an inclusive mindset, recognising the problems in the texts, but also loving the story to bits.


As I said at the beginning, whether I, personally, am interested in any given paper is irrelevant. I am joyful that the Tolkien Society is providing a platform for all of these papers, and I wish all the best for every single paper, not least a large and interested audience who will provide appreciative and useful feed-back, and I would like to thank both the Tolkien Society and every single one of the presenters for standing up and standing out on this highly important topic.

As one of the speakers at the seminar has pointed out on Facebook, let us, with the Gaffer, exclaim that “we could do with a bit more queerness in these parts.”