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.”