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.

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