What makes an enduring fandom? From Star Trek and Star Wars, to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, what makes a fandom lasting and persisting? Why do some fandoms garner such a huge following, while other fandoms simply fall away? I think there are many factors, but for me, two of the biggest draws are the story and the characters. If those two factors are solid, I think a fandom has a chance of lasting a good long time.
The other day my family and I were at our local public library (if you don’t find yourself occasionally at a public library you need to examine your geekhood), and my wife was looking for a new book to read. She is an avid reader, and has kind of taken an interesting turn in what she reads. When she was growing up, she didn’t read any kind of fantasy or SciFi or anything like that. If it couldn’t really happen, she wasn’t interested. To the point that she refused, REFUSED, to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In her mind there was no way that you could go to the back of a closet and end up in some fantastical land called Narnia. She preferred historical fiction, grounded in reality and actual events. Fast forward a few years, and somehow she ended up marrying the biggest geek she had ever met. I only read fantasy and SciFi. Ok, maybe not exclusively, but that is my first choice. I have attempted to open up her world a little bit, and have made some promising progress. I have gotten her to read the Narnia books, and she enjoyed them. I think now that she’s older she understands more of the symbolism. I also helped convince her to read the Harry Potter books, and she finished the sixth just in time to wait anxiously for number seven. We almost had to buy two copies so we could read it at the same time. Lately, she has been reading a lot of young fantasy- Fablehaven, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, etc. I have been waiting for the right moment to try to get her into the hard stuff. The good stuff. I have been thinking a lot about that as I have been reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (I am only on the 4th book, which feels like an accomplishment, until I look at how far I still have to go). So, in this situation we find ourselves at the library and she is looking for a new book to read and she has no idea what to read. I jump at the chance and search high and low for the perfect book to introduce her into the world of Fantasy. I know exactly what I am looking for, I just have to hope the have it and I can find it. Don’t get me wrong, I can find my way in a library, but they try to classify everything so much nowadays. At first I couldn’t find it, and I was disappointed, but then I looked in the “teen fiction” section, and bingo, there it was. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. There is no better way to introduce someone to the world of Fantasy Literature than Tolkien, the man who practically invented the genre. I felt like The Hobbit was a good place for her to start. It is a small book, not intimidating at all. It’s not part of some extremely long series and can stand alone if she decides she does not want to read further. More than that, it is well written. It wasn’t written to be a bestseller, appealing to the lowest common denominator of any given group. It was written the only Tolkien could write, as a masterpiece.
As I suggested the book to her, I was almost envious of her reading it for the first time. Experiencing Middle Earth for the very first time. It would be an amazing thing to find a way to recapture that. Amazing, but impossible for me, so I plan to live now vicariously through my wife. As she began reading it, she read part of the introduction aloud to me. It was discussing how there are spelling errors in the book, like the term dwarves. At the time, the correct spelling was dwarfs and dwarfish, but when describing the dwarves in his book, Tolkien purposely used dwarves. My wife was confused by that. “Isn’t dwarves right?” It is now, because of Tolkien. Think about, the best example I have pre-Tolkien is the Disney masterpiece, Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs. That’s the title. For your convenience, you can click here and go to the IMDB page and see for yourself. I always thought that was funny to me. Was Disney just trying to be cutesy? Turns out, that was the correct spelling pre-Tolkien. Now though, dwarves seems to be more common, if not more correct. We say dwarfish, not dwarfish. Was that all really started by Tolkien? Why not? The man practically invented and cemented our modern images of dwarves, elves, orcs, hobbits, wizards, etc. Where would we be without Tolkien? I wouldn’t be in the middle of the Wheel of Time series, or really be interested in fantasy very much at all. HBO wouldn’t have a huge hit with Game of Thrones, so they would have to find some other way spew forth gratuitous sex and violence (somehow, I think they’d manage). Salt Lake would not have just had their first successful FantasyCon. Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom may still be waiting for their big breaks, while Elijah Wood and Sean Astin would be remembered only for the younger roles (like Huck Finn and Goonies respectively). No one would have ever heard of Peter Jackson or Weta or New Zealand. I might even go so far as to say that the Fantasy Genre as we know it would not exist.
Why was Tolkien so amazing? Why would his books be the first ones I run to in order to introduce my wife to Fantasy literature? I think Tolkien did more than just tell a story. He created a whole world. A world full of history, full of ancient myths and stories, many of which have never been published, but he knew them. A world full of languages. Dwarvish, Elvish, the dark tongue or Mordor. He created them all. It wasn’t enough to just throw in an occasional word or rune here and there. He made them real. When you read his books, you find references to other stories and myths and characters and histories that may only be mentioned, but with such authority that you know that Tolkien has them written down somewhere. He knows the legend or the myth or the story. There is a completeness to his stories that aren’t found in many other series. All of that makes Tolkien’s work superb and wonderful.
More than that, his stories were real. Not real in a “they really happened” sort of way, but real in a “I really identify with what this character is feeling” sort of way. That was the real genius of Tolkien. I remember reading The Return of the King for the first time. I remember the way I just felt hopeless, like there was just so much evil in the world and the men were so outnumbered, and Sam and Frodo were on their own, and there was just no way they would overcome everything and make it out. How many of us feel that way personally sometimes? How many of us can look at the world today and say, “there’s just too much, we can’t win.” I heard once that that was the reason Tolkien set out to write what would become the Lord of the Rings series. He wanted to define what evil was. He and Lewis and others he associated with had all experienced darkness and evil firsthand as they survived WWII. They all lived through the air raids and the constant fear. The war that was fought in Britain was very different from what we experienced here in the U.S. He wrote this story to come to terms with what he saw in the world. I can imagine that there were times when it all seemed hopeless, like the light would never come. Like Frodo and Sam would come so far, only to collapse at the foot of Mount Doom, and not make it any further. But they did. You feel the despair, but you feel the hope that is always there sometimes. Even in the darkest of times, there is always a little bit of hope. And the hope wins out. In the end, the darkness fails, light prevails. I always loved Sam. Merry and Pippin were funny and kept things light. Frodo was all of us, the regular guy thrown into the middle of everything unexpectedly. Aragorn was just really cool, and unattainable (he may have a little bit of a Messiah complex going on). But Sam, Sam was my favorite. He was the hope. He was always there. Even when he went away for a while, he was not really gone. He is the embodiment of hope, and without him, Frodo would not have made it to the end. I love the works of Tolkien, because I felt it all. I know that we don’t live in a world of wizards and magic and giant eagles, but we do live in a world with Sams out there. I want to be one. That part was real, as real as anything else I have ever read. Tolkien took this idea of Fantasy and elevated it above just fairy tales and made it real and deep and worth reading.
So I envy my wife. I envy that she eta to experience all of that for the first time. I hope she will understand why I love the realm of fantasy so much after she is done reading it. I’m sure she will. If Tolkien can’t win her over, no one can.