Tolkien's The Hobbit, a children's book, was first published in 1937, and it proved popular. However, The Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954 through 1955, would give rise to the fandom as a cultural phenomenon from the early to mid-1960s.
Early fandom (1950s to 1973)
Fandom prior to the paperback publication of Lord of the Rings
Ted Johnstone (real name David McDaniel
) founded the first Tolkien fan club
Serious admirers and fans of Tolkien came into existence within science fiction fandom soon after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien was soon being discussed in various science fiction fanzines and apazines, both as continuing threads of comment (
Robert Lichtman’s Psi Phi carried on a debate about possible film adaptation for five issues) and as single pieces such as "No Monroe In Lothlorien!" in
Eric Bentcliffe’s Triode. Tolkien-inspired costumes were worn at Worldcons as early as 1958. Some enthusiastic Los Angeles fans had been discussing creating a Tolkien-specific society as early as 1959.
An organized Tolkien fandom organization called "The Fellowship of the Ring" came together at a 49-minute meeting during Pittcon, the 18th World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh on September 4, 1960. Those people who provided accepted research papers to the group’s fanzine, I Palantir, would become "members." Non-members could purchase the magazine, of which Ted Johnstone was elected editor and Bruce Pelz publisher.
Ken Cheslin, British agent of The Fellowship, wrote, "I would say that the Tolkien [sic] society [meaning The Fellowship] wasn’t an offshoot… it consisted of fans who regarded JRR as, I think, a little something extra, a little area of interest in addition to the then fandom, not an alternative or a replacement, substitute, etc." England’s first Tolkien fanzine was Nazgul’s Bane, produced by Cheslin. It was a "newszine" for those British members of The Fellowship. As Worldcon art shows started (due to the efforts of Bjo Trimble), The Fellowship Ring provided prizes for Tolkien-inspired artwork.
Since most of the contributors to fanzines at the time came out of science fiction fandom, speculative articles and articles of fiction often took off in the direction of science fact. The drowning of Beleriand, the creation of the orcs, the evolution of the elves, the chemical composition of hithlain rope, or the make-up of the morgul-blade was all open to some scientific explanation. Attempts to add a flavor of lofty writing style in many pieces resulted in stilted phrasing. Major articles on Tolkien’s literary sources appeared through multiple issues of Xero. Lin Carter later used this as a basis for his 1969 book, Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings had its detractors in fandom, including both those who found the books unreadable or the character development inferior to the worldbuilding, and those who simply argued that Tolkien fans were taking things too far, with attempts to complete glossaries of Middle-earth already underway. A major defender and advocate of Tolkien in this era was Marion Zimmer Bradley, with such articles as her 1962 “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship” in Astra’s Tower. She wrote two Tolkien pastiches and one crossover story with Aragorn entering her own created world of Darkover. She published what would be a single issue of her own Tolkien fanzine, Andúril.
During this time, science fiction fandom produced many fanzines with little or no Tolkien content but Tolkien-inspired names: Ancalagon, Glamdring, Lefnui, Mathom, Perian, Ringwraith, Shadowfax, Silmé, and undoubtedly others. Others had more meaningful Tolkien content. Ed Meskys’ apazine Niekas turned into a full-fledged fanzine during this era, with heavy Tolkien content as well as discussion of Gilbert & Sullivan, science fiction conventions and other topics. Pete Mansfield’s Sword & Sorcery fanzine, Eldritch Dream Quest, included many Tolkien items. Science fiction fandom produced many high quality examples of Tolkien writing in their fanzines during these years.
Foster (2006) attributes the surge of Tolkien fandom in the United States of the mid-1960s to a combination of the hippie subculture and anti-war movement pursuing "mellow freedom like that of the Shire" and "America's cultural Anglophilia" of the time, fuelled by a bootleg paperback version of The Lord of the Rings published by Ace Books followed up by an authorised edition by Ballantine Books.
The "hippie" following latched onto the book, giving its own spin to the work's interpretation, such as the Dark Lord Sauron representing the United States military draft during the Vietnam War, to the chagrin of the author who talked of a "deplorable cultus" and stated that ""Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I'm not" but who nevertheless admitted that
- ... even the nose of a very modest idol [...] cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!
Fan attention became so intense that Tolkien had to take his phone number out of the public directory and eventually moved to Bournemouth on the south coast of England.
This embracing of the work by American 1960s counter-culture made it an easy target for mockery, and resulted in The Lord of the Rings acquiring a reputation of a dubious work of popular culture rather than "real literature", postponing the emergence of academic Tolkien studies by some twenty years, to the late 1980s.
The Lord of the Rings also from the mid-1960s acquired immense popularity in the emerging hacker culture, and the technological subcultures of scientists, engineers, and computer programmers, and flourishes there still. (Spangenberg 2006) It also figured as one of the major inspirations of the nascent video game industry and the evolution of fantasy role-playing games (Burdge 2006).
Many fantasy series written in the period were created by fans of The Lord of the Rings, such as the Shannara books by Terry Brooks.
Although there were active Tolkien enthusiasts within science fiction fandom from the mid-1950s, true organized Tolkien fandom only took off with the publication of the second hardcover edition and the paperbacks in the 1960s. Although there are numerous Tolkien societies in different countries today, they are not endorsed or even authorized by the Tolkien Estate.
The first recorded organized Tolkien fan group was "The Fellowship of the Ring", founded by Ted Johnstone. Their first annual meeting was held at Pittcon, the 1960 Worldcon. They published four issues of the fanzine i-Palantír before the organization disbanded; the first was published a month before the Pittcon meeting, dated August 1960. Articles on The Lord of the Rings appeared regularly in the 1960s science fiction fanzine Niekas, edited by
The Tolkien Society of America first met "in February, 1965, beside the statue of Alma Mater on the Columbia University campus," according to a 1967 New York Times interview with Richard Plotz, the Society's founder and first Thain. By 1967, Meskys had become Thain and the society boasted over 1,000 members, organized into local groups or smials, a pattern that would be followed by other Tolkien fan organizations. The society published a newsletter, Green Dragon, and The Tolkien Journal (edited by Plotz). In 1969, the society sponsored the first Tolkien Conference at
Belknap College. The Tolkien Conference was not a science fiction convention but rather a scholarly event.
University of Wisconsin Tolkien and Fantasy Society was founded in 1966, and is best known for its journal Orcrist (1966–1977), edited by
Richard C. West.
Across the continent,
Glen GoodKnight founded the Mythopoeic Society in California in 1967 for the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantastic and mythic literature, especially the works of Tolkien and fellow-Inklings C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. The society held its first Mythcon conference in 1970, which featured readings, a costume competition, an art show, and other events typical of science fiction conventions of the day. The society's three current periodicals are Mythprint, a monthly bulletin; Mythlore, originally a fanzine and now a peer-reviewed journal that publishes scholarly articles on mythic and fantastic literature; and The Mythic Circle, a literary annual of original poetry and short stories (which replaced the Society's earlier publications Mythril and Mythellany).
Orcrist and The Tolkien Journal published three joint issues (1969–1971). The Tolkien Journal and Mythlore published several joint issues in the later 1970s and eventually merged.
The Tolkien Society (UK) was founded in the United Kingdom in 1969, and remains active as a registered charity. The society has two regular publications, a bi-monthly bulletin of news and information, Amon Hen, and an annual journal, Mallorn, featuring critical articles and essays on Tolkien's work. They host several annual events, including a conference held at Oxford, Oxonmoot.
Both the UK Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society were and remain organized into "Special Interest Groups", focusing on one area such as languages, and into local or regional groups who continue to meet on a regular basis. The journal Parma Eldalamberon, founded in 1971, is a publication of one such special interest group of the Mythopoeic Society.
Beyond Bree is the monthly newsletter of The American Mensa Tolkien Special Interest Group.
There is also a long tradition of organized Tolkien fandoms in Scandinavia. The Tolkien Society of Sweden was founded in Gothenburg in 1968 ("of Sweden" was added in 1969 to avoid confusion with the UK society) and Imladris, which is a virtual community only.
Some fans, known as Tolkien tourists, travel for the purpose of visiting Lord of the Rings and Tolkien-related sites.
1970s to 1980s
Isaac Asimov, who had read The Lord of the Rings three times by Tolkien's death in September 1973, wrote a Black Widowers short story as tribute to the fellow author. "Nothing Like Murder" (1974) mentions college students forming Tolkien societies at Columbia and elsewhere. Tolkien's son Christopher began the publication of posthumous material, beginning with the Silmarillion (1977) which was being prepared for publication by Tolkien but left unfinished at his death, followed by The History of Middle-earth series (1983 to 1996). J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977) and The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) provided biographical information. These publications provided the raw material for in-depth Tolkien research, pioneered by Tom Shippey's, The Road to Middle-earth (1982).
Interest in The Lord of the Rings led to several attempts to adapt it for the film medium, most of which were largely unsuccessful. Filmmaker Ralph Bakshi succeeded in securing the rights to produce an animated feature film version, part one of what was originally planned as a two-part adaptation of the story. Bakshi produced the film using, among other animation techniques, rotoscoping, shooting a majority of the film in live-action first before transferring the live footage to animation. While the film had, and continues to have, a mixed critical reaction, it was a financial success, costing USD 8 million to produce, and grossing over USD 30 million at the box office. Despite this fact, United Artists, the film's original distributor, refused to fund a sequel, leaving the project incomplete.
1990s to 2000s
of The Lord of the Rings characters
The 1990s saw the conclusion of The History of Middle-earth series. A series of minor texts by Tolkien were edited in journals such as Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar, published by the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship since the early 1990s. In the 2000s, several encyclopedic projects have documented Tolkien's life and work in great detail, such as the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (2006) and the twin volumes The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion and The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2005, 2006). The dedicated journal Tolkien Studies has been appearing from 2004.
Tolkien discussion took place in many newsgroups from the earliest days of Usenet. The rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroups have been active since 1992 and 1993, respectively.
Notable points of contention in online discussions surround the origin of orcs, whether elves have pointy ears, whether balrogs have wings, and the nature of Tom Bombadil. Following the announcement of Jackson's movies (from 2001), online fandom became divided between "Revisionists" and "Purists" over controversy surrounding changes to the novel made for the movies, such as those made to the character of Arwen and the absence of Tom Bombadil.
Peter Jackson movies
The Lord of the Rings gained a much broader audience with the release of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. These were released serially in three consecutive years, from December 2001 to December 2003. Since then, a large number of fans have also arisen who have not read any of the books, and have been only exposed to Tolkien through the films and its merchandise.
Tolkien-related games, especially computer and video games have also increased in number and in popularity. Popular culture references to Middle-earth have also increased, as well as satires and parodies of it.
One of the most prominent fansites of Jackson's movies is TheOneRing.net, which was very popular even with the cast and crew of the film. TORn, as it is called, was originally a small movie-news site that gained in prestige as movie-rumors became reality. The filmmakers put special effort into winning over the fans, not simply tolerating but actually actively supporting fansites. Of these, TheOneRing.net is arguably the most well-known and is probably responsible for popularizing the term Ringers.
Another prominent fansite is The One Ring - The Home of Tolkien Online, although, in contrast to TheOneRing.net, the site tends to focus more on the literary works rather than the movies. During the filming and release of Jackson's films the site was popular with many who might be considered to have a more purist bent and appealed to those irritated by the film's changes to the original text.
A fan edit of the theatrical cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers exists, called The Two Towers: The Purist Edit. Most of the changes are incorporated into The Lord of the Rings - The Purist Edition, another fan edit which turns the entire trilogy into an eight-hour film without most of the changes.