I feel I may as well talk about the other big Tolkien story this week, get it out of my system.
Steve Hillard's Mirkwood: A Novel About JRR Tolkien differs from The Last Ringbearer in that it's written by an actual author, as opposed to a palaeontologist writing fan-fiction for a larf which took on a life of its own and got published in Russia and other non-English-speaking countries. It's also different in that it's actually been published in America. However, the Tolkien Estate has swooped in again and said "no, sir, not allowed." As bloggers aetherwide would have it, this is yet another case of the Tolkien Estate's infamously protective stance against copyright infringement.
But is that really what's going on?
Let's look at one apparently similar example, the case of Adam Rakunas:
Back in the late 2009, I got into a Twitter conversation with Madeline Ashby about geek culture, fandom, and a bunch of stuff like that. Madeline wrote, "While you were reading Tolkien, I was watching Evangelion." I thought this was an excellent encapsulation of the divide in SF/F/Whatever fandom, and thus took to Zazzle to make little buttons with her quote. I bought a bunch, handed them out at a few conventions, then I had a kid and promptly forgot all about it.
Until today, when Zazzle emailed me to say they were pulling the buttons for intellectual property right infringement.
And guess who complained about their rights being infringed?
I've tried to come up with something more to say about this, but I'm too angry and confused and tired to say anything more than I did in the title of this post. Have fun milking your dad's stuff, Christopher Tolkien!
Now, you'd think this was an open-and-shut case from the way people are talking. How dare that Christopher Tolkien stoop so low, to order a man producing buttons, for free, to cease and desist!
However... remember that since the films came out, The Lord of the Rings is a massive multimedia corporation, spanning many realms of merchandising and entertainment: games, posters, statuettes, toys, bobbleheads, fridge magnets and all manner of vulgar tie-ins that no doubt have some Tolkienists shaking their heads in disbelief. And such a large business has a lot of minor executives, secretaries and accountants - many of which are themselves on the hunt for anything they could possibly perceive as a threat, without the highers-up being remotely aware of it - initially, at least.
This is illustrated in the famous case of Gary Larson vs the Jane Goodall Institute. Gary Larson did a most amusing little cartoon in his strip, The Far Side, depicting a female chimpanzee plucking a long blond hair from her mate's fur. She blithely snaps "Conducting a little more 'research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?" It was cute, and hardly offensive. Nonetheless, a humourless robot at the Jane Goodall Institute felt this was in extremely poor taste - no doubt feeling Larson was defaming Goodall's good name, or some such - and actually wrote up legal letters regarding this "atrocity."
Now, if this was in the age of the internet, you can imagine what the response would be: everyone would be blaming Goodall herself. "How could that stupid woman not have a sense of humour about herself?" And so forth. But here's the thing: Goodall loved the cartoon. She thought it was delightful, and even met with Larson later, and wrote about the situation in the introduction to one of his books:
In 1988 Gary Larson went on a Safari to Africa and one of the places he visited was the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, home of the chimpanzees made famous by the National Geographic magazines and documentaries. As we sat around the fire the first evening, Gary told me he had been quite apprehensive about our meeting-because of the Jane Goodall Tramp cartoon. That story was already told-from his side - by Gary. But nobody has told my side. I was in Tanzania when the infamous cartoon first appeared. So I knew nothing about the minicommotion that went on at the time until I went to America on a lecture tour. When I got the Jane Goodall Institute, my then Executive director thrust the cartoon at me. "Just look at that, will you!" she announced, in icy tones. I thought the folded paper must contain some bad news, so I opened it apprehensively. When I saw it I remember making some kind of explosive mirthful sound - I like to think it was a guffaw, because that is such a wonderful word, a real Far Side sort of word. And I said something like: "Wow! Fantastic! Real fame at last! Fancy being in a Gary Larson Cartoon!" I could hardly believe it when my then executive director told me she had found it so offensive that she had asked a lawyer to write a letter of complaint! It implied, she said, that I had sexual relations with the chimps!"
So before people immediately start jumping on Christopher Tolkien, remember that there's more to the Tolkien Estate - like Tolkien Enterprises, for instance - than one man. What's more likely, that Christopher Tolkien himself came across Zazzle and felt his father's work was being compared unfavourably to a sprawling saga of giant robots and angsty teens... or that some minor executive wanted to impress their superiors by quashing a case of copyright infringement?
All well and good, you may ask, but what does this have to do with Mirkwood? Well, people are latching onto one particular aspect of the story: JRR Tolkien appears as a character. Thus, people are immediately drawing the conclusion that the book is being challenged only because Tolkien is in it. This, they believe, sets a dangerous precedent for using historical figures in fiction, arguing that if one were to apply this, then a great deal of fiction would have to be considered "copyright infringement."
What people don't seem to remember is that there's more to the case than simply having Tolkien appear in the story:
Mirkwood: A Novel About JRR Tolkien by Steve Hillard tells of Tolkien hiding secret documents that the forces of evil will do anything to obtain, and the young orphan girl, Cadence, who discovers them. In the opening pages of Hillard's novel, world-renowned author and linguist Tolkien lands in New York City on a mysterious errand. He carries with him a collection of ancient documents, many in an unknown language that hint of a heroine, a halfling named Ara, who lived in the same ancient landscape that inspired Tolkien's Middle-earth.
Fearing that possession of the documents will lead to great harm, Tolkien entrusts them to a simple scissor sharpener named Jesse Grande. Almost four decades later, Grande has disappeared and the documents have been found by Grande's orphaned granddaughter, Cadence. As dark forces from the realm of fantasy hunt down the documents and their guardian, Cadence must protect the story of Ara.
So we can see that not only does Tolkien appear, but it takes the Literary Agent Hypothesis to heart, and decides to make the stories of Middle-earth entirely real - as well as adding some stuff of his own. So, it's taking fictional elements from Tolkien, explicitly setting it in Tolkien's world, which is explicitly populated by characters and peoples Tolkien created. This isn't like creating a race of Hobbits to populate the world in Dungeons & Dragons, Mirkwood is intrinsically meant to occupy the same universe as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That, to me, is much more worthy of comment, and a far more reasonable argument against copyright infringement, than having Tolkien himself as a character.
But in the blogosphere, it makes for much more righteous indignation and hand-wringing to forget all of that, and challenge the Tolkien juggernaut for squashing the Little Man under their heel like Morgoth crushing Fingolfin. This is a misrepresentation of the dispute. For one thing, we have direct evidence that the Tolkien Estate has let certain books featuring Tolkien the man be published: James A. Owens' The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica. Not only does Tolkien appear, but C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, as well as a variety of characters from myth, literature and history.
The Imaginarium Geographica. . .
“What is it?” John asked.
The little man blinked and arched an eyebrow. “It is the world, my boy,” he said. “All the World, in ink and blood, vellum and parchment, leather and hide. It is the World, and it is yours to save or lose.”
An unusual murder brings together three strangers, John, Jack, and Charles, on a rainy night in London during the First World War. An eccentric little man called Bert tells them that they are now the caretakers of The Imaginarium Geographicaâ€”an atlas of all the lands that have ever existed in myth and legend, fable and fairy tale. These lands, Bert claims, can be traveled to in his ship The Indigo Dragon, one of only seven vessels that is able to cross the Frontier between worlds into the Archipelago of Dreams.
Pursued by strange and terrifying creatures, the companions flee London aboard the Dragonship. Traveling to the very realm of the imagination itself, they must learn to overcome their fears and trust in one another if they are to defeat the dark forces that threaten the destiny of two worlds. And in the process, they will share a great adventure filled with clues that lead readers to the surprise revelation of the legendary storytellers these men will one day become.
An extraordinary journey of myth, magic, and mystery, Here, There Be Dragons introduces James A. Owen as a formidable new talent.
- Here, There Be Dragons
So why does Owens get a pass, and Hillard doesn't? Simple: Owens didn't involve Middle-earth. Tolkien, in his books, goes on a series of adventures in a fantasy realm created by Owens, with only the most vague and nebulous references to Middle-earth appearing in the text. This is the essential problem with Mirkwood, not the inclusion of Tolkien as a character! Hell, the name of one of Tolkien's creations is in the freakin' title!
That said, the Tolkien estate's original complaint doesn't exactly help their argument, since it concentrates on the likeness of Tolkien and things like typeface and design rather than, you know, the fact that Hobbits, Mirkwood and Middle-earth appear in the book, which I would've thought would be their primary method of attack. Kind of reminiscent of the preposterous case of Mattel vs CPI, using the worst and most easily refuted arguments rather than the ones that might stick. Unfortunately, it looks like the Streisand Effect is in full swing, as we have a multitude of online heroes looking for ways to subvert and taunt the Tolkien Estate for their silliness.
I have further problems with the book beyond the very clear copyright infringement going on. I'm not going to argue the merits and demerits of copyright infringement: all I'm going to say is that in the eyes of the law, I do believe this can be considered such, and thus the Tolkien Estate is within their rights to take action against Hillard. But, like The Last Ringbearer, part of the book doesn't just mean to be fiction, but a critique of Tolkien's work.
"Tolkien fervently hoped, indeed believed, that there was no divide between belief and reality," says Hillard. "My novel asks the question, 'What if he experienced this borderland first hand?'" Blending historical fact with fantasy, Hillard interweaves Tolkien's philosophy, his role as a World War II spy and imagined conversations between the great author and his friend, C.S. Lewis. Hillard was inspired to write the novel by his experience reading the Lord of the Rings series to his daughters, who enjoyed the books but asked, "Where are the heroines?".
Erm, did you skip over this part, Mike?
Now, let's take this idea of there being no heroines in The Lord of the Rings - apart from Eowyn, of course - and address it. You could, if you wanted, make a fan-fiction story set in Middle-earth featuring a brave young Hobbit lass. Nothing stopping you. However, actually going out and trying to get it published seems... ill-advised to me. Copyright in the UK is life + 70 years: Tolkien's only been gone 38. People criticize the Tolkien Estate from feeding on the legacy of their creator: aren't works like The Last Ringbearer and Mirkwood doing pretty much the same thing? They're still set in Middle-earth, they're still seeking to exploit Tolkien's creation: the only difference is they're trying to get across their ham-fisted criticism at the same time. Why defend them for arguably doing what you're criticizing the Tolkien Estate for doing? Because they're being "creative"?
The whole mess leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think The Last Ringbearer and Mirkwood both deserve to be released in some format for the sake of freedom of expression, but to be published, to gain money while exploiting another person's creation... well, that doesn't seem much better than those who seek to stop them. Eskov doesn't need the money: he's making a mint having ancient spiders named after him and making the university talk circuit. Hillard is a starting author, but you know, perhaps it would be better for a starting author to do an original story, instead of trying to get fan-fiction published. Even August Derleth started out with his own stories.
EDIT: Following Lagomorph's mention of Heaven's War, I decided to have a look for other fictional works featuring Tolkien as a character. It turns out there are quite a few:
1938: As the world moves toward global war, a secret angelic battle is waged in the heavenly realms to determine mankind's fate. The infamous Aleister Crowley plans to manipulate those angelic struggles and thus shape the world according to his will. Only "The Inklings" - fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams - oppose him. They must decipher a landscape of sacred geometry to intercept Crowley at the threshold of heaven. And, for one of the Inklings, the pursuit will reach outside time itself.
Looking For The King, David Downing
It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest.
Aided by the Inklings - that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien - Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.
Tom discovers that Laura has been having mysterious dreams, which seem to be related to the subject of his research, and, though doubtful of her visions, he hires her as an assistant. Heeding the insights and advice of the Inklings, while becoming aware of being shadowed by powerful and secretive foes who would claim the spear as their own, Tom and Laura end up on a thrilling treasure hunt that crisscrosses the English countryside and leads beyond a search for the elusive relics of Camelot into the depths of the human heart and soul.
Weaving his fast-paced narrative with actual quotes from the works of the Inklings, author David Downing offers a vivid portrait of Oxford and draws a welcome glimpse into the personalities and ideas of Lewis and Tolkien, while never losing sight of his action-packed adventure story and its two very appealing main characters.
"Escape Hatch," Brenda W. Clough
A fictional account of Tolkien and Lewis meeting up in the Great War through a somewhat unlikely mutual acquaintance. The entire story is available here.
Conversations with C.S. Lewis, Robert Velarde
"C. S. Lewis died in 1963, but I met him last week." Robert Velarde tells of an imaginative journey in which the literature professor mysteriously appears in Thomas Clerk's hospital room. "Call me Jack," the writer says as he invites Clerk to step into a wardrobe. From there the two embark on a remarkable journey through Lewis's life. They experience pivotal events from Lewis's childhood and meet many of his real and imaginary friends; they visit the Kilns with his brother, Warnie, and spend time in Oxford with fellow writers and Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. They also sit with Lewis's dying wife, Joy Davidman, and they even enter the world of Narnia. Along the way, Lewis challenges Clerk's thinking about the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of love and much more. Are human beings a cosmic accident? Can we have morality without God? Was Jesus just a guru? Can we really believe in heaven and hell? Tom and Jack discuss these and many other questions, and they invite you to eavesdrop on their conversations. Prepare yourself for some of the most invigorating discussions you may ever experience this side of heaven.
You know, these all sound pretty interesting. Nary a "Gilgamesh in the Outhouse" to be seen.