Travelling to Mythcon in East Lansing, Michigan, I wondered what to expect at my first Mythopoeic Society conference. I later realized that the Tolkien 2005: The Ring Goes Ever On conference that I attended in England was a combined Mythopoeic and Tolkien Society meeting, a fact that I barely recognized at the time in that swirling mix of different events. But at least I can now say that my first undiluted experience of a Mythcon occurred last week in Michigan. I was not disappointed.
The Mythopoeic Society focuses on the works of J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and on fantasy / myth generally. A quick poll of the audience at one point indicated that most people were first drawn to the conference through an interest in Tolkien, as in my case. But whatever the hook that helps to reel people in, the conference attracts the kind of participants I’ve always enjoyed in Tolkien studies: a combination of university professors, librarians, independent scholars, teachers, grad students, fans, and writers from all walks of life. A community of diverse readers, in other words, who are interested in serious ideas and serious fun.
At Mythcon you will find people who have been attending the conference for 20, 30, even 40 years, but plenty of newbies also showed up. Two of us stepped off the Michigan Flyer bus into the midday heat of downtown East Lansing and stood looking for the hotel shuttle, giving me the opportunity to meet C.F.Cooper, a writer from New York. (Read his Blog of Mythic Proportions here for another view of the conference). Once we got to the hotel and registration desk, I saw a number of familiar faces and old friends, mostly regulars from the Tolkien at Kalamazoo conference. By this point, the first papers were about to be delivered, so I checked into my room as quickly as possible so that I could get to Megan Abrahamson’s paper on Tolkien fanfiction.
Fanfiction can be a controversial topic, and Megan’s paper — “J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and ‘The Freedom of the Reader'” — certainly drew out some lively comments in the short discussion time that followed her excellent presentation. I found her paper to be a thorough exploration of Tolkien’s opinions and ideas about sub-creation, source studies, canonicity, the domination of the author, as well as a consideration of Tolkien’s own creative practice. Rather than just quoting Tolkien’s well-known Letter 131, which expresses a wish that “other minds and hands” should take up his mythology, Megan tackled complex and sometimes contradictory issues in Tolkien’s views.
The discussion afterwards circled around the usual arguments about the ethics and legality of playing with an author’s characters and world, and of course in our times legal issues of copyright have to be considered (though fanfiction is typically a non-profit enterprise). In my view, there is nothing immoral about the impulse to tell stories about well loved or interesting characters, yet for some reason the recent outpouring of internet fanfic often evokes strong disapproval. In contrast, early issues of Tolkien zines* such as I Palantir and Mallorn featured poetry, stories, and songs based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Did Tolkien fans object to these fictions in the 1960s, 70s, 80s? I haven’t found any letters to the editor or articles decrying the writing of fanfiction in these early zines. So what has changed? **
I was not surprised when later in the conference it was announced that Megan’s paper had won the Alexei Kondratiev Student Paper Award — although given the excellent papers that I heard delivered by graduate students over the next few days, I imagine that the jury must have had a hard time making its decision.
After the paper sessions, we emerged from the air conditioned hotel into a blast of hot air and bright sun in order to cross the street to the cafeteria for dinner and then to an ice cream social on the hotel patio, giving everyone a chance to meet new people and greet old friends. I was part of a mini TORn reunion (N.E. Brigand, Modtheow, and Drogo, for those who might know our Reading Room screen names from a few years ago. I also met Wonderbroad, though I didn’t get a chance to reveal my TORn identity to her).
Although other evening activities followed, such as the bardic circle, I soon called it a night. My 4 a.m. trip to the airport was beginning to take its toll, and I still had my paper to review for the next day.
To be continued: Day Two: twentieth-century faery lands, tree spirits, the Elizabethan tobacco trade, and my paper on Tolkien’s painterly style.
* The Tolkien Archive at Marquette University holds many of these Tolkien zines and other fan materials.