Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Shaun Gunner, Chairman of The Tolkien Society. We discussed what he thinks of the Peter Jackson films and where he sees the Tolkien Society heading to in the 21st Century. And because he said he didn’t mind answering some silly questions, I just couldn’t resist putting grammaboodawg’s favourite question from our Getting to know you Q&A’s to him.
Kelvarhin: The Tolkien Society has been going since 1969; how has fandom changed since those early years? Do you see it changing again right now, with The Hobbit movies, or does the core of the fandom remain pretty similar over the years?
Shaun: I don’t think The Hobbit films will have any impact on fandom distinct from what The Lord of the Rings films have already had. One of the most notable aspects of The Hobbit trilogy is how it has not had anywhere near the same impact as The Lord of the Rings films. All Tolkien organisations need to start thinking now about what the world will look like in 10 years’ time when there are no films and little prospect of any more – we need to plan for that.
But, I think the fandom has definitely matured. In the early years, the Society was seen by some as more of an excuse to dress up and get drunk. The more scholarly elements were introduced to the Society’s events in the mid-80s whilst the Internet has really widened participation. The ability to set up your own blog or edit Tolkien Gateway (www.tolkiengateway.net) has transformed the accessibility of Tolkien. But I think the fundamental core of what the fandom wants – art, fun, music, scholarship in a friendly and welcoming Society – will remain the same.
Kelvarhin: I know it’s a few years off yet, but are there any plans to celebrate The Tolkien Society’s 50th birthday in 2019?
Shaun: It’s some time off yet, as you say, but we are certainly intending on having a massive celebration, even bigger than our Return of the Ring event two years ago. I think for the Society’s Golden Jubilee we should have a monumental celebration of Tolkien with involvement from as many societies around the world as possible. A truly global celebration of Tolkien and Tolkien fandom.
Kelvarhin: You — and your colleagues — have been very busy of late building a new website for the Tolkien Society and implementing other projects. Can you tell us how that’s been going, and some of your future plans for the Tolkien Society and people who appreciate Tolkien’s works.
Shaun: The website (www.tolkiensociety.org) has been the great achievement of my first year as Chairman and I’m really proud to have seen it happen. We have a couple of things still to do – like a full photo gallery, a forum and a mobile skin – but the full website is pretty much finished.
The website has helped us to change a lot of our booking and membership procedures, whilst financial constraints in the last few years have made us review our spending patterns. As a result we’re now a really efficient forward-looking organisation with a positive future. This groundwork means we can look ahead to doing new and exciting events – such as our new Yulemoot this Christmas – as well as taking a look at our publications in the 21st Century. The Society’s long-term aim is to set up a Tolkien centre and I hope in the next couple of years we’ll begin to see some movement towards that goal.
Kelvarhin: The Tolkien Society seems to be becoming a broader more-inclusive organisation. How do you balance scholarly interests against those who just want to enjoy Tolkien at face value?
Shaun: I think we are actually a very inclusive organisation, but you’re right that it’s definitely a balancing act. We do our best to consciously plan into our events, in our publications, and on our websites what things will interest different people. So at Oxonmoot we will marry day-time scholarly talks with more light-hearted evening entertainment. If we were just scholarly it would scare people away, but if we just focussed on the “fun” things people might find us a little shallow. Our strength is that we bring everything together and I am proud of that.
Kelvarhin: Also – The Tolkien Society is quite different from other Middle-earth fandoms, in that it had the blessing of Tolkien himself, and the family are still involved. Does that connection/involvement make any difference to the way the Society operates?
Shaun: It doesn’t impact our day-to-day operations but we do feel very privileged. It obviously comes with a certain responsibility to honour Tolkien and his memory beyond our standard mandate. Many Tolkien family members have attended our events – with Priscilla Tolkien, Tolkien’s daughter, hosting people in her house – so we feel very proud.
Kelvarhin: What’s the most fun part of being involved in the Tolkien Society?
Shaun: The banquets are rather good, but the very best thing is meeting up with a like-minded group of people! I have made some fantastic friendships through the Tolkien Society which will last for decades. When we asked our members what words they would use to describe the Tolkien Society, their number one answer was “friendly”.
Kelvarhin: With the popularity of the Movies based on Tolkien’s works encouraging more people to read the stories, is there an increasing interest in the Tolkien Society as a result?
Shaun: Yes! Membership of the Society doubled as a result of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (as it did following the BBC radio series in the early 80s) and our membership has also been increasing in recent months, especially since the introduction of our new website. We’re getting new people joining the Society every day from across the world, and it’s the popularity of the films that’s made so many people go online and Google “Tolkien”.
Kelvarhin: Should The Tolkien Society be more active in embracing movie fans with an intention of raising more interest amongst them to read Tolkien’s writings and enjoy the “real” stories in the written form as well as expanding their knowledge of Middle-earth and his other stories?
Shaun: I think we are already trying hard to engage film fans as best as possible by reaching out through Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, as a registered charity in England and Wales we have a legal obligation – as defined by our constitution – to promote the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Regardless of whether they enjoy the films or not, we always try our best to promote Tolkien as much as possible which is why, for instance, we had our online “Beowulf Launch Party” earlier in the year.
Where I think we do need to do more work is in promoting Tolkien’s lesser-known works. Roverandom, Finn and Hengest, Farmer Giles of Ham, On Fairy-stories are all works that deserve greater recognition. For instance, I think Jemima Catlin’s new illustrated version of The Hobbit is excellent: I would like to see a collection of Tolkien’s children’s stories in the same way. We’re really good at talking about The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but I think we could do more to talk about Tolkien’s other works.
Kelvarhin: Do you believe the Movies are creating a good interest in Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories or are they damaging them by changing facts, adding new elements and diluting the stories too much?
Shaun: It’s not possible for the films to change the facts; the books will continue to exist long after the interest in the films has died down. I take a more pragmatic approach: I see all interest as “good” and I see the films as a vehicle for introducing people to the books. There are, of course, changes to the book in the process of being adapted onto the screen but the important thing is that we stay true to the books. That’s what The Tolkien Society is about: we’re not against the films, we’re just very pro- the books!
Kelvarhin: What was the most interesting request or question you’ve ever had for Tolkien-related information or activity? And on that line, what was the most strangest request you’ve ever had?
Shaun: I’m not sure I could pick out the most interesting request. But the strangest one came up quite recently: ‘I would like to get in touch with J.R.R. Tolkien’!
Kelvarhin: What’s your favourite thing from the books and from the movies?
Shaun: My favourite chapter in the books: The Council of Elrond.
My favourite scene from the films: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm .
Kelvarhin: Do you have a favourite quote by JRR Tolkien?
Shaun: Yes: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Kelvarhin: At what age did you start reading Tolkien (and which book did you read first)?
Shaun: I first encountered Tolkien through David T. Wenzel’s graphic novel version of The Hobbit when I was about six. But I first read Tolkien proper when I was 12: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and then the Silmarillion (which I didn’t fully appreciate!) in quick succession. Although I fondly remembered the David T. Wenzel version of The Hobbit, it hadn’t captivated me: it was only the knowledge of the forthcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy that encouraged me to ask for the books for Christmas. So if it hadn’t been for Peter Jackson I might never have read The Lord of the Rings and joined the Society. But when I did, I was hooked and I knew I would be forever.
Kelvarhin: Which 3 places do you (and the Tolkien Society) suggest that all Tolkien fans must visit?
Shaun: I think everyone should visit Sarehole Mill in Birmingham and the wider Warwickshire countryside in general. This indisputably inspired Tolkien’s The Shire. The Tolkien Society has recognised the importance of this by putting a Blue Plaque on Sarehole Mill in honour of its influence on Tolkien.
The second place I think all Tolkien fans should visit is Oxford. Tolkien spent more of his life in Oxford than anywhere else. Whether it be visiting the Botanic Gardens, or having a drink in the Eagle and Child, there are plenty of significant locations in Oxford for Tolkien fans to visit. If you could visit Oxford in mid-September it would coincide with our annual Oxonmoot event – a Tolkien extravaganza which has been going on for forty years! (See www.oxonmoot.org.)
The third recommendation is slightly unusual. It’s Switzerland. I never appreciated the significance of Switzerland on Tolkien until I visited it last year for the opening of the Greisinger Museum (www.greisinger.museum). Tolkien went hiking in Switzerland in 1911 and now I have been to Switzerland I can definitely see how it impacted Tolkien’s writings.
Kelvarhin: Can you tell us your three favourite fantasy authors … plus another you like that may totally surprise people?
Shaun: Philip Pullman, Christopher Paolini and J.K. Rowling! As for an unusual author… perhaps Stieg Larsson?
Kelvarhin: And, finally, because you said you wouldn’t mind answering grammaboodawg’s favourite question; What was your favourite cartoon when you were a kid?
Shaun: Not technically a cartoon but a children’s programme: Thomas the Tank Engine! I had all the VHS tapes and would spend hours pushing toy trains around on the carpet.