Chilling effect

J.R.R. Tolkien's estate refreshed its website with some stringent guidelines for how to use the author's works

Chilling effect
Image: Andrew Liptak

There's a tensions that exists between those who create stories, and those who love them. In the present day, stories are more than just stories: they're lucrative properties that can be fragmented into any number of iterations, and those who control a property have to walk a fine line between ensuring that those fans have the freedom to enjoy said properties, and to ensure that they're protecting them.

In the last week, the Tolkien Estate has found itself in the middle of one of these balancing acts. It relaunched its website with a wealth of new information about its famous namesake, including new images, recordings, and video that provides some new insight into his works, as well as an updated frequently asked questions section that raised some eyebrows within the fan community: a seeming prohibition against using Tolkien's name in fan-generated publications and the use of his characters and world in fan fiction, actions that some see as potentially causing a chilling effect on a worldwide community that has grown up alongside Tolkien's works, just his world is about to reach an even larger audience than ever before.


Fan fiction is the lifeblood of fandom
Fan fiction’s strength isn’t based on its literary merits, but on the fans that it brings together

Fan fiction has a long and distinguished history within the world of fandom. At its most basic, fan fiction is a fan writing their own story within a pre-existing universe. As the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defined it: "fiction that uses characters or a fictional universe originally created by a professional author or for a television show, movie, etc."

The form is as old as modern science fiction itself, but there are examples that precede it, especially before the arrival of formal copyright laws, examples like Jules Verne's novel An Antarctic Mystery, which he wrote to complete Edgar Allan Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

As science fiction developed a fan community which produced its own publications and commentary about the genre, those fans also began to imagine how they would approach the stories that they enjoyed.