Battle of the Mavens

 book movie

                                                                   (Image Source)

This post was written by Katy, one of GHG’s charter members:

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary[i], the word “Maven” is defined thusly: one who is experienced or knowledgeable: Expert; also: Freak.  The Maven is someone so deeply in love with a subject that many would consider him an expert, and what is more important, the Maven considers himself a foremost authority on the point of his obsession. This definition describes people most of us have met at one time or another, and perhaps we consider ourselves proudly in their ranks.

Among the people who enjoy Professor Tolkien’s works, the Mavens seem to divide themselves into two groups.  For the purpose of this discussion, I will refer to these groups as the Movie Mavens and the Canon Mavens.  Both groups are frequent visitors to chat sites, conventions, fan groups, and virtually any place that Middle-earth might figure into the discussion.  Unfortunately, the one thing that these two groups seem to have in common, beyond their mutual love of the world created by the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, is that they each believe the other group is so misguided they cannot stand to be around them.

Before we get into the points of contention between Canon Mavens and Movie Mavens, a brief description of each group is in order.  Canon Mavens are the easiest to categorize, as there is only a single subset and a single focus to unite them.  The true Canon Maven is a person who has read and reread everything written by Professor Tolkien often enough that they can quote verbatim from the text in response to any challenge.  Often, the Canon Maven has studied the Appendices thoroughly enough to translate and speak at least one or two of the languages Professor Tolkien created for his works.  The Canon Maven may have taken the time to delve into The Lost Tales, the published early writings that grew into The Silmarillion, and even the notes and letters that have been put into print in the last couple of decades.  The Canon Maven at his best is a true scholar, immersing himself in the worlds and characters Professor Tolkien created.

If there is an unfortunate side to the dedication shown by the Canon Maven, it is that they seem to cultivate a love of rigidity with the enthusiasm Hobbits show for cultivating pipeweed.  The true Canon Maven tolerates no speculation, no question of anything that is written anywhere by their favorite author.  Generally, Canon Mavens dislike the changes Peter Jackson was forced to make to bring The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to film effectively.  Many find it intolerable that Tom Bombadil does not appear along the road to Bree, for example, or that Frodo and Sam are brought to Osgiliath by Faramir.   The deviation from the orthodox text required to accept a character not specifically mentioned in the books as written is just too much flexibility for the Canon Maven to manage.  While the Canon Maven may know the origins of the myths Professor Tolkien touched on to create his characters and the details of Middle-earth well enough to discuss likely paths taken by obscure characters on barely mentioned journeys,  do not ask them to speculate on whether a character had a personal life.  That line of thought will get the same response one might expect from a group of Dominican brothers if one dared wonder about the personal lives of saints.

In contrast to the orthodoxy of the Canon Mavens, the Movie Mavens are as diverse a group as anyone could want.  Almost all of them have seen the movies more than twice, and they probably own both the theatrical and extended editions of the DVDs.  Beyond this point their focus dissolves.  Some Movie Mavens have never opened the covers of one of Professor Tolkien’s book, while others read them occasionally.  Some Movie Mavens enjoy writing music or poetry that connects to the world of Middle-earth.  Others turn their obsession to role-playing games, live action role play, and costuming.

The core Movie Maven tends to speculate eagerly on things unseen in the stories as they are written, but often know few of the details not specifically spelled out in the movies.  They neither realize nor care that the light caught in the Phial of Galadriel is the light from a Silmaril, that came from the original Trees in Valinor, for example.  Where Professor Tolkien got the origins of the idea that grew into Ents, or how he developed the structure of Sindar language, are not subjects that hold a Movie Maven’s interest.  They are more eager to debate what fiber Elves use to make their socks, or exactly which grain is the basis for lembas.

Movie Mavens have no trouble with the thought of opening Professor Tolkien’s creations and letting their own imaginations run free.  Music videos and fan fictions are favorite expressions of creativity and tribute to their obsession.  As such, Movie Mavens are more likely to enjoy the changes Peter Jackson wrote into his scripts, and the additions he salted through the movies to add interest for a casual viewer.  Even the outrageous stunts and crude humor sprinkled through the films are points of enjoyment for the Movie Maven, who may attempt to copy some of the jokes shared between Gimli and Legolas while engaged in costume play at gatherings.  For the Movie Maven, this is considered good fun and not at all irreverent to the original text or tone of the characters.

This is the source and fuel of the conflict between Canon Mavens and Movie Mavens.  One group views the original text as perfect in its present form, while the other sees the published works as a jumping point from where the exploration of the imagined world can begin.  From the point of view of the Canon Maven, the author’s original intent must be held sacred and his reporting of events can never be questioned.  The Canon Maven reads the original works like Holy Writ, and often cannot abide the Movie Maven’s questioning of what is stated.  The Movie Maven, in contrast, usually looks at the published works as if they were news reports, thus subject to revision as new facts come to light.  Original accounts of events may not be completely accurate, and there could be other points of view that need consideration in order to see the entire picture.

The most recent catalyst for the conflict between the Movie Mavens and the Canon Mavens heating up has been the character of Tauriel.  Tauriel, for those who have successfully avoided the controversy thus far, is a character created by Peter Jackson and the other writers.  She is one of the Silvan Elves, and is at the same time female and warrior.  According to Evangeline Lilly, the actress cast to play Tauriel, she is younger than Legolas.  Ms. Lilly says “She doesn’t have quite the wisdom and poise that those two boys (Thranduil and Legolas) do; she’s a little more … gritty.  A little more spontaneous, passionate perhaps.”  Ms. Lilly also describes her character as “an absolutely ruthless, deadly killer.”[ii]

From the moment Tauriel’s character was suggested in the film cast, Canon Mavens have been infuriated by the entire idea.  “The more I get excited about the next film, the more trepidation I get about Tauriel,” wrote one poster on a Movie Discussion chat board.  “I just don’t really want a made up character taking up a large portion of the second film.  I could just about cope with Legolas appearing . . . but this just seems too much.  There is not even a basis for the character!”[iii]  Another poster with similar preferences writes, “If this ‘character’ makes any more than a fleeting appearance, it could take me right out of the film.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing her,” another poster on the same chat board replied, “as I like them giving the Mirkwood Elves more of a face, especially in comparison to Thranduil and Legolas who have a different heritage.  Plus, I always thought Evangeline Lilly is born to play an Elf.”[iv]  The Movie Maven point of view might best be expressed by another voice later in the discussion: “I think that P.J. and company won’t let us down.”

These posts were written almost a year before the first of the three Hobbit movies was released.  At the time, most fans knew no more than the character’s name and the name of the actress cast to play her.  As we learned more about the character, the controversy increased.  The comment that Tauriel would be a “ruthless killer” set off a rush of pointed remarks, which again divided the community between those who loved the idea of extending the world beyond what is specific to the book and those who would keep everything exactly as Professor Tolkien wrote it.  The posts concerning this new controversy are too recent to quote here, out of respect for their authors.  The opinions expressed range from an optimistic ‘Give it a chance’ and ‘Jackson has never let us down yet’ to a very discouraged ‘Jackson destroyed Lord of the Rings with his changes’ and ‘I will never see these movies if this character is included, and none of you should either.’

All of which brings me to the main point of this essay; to wit, despite their differences, each of these two warring camps of Mavens need the other desperately.  As much as each side wishes the other side would see things their way, which is, of course, the right way, neither side seems to realize that they could not preserve their love of Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth without the prodding and urging of those that annoy them with their varying loves of the same universe.  We are all in the same lifeboat, or possibly Swan Ship, and we need to learn to row together lest we sink ourselves right along with our opponents.

What do I mean?  Just this:  If only one side of this debate were heard, they would soon grow tired of their own voices.  Movie Mavens show plenty of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to filling in gaps in the given story line or lighting dark spots in the far corners of Middle-earth.  Yes, their music videos and slash fan fiction get on the last nerves of most Canon Mavens, but even that is fine.  What these ventures show is that love of the world Professor Tolkien created for us does not and should not always suspend disbelief in some of the improbable accounts of life there.  Neither should our passion for the characters and situations these stories recount remain locked between well worn covers on dusty bookshelves when there are ways to live the dream by creating new paths on which to explore the corners and mysteries hidden in the so-called approved text.

If Movie Mavens bring enthusiasm and energy to a world that could easily become stale, Canon Mavens provide an equally important service by keeping their feet firmly planted in the world as Professor Tolkien wrote it.  Their passion for delving into the early versions of what became the stories we know, for seeking out roots and origins, and for looking at the author’s intent and opinions encourages even Movie Mavens to think deeply about the details they are dissecting.  It is the Canon Maven who will point out that the athelas plant was first brought from Númenor by the Dúnedain, and that the pipeweed the Hobbits favor is in fact a subspecies of this healing herb.  All this information can be found in the Appendices at the back of Lord of the Rings or in Lost Tales or in Professor Tolkien’s published letters, but only a Canon Maven would have the persistence to search for it.  The Movie Maven may take this information and weave it into a line for a fan fiction or a song.  Together, the two groups can bring more beauty to the world we all enjoy.


[i] “Maven.”  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: An Encyclopedia Britannica Company, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, n.d.  Mon. 27 May, 2013.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/maven

[ii] NewsfromBree.  Evangeline Lilly: Tauriel is an “absolutely ruthless, deadly killer.”  TheOneRing.net.  25 May 2013.  Mon. 27 May 2013.  http://www.theonering.net/torwp/2013/05/25/71973-evangeline-lilly-tauriel-is-an-absolutely-ruthless-deadly-killer/

[iii] The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Movie Discussion: The Hobbit, “Tauriel.”  19-20 June 2011.  Sat. 25 May, 2013. http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?do=post_view_printable;post=590579;guest=81649823

[iv] The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Movie Discussion: The Hobbit: “Tauriel.”  3 April, 2013.  Thurs. 28 May, 2013.  http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?post=376147;search_string=tauriel%20ruthless;guest=86630298#376147

3 thoughts on “Battle of the Mavens

  1. Great entry Katy!
    Though I would place myself fairly firmly right of center (ie. Canon Maven), I think the cross-conversation between the two sides is exactly the sort of discussion Tolkien wished when writing his mythology for England. It was never meant to be completely static. We’ll never know how firm or enthusiastic he was about the idea, but (I believe in Letters) his stated desire was that his work would spark a renaissance of literature and arts for and of England. Granted that scope has expanded greatly with time, but I think such speculation and creative growth would have been largely accepted and encouraged.

    Another factor to keep in mind, which any Canon Maven SHOULD eventually realize, is that there really is no canon. If you read enough, far enough into Tolkien’s Legendarium (particularly into HoME) you’ll find an enormous amount of variety and many varied versions of each tale. This is where Tolkien’s historical conceit of the written report/diary/history comes into play. They are tales/myths passed down and therefore reinterpreted in each iteration…much like a game of telephone…or to be more serious much like the reverse of the studies for the origins of language that was central to Tolkien’s professional life.

    On another note, what gets me about Tauriel is her hinted upon role (which I hope is incorrect) which is hinted at by the Lego set for Flies and Spiders. It seems to indicate both she and Legolas are involved in freeing the Dwarves. True or not, I don’t know. But if so, it is a change I could not accept as it so complete mars Bilbo’s character arc (much like the battle scene at the end of TH: AUJ).

  2. ….and there are a few of us “tweeners” who can’t decide which we love the most, book or movie, but are so happy we have options. Thanks for a great essay!

  3. Pingback: Bracing for “The Desolation of Smaug” | Wandering Paths

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