One of my fondest early memories of The Hobbit was when a storyteller came to my elementary school and recited the entire book (from memory) to my fourth grade class in installments. This was a marvelous feat. I must have read the book shortly before then, because I remember following along in my head to make sure that he remembered every single word!
I went on to read The Lord of the Rings a few years after this. I vividly remember sitting in my seventh-grade science lab with the tall, black tables that were always icy to the touch and pouring over the final chapters in Return of the King. This would mean that I finished the trilogy about a year before the Peter Jackson adaptations came out. Mind you, I was a fairly unconnected kid, so I did not realize that the movies were upon me at the time of reading. I thought I had found this secret treasure that I was one of the lucky few to read.
When I was in my second year of high school, a nearby university where my mother worked offered a Tolkien course. My mother, knowing my love for Tolkien, audited the course with me. This class forced me to reexamine many of my beliefs about The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s legendarium in general. This experience led me to write the first real research paper in my life (a requirement in the third year at my high school) on Tolkien. The minimum page requirement was ten pages, and I wrote eighteen—yes, I was that student. Surprisingly, my teacher read it all and gave me marvelous feedback!
Throughout my education, I have often had to focus on other projects and requirements, but I kept coming back to Tolkien every couple of years. After I finished my M.A. program, I took a long look at my future and made a tough decision. If I wanted a PhD, I wanted to concentrate on something that I loved. The real question for me was: ‘If you had to spend the rest of your life answering questions about one thing, what would it be?’ For me, the resounding answer was the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the adaptations and fandoms that have grown around the literature. That is what led to the research that I am working on today. Thank you for the opportunity to share a couple of the projects that I’m working on currently that could be influential to Tolkien research and the Tolkien fan community!
Unlike CS Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien’s most popular work The Lord of the Rings is often stereotyped as ‘not for children’. While I believe that Tolkien intended for his fantasy to be taken seriously, and that the level of sophistication in his works certainly enables readers to have a very critical eye, I think that we often overlook a very large portion of his readership when we refuse to talk about the young readers of The Lord of the Rings.
Almost a year and a half ago, I decided to put this theory to the test by using a simple pilot survey to with 100 participants which asked them to reflect on a number of questions, one of the most important being what age they first read The Lord of the Rings. The startling discovery from this pilot survey was that nearly 2/3 of readers first read The Lord of the Rings before they were the age of eighteen. Even more surprising, nearly 1/3 of readers first read The Lord of the Rings before they were the age of thirteen. This means that if we continue to not talk about the young readers of The Lord of the Rings, then we miss an opportunity to understand how many readers first approach Tolkien’s work and how they first discover Middle-earth.
Therefore, my PhD research investigates how young readers, under age eighteen, interpret J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The purpose of this PhD research is to: (1) examine children’s perceptions and experience of reading The Lord of the Rings; and (2) evaluate the differences between children’s interpretations and the interpretations shown in Tolkien scholarship.
My research, then, focuses on the way that young readers interpret The Lord of the Rings, but does so by using several methods other than literary analysis. Studies of young readers have been moving away from an ‘implied reader’ methodology, and instead trying to gather data from real young readers. I follow this shift by interviewing young readers in an attempt to find out how they approach the work and what they get out of it. I use a survey and an interview which employs a diamond ranking activity and photo elicitation. These activities are designed to encourage young readers to share more of their impressions, and to share them confidently. Both the diamond ranking activity and photo elicitation are more important for the critical thinking and reasoning of the participant as they make decisions than they are for the final choices or arrangements of the visual items. These activities allow me to have an easier and more detailed conversation with the participants.
These responses from the interviews will be analyzed as a data set to see if there are any trends among the sample of young readers. Then the data will be compared to the interpretations and analyses found in Tolkien scholarship in order to see where there is overlap and where there is a diversity of opinion. This marks a significant contribution to Tolkien scholarship because it will help scholars understand how one-third to two-thirds of readers begin their journey into Middle-earth. The discussion may also challenge the notion that Tolkien’s work is ‘not for children’. In turn, this research could help to problematize the distinction between children’s literature and adult literature.
As a side-project to my PhD, I began the Tolkien Experience Project. When I tell people that my PhD Research focuses on the experience of young readers of Tolkien, they often ask if they can participate even if they are over the age of eighteen. Unfortunately, people older than eighteen fall outside of the scope of that research.
Instead of turning those people away, though, and missing the chance to hear about their significant experiences with Tolkien, I created Tolkien Experience Project. It will serve as a way for Tolkien readers who cannot participate in my PhD research to still share their stories with the rest of us!
The basic format is that participants reflect on a set of five questions, and then respond to them in short-answer format. This means that answers can be one sentence, or a few paragraphs! The great thing is that there are no wrong answers, because you are just sharing your own experience!
The questions are:
- How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
- What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
- What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
- Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
- Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
These questions are intentionally vague to allow contributors to talk about a variety of things. ‘Tolkien’s work’ is not meant to exclude adaptations, so they feel free to share experiences about movies, video games, board games, etc. All of these are important experiences in someone’s fan history! If they want to use ‘part’ in question two to talk about a specific scene from a book, great! They could also use ‘part’ to talk about their favorite book in general.
Participants can take as much time as they need to answer these questions, then they send their answers to me using the Contact page on my website or by direct email. I usually respond directly to the participant once or twice to clarify what they would like to be called on the post and to fix typos, but the answers are largely unedited/unfiltered.
Once all of the information is finalized, I will schedule the post to appear on my blog in the order it was finalized. I post a new response every Tuesday at 8:00 A.M. (EST/EDT). Posting each submission as a separate blog post and limiting them to one each week allows time for visitors to see and respond to each participant’s experience. This was the best way that I could think of to respect the time and effort of each contributor.
The hope is that this will be a way to foster more community around the interesting, unique, and diverse experiences of Tolkien fans!
If you would like to participate, you can use the form on the Contact page to send your answers to me, or email me your answers directly!
For full transparency, I should mention that no participants ‘get anything’ out of the project other than the opportunity to share their Tolkien experience. I do allow participants to include a link to their blog or social media site if they wish, so that other Tolkien fans can follow them and create a larger Tolkien community.
Thank you again for allowing me the chance to share about these projects with you. I hope you found the endeavors interesting, and that you might consider participating in one of the projects if they appeal to you! –Luke
Luke Shelton is a part-time PhD student in the School of Education at Cardiff Metropolitan University and also teaches as an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University. He recently received East Tennessee State University’s Allen Award for Outstanding Graduate student and currently serves as the Assistant Technical editor of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies. He received his M.A. in English Literature from East Tennessee State University in May of 2017.
If you are a reader of Tolkien–whether you are under 18 years old and fit his study, or an adult who is interested in the Tolkien Experience Project–contact him through this link.