J.R.R. Tolkien built entire universes in his mind that have inspired generations of fans to build upon them in turn and even go so far as to glue scraggly bits of fur to their feet on occasion.
And, going by the upcoming release of a previously unpublished (and unfinished) novella, "The Story of Kullervo," it seems that like many notable sci-fi and fantasy authors of this century, Tolkien started out as something of a fanfic writer himself.
The new book, which will be published in the UK on August 27 and internationally on October 13, is inspired by Finnish mythology and specifically the Kalevala epic, first compiled and published as a collection of poetry in 1835.
According to previously published collections of Tolkien's documents and letters, he began work on this reimagining of the myth in 1914 and only completed about three-quarters of the tale. "The Story of Kullervo" is the first publication of that work, edited by Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger and including Tolkien's drafts with notes and his lectures and essays on the Kalevala, which would go on to influence his later work.
The Eye of Sauron may be a classic vision of evil, but it's not the only one. Poor Kullervo doesn't have much luck in life: he lives with the dark magician Untamo, a rather nasty character who deprived Kullervo of his parents by killing his father and kidnapping his mother; he also has the bad habit of trying to kill Kullervo himself from time to time.
All Kullervo really has going for him are his own supernatural powers, his twin sister and a magic black dog, but that might not be enough to save him from a tragic fate, or so teases the publisher.
Tolkien himself called the story "the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages."
You might note that the influence of myth and literature such as Beowulf can be seen throughout Tolkien's work, and that drawing on myths for subject matter is nothing unusual on the literary scene, so why tag this particular work with the often-dismissive term "fanfic"?
First off, I'm not down with the common assumption that fan fiction is all junk, even if a lot of it is. Much of pop music is the aural equivalent of fan fiction, with beats, styles and melodies being sampled or imitated over and over, so it seems a little unfair that a similar use of homages, references and expansions to previous literary works in fan fiction should automatically be considered a negative.
That rant out of the way, "The Story of Kullervo" was written in 1914 at the very beginning of Tolkien's career, and unlike the distinctive universe he would later create in timeless works like "The Hobbit," Tolkien's take on Kullervo's story sticks pretty close to the original Finnish mythology -- main characters, basic plot points and all. He was basically just playing around in the existing universe of the Kalevala...kinda like a fanfic writer might.
That reminds me, I've got to get back to a little writing project of my own -- just imagine a world where the Elves, Dwarves and Men must come together again, but this time to save the world from time-traveling robots sent across time and the multiverse to control Middle Earth. We're talking super epic battle scenes, y'all.