J.R.R. Tolkien as fictional character – fair use or a step too far?

The Tolkien estate hopes to block the publication of “Mirkwood," a novel somewhat critical of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Tolkien estate has sent a cease-and-desist letter to author Steve Hillard, objecting to the use of Tolkien’s name and personality and his book's cover art and typeface.

We absorbed the idea of an unauthorized "Catcher in the Rye" sequel. We could handle exploring "Gone With The Wind" from a slave’s perspective. But J.R.R. Tolkien as a fictional character? Is this going too far?

It’s certainly too much for the estate of the “Lord of the Rings” author, which wants to block the publication of “Mirkwood: A Novel about J.R.R. Tolkien” by Steve Hillard. The Hollywood Reporter reported that Hillard filed a lawsuit claiming First Amendment and fair use rights to publish the book, after the Tolkien estate sent him a cease-and-desist letter objecting to the cover art, typeface, and use of Tolkien’s name and personality.

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In legal papers filed in Texas District Court, included in the "Reporter" story, Hillard’s book is described as “both a work of fiction and a critical analysis” of Tolkien’s work. It focuses in part on the role of heroines, and the idea that his famed series has almost none.

The legal papers mention several cases where fictional books use the characters of real people, e.g. featuring Marilyn Monroe in the Joyce Carol Oates novel “Blond.”

Then came the surprising part, at least to me: The Hillard book wouldn’t be the first time Tolkien was used as a fictional character. The lawsuit noted that a fictional Tolkien previously appeared in the 2006 children’s book “Here, There Be Dragons,” one in a series by James Owen, and in last year’s “Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel”, by C.S. Lewis scholar David Downing.

To more active fans, this wasn’t such a shock. Back when the press release on Hilliard’s book came out, The Tolkien Library website commented that “It seems to become a bit of a fashion to use JRR Tolkien as a character in novels these days.” There’s also a fine bibliography here of places where any of “The Inklings,” the Oxford group that included Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others, appeared in fiction. It’s a long list.

Lawsuits aside, you can read the first chapter of "Mirkwood" on a website devoted to the book. Here’s a sample:

“John Ronald Reuel Tolkien steeled himself. Go now and bar this fell gate, the muse breathed. Before it is too late! For a man about whose life it would be observed, 'after 1925, nothing much happened,' this lion of letters trudged in fear for the first time since he was eighteen at the Battle of the Somme.”

I don’t think the world will be robbed of a masterpiece if Tolkien’s estate blocks the book. But would it steal away a sense of fair play?

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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