“I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only places in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands wielding paint and music and drama.”
~Prologue, The Silmarillion
Once a work of fiction becomes popular, it is only a matter of time before fans begin to write stories based upon it. This deliberate imitation of a particular author is known as “fanfiction” or “fanfic.”
The above quote from J.R.R. Tolkien shows acceptance and even encouragement of fanfic, though Tolkien could not have foreseen the rise in fanfic due to the Internet and, in many cases, movie adaptations. Other authors, however, tend to discourage fanfiction, though squelching enthusiastic fans is impossible.
Some fanfic authors emphasize unity with the source material (known as ‘canon’,) while others claim to “fix what the author broke.” In my limited experience with fanfiction, I have come across more of the former than the latter, although even some of those take surprising liberties.
In my opinion, there are two broad categories of fanfic: character and setting. For example, a character Lord of the Rings fanfic might explore other journeys of Gandalf or the activities of Aragorn in the Fourth Age. A Lord of the Rings fanfic ‘setting,’ on the other hand, might invent a Rider of Rohan or an adventurous Took and send them on original quests. There is also the underappreciated category of fanpoetry—poems exploring situations or characters in the books. One of my online friends writes Lord of the Rings fanpoetry equally as stirring as any of The Lays of Beleriand.
Overall, there area almost as many approaches to fanfiction as there are authors of fanfiction, ranging from silly to serious, humor to horror. In my opinion, any approach can work as long as it remains respectful of canon. As the parody Official Fanfiction University of Middle-Earth says, “Thou Shalt Not Steal Characters, but Borrow, and Return Them Whole and Recognizible.”
Even parodies can follow this rule, such as The Silmarillion Gospels by Araloth the Random, a rewriting of the Silmarillion in a potpourri of King James and bally-girl English.
As an example, the original text of the Valaquenta concerning the Valar Yavanna reads as follows:
The spouse of Aulë is Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits. She is the lover of all things that grow in the earth, and all their countless forms she holds in her mind, from the trees that grow like towers in the forest long ago to the moss upon stones or the small and secret things in the mould. In reverence Yavanna is next to Varda among the Queens of the Valar. In the form of a woman she is tall, and robed in green; but at times she takes other shapes. Some there are who have seen her standing as a tree under heaven, crowned with the sun; and from its branches there spilled a golden dew upon the barren earth, and it grew green with corn, but the roots of the tree were in the waters of Ulmo, and the winds of Manwë spoke in its branches. Kementari, Queen of the Earth, she is surnamed in the Eldarin tongue.
The reworked text, on the other hand, reads:
And the spouse of Aulë is Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits, and Kementari, Queen of the Earth, and the One With Not As Many Names As Varda. She loveth flowers and growing things and mouldy stuff. Therefore all housewives call upon her name when cleaning out the fridge. In the form of a woman is tall and dressed in green, but other times she looketh like a tree. Ask thou not how the heck this doth work. Accept the word of the Mighty Professor Tolkien, Lord of Oxford, and question not his Righteous Awesomeness.
In my opinion, fanfic is to canon as pre-made bread is to homemade. Whether you buy it at the store or use a packaged mix, the end product can be used in the same way. Sometimes it even can pass for the real thing, and other times it turns normal ideas upside down. But if you’re hungry enough, it doesn’t matter.
Bread is bread, after all.