The Reading Room

An Appendix with Links

written by N. E. Brigand for Prof. Michael Drout

The Reading Room (often abbreviated as "RR") is an online discussion board intended for the study of Tolkienís life and works. Reading Room discussions can be read by all visitors to the TORn site. Anyone who registers (for free) can post and reply on the board.

Discussion threads appear as discrete collections of message posts, each organized like an outline, using indentation to distinguish original posts from replies and from replies-to-replies, etc. The following example, chosen for its small size, shows the typical appearance of a Reading Room thread. In this case the root message, "Borromean Rings," was posted on Sunday by "Rhiandra Took" and has received three replies. The reply, "I donít think so," by "squire" has itself received a response from "dernwyn" that is captioned, "squire to the rescue!" Clicking on a title (like "Borromean Rings") brings up that postís full message.

The use of nicknames is regular practice on the TORn discussion boards. I must emphasize that the links that appear in this note have been selected to convey the general tenor of the Reading Room and to indicate the variety of topics discussed there, and not to provide specific samples of each personís work, though contributions by most of them do appear here.

The Reading Room board is formatted so that only recent threads are "active" and able to receive responses; the duration of each threadís active lifetime is determined by the total number of posts on the board. In practice, this usually means that at any given time, there are fifteen to twenty-five active discussion threads in the Reading Room, each active for about one week. After this time, discussions "fall of the board," i.e. they are rendered inactive, though they remain on the TORn server. Discussion threads that have recently become inactive can still be found by adjusting the time period in the "Display messages from" field that appears near the top of the main Reading Room page. For older discussions, there is an Index-Archive with links to all posts dating back to mid-2002, which was compiled by one of the regular Reading Room contributors. In either case, inactive threads are available for reading only.

There are two main activities in the Reading Room: organized, serial discussions of Tolkienís works, and independent questions and analyses. Because the Web site is open to all visitors, the second item includes everything from new Tolkien readersí introductory questions (including such chestnuts as "Did the Balrog have wings?" and "Who is Tom Bombadil?") to requests for help with homework assignments (gently discouraged, although Reading Room participants will comment on drafts). Sometimes even these questions lead to interesting discussions, but there are also more thoughtful inquiries into almost every aspect of Tolkienís writing. The topics of some recent discussions include: echoes of the Aeneid in the Pelennor Fields, the nature of the Three-Farthing Stone, possible implications of the phrase "swift sunrise," the motif of "hoarding," Tolkienian passages in some 1930s adventure serials, and a possible connection between the stone giants in The Hobbit and the Pukel-men in The Lord of the Rings.

The organized discussions now include a primary and secondary series. The subjects of both series are selected by a vote of Reading Room participants. The primary discussion series, which began in 1999, is a weekly chapter discussion of one of Tolkienís more popular works, including The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and now for the third time, The Lord of the Ringsóan eighteen-month project. Each chapter discussion is led by a volunteer Reading Room participant, who posts one to five discussion threads daily, usually closing the week with an open discussion of the chapter and a summary of key points raised in the discussions.

The secondary discussion series launched last summer. This is a slower-paced series (each discussion leader typically posts one to three times each week) that considers shorter or less popular works by or about Tolkien. Discussion topics so far have included Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, "The Tale of Tinķviel" (from The Book of Lost Tales I) and fifteen of the papers presented at the Marquette University conference last fall. A discussion of Tolkienís letters is now being organized and will start next month.

The Reading Roomís design, especially the brief lifetime of discussion threads, encourages shorter essays that, when printed, rarely exceed six single-spaced pages and usually are much shorter than that. I think that this tendency to brevity and the call-and-response arrangement of the threads make the Reading Room discussions analogous to the Q&A period that follows a session of conference papers, but with more time for responses to be developed.

For example, from the open discussion for the chapter, "Riddles in the Dark," here is a post called "Bilboís Dark Psyche" that compares the characters of Bilbo and Gollum in the original and revised versions of that chapter. This inspired a comparison to Plato, which led to a reminder about Gygesí ring. (These three are older posts, which may be slow to load at times when Internet traffic is heavyóit took about 25 seconds for each post when I tested them.)

Similarly, in response to questions in the post, "The Road Goes Ever On and Off," by the discussion leader for "A Shortcut to Mushrooms," a mistake on the Shire map was discovered, which led to an examination of The Return of the Shadow and further information about the missing road from Woodhall to Stock.

Often the discussions go on much longer than is shown in those two examples. A question was raised about Christina Scullís presentation at Marquette on the development of The Lord of the Rings: which elements in her paper were based on The History of Middle-earth, and which on unpublished material? This question developed into a more general inquiry into the status of Tolkien scholarship, which was answered with references to your online Q&A from June 2004 on "Colloquy Live" and to your essay for "Envoi." Someone then linked to that essay, which itself received comment on the subjects of peer review and stylistic vs. theoretical analysis. A discussion about the first issue of Tolkien Studies also grew from this sub-thread, so that the initial question about Scullís sources ultimately garnered 23 further comments.

It can be laborious to trace these discussions post by post. Fortunately, many discussion leaders conclude their weeks with summaries, which serve as helpful jumping-off points to delve into the more detailed arguments. For example, two weeks of questions and answers are distilled into this summary of the third set of discussions of Smith of Wootton Major, which was divided, rather arbitrarily, into four parts. The summary of discussions for "Of the Fifth Battle" from The Silmarillion includes citation by footnote to the original discussion posts. And one person not only used his own web site to create a full summary of the discussion for "A Shortcut to Mushrooms," with citation by links, but also included transcripts of the original discussion threads, as with "The Crooked Short Cut" for that chapter and "The Valar and Other Pantheons" from the discussion of "The Valaquenta."

To close, here are a few more Reading Room threads of possible interest, with links only to each threadís root post. You will probably have noticed by this point that every post includes its entire threadís outline at the bottom of the page, with links to each post contained therein. This tool may prove useful in examining the responses to: a study of Tolkienís thoughts on dramatizing and illustrating fairy stories, a look at classical sources for the Army of the Dead, and finally, a description of your presentation at Marquette on "The Monsters and the Critics".