A quick note: Facts that aren’t facts and “The One Ring Explained” – again

As you know one of my pet peeves are wrongly attributed or wrong quotes or statements on Tolkien’s life and works that could be easily misunderstood or are half-truths bordering on lies.

Last week what I usually call “The One Ring Explained” theory returned after lying dormant for seven years, on social media, of course: A stranger than fiction Roman ring mystery thread. It is argued that because Tolkien wrote part of the excavation report on Lydney Park on the name “Nodens” and a certain ring was found that this is the origin of the One Ring. The thread on Twitter was retweeted 17,000+ times.

If you are curious about it please have a look but do believe me – seven years ago I scoured Berlin’s specialist libraries for the work of the Wheelers’ surrounding their excavations at Lydney Park, particularly in archaeology, to find possible connections.

There were none.

None that would easily and convincingly prove that the connection between the Ring of Silvianus and the One Ring is a 1:1 link without a doubt.

Alas, as has been so often the case I did not write down my findings. Back then the uproar died down after the Vyne, part of the National Trust in the UK, and the Tolkien Society itself had promoted the wrong link. To show you what chances we have:

John Garth challenged the thread’s assumptions – it was retweeted 135 times at the time of writing.

To say that I am furious is putting it mildly. It is also one of the reasons why I have been a bit quieter around here as I am trying to figure out whether I have the materials available to start a crusade against this nonsense *g*

COVID-19 has made access to scientific publications difficult but I will keep you informed about this.

However, to show you another example of how this whole “fake news” – and I consider misattributed quotes part of the same outgrowth in modern day media – I would like to mention just one short discussion with the Tolkien Society Facebook group.

A gentleman shared a picture he had taken from a book of “fact snippets” put together by a ‘popular TV show’ which was later identified as QI (they also have a very popular Twitter account sharing all sorts of one-line-nonsense.) I will not share the picture as it is not my copyright but the three factoids I can put here in writing:

Nobody won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972.

J.R.R. Tolkien was rejected for a Nobel Prize in Literature on the grounds of his ‘poor storytelling’.

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin adopted the ‘R.R.’ as a homage to Tolkien.

Unfortunately, with the depiction of information on Facebook as a virtual ‘toilet roll’ the discussion quickly deteriorated from the original intention of the poster of this picture to share ‘fun facts.’

Not only did many people seem to believe that these three factoids belonged together in some sense – as they were presented on the same page – but quite a few were unhappy with the supposed ‘put-down’ of Tolkien’s writing, welcomed or disliked the supposed homage of GRRM towards Tolkien, and misunderstood the way the Nobel Prize actually works. With well over 150+ comments at the time of writing, some of them quite substantial, fellow Tolkienist and friend Harm Schelhaas was moved to write this scathing remark:

I’m afraid this post has become a good illustration of how the power of stupid works on social media. Three basically unconnected facts are presented without their proper contexts. People run away with the erroneous assumption that they are connected and come back with incongruous — and sometimes inflamed — rebuttals. Sensible people who provide the proper factual contexts are misunderstood and sometimes wrongfully accused of not understanding the non-existent connection or the baseless rebuttals. And no matter how often the true context is given, more people will only read the opening post and run off with the wrong stick, adding more heat as a consequence.

In the meantime, the original poster has not been back with a single comment or response. Time they came clean whether they understood the effect their post would have. And if they don’t, maybe an admin ought to close this thread.

Now, one has to put this reaction into context – for many years and particularly thanks to the success of the Peter Jackson film trilogies nonsense has been shared widely. And this is not about being defensive about a favourite author, it has very much to do with what has come to be a bane of our times and has been widely termed fake news. They work so well because people expect them to be true and cannot or will not take the time to cross-check them – 2020 is as much about the corrosion of reliable news sources in the wider world of challenging and controlling power through power of discourse as it is about the need to have some inspirational quotes to keep going in a time of distress.

I do not have the slightest doubt the OP (original poster) meant well. Unfortunately, that is how nonsense is spread.

 Nobody won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972.

A serious misunderstanding of how the Nobel Peace Prize works. This is not some sports’ competition or a poker game. (Please also note the wording with the official Nobel website’s summary.)

Each year, thousands of members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Laureates and members of parliamentary assemblies and others, are asked to submit candidates for the Nobel Prizes for the coming year. These nominators are chosen in such a way that as many countries and universities as possible are represented over time.

After receiving all nominations, the Nobel Committees of the four prize awarding institutions are responsible for the selection of the candidates.

I jokingly added that ‘Nobody’ could also be a name as I grew up with a huge number of rather horrible spaghetti westerns like My Name is Nobody. Silly but hey…

And by the way: Not only does the quote misrepresent the Nobel Peace Prize and why and how it is awarded, it also further distorts by additional omission:

100 Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded to 134 Nobel Laureates since 1901 (107 individuals and 27 organisations). It was not awarded on 19 occasions: in 1914-1918, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1939- 1943, 1948, 1955-1956, 1966-1967 and 1972.

Why were the Peace Prizes not awarded in those years? In the statutes of the Nobel Foundation it says: “If none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph, the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation’s restricted funds.” During World War I and II, fewer Nobel Prizes were awarded. [Source]

So…

The sentence in itself might be understood as “correct” but it takes out of context everything it is supposed to convey and misrepresents the basis of the very fact.

 J.R.R. Tolkien was rejected for a Nobel Prize in Literature on the grounds of his ‘poor storytelling’.

The background to this factoid is this Guardian article and the fellow piece with the Telegraph of 2012. The nominations and rejections on the Nobel awards are kept under wraps for fifty years. So when Tolkien was nominated in 1961 and rejected this piece of information was made available in 2012.

The headline JRR Tolkien’s Nobel prize chances dashed by ‘poor prose’ made for excellent clickbait and that was this article’s only intention. It was, more or less, a summary of Swedish reporter Andreas Ekström’s article on the topic published on January 3rd, 2012, which happened to fall on Tolkien’s 120th birthday. Coincidence?

By the way – the Swedish reporter’s statement did not say anything about ‘poor storytelling’ if my Swedish does not disappoint me but that his friend’s C.S. Lewis’ nomination was declined because ‘resultatet har dock icke i något avseende blivit diktning av högsta klass’ – Tolkien did not consistently deliver the art of poetry in the highest degree. The Grauniad translated that his “prose ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality'” but in the Swedish original, the very few slapdash lines there are do not speak of “poor prose” or “poor storytelling” – those seem to be inventions by the Guardian and the Telegraph. I hope you will agree that there is quite a difference between a writer writing bad prose or delivering poor storytelling – and both are hard to find with the Swedish reporter’s writing. The word diktning is key and if you speak Swedish please let me know how to best translate it: the German word Dichtkunst seems a pretty close relative, which is the (art of) poetry.

By the way: The reasons for a rejection are never given.

 “The academy keeps a strict secrecy around the archives for 50 years,  but doesn’t reveal everything. The final decision is made without any notes ever becoming public. But the list of suggestions is indeed  public, with some commentary to it.”

So, where do we get all of this from, actually? It is mentioned in the original article that the long-standing secretary of the Swedish Academy, Anders Österling, was the source of the comments (see this article on 770file.com) and he had quite a few disparaging remarks to make on a number of nominees, reminding me of good old Edmund Wilson.

As I was writing this Troels Forchhammer kindly reminded me that he had done a piece for Mallorn 53, the 2012 spring edition, asking the Swedish editor about the wording and the research he did on the papers released on the nomination of 1961. Troels has brought up another interesting perspective on the committee’s decision:

Another issue that has been brought up is the question of which edition of The Lord of the Rings the members of the Nobel committee had been reading. There are two likely scenarios: either they were reading the book in the original language, which was not their native tongue (Tolkien’s brilliant use of archaisms to illustrate status is, for instance, likely to go unnoticed by most foreign readers, myself included), or they were reading the Swedish translation by Åke Ohlmarks, for which Tolkien himself expressed a strong dislike (see, for example, Letters 204, 228 and 229). In any case, it seems likely that the committee would have been at some disadvantage in its quest to evaluate the quality of Tolkien’s prose. [Mallorn 53, 2012, p. 9]

His letter printed in Mallorn, Tolkien’s Nobel prize, also emphasises that Österling was not quite as dismissive towards Tolkien as most English-speaking publications made it out to be:

In the papers of the Nobel committee (the literature laureate is selected by the Swedish Academy), Tolkien’s nomination is discussed, and the powerful committee secretary (probably the most influential literary critic in the committee), Anders Österling, expresses some appreciation of the imaginativeness of Tolkien’s work after which he nonetheless dismisses it with the words “resultatet har dock icke i något avseende blivit diktning av högsta klass” (“the result has, however, not in any respect become writing of the highest class”) 4 . The use of Swedish dock (here translated as ‘however’) implies a contrast with the preceding passage in which Österling is more positive. [see above, ~.]

And again, another factoid gone, as Troels’ says: “(…) Anders Österling of the Nobel committee expressed appreciation of Tolkien’s imaginativeness (…)”

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin adopted the ‘R.R.’ as a homage to Tolkien.

No, he did not.

It is rather simple. In an interview with Basque fantasy and ASoIaF fan Adrià Guxens he stated:

Why did you decide to include the double ‘r’ for your artistic name?

Well, the first ‘r’ is for my father’s name, Raymond, and the second is for Richy, a name which came with the confirmation. And yes, before you ask me, I was grown up as a practicing Catholic, although I haven’t been practicing for a long time. In addition, I wanted the double ‘r’ in my artistic name because George Martin is a very common name and there are some famous George Martin [sic!], indeed, so I decided to put the double ‘r’ in order to be distinct from the other people.

It’s suspicious… Tolkien was also R.R. Tolkien…

[Laughs] I read Tolkien when I was twelve or so and he impressed me a lot so I don’t get tired of rereading it. In fact, I planned to send a letter to Mr. Tolkien when I was a child, but I finally didn’t, thing for which I am a little bit annoyed, more after getting noticed that Tolkien use to read almost every letter he received. But Tolkien wasn’t a direct influence to me when I decided to write A Song of Ice and Fire although my books are in the fantasy canon that Tolkien improved. I mean, fantasy is very ancient. We can find it in the Iliad or in the Gilgamesh Poem, but Tolkien turned it into a modern genre, and A Song of Ice and Fire shares some of these patterns but not all of them. For example, I pretend to offer a dirty fantasy, more raw than Tolkien’s.

He even mentions in passing when he participated in his first con, the 1971 Disclave in Washington, D.C., that the R.R. had to do with him getting the nickname ‘Railroad’ when he met legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois for the first time. Read it for yourself, it is quite hilarious.

Also, just to be picky: George R.R. Martin is not the author of Game of Thrones but the author of A Song of Ice and Fire. Harrumph.

And the end of it all …

This is how we have communication these days. The ‘social media’ are not quite as social as they call themselves and ‘communication’ does not really work that way – if you conceive ‘communication’ as ‘being understood’ on both sides of the aisle. The discussion with the TS FB group is a good example of things are meant, understood, and when criticised for good reason are dismissed as overly dramatic.

If this had happened at a pub somewhere in Oxford, the book page shown around over a pint or two, we would have laughed, mentioned that it is evidently nonsense and never truly bothered about it.

I had a quick chat with the OP who I hope to meet at Oxonmoot the day it is going to be a real life event again as he left the group, understandably, after having posted something he certainly thought interesting and fun enough to share. And I do hope I’ll be able to invite him to a pint!

Marcel Aubron-Bülles

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...)Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert