Recently I’ve given several programs on the power of fan art, and during these programs, I always make sure to stress that the same value applies to fanfiction as well. There’s a good reason for that—most of my completed manuscripts prior to Woodwalker’s publication were fanfiction. The most significant of these, at least in relationship to my published work, is a 67,000 word fic set in the world and events of The Hobbit (in comparison, Woodwalker is 72k words). I wrote it after the first Hobbit movie came out and made me mad with how little it held to the spirit of the book, keeping me awake at night with all the potential that had been lost. It ended up becoming the first of a duology, with the second installment set during The Lord of the Rings.
Nobody has read these fics, not even my best friend and beta reader, who’s read almost everything else I’ve ever written. And they’re not my only LotR fics—I wrote one in undergrad that topped 115k words and encompassed about 500 years of Middle Earth history. But the one set during The Hobbit is the most special to me for several reasons—first, because The Hobbit defined my childhood and ignited my love of fantasy, quests, and worldbuilding. Second, because it was the fic I was writing when my husband finally found out, after four years of marriage, that all the typing I was doing on my computer wasn’t just social media, but fiction writing. And third, because without it, I wouldn’t have conceived of the character of Mae and the plot of Woodwalker.
Warning: Big plot spoilers for Woodwalker below (but none for books 2 and 3). Read them all after the jump!
Look like someone you know?
Eirien is an Avari Elf of Mirkwood, descended from the Elves that never traveled to Valinor, and part of the Royal Guard protecting the stronghold of King Thranduil. Her weapons of choice are two bone-handled knives, and she favors a long braid.
She has copper skin and dark brown hair…
Likes to dance…
And is exiled from her home for something she didn’t do.
Now, I’ve already shared how my design for Valien is highly reminiscent of my design for Legolas, and this fic is the reason. What I haven’t shared is how Woodwalker Mae Hawkmoth has even more in common with Guardsman Eirien Sarndûriel.
The gist of the fanfic was this: After being banished from Mirkwood for a crime she didn’t commit, Eirien meets Gandalf, who recruits her to guide Thorin and Company through the forest without rousing suspicion from Thranduil’s guards.
Sound familiar? As I started adapting the story for an original novel, the party of Dwarves became Mona and her brothers, the Lonely Mountain became Lumen Lake, and Smaug became the nation of Alcoro.
(For more on this stunning cosplay of Queen Mona, see Sadie by Design's guest post from August 2018!)
But the similarities go even deeper—take a look at the plot outline below.
Yikes, right? The Sparknotes read like the exact same story. The big difference was in the endings. While Mae’s story ends with the promise of her returning home, Eirien is sent to Valinor before she can die from her wounds. I later altered the ending to have her recover in order to write the sequel fic, which chronicled her fight to protect the besieged Mirkwood while the Ring traveled south.
Several other facets of Woodwalker got their start in this fic, too. One was the name Woodwalker itself, a casual epithet Gandalf gives to Eirien (in the style of Wingfoot or Barrel-Rider). Another was the common exclamation, “Great Light!” This started out as the longer phrase, “Great Light of the Trees!” based on the Two Trees of Valinor that lit the Undying Lands. Out of habit I carried it over into the worldbuilding of Woodwalker, leading to the development of the spiritual force and ultimate factor driving the conflict in the trilogy.
At this zoomed-out level, it’s pretty stark how similar the two stories are. But moving in a little closer, the similarities start to disappear. The storytelling voice and the twist at the end are influenced much more heavily by Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series. The story took on strong environmental themes and moved from Middle Earth to southern Appalachia, and what little magic I had shoehorned into the plot dried up to nothing. And while my two protagonists share some things in common, Mae’s character ended up going in a different direction than Eirien’s. Mae isn’t the warrior Eirien is. Eirien is a soldier through and through, devoted to protecting the Greenwood from marauding Orcs and spiders, while Mae fights back against the attempts to turn the Wood Guard into an armed border patrol. Eirien has little to no skill with herbs and medicines, while they’re Mae’s specialty. And while Eirien gets wrapped up in the Dwarves’ quest without really meaning to, Mae is the one to engineer the attempt to restore Queen Mona to the throne of Lumen Lake.
Still, the similarities are certainly there, and that’s okay. I’ve grown less cagey about talking about my fanfiction, because I’ve reached a point where I can appreciate all it’s done for my career. This fic was important to me for more than just sketching out Woodwalker’s plot. It was where I first learned the value of giving my female protagonist a robust group of supportive female friends—not only did it take much of the emphasis off the romantic subplot, but it made exile all the more painful for Eirien. It was also great practice at writing woodcraft and long-distance travel in a way that’s actually fun to read. And perhaps most importantly, it boosted my confidence that despite my life being commandeered by my toddler and nursing infant, I could reliably commit to writing a full-length novel. Not fast, of course, but I did it, and I enjoyed it. It helped me connect back to the person I was before I became a mom. Without that success, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to attempt writing Woodwalker, or seeking publication for it.
Woodwalker is my only published book that bears this kind of similarity to a fanwork. Ashes to Fire and Creatures of Light took off on their own trajectories, and my two in-progress manuscripts mostly have roots in my work as a park ranger. But I think that’s kind of neat—fanfiction served as a bridge, first to help me develop my writing skills and confidence, and then to build a story that launched my career as an author. It was a springboard, an incubator, and a treasure map.
Write your fanfiction. Value your fanfiction—from your terrible, indulgent Mary Sue oneshots to your sweeping epic sagas that could put George RR Martin to shame. They are the seeds that so much can sprout from. I recently found out that my aforementioned favorite author Megan Whalen Turner grew up writing Star Wars fanfiction. I love that! I love that there are swaths of authors who happily point to fanwork as a driving force in their careers. I love that we’re seeing fresh new voices telling in-universe stories (I just picked up Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond, and my husband reads Star Wars novels like they’re his religion). I love that fanfiction, like fan art, is an outlet for building community and inspiring creators of all ages to make and consume and imagine new possibilities.
Oh, and a note to the Tolkien estate—if you ever open up Middle Earth for franchise fiction, ala Star Wars… let me know. I am, as they say, at your service.
September Art Roundup
An assortment of character sketches--Mae and Toph were done as live-drawing demonstrations.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator