Since 2013, Shaun Gunner has been at the helm of one of the oldest charities in Britain, The Tolkien Society, and through the sensible administration of its volunteers and clever use of social media, he has furthered its growth at home and worldwide.
FB: I understand that the Society has a very special President. Can you tell us more about the origins of the TS?
SG: The Society was founded in 1969 following an advert in The New Statesmen magazine. Although it had very humble beginnings, our founder, Vera Chapman, established links with the Tolkien family and finally met Tolkien at a party hosted at the publisher’s officers. Tolkien agreed to be the honorary president before concluding “If I can help your society in any way, I will.” He remains our honorary president to this day.
Today, with a global membership and an international reach of tens of thousands the Society remains a charity based in the United Kingdom which aims to promote the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. We are proud of our heritage and optimistic about our future.
FB: As the Chairman of the Society, you must feel somewhat like a father, responsible for running events and creating new ones, that can enrich the love and knowledge of Tolkien among its members. Tell us about your regular annual events.
SG: That’s a very flattering description! I know you recently interviewed Elena Krysova, Chairman of the Oxonmoot organising committee; but just to recap, Oxonmoot takes place over a long-weekend in September in an Oxford college. With a diverse range of artwork, quizzes, talks, food, and partying it is the longest-running annual Tolkien event in the world, and the most important event hosted by the Society.
Aside from Oxonmoot, on the 3rd January every year we get together for the Tolkien Birthday Toast, honouring Tolkien’s memory; whilst on the 25th March – the date on which the Ring was destroyed – we read our favourite passages for Tolkien Reading Day. In April we have a Springmoot where we get together and have our AGM; and in July we host the Seminar, the most academic of our events.
In terms of non-annual events, up and down the country we have local groups called “smials” who meet every month. They form the backbone of the Society as well as the core of the social aspects of the Society.
FB: What would you say are the strengths of The Tolkien Society, and why does it still appeal to young and old, after 46 years?
SG: The strength of the Society is in its members: they make the Society what it is; they organise our events, write our publications, and volunteer their time; they will welcome you with open arms and make you feel a part of our wonderful fellowship. Our members are incredibly diverse and it is that diversity which means, regardless of your age, you will find a home in the Society.
FB: Shortly after joining the TS, you became one of its trustees. Your remit was to grow the profile of the society, which eventually led to a revamped, fresher looking website. Was there perhaps an outside perception that the society was a wholly academic group.
SG: It wasn’t simply that the Society looked academic – indeed, we publish some excellent scholarly works that I think we should be incredibly proud of – but I was worried that the Society looked stale, old-fashioned and irrelevant. I only joined the Society in 2005 because a friend signed me up and that was because I had assumed the Society wasn’t for people like me.
But, when I went to my first Tolkien Society event I realised how very wrong I was: the Society is vibrant, excellent, friendly, thoughtful, modern and welcoming. I wanted the Society’s website and social media presence to reflect what the Society is really like – since our new website went live our membership has increased by over 50% so I think it is really working. Our website is our shop window and we’ve just had an excellent refit.
FB: The TS Facebook group page has over 20,000 members. What can you tell us about the impact of social media on the society?
SG: Social media is so vital for us, and I would encourage all literary societies and small charities to fully embrace online technologies. We now have 11,000 likes on Facebook, 22,000 members of our Facebook group, 32,000 followers on Twitter and 120,000 followers on Google+. Our website gets nearly a million hits a year. Five years ago none of this existed – it has totally transformed our ability to reach out to communities around the world.
I love hearing people’s stories about their passion for Tolkien but I also enjoy using social media to educate people about Tolkien’s works. We are able to connect people with each other and connect people with Tolkien; that is a very precious and special achievement.
FB: Speaking of outside influences. How responsible is Peter Jackson for the increased number of membership and how do you see this growth developing in the future, now that the trilogies of LOTR and The Hobbit are over?
SG: Peter Jackson has produced some incredible films and I am grateful to him for every new member who joins the Society and tells me “I so pleased that the films led me to discovering Tolkien”. Although the Society experienced a sizable jump in membership following The Lord of the Rings films it doesn’t seem to have happened with The Hobbit films – I’ll leave readers to wonder whether that is due to the different nature of the two trilogies! Our growth in membership will continue so long as we remain in touch with the Tolkien community, hold excellent events and produce high-class publications.
It’s important to remember that the Society is not anti-film, just very very pro-book! As such, the Society’s future will be determined by Tolkien and his books, rather than Jackson and his films.
FB: If I were a prospective TS member, what would you say to me?
SG: I would ask you: do you love Tolkien’s works? Do you want to share your passion for Tolkien with others? Do you want to be a part of global community of fans and academics? Do you want to learn about Tolkien and help us to teach others? Do you want to get together with like-minded others in a fantastic fellowship? If you answered “Yes” to any question you should become a member right now!