On hobbits and lembas bread: The Last Alliance UofA Tolkien Society

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

Think what you will about nerds—they know a thing or two about human connection. Fandoms, whether spawned from pop culture or based in something more obscure, are one of the main reasons comic conventions have become so popular as of late. Anime, comics, video games, TV shows, movies—we’ve become obsessed with them all. And the ultimate fan experience comes from sharing these passions with like-minded people (and maybe getting a photo op).

In the few weeks before I began graduate school in England, I spent time getting to know the people around me. My flatmates consisted of two fellow Canadians and three students from China. One night at the pub, my one flatmate comes back to the table with a beer. I asked what he was drinking and he said, “This, my friend, is a pint.” Catching on to the Fellowship of the Ring reference, I immediately responded with, “It comes in pints? I’m getting one.” We laughed, despite everyone else at the table thinking we were crazy. Six years later and we’re still friends, even though we live in different provinces. Every once in a while, we’ll message each other something along the lines of “What is ‘taters,’ Precious?” To which the other will inevitably respond, “PO-TAY-TOES.”

Our mutual love for The Lord of the Rings created a bond, despite the fact that the books were published 62 years ago and despite the fact that Peter Jackson’s first LOTR movie has been around for 15 years. J. R. R. Tolkien and his trail of hobbits transcends generations.

Which is the entire reason why The Last Alliance, The University of Alberta’s Tolkien Society, exists. Well into its sixth year, the club, founded in 2010 by a group of physicists and a chaplain, celebrates the works of Tolkien, their relevance today, and the camaraderie they incite amongst fans. Led by an executive board labelled ‘The Istari,’ the society’s goal is to inspire lively discussion about Tolkien and foster connections between its members.

2015/16 Istari | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

…we wish to meet and associate with others interested in Tolkien, and to learn more about the author, his written works, and his sources through discussion, guest lecturers, and academically-oriented activities; we wish to provide a friendly atmosphere for literary-flavoured socialization at the University of Alberta; we wish to educate members about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien; and we wish to promote Tolkien-related academic discourse and encourage literacy in the community through volunteering activities […] Lastly, we aim to form lasting bonds between our members in true keeping with Tolkien’s ideals of friendship and collaboration. (Selection from The Last Alliance mission, from website)

For a scant $5 yearly membership fee, students and Tolkien fans alike can become a member and experience all of the society’s various events, from book studies, to Lembas bake sales, Hobbit hikes, board game nights, murder mysteries, and more.

Alex Thompson, current President of The Last Alliance, joined the society four years ago when she began her degree in geophysics. Thompson originally joined through her love of Tolkien and stayed for the society’s sense of community.

“For me, the biggest thing about The Last Alliance is that it’s a community of friends.” – Alex Thompson, President of The Last Alliance

“For me, the biggest thing about The Last Alliance is that it’s a community of friends,” says Thompson. “It’s how you meet people with similar interests. When I joined, I loved The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I also loved Game of Thrones, video games, and other nerdy interests. Once I joined, I met other people who also loved those things. The biggest draws are how welcoming it is, how many people you get to meet, and the fact that you get to dig a little deeper into The Lord of the Rings than you would regularly.”

The society isn’t limited to students, either. Dan Rempel, who currently manages The Last Alliance’s website and social media, works full-time as a System Administrator at the University of Alberta.

“I’ve been a lifelong Tolkien fan and all-around geek,” says Rempel. “I one day noticed there was a Tolkien society on campus after buying lembas bread at one of their bake sales, and I barged my way in and took over the website and social media. I’ve been a member for a few years now.”

Lembas bread | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance
Dan Rempel at the Lembas Bake Sale | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

One of the main things that brings Last Alliance members together is their belief that Tolkien and his works are still relevant today and can continue fostering intelligent discussion. The fact that the society boasts members from a range of disciplines (sciences, literature, theology, and more) means that there will always be unique approaches to the discussion at hand.

“We have so many intelligent, creative people in our group and they come up with many different vantage points…” – Dan Rempel, The Last Alliance

“Everybody has a different perspective on a single idea,” says Rempel. “We have so many intelligent, creative people in our group and they come up with many different vantage points to describe a theme [or] a certain chapter. It’s really exciting.”

The Last Alliance has been hosting a guest lecture series for the last four years, in which guests with some relation to the subject matter deliver a university-style presentation, followed by a question and answer period.

Alex Thompson and Dr. William Thompson | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

The most recent guest lecture took place on February 4th and featured Dr. William Thompson from MacEwan University, who talked about The Hobbit, Tolkien’s interpretation of the journey into faerie (or the Perilous Realm), and the complexities of Gollum. In the lecture, Dr. Thompson delved into Bilbo’s character as related to Joseph Campbell’s archetypal ‘hero,’ made more complex by the fact that Bilbo begins his journey as a burglar (by stealing the ring from Gollum). As Dr. Thompson states, the first words Gollum says to Bilbo and the last words Smaug says are to call the hobbit a thief—he does, nevertheless, still make the archetypal transition to hero and then, lastly, poet.

The next guest lecture takes place on Thursday, February 25th, and features Dr. Mike Perschon, who will be speaking about steampunking a Middle Earth tabletop RPG—a subject on which he wrote his PhD dissertation.

“We’ve done the guest lecture series for the past four years, but we try to get new people in every year,” says Thompson. “We’ve also tried to reach out to different interests—we’ve had a linguistics professor come in, theology professors, and fantasy authors. We try to bring in anyone who might have a connection to [Tolkien] and who might be interested.”

Among the audience for Thompson’s guest lecture was friend and partner for The Pulp, Dan Shessel from the Northern Nerd Network. His interest lay not only in Tolkien, but also in learning more about The Last Alliance in order to help the group gain coverage throughout Edmonton.

“Stuff like this is where I get to meet people like [Alex and Dan],” says Shessel. “I love to see this and I love to see these groups grow. And I love for us to help them—it’s sort of where my passion lies, making sure groups like The Last Alliance get the exposure they deserve. I love to see this community, as a ‘nerd community,’ grow.”

“…my passion lies [in] making sure groups like [these] get the exposure they deserve. I love to see this community grow.” – Dan Shessel, Northern Nerd Network

Edmonton’s nerd community features a large number of events and group meetings, although none more so than the Edmonton Expo each fall. Thompson, as a regular attendee of the Expo since the age of 13, helped plan The Last Alliance’s first panel at the 2015 show.

The Last Alliance at the Edmonton Expo (2015) | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

“We wanted to make sure we got a lot of people interested, so our topic was women in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien,” says Thompson. “That’s pretty commonly talked about and a lot of issues have been raised about it, which I think are fair. There aren’t very many women in his works.”

The panel consisted of several members of the Istari discussing women and Tolkien, followed by a question and answer period. It’s a topic that Thompson is quite passionate about and one that she thinks should be considered in light of Tolkien’s time period.

“You can’t really compare it to any modern literature,” she says. “I think you have to take Tolkien with the time and it’s important to talk about his female characters and how they’re stereotyped and not very three-dimensional in comparison to his male characters. But at the same time you can still like the book.”

It’s clearly a topic they’ve discussed before, as Rempel responds with the statement, “But the women that are represented are very powerful.”

Thompson responds: “They are—but are they necessarily three-dimensional? Do they have flaws? Do they have a character arc? Are they actually characters? It’s a question of “strong” female characters [strength] and strong female characters [well-developed]. Éowyn is definitely one of his most developed female characters by far, but she’s the only one.”

The back-and-forth between Thompson and Rempel is just a small taste of the types of discussion regularly held between members of The Last Alliance. The club’s passion for Tolkien can bring out even the shyest of introverts, as seen at several of their year-end events.

Rick VanManen as Gandalf | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

“You’d be surprised…we have people going up and singing a song or playing a guitar,” says Rempel. “There’s so much variety. You get the science students—the geophysicists—talking about how there couldn’t actually be a Lonely Mountain, or why a dragon could breathe fire. Our faculty advisor, Rick VanManen, always dresses up as Gandalf. There’s a costume contest every year and he’s won every year. He can’t not win that contest.”

Thompson laughs. “Last year, he actually fell asleep during the presentation and had to be woken up because he won the costume contest!”

With more than 400 members and alumni currently on the society’s email list, it’s easy to see that this group appeals to more than just current students. While the book studies might take place during the day, The Last Alliance hosts a regular podcast, organizes fun activities to raise money for charity, and, of course, annually bakes delicious lembas bread (served wrapped in a mallorn leaf) for sale on campus.

Trick or TrEAT for Campus Food Bank | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance
Third annual Hobbit Hike for Literacy | Image courtesy of The Last Alliance

And their efforts aren’t going unnoticed. The Tolkien Society, a British educational charity, literary society, and international fan club that was founded in 1969, links to The Last Alliance website as Canada’s sole Tolkien society. And, in 2012, CBC News Edmonton showed some footage of the society prior to the release of the first The Hobbit film.

“We really want to have more of a presence in the Edmonton ‘nerd community’,” says Thompson. “Tolkien is still relevant. I think the reason why we’re still relevant [as a club] is that it’s really important to find people who have the same interests as you on campus.”

The Last Alliance’s final guest lecture with Dr. Mike Perschon will be held at 6:00 p.m. on February 25th in ETLC E1-007 at the University of Alberta. Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend and there is no admission for the event. To see the Facebook page for the lecture, click here.

More information on The Last Alliance can be found on their website.

The Last Alliance Twitter

The Last Alliance Facebook page

Northern Nerd Network website

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