Wide Angle

The Lord of the Rings Fanfic That’s 10 Times Longer Than the Original

What a 5-million-word labor of love can tell us about the art form as a whole.

Elf with long golden hair, pointy ears, and blue eyes staring
Lee Pace as Thranduil in the Hobbit films. Warner Bros. Pictures

Every so often, a surprising claim makes the rounds on social media: that the longest work of fiction in the English language is The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest, a fanfiction based on the Nintendo fighting game Super Smash Bros. As far as misinformation goes, this internet legend, while not true, isn’t especially harmful. But it’s still passed around without the quick Google that it would take to disprove it.

Partly that’s because it’s not so much inaccurate as outdated. The longest novel in English, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, written by Henry Williamson and published in 15 volumes between 1951 and 1969, is 2.4 million words. The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest, published on fanfiction.net between 2008 and 2018, reached 4.1 million words by its conclusion, an admittedly impressive number. But The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest was eclipsed several years ago as the longest fanfiction—and therefore the longest work of fiction in English more generally. The fic that beat it was Ambience: A Fleet Symphony, based on a free-to-play browser game featuring anthropomorphized teen-girl versions of World War II warships, which reached 4.5 million words by the end of its run in 2019. And there are several fanfics that have in turn broken Ambience’s record, including at least four that are still in progress.

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One of those fics is the currently 5.6-million-word Lord of the Rings fanfic At the Edge of Lasg’len. (The entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, by comparison, stands at just 558,003.) Lasg’len follows an original character, Earlene, who travels from New York to Ireland and accidentally gets caught up in the world of the Wood Elves. From there things only escalate, with Thranduil and other Tolkien Elves colliding with more original human characters and creating “a tale of social collapse, families that grow under one very large roof, battles against past and present traumas, prejudices, and the slow return of the great First Age Elves to the light of day.”

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The writers, Stevie Barry and AnnEllspethRaven, met online. Ann discovered fanfic in 2016 following the release of The Battle of the Five Armies, the final part of the movie trilogy of The Hobbit. “Reading that first fic and encountering a complex written work that explored social, political, and deeply difficult emotional topics using these familiar characters—that was the lightning bolt,” said Ann. “These characters I already knew were really archetypes, able to be further sculpted and used as messengers for my own themes and narratives.” A longtime Tolkien fan, she started researching and writing, publishing her first 65,000-word story within four weeks.

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Meanwhile, Barry was writing her own Hobbit fanfics. “It’s how I met Ann—she read [one] and we started chatting in the comments, before moving to private messaging.” When Ann began writing Lasg’len, which features many of Tolkien’s characters transported into modern-day Ireland, she reached out to Barry for help with “accent or dialogue.” Barry’s original series, a supernatural series called The M Universe, features many Irish characters.

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From there, Ann invited Barry to give one of her original characters a “guest appearance” in Lasg’len. “We found we enjoyed cowriting so much that I brought [the character] in full-time,” Barry said. The pair split the work, with Barry mostly working on the human elements and Ann on the elven ones. It’s not an especially common practice in fanfic, but it does reflect the deeply communal nature of transformative works, where authors are aware that they’re already, to some degree, working with the original creator of the universe. For Ann, another server called Vinyë Lambengolmor (“New Loremasters of Tongues”) offered expert help in Tolkien’s Elven linguistics. She also credits the work of two other writers: Zhie, whose Tolkien-inspired Bunniverse series has run for 20 years and now spans over 400 stories, and Spiced_Wine’s Dark Prince universe, which is based on The Silmarillion.

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In addition to connecting fans and facilitating inspiration, the internet enables this kind of marathon writing in other ways. It has none of the constraints of traditional publishing: Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that Lasg’len would run around 20,000 pages, weighing about 62 pounds in paperback, and while theoretically a story millions of words long could be published as a series or self-published as an e-book, fanfics are distributed very differently. One of their key features is an episodic nature, with chapters typically uploaded one by one. That incremental progress can add up over the course of years.

That’s what happened with Lasg’len: Barry says that she and Ann never set out to write the longest fanfiction. At the time we spoke, Lasg’len was the longest work on Archive of Our Own, currently the most popular site for fanfiction, though it’s hard to check it against all of the many fanfic platforms that are out there. During the process of writing this piece, Lasg’len has traded positions in the No. 1 and No. 2 longest-fanfic spots with Future Shock, a Sarah Connor Chronicles fic, as each of them have posted updates.

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“Ideas spawned more ideas, and on it went. I think we first started registering how very unusual the length was at around the 3-million-word mark,” said Barry. More recently, they’ve been going back over the earlier chapters, “to clean things up and bring them more in line with what the story ultimately became.”

One thing became clear while speaking with Barry and Ann: They’re not deliberately shooting for any kind of record. Ann says that they heard about The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest and Ambience: A Fleet Symphony at some point during writing, and realized that their story arc would likely mean surpassing those lengths “by miles.” But it’s the arc that motivates them, not the word count itself. “What mattered was that they were well-written words,” said Ann.

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To put it simply, Ann says the story has to be long due to its very nature. In The Silmarillion, there is a song of creation called the “Ainulindalë.” This song shaped the world, but an evil power introduced dissonance, creating all its ills. “But Tolkien never wrote how the song would end,” Ann said. And that’s where she and Barry come in. “We are finishing the ‘Ainulindalë,’ writing the grand epic of how the First Music concludes.”

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“That is why it was becoming one of the longest fics in existence—we bit off the big one. We probably each sat in our respective chairs, shrugged, and thought, well, we’re out of our minds, we won’t run out of things to do, it might be done before 7 million words, guess we’ll find out. Then we thought of another subplot and started typing again.”

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It ties back to how Ann started writing fic in the first place, and it’s one of the things that makes fic so appealing in general: Published works always have gaps that passionate fans can turn into something completely new. And other fans get on board. Audiences grow around fics, leading to constant feedback and encouragement for the writers as each chapter is posted. And the creation of miniature fandoms is only becoming easier with specialized Discords like Lasg’len’s, where fans discuss the world of Lasg’len, new updates, and the general off-topic chitchat of a small community. Archive of Our Own attributes a boom in fanfic since 2020 to the pandemic, “as people turn[ed] to fanworks for comfort.” The site’s admins suggest that more people had time to create works, and others read and commented more, to foster a sense of community. And the increase in this kind of feedback and encouragement is likely a reason super long fics have become more common in recent years.

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Brought together by online fandom, and spurred on by the community they’ve built, Barry and Ann have just kept writing. That common fan impulse to dig into something unexplored by the original media has spun into one of the longest pieces of literature in existence, chapter by chapter, over more than five years. And as those chapter counts creep up over time, it’s likely that many more extremely long fanfictions will grow into existence in the years to come. Worlds Conquest will be left further behind, its legacy much more interesting as an early example of a trend than as a quick piece of trivia.

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