Anatomy of an April Fools’ Joke

Oh, April 1 has come and gone and everyone wants to forget about those little jokes, right? Well, I need something to write about and I have a confession to make: last week’s Xenite.Org April Fool’s Joke didn’t go the way I hoped it would.

Why is that? Because it was too elaborate, I think, and because it was too well known. In other words, timing is everything and my timing was off by about 9 years.

Here’s the thing: every couple of years I have published a fake news article about an archaeological expedition that has uncovered some startling evidence about events depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (or The Silmarillion).

Call it fan fiction from the edge, I suppose. The concept is not new and goes back at least to around 1980 when some Tolkien fans published a pamphlet detailing an archaeological dig from Middle-earth. It was quite inventive and I was not aware of it until after I started my own series of jokes.

My LoTR Fools’ joke began on April 1, 2001 with a press release about the discovery of the truth about Balrogs — that is, that they were real creatures. Cryptozoology (the study of creatures whose existence has not yet been confirmed/affirmed by science) failed to sit up and take notice, but the press release caused quite a stir in online Tolkien communities.

The article introduced the character of Reinhard van Gelder (spelled with a lower-case “v”) from the fictional Royal Museum of Antiquities in Amsterdam. So far as I know, no such institution has ever existed but in 2001 Web search was not as fully developed as it is today. Another character, Robert Westerburg from Ponce de Leon University, made his only appearance (so far) in the series in this press release.

The article also mentioned Jan Eiger, a supposed expert Alpine mountaineer. Eiger’s name was inspired by the Clint Eastwood movie “The Eiger Sanction”.

On April 1, 2005 I announced that scientists had discovered the ruins of Thangorodrim under the North Sea. This article, also published in the form of a press release, mentioned the Undersea Ancient Habitation Project and the Danish Geography Authority as well as the Swedish Institute of Undersea Studies — all fictional organizations, so far as I was able to determine.

Dr. van Gelder returned in this article, which introduced Ingrid Haglund of the Swedish Paleoarchaeology Institute and Stig Källén (of the Swedish Institute). The article made reference to the (then) recent discovery of diminutive hominids on the island of Flores in Indonesia. These “hobbits” (now confirmed to be a separate species of human) sparked a contentious debate within the paleoanthropology community, and people said it was a nice touch of realism.

Those two articles lacked images, however. Also, both were hosted on Xenite.Org, which was not exactly known as a major news site. So I waited and hoped for time and energy to do a better April Fool’s article. In 2007 I succeeded in creating an interesting twist on the subject.

The April 1, 2007 feature article disclosed information about Lothlorien and Dol Guldur. I was able to find pictures of the Rhine valley and suitable castles but I struggled to put a face to the name of Reinhard van Gelder. I eventually settled on a slightly doctored 19th century photograph (I forget who the original subject of the picture was).

He looks like an esteemed archaeologist (from the 19th century) in my opinion. And for some odd reason the spelling of Dr. van Gelder’s last named morphed to Van Gelder (with a capital “V”).

This article introduced Dr. Ernst Voorst of the Rhine Archaeology Institute and Dr. Van/van Gelder’s professional arch-rival Dr. Edward O’Leary of the Irish Archaeology Fellowship. The article contained two sidebars profiling van Gelder and Voorst. Dr. Voorst was a graduate of Basel-Doorn University.

The article includes some disagreement between the two fictional scientists, but I regretted at the time that I had no way of creating .EDU-based content about either of them. I contemplated inviting some readers from universities to participate in the joke but decided that student pages would eventually be taken down and that educators might refrain from participating in elaborate jokes.

So I mulled over my options for three years, believe it or not. I wanted to top myself but I knew I couldn’t do anything like create fake .EDU domains. I finally settled on creating a bit of “buzz” across the Web by writing twelve blog articles that picked up the fake news story on Xenite.

So this time Dr. Voorst and his team excavated Arwen’s grave in Lothlorien. Unfortunately, I learned to my dismay that Dr. van Gelder had passed away in early 2008 from pneumonia, so I had to bring in a new expert, French anthropologist Felecia Bonnet.

To honor Dr. van Gelder I created the Reinhard Van Gelder Institut für Anthropologie und Archäologie (Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology) at the Universität des Rheins (University of the Rhine). Interestingly, although there is no present-day University of the Rhine one existed 200 years ago. I don’t know what happened to it (unless it is the same as the Friedrich Wilhelm University of the Rhine, which is now the University of Bonn).

Not to be confused with Duke University’s Rhine Research Center, which studies consciousness (is that related to parapsychology?), the fictional University of the Rhine supposedly stepped in to carry on Dr. van Gelder’s legacy.

As near as I can tell, the news articles drew a fair amount of traffic but regrettably they didn’t send that much traffic to the Xenite article itself (which attracted visitors from the Xenite network). I think I was just asking people to look at too many articles.

Like the 2005 article, this year’s April news report featured images from the archaeological dig site. By placing some of the pictures on Image Shack I was able to spread the news a little further and make some of the news stories look better.

But that certainly was more trouble than it was probably worth. In 2005 the joke went so far as to draw Gary Gygax and a few other people into discussing the possibilities of ancient Rhine valley cultures before someone tipped them off to the truth. This year a few people expressed their pleasure at seeing the joke continue but no controversies erupted.

I suppose that’s a good thing, but you always know a joke has worked well when people express an emotional reaction.

Maybe if I could have seeded the joke on real news sites it would have worked better, but the problem is that everyone runs April Fool’s jokes on the Web now and there were just so many competing stories one could not get a joke in edge-wise. Even Twitter seemed to be clogged with fake archaeology stories announcing the discoveries of space aliens, Bigfoot, ancient civilizations, and more.

Tolkien fans are not as numerous as they once were on the Internet, either. Most Tolkien forums have been shut down, many that remain are barely active, and much of the discussion has little to nothing to do with serious Tolkien-related topics. People seem to have lost their passion for Middle-earth except in a few reclusive enclaves.

Rather like the Eldar dwindling in a handful of refuges scattered across Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, Tolkien online fandom has become a pale shadow of its former self. Like Elrond said of the Elven realms at his last great council, they have not the might to march against the power of Mordor. And online Tolkien fandom can no longer muster the hosts of yore to proclaim their devotion to the One True Text (all of them — but that is another story).

If you read the Woodland Princess story and enjoyed it, I’m glad. I did enjoy actually writing all those articles. But I’m not sure I’ll go to those lengths again to entertain my fellow Tolkien fans. The response was too reserved and composed for my sense of humor.

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