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July 14th, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

HOBBITS GONE WRONG

A few Oregonians' love for Lord of the Rings landed them in a strange saga of their own.

     
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The first time Jeanine Renne met Jordan Wood, standing across the street from the Beaverton City Library, she didn't know what to think. Wood's eyes flashed, Renne remembers, with "the most radioactive, psychedelic blue contact lenses you've ever seen."

Weird--but not weird enough to throw Renne. The doctor turned stay-home mom may live in a conventional Salem home with her husband and kids, her living room often buried in a clutter of plastic baby toys, but intellectually she runs with a wacky crowd. Fluent speakers of Elvish, collectors of Klingon pottery--the near-obsessive super-nerds of pop culture's wild frontier are Jeanine Renne's chosen people. For a woman who occasionally dons a homemade hobbit costume, electric-blue eyes don't score that high on the eccentricity index.

The handshake was the strange thing. The bones of Jordan Wood's hand felt delicate and girlish, suiting the effervescent pixie-human's 120-pound, denim-clad frame. But it caught Renne off-guard, because until that morning in April 2003, she'd known Wood as "Mr. Frodo," an alias borrowed from the male hobbit-hero of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings.

Months later, when they became close friends, Wood told Renne that his appearance arose from a rare disorder that prevents male bodies from absorbing testosterone. That day, though, Renne just raised an eyebrow and moved on. After all, there was a garden to plant.

As Mr. Frodo, Wood presided over a website called BitofEarth.net. This online hive of Tolkien fanatics had rallied volunteers to create a children's reading garden in front of the Riggs Institute, a nonprofit literacy center in Beaverton. The Bit of Earthers hoped to unite enthusiasm stoked by Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning Rings movies with the humane idealism they found in Tolkien's books.

And best of all, the volunteer outing had attracted none other than Sean Astin, the actor who portrays stalwart hobbit Samwise Gamgee in Jackson's movies. For the assembled faithful, Astin's presence was like a papal visitation--and fitting, because the character Sam is a humble gardener before he joins the quest to defeat Sauron, the dark lord. And Astin, a vocal literacy advocate, wasn't there just to press the flesh.

"Sean was being Sam," Renne recalls. "He got filthy." Renne left Beaverton delighted with both her brush with stardom and the garden's nook of flowers and herbs.

"This was a mitzvah," she wrote in a journal entry. "An act of wonderful generosity on the part of everyone there...I'm so glad...Mr. Frodo had the courage and gumption to make it happen."

Renne had no idea she had just tumbled into a saga of her own, very different from Tolkien's vivid tapestry of elves, dwarves and hobbits. Over the next year, Renne and a small clutch of Rings fans became embroiled in false identities, elaborate lies, fraudulent events and the specter of suicide, leading cops and state investigators to invade their tightknit world. And Jeanine Renne still can't quite believe that what she says happened, happened.

"Who could make it up?" she wonders.

One of the great things about America is that no matter your obsession--egg cups, haiku, Turkish soccer--you're sure to find comrades in the subcultural underbrush. And thanks to websites, LiveJournal blogs, bulletin boards, Internet chats and email lists, oddball interests that once subsisted in P.O. boxes and Xeroxed fanzines can now flower into full-fledged 24/7/365 communities.

When Jeanine Renne found herself pregnant and immobilized by horrible morning sickness early last year, she clicked her way to Tolkienland. The 36-year-old grew up enthralled by Tolkien's Middle-earth, and Jackson's three-part adaptation of the cataclysmic war over the Ring of Power rekindled her passion. "I went from being an ordinary fan to an über-fan," she says.

Online, she found plenty of company. In 2003, all things Rings were frenzied, fan websites fast proliferating in anticipation of the final film, The Return of the King. One of them, BitofEarth.net, caught Renne's eye.

BOE had started as a tribute to Sean Astin and Sam. Renne was excited that the site's operators, "Mr. Frodo" and "Orangeblossom Brambleburr," had decided to branch out into charity events, starting with the April garden party. When Renne saw Sean Astin was coming to Beaverton, she was intrigued. After she actually met Sean Astin, she was thrilled. And after getting to know Jordan Wood and Abigail "Orangeblossom" Stone, and hearing Stone announce that a screening of Jackson's The Two Towers at Lloyd Cinemas had raised $3,000 for the literacy group Reading Is Fundamental, she was hooked.

Stone and Wood apparently met through fan circles; Wood had moved cross-country the previous autumn to live with the Oregon native. By the time Renne met them, they were a couple but insisted they hadn't become romantic until after Stone, 26 at the time, divorced. They shared Stone's ranch-style house in a sedate Milwaukie neighborhood with two other Bit of Earthers: a 22-year-old male musician/pro wrestler from Portland and a 21-year-old woman from Battle Ground, Wash. The quartet christened Stone's house "Bag End," after the hobbit hole inhabited by Tolkien's Baggins clan. They formed a lively, if nutty, household.

Wood's stories were even stranger than his feminine appearance. At various times, he claimed to be on the run from the Irish Republican Army; a cousin of actor Elijah Wood, who stars as Frodo in the Rings movies; a former child actor who'd worked as a body double on the New Zealand production of The Fellowship of the Ring; and all three. The roommates were sporadically employed--Wood worked briefly in a Meier & Frank menswear department, while Stone collected unemployment. Bit of Earth, however, gave everyone plenty to do.

Wood and Stone planned a series of events benefiting literacy and environmental groups, including a summer music festival, a film fest and a climactic five-day Tolkien fan convention--"the largest in American history"--at the Oregon Convention Center in December 2003. The hook for each: Rings movie stars acting as hosts and fan magnets. After the Sean Astin coup, none of this seemed beyond reach. Bit of Earth's buzz attracted a Seattle woman named Sue Astle.

"I was trying to figure out what to do with my life," says Astle, a 50-year-old rebuilding after a failed marriage and planning to attend Portland State University when she clicked on BOE. "I had been injured and I wasn't working, and I had maybe too much spare time on my hands." Soon she considered Bit of Earth a godsend.

"It was incredible," she says. "Jordan and Abby had great ideas--creative ideas. Being around that brings out your own creativity."

Sue Astle and Jeanine Renne are both, each in her own way, a little hobbitlike. Renne is a wide-eyed cherub, energetic and hyperverbal. Astle is a sturdy self-described "workhorse" who takes great, Tolkienian pride in her feet.

"Look at those," she says, pointing down at her bare, meaty slabs and knobby toes. "Those are hobbit feet." (Tolkien's creations are fastidious dressers but usually go barefoot on thick, padded soles.)

Tolkien serves as a literary lodestone for both. Renne slapped an Aragorn-for-President sticker on her Chrysler minivan, a shoutout to the brooding king portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in Jackson's movies. Astle savors the day The Lord of the Rings arrived at the library in her hometown of Durham, Calif., when she was 11.

"I grew up in a very rightist, Republican, anti-environmental family," she says. "I always wondered where I got my beliefs. I'm very much an environmentalist, and I really care about helping people. Someone said to me, 'Look, dummy, it's the books.' And I think that's right."

Their devotion testifies to the enduring power of one of literature's least-likely super-authors. Tolkien was an obscure 44-year-old Oxford prof in 1937, when The Hobbit unveiled Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings, published as three volumes in the mid-1950s, is an intricate colossus: a remix of history, zoology, folklore and language; an adventure story; an inquiry into power; a rant against modern times; a lament for a dying world.

Today, the breadth of his appeal is startling. The Rings opus repeatedly wins votes as the greatest book of the last century--and, boy, do the highbrow wail. Most recently with a massive assist from Peter Jackson, Tolkien harvests new fans every generation. Among them are hardcores every bit as committed and, in some cases, overboard as their better-known Star Trek-loving cousins. Tolkienland, like Middle-earth, holds many tribes.

"Tolkien fandom is uniquely complex," says Amy Sturgis, an instructor at Nashville's Belmont University who has written extensively about fan culture. "There are purists who have never seen the movies and never want to. There are people who come to Tolkien through the movies and don't know the books. And there are people who bridge the gap."

Astle and Renne both now allow that fan enthusiasm overrode common sense in their dealings with Bit of Earth.

First, in June, Bag End was foreclosed upon. (Stone, they say, blamed her ex-husband.) Renne paid about $1,600 for the four-member fellowship to move into an apartment on Salem's northern fringe. "It seemed like a good karmic-points-accumulation thing to do," she says.

Then, the "Hall of Fire" music festival, scheduled for Northeast Portland's Holladay Park last July, was an unmitigated disaster--no bands were booked, and Elijah Wood, the supposed celebrity guest, never showed. According to Renne, Astle and other Bit of Earth cohorts drummed up well over $1,000 to cover festival expenses; Astle says she kicked in $800 out of her college fund. Still, an $1,800 check Stone and Wood wrote to Portland Parks bounced, and has never been paid.

"We knew it was a fiasco and that we never should have done it," Astle says. "But doggone it, Elijah was supposed to be there."

The pattern recurred in September, when Wood dispatched Astle to L.A. on a quixotic errand to film greetings from Rings stars to be shown at BOE's film festival, "Lost Palantir." Astle thought she had appointments with Viggo Mortensen and hobbit actors Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. One after another fell through; back in Salem, Wood funneled Astle excuse after excuse.

"It was dumb," Astle says. "But I'd do it again. I had fun."

In that same spirit, Astle agreed to join the Bit of Earth four when they moved to Los Angeles that fall. Even though "Tentmoot," the five-day convention, was scheduled for Portland in December, Stone harbored vague plans of starting film school, and Wood argued the move would make Hollywood networking easier. So after a final night in Salem on Renne's floor, the group--joined by a girl known within BOE as "Little Sam"--set out for L.A. on Oct. 2 with high hopes.

"There was a tear in my eye as those kids pulled away," says Renne. "It was like we were sending our own kids off to college."

The adventure quickly bogged down. Even though Wood claimed to be a born-and-raised Angeleno, the six had a tough time navigating L.A., finally finding a three-bedroom apartment in suburban San Dimas. The ménage soon devolved into psychodrama.

"Every day was like a circus gone bad," Astle says. "In and out, up all night long until 3 or 4 in the morning. 'I had a bad dream. We have to go for a walk.' It was like being with people with constant PMS."

Even so, planning for Tentmoot continued. And for Rings fans, Tentmoot would have been pretty damn cool, featuring art exhibits, panel discussions, costume workshops and a library for "fan fiction," the thriving field of hobbyist short stories. (See "The Hobbit Shivered With Pleasure," page 35.) And then, celebrities--or, at least, "celebrities." Jackson's enormous New Zealand productions tapped many people who are famous only within the Rings world. For minor players, stuntmen and body doubles--people like Lawrence Makoare, a strapping Maori actor who played the evil Witch King, Gothmog and Saruman's head Uruk-Hai, and Jed Brophy, who also filled a few villain roles--Tentmoot offered a chance to live like movie stars for a week. Wood was relentless in pursuing Rings veterans. But when it came to booking passage from New Zealand to Portland, confusion took over.

First, there was a supposed deal with Air New Zealand. But in the first days of December, Wood called Renne, saying the arrangement had fallen through. Convinced Tentmoot's success depended on her, Renne agreed to pay for $19,000 in airline tickets with her credit card.

And then she panicked. "Some working brain cell realized that no one knew about this but me and Jordan," she says. A fellow Bit of Earther called Air New Zealand--to discover there had never been an agreement between the airline and Bit of Earth. Now convinced Jordan Wood was no longer to be trusted, Renne scrambled to cancel the tickets--too late for Brophy and two other actors, who'd already checked in at the airport in New Zealand. They found themselves stranded in L.A., their connections to Portland canceled; Brophy and one other would-be celebrity guest spent a night at Stone and Wood's apartment, wondering what the hell they'd gotten themselves into.

The Oregon Convention Center also found things were not as they seemed. Wood and Stone, pitching the charity angle, had talked the OCC into slashing its rates. (They had also managed to avoid paying a deposit.) Bit of Earth claimed that up to 1,500 Ringers a day would flood the center's high-ceilinged halls over five days. On Dec. 5, with days to go, the ticket agent had sold only 21 passes.

Meanwhile, as plans wobbled, Wood locked himself in the L.A. apartment's bathroom and, allegedly, attempted suicide. When Stone told Bit of Earth's Portland contingent that Wood had been hospitalized, Tentmoot collapsed just days before it was supposed to start.

Renne, for her part, spent much of the next two weeks trying to erase the remaining Air New Zealand charges--about $10,000--from her credit-card bill. Just before Christmas, she reported her former friends to the Oregon Department of Justice.

The resulting investigation by the DOJ's charity-watchdog agency revealed that Bit of Earth didn't have permission to claim to be Reading Is Fundamental's benefactor--and that the literacy charity's records showed no donations from Bit of Earth, Stone or Wood. Though Astle paid $150 to start an application for IRS nonprofit status, the group had never incorporated. The $3,000 raised at the showing of The Two Towers that coincided with the April garden project had vanished, as had the money scraped together after the music festival's failure. The convention center and Portland Parks were out just under $2,000 apiece in unpaid fees.

Early last month, Stone and Wood--still living in California--signed a settlement with Oregon officials. Though technically admitting no wrongdoing, the pair agreed to pay $500 (with $8,500 in other charges suspended) and promise not to operate BOE--or any other "nonprofit"--in Oregon. The settlement brought an end to Bit of Earth's strange spree of bogus fundraisers--a mess Tolkien's own slithery character Gollum might have called "tricksy."

As it turned out, the whole truth about Bit of Earth was even tricksier.

Just after midnight on Oct. 7, 2003, a Virginian named Michael Player walked into police headquarters in Salem. He wanted to report a missing person. His 22-year-old daughter Amy had mailed a hand-lettered, eight-page suicide letter from the coastal town of Depoe Bay a few days before. Player knew his daughter had been living in Salem with friends--her comrades from a Lord of the Rings fan club, he believed.

The suicide letter began with an apology.

"For a year now," Amy Player wrote in a neat mix of printed and cursive letters, "I've been trying to placate you with pretty fancies in hopes it could force reality into step with my lies...I'm not the hottest new thing in Rings fandom. I'm not even in Bit of Earth anymore. The ugly truth is that I'm a failure in every way that one may be counted as such."

The letter recounted a melodramatic descent, starting with Amy Player's departure from college "in a cloud of lesbian ennui and heavy eyeliner." It said Player had stolen $11,000 from her friend (and, the letter said, love interest) Abby Stone. And it confessed poisonous envy of a Hollywood-connected player named Jordan Wood, who, Amy claimed, had usurped Stone's affections.

"Young and wealthy, he came to us from Los Angeles with Rings connections dripping from him...," the letter said of Wood. "He made Bit of Earth a fandom force to be reckoned with within weeks, swept Abby off her feet, and I hated him for both."

A couple of days later, Michael Player met with Detective Mike Myers of the Marion County Sheriff's Office. Myers inherited the investigation because Amy Player's Salem address--as it turned out, the Bit of Earth apartment Renne had paid for--lies outside city limits. At the sit-down in the casino-dominated hamlet of Grand Ronde, Myers absorbed Player's tale of a brilliant but wayward daughter.

"Mr. Player stated...his daughter had some psychological issues, specifically her infatuation to certain movies and characters," Myers wrote in his report, "the most recent being The Lord of the Rings."

Myers took a methodical approach to the possible suicide. His first move was to search Oregon public records, where he discovered a newish ID card he thought might belong to Amy Player. He showed the photo to Michael Player. Yes, that was his daughter. The next day, Myers showed the photo to the manager of Bit of Earth's short-lived Salem home. She, too, recognized the person--not as Amy Player, but as Jordan Wood.

In a way, she and Michael Player were both right. The ID was in the name "Amy Jordan Gabriel Player Wood." Myers was pretty sure he'd solved Amy Player's "suicide."

A few days later, the detective reached Sean Astin on his cellphone. Astin remembered Jordan Wood. "When I first met him," the star said, "I thought he was a she."

Myers also learned that on Oct. 1--just two days before the suicide letter's postmark--Jordan Wood had turned up at a Social Security office in Portland. Officials there were given a sheaf of documents purporting that Wood had been born in an Estacada pagan commune called Circle of Light, where the adults refused to register their young with authorities. Wood wanted a Social Security card, but the officer who heard the plea wasn't buying it. "It was clear to her," Myers wrote, "that the information and documentation submitted was totally fraudulent."

By this time, the detective had the phone number for Bit of Earth's Los Angeles apartment. It took a few calls, but soon Jordan Wood admitted to being Amy Player.

The penny-ante disorganized crime hardly rose to the level of extradition. Once he put Player in touch with her father, Myers told her that if she stayed out of Oregon, he'd drop it.

A suitably odd coda came in December, days after the Tentmoot debacle, when Amy Player/Jordan Wood and Stone showed up in Portland to attend the opening of The Return of the King. Tipped off by disgruntled Bit of Earthers, Myers had Portland cops arrest "Mr. Frodo" for identity theft. In an interview room at the Marion County jail, the detective and Amy Player went over her story one last time. The district attorney later decided not to pursue charges. Right now, the only result of Myers' efforts is a bulging case file he says is unique in his experience.

"People tell me it could be a Hollywood script," he said last month. "If you read it, bring a hand-truck, a six-pack and some popcorn."

With no criminal charges and the civil investigation settled, official inquiries do little to explain why Player/Wood and Stone wove this tangled web. For their part, Renne and Astle both think Bit of Earth's intrigues--notably unsuccessful from a financial point of view--had more to do with showbiz obsessions than money.

"At one point Jordan said to me that it meant more than anything in the world to Abby to meet these movie stars, and that Jordan was going to make it happen," Astle remembers. "The conviction in his voice was real."

It's a little ironic, then, that Bit of Earth's two principals appear to have chosen the heart of Hollywood as the backdrop for their latest self-reinvention. In early June, Renne came upon pictures taken by an Associated Press photographer in front of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater. The color shots show Amy Player--identified in captions as Jordan Wood--dressed up as Harry Potter. People in L.A. who know about Bit of Earth say Player is impersonating both the boy wizard and the Rings elf Legolas, while Stone affects the costume of comic-book character Poison Ivy. "Jordan Wood" even has an agent, to book appearances at parties.

Jeanine Renne is still fighting with a travel agent over who owes Air New Zealand $10,000. Come what may, though, she's writing a book about Bit of Earth; she says she's already 300 pages into a first draft. She's also made a new hobby of documenting Player and Stone's exploits online, where many Bit of Earth refugees still congregate. (The site itself is now dead.) Sue Astle works with other ex-Bit of Earthers to maintain the reading garden in Beaverton. The reconstituted group plans to build more gardens around the world in honor of Tolkien, Sam Gamgee and good causes.

Last Sunday, Astle and a few others gathered in Beaverton to weed. This time, no famous hobbits showed up. And that was fine with them.

"The Hobbit Shivered with Pleasure."

Bit of Earth had deep roots in fan fiction--a wild, sexed-up alternative universe.

Before Bit of Earth turned to charity events, it was best known as a stronghold of "fan fiction"--a multifarious breed of amateur short stories written by fans, based on their favorite characters and plots

The "fanfic" phenomenon began, more or less, in the '60s, when Star Trek fans began exchanging "unofficial" tales about the crew of the Enterprise. Now, virtually every book, movie, TV show, cartoon or video game with a cult following spawns a profusion of fanfic in uncountable genres. Star Trek remains a popular launch pad, but everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Grand Theft Auto has its partisans in this robust (and often really, really weird) alternative creative universe.

You could easily spend the rest of your life reading fanfic on the Internet, which allows pseudonymous authors to fine-tune their tastes.

"If you want to find vampire hobbit stories, you go to one website," says Amy Sturgis, a Belmont University researcher who studies fan fiction and fan culture. "If you want to find Eowyn/Eomer incest stories, you go to another."

Which points to fanfic's strong sexual undertow. There are as many fanfic genres as there are "real" genres, but its most notorious subset is "slash." Slash stories detail homoerotic encounters between characters not coupled in their official versions. Slash began in the '60s and '70s, when female (for the most part) Star Trek fans began writing lurid tales about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. These were denoted "Kirk/Spock" stories--hence, the term "slash."

There's now Sherlock Holmes slash, Harry Potter slash and--it's a natural given the characters' codependent relationship in Rings--a thriving subgenre of Frodo/Sam. Both Jordan Wood and Abigail Stone are known as accomplished fanfic writers, and both focused on Rings.

"Frodo reached for Sam's shirt, ignoring the wooden buttons and pushing up under the hem to glide his hands over Sam's chest and belly," Wood wrote under the nom de plume Victoria Bitter. "[T]he hobbit shivered with pleasure, his own hands questing out in answer."

While it may seem strange to outsiders, fanfic is often a liberating creative outlet for its practitioners, serving as an anonymous proving ground for aspiring writers and a potent avenue for exploring sexuality for people who otherwise can't.

"If you read a slash story, you don't know if the author was a man or a woman, straight, gay or bisexual," , says Sturgis, who focused on Bit of Earth fanfic in two recent essays. "That allows a lot of experimentation with identity." --Zach Dundas


The construction of the children's reading garden in Beaverton was dubbed "Project Elanor," in honor of the first of Sam Gamgee's 13 children.

The Riggs Institute is a worldwide nonprofit with its headquarters in Beaverton. It promotes a special, phonics-based approach to teaching reading.

Though The Hobbit didn't appear until 1937, Tolkien began writing various Middle-earth-related poems, songs and stories shortly after his combat service in World War I. Middle-earth cosmology is further explored in The Silmarillion and other books.

WW was unable to reach Abigail Stone or Jordan Wood for comment on this story. Their various California telephone numbers are disconnected or otherwise out of service, and emails to the account used for their most recent communications with Oregon Department of Justice officials were not returned.

Jeanine Renne's extensive account of the Bit of Earth affair can be found at www.livejournal.com/users/turimel .

Various factions of Tolkien fandom are well-represented online. TheOne-Ring.net, known as TORN, is a prominent site primarily focused on the Rings movies. The U.K.-based Tolkien Society ( www.tolkiensociety.org ) concerns itself mainly with literary and biographical studies of Tolkien and his work. The Society has many affiliates and offshoots, including the Northwest Tolkien Society.

Links to Amy Sturgis' scholarly and analytical work can be found at http://home.mind spring.com/~ahsturgis/ .

The name Tentmoot is based on "Entmoot," a gathering of Tolkien's giant, mystical treelike creatures, the Ents.

In a March 5, 2004, email to DOJ investigator Fiona Harpster, Stone and Wood wrote, "We are very concerned to hear about the formalization of these accusations which had been previously maintained--where we feel they belong--only in the world of Internet rumor and gossip."

In the email to Harpster, Stone and Wood provided an account of some of Bit of Earth's finances but said they could not access many of their records due to computer problems. They prefaced the account with a disclaimer: "Most importantly, BitofEarth.net was not originally intended to be a charity organization.

This story is based on interviews with Renne, Sue Astle and others who were involved in Bit of Earth, as well as Oregon Convention Center records and investigative reports compiled by the Oregon Department of Justice's Charitable Activities Section and Detective Mike Myers.

Find fanfic, in a wild variety of flavors, at fanfiction.net. One of many online indexes of slash fiction is available at http://www.fictionresource.com/slash/index.php . Be warned: The latter site leads to "adult content."

 
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