A British publisher took a gamble in 1937, releasing a quirky, complex novel called The Hobbit about a smallish, paunchy, hairy-footed, pipe-smoking everyman named Bilbo Baggins. Author J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford philologist and acknowledged expert on Old English literature, knew little about appealing to the mass culture.

Across the Atlantic, an editor asked herself, "Who will read 423 pages about an unfinished journey undertaken by mythical creatures with confusing names?" Nevertheless, Houghton Mifflin gambled, too, releasing The Hobbit in the United States in 1938.

The book's surprise success on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond called for a sequel. But unlike fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, who wrote the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia in five years, Tolkien spent more than a decade working on The Lord of the Rings. The stories' hero, a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins, takes a perilous journey to the heart of darkness to save a world called Middle-earth.

Written as six books but published as a trilogy, Lord of the Rings went on for more than 500,000 words. It was riddled with precisely the kinds of literary land mines that writing workshops warn would-be Stephen Kings to avoid.

There are lengthy passages of dialogue uninterrupted by the slightest hint of action. Characters with names like "Isildur Enendil's son of Minas Ithil" abound. Minutiae about Middle-earth's history and geography are sprinkled throughout. And the author invented two Elvish languages—Quenya and Sindarin—and quoted from the originals!

A desire to create a home for these languages helped inspire Tolkien to create Middle-earth. "I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration," Tolkien wrote in one foreword.

Tolkien said another motive was "the desire of the taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."

This taleteller has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Nearly half a century later, Tolkien is hailed as one of the 20th century's most beloved and influential authors. The Hobbit has sold 40 million copies. The Lord of the Rings has sold 50 million copies more (or 150 million copies if the three volumes are counted separately).

This pop-culture tsunami has swept into several worlds, including:

  • Fantasy (Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara series mimics Lord of the Rings).
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  • Children's novels ("The Harry Potter juggernaut is inconceivable without Tolkien," says The New York Times Book Review).
  • Fantasy role-playing games (Tolkien's Middle-earth fueled an interest in games like Dungeons & Dragons).
  • Music (Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" was one of the earliest of many Tolkien-inspired tunes).

A Trilogy of Films

Now a trilogy of Lord of the Rings films, shot simultaneously in New Zealand at a combined cost of $300 million, is set for release this year, next year, and 2003. It may be the most highly anticipated cinematic event of the new millennium.

The Fellowship of the Ring opens December 19. It stars Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf. Director Peter Jackson, a self-confessed Tolkien buff, has sworn to treat his literary sources with all due reverence.

Until his death in 1973 at the age of 81, Tolkien remained perplexed by his international celebrity and his unusually fanatical following. The most obsessive Tolkien fans can make Trekkies look sane.

Tolkien once dismissed his acolytes as a "deplorable cultus." One wonders what this Luddite, who disliked television and other modern "conveniences," would have thought about Lord of the Rings action figures and multimillion-dollar merchandising deals with Burger King.

One needn't wonder what the keepers of his flame think. Since rumors about possible Lord of the Rings movies first surfaced in the late 1990s, arguments between purists (who worry that movies will desecrate their sacred texts) and pragmatists (who hope this most influential medium will enlarge their ranks) have been raging on hundreds of Internet fan sites. And on the official movie Web site (www.lordoftherings.net), fans downloaded a promotional trailer nearly 1.7 million times within 24 hours.

Clay Harper, Houghton Mifflin's Tolkien Projects Director, says the hubbub has already spawned a new interest in books by and about the writer. Harper says 1998 sales doubled those of 1997. Sales doubled again in both 1999 and 2000. By fall 2001, sales were eight times higher than in 2000. The latest surge includes a fascinating new study, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, Tolkien's successor at Oxford, and a plethora of tie-in products.

"I don't know if interest in the movies is wildly expanding the readership by capturing the next generation of readers, or if many millions of people are reading and re-reading Tolkien either for the first time or the first time in years," Harper says.

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For now, Houghton Mifflin is distributing reader guides and teacher guides about the trilogy, regularly updating its Web site (www.lordoftheringstrilogy.com) and keeping the book presses rolling. "Right now, we're just printing them up as fast as we can," Harper says.

The last time Tolkien mania reached a fever pitch was in the mid-'60s, when cheap, unauthorized paperback versions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings captured the imagination of youth.

Many in the youth counterculture felt more at home in Middle-earth than they did in contemporary America. Those opposing the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam saw Lord of the Rings as a pacifist tract that Tolkien wrote after fighting at the Somme in World War I. Environmentalists shared Tolkien's distrust of technology and his disgust at the damage wreaked by the Industrial Revolution.

Hippies celebrated the Hobbits' love for pipeweed and Tolkien's affection for mushrooms. (The author smoked only his beloved tobacco, and ate only nonpsychedelic fungi. But that didn't stop thousands of college students from plastering their dormitory walls with day-glo posters showing elfen creatures puffing on elaborate water pipes.)

Readers everywhere have been drawn into Tolkien's richly textured Middle-earth. In an October cover story, Wired hailed this literary creation as "the first virtual world." Writer Erik Davis called Middle-earth "the most realized imaginary realm in the history of the fantastic," adding that this fictional world "has become a collective map of a moral universe."

Made by the Maker

Tolkien was a Catholic, and his Christian worldview clearly informed his work. Even though there are no explicit references to God in the Hobbit stories, Tolkien drew a clear contrast between good and evil. "The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism," Tolkien wrote in one letter.

Tolkien further spelled out his views in the essay, "On Fairy-Stories." Tellers of tales who create believable "Secondary Worlds" enable fantasy to work its wonders. They offer readers "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth." In all such labors, writers serve as "subcreators" who "make. … because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."

The recently published Finding God in The Lord of the Rings (Tyndale) seeks to highlight Tolkien's theology through biblically based reflections on themes like "wise counsel," "hidden courage," and "redemption."

"We want to help point many of the Tolkien fans who would not describe themselves as Christians to the faith that Tolkien had and that was reflected in the world he created," says coauthor Kurt Bruner, vice president of Focus on the Family's resource group. "We're also excited about exposing evangelical Christians to the most popular books in the world, which have been largely ignored in our subculture."

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Steve Rabey is author of the forthcoming Milestones: 50 Events That Shaped American Evangelicalism in the 20th Century.

Related Elsewhere:

The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, and a one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings are available at Christianbook.com.

Finding God in The Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware and Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century are also available at Christianbook.com.

The official movie site has film information, photos, and a lot of multi-media including trailers and behind-the-scenes shorts.

The Houghton Mifflin Lord of the Rings site has great information on Tolkien, a character guide, and an interview on the history of the books with Houghton Mifflin's project director.

The Internet Movie Database has casting information for Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.

Burger King is already hyping Lord of the Rings online.

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