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 ...

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