An Unexpected Party
The sudden boom in the popularity of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s began with the simple fact that it became available in paperback.
An unauthorized American edition arising from a seeming loophole in the book's copyright stirred Tolkien's publishers like a sleeping dragon roused.
In October 1965, Ballantine published an approved and slightly revised three-volume edition at 95 cents each. Now anyone with three dollars could buy a passport to Middle-earth.
By 1966, the book was the top-selling paperback, with three quarters of a million copies in print.
Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson (author of The Annotated Hobbit) believes it was "an accident of chronology" that The Lord of the Rings found a wide audience thirty years after Tolkien began writing it and ten years after its first publication.
"Part of it has to do with the rise of mass market publishing, and the fact that a mass market edition came out in 1965 surely spurred things along. Before then, the hardcovers were at least $5 each volume. Of course, the fact that the establishment didn't look kindly on Tolkien probably only fueled the fact that the younger generation did."
Tom Shippey adds other reasons:
"Perhaps one could say he offered a 'mellow' kind of heroism, which he was convinced was also old, familiar, and natural. And also, the students of the 1960s were perfectly well able to see that through the metaphor, Tolkien was writing about real life: the connection to Vietnam and the military-industrial complex (Mordor and Saruman) was obvious—though not intended."
Rightly or wrongly, contemporary accounts of the sales surge handcuffed it to the collegiate counter-culture. In "The Hobbit Habit," published July 15, 1966, Time magazine proclaimed ...