Middle Earth's creator would be 100

January 03, 1992|By Lynn Williams

THEY BOTH have clever, good-humored faces, manes of silver hair, well-rounded tummies and ever-present pipes. To tell them apart, in fact, you would have to look at the feet. The one with the lush, curly hair growing on his bare toes is Bilbo Baggins, gentleman hobbit. The other is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien: Oxford professor, philologist, author and culture hero.

It's not hard to confuse J. R. R. Tolkien (pronounced tall-keen) with one of his mythical heroes; now that we have been acquainted with them for more than 50 years, hobbits seem almost as real as, well, Oxford professors. But unlike Bilbo, whose eleventy-first birthday party begins "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien only made it to age 81. Had he proven as long-lived as the hobbits, whose adventures he chronicled in "The Hobbit" and "The Silmarillion" as well as the "Rings" trilogy, today would have been his 100th birthday.

But perhaps the point is moot. Any reader who has spent time in Middle Earth, the magical land whose lore he delineated in such detail, knows that Tolkien is one of the immortals.

Houghton Mifflin, the author's American publisher, is celebrating the centenary with a massive new edition of "The Lord of the Rings," illustrated with moodily atmospheric paintings by English artist Alan Lee. The entire epic is presented in a single volume, as Tolkien always intended it should be; it was originally published in trilogy form for the convenience of the publishers and the book-buying public, who, it was believed, would not be interested in an expensive book more than a thousand pages long.

Middle Earth was invented around the time of World War I, when Tolkien, a linguistic scholar, invented a whole language -- Elvish -- and drew on his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Scandinavian mythology to create a fully realized world to go with it.

However, readers first set foot in the enchanted place in 1937, when "The Hobbit" was published in England; it made its American appearance the following year.

In 1954, "The Lord of the Rings" came to these shores -- to the rather baffled excitement of Houghton Mifflin, according to Austen Olney, then a principal editor for the publishing house.

"I would say that the general reaction around Houghton Mifflin was one of astonishment, perhaps even bewilderment, as to what the public's reaction to such a book would be," says Olney, who is now retired and lives in New Hampshire. "I had read 'The Hobbit' to my children, and I loved the book. But it was quite an enormous change, from a charming children's story to a full-blown, very demanding adult novel."

According to Olney, sales were slow at first, although steady. It wasn't until the mid-'60s that "The Lord of the Rings" became a full-fledged cult item, thanks to the publication of two paperback versions, an unauthorized printing by Ace and, soon after, the Tolkien-approved Ballantine edition.

"I'd been hearing about his books for a while, since I was about 11 or 12 years old," says Kathy Sands, 38, owner of Tales From the White Hart, a fantasy and science fiction book shop in Waverly. "Enoch Pratt supposedly had it, and I had it on reserve forever."

One day when she was 14, she came upon the Ace paperbacks in her favorite drugstore and spent all her baby-sitting money on the first two books of the trilogy.

The Zeitgeist of the times, as well as paperback convenience, surely played a part in the author's rise to fame.

"We were ready for change," offers Sands. "[The trilogy] was something that was not part of the 9-to-5 workaholic real world. Going off on a quest to Middle Earth was so far from the way our parents lived."

Paul S. Ritz, information director of the American Tolkien Society, a non-profit educational organization, believes that the decade's chaotic social change made Tolkien's fantasy world all the more appealing.

"We had war, and so much trouble on campus," he said. "But in the books, good always overcomes evil."

However, "There's a lot of misinformation about Tolkien's association with hippies and the '60s," cautions Glen H. GoodKnight, a high school English teacher from Altadena, Calif. "The hippies believed in nothing and wanted to experience everything. Tolkien had very firm beliefs, which included respect for established values."

GoodKnight is one of the country's most influential Tolkienologists; 25 years ago, he founded the Mythopoeic Society, an international literary group dedicated to Tolkien and fellow British fantasists Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis. The society produces a quarterly journal and an annual convention and is co-sponsoring a Tolkien centenary conference in Oxford this summer. The local Mythopoeic discussion group, Knossos, meets monthly in the Washington area.

For whatever reason Tolkien's popularity flourished, his cultural influence is pervasive and can be spotted in such disparate things as the revived academic interest in medievalism and the teen fancy for Dungeons and Dragons and sword-and-sorcery film epics.

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