J.R.R. TOLKIEN, MAN OF MYTHS Trailing hobbits into a world of fantasy


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 Mr. 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 Mr. Olney, sales were slow at first, although steady. 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 Ms. 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."

Mr. 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.

The books have been spun off into everything from calendars to feature films. On the upscale end of Tolkien merchandising are such ventures as the Pendragon Gallery in Annapolis, which offers original Tolkien-inspired art, a "Lord of the Rings" chess set, and sterling silver copies of the rings themselves.

Tolkien's influence also caused a revival of interest in adult fantasy, sending readers back to forgotten Victorian fantasists and encouraging new writers.

"Before Tolkien, there was some sword-and-sorcery, and things like Conan and Tarzan, but it was always pulp," explains Mr. Ritz, a librarian from Clearwater, Fla. "It was like dirty books -- you read it but didn't talk about it. [After Tolkien] it became an accepted literary genre, and started to be studied in colleges."

Because of his sophisticated use of language and myth, Tolkien is of special interest to scholars, confirms Carl Hostetter, a 26-year-old NASA computer scientist who runs the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship in Crofton. The organization publishes a bi-monthly journal with subscribers in places as distant as the former Soviet Union.

"I first read "Lord of the Rings" when I was 13, he says. "I became fascinated with the languages, particularly by the runic inscriptions on the title page, so I set about to decipher them. My interest grew from there. I studied Latin in high school, and Old English and Middle English in college -- all due, really, to the fact that I discovered Tolkien. I guess I'm what you would call an armchair linguist."

While other '60s literary heroes have waned, Tolkien's appeal has been remarkably enduring.

"I think the reason is somehow involved with the depth and sincerity of Tolkien's vision," Austin Olney says. "He didn't write any of the hobbit books just to be a popular author. His main interest was in the early European languages and the ancient myths of Europe, and I think his work has the magic and energy of the original myths themselves."

"'The Lord of the Rings' is a fantastic story, but it's more than a story," comments Glen GoodKnight. "It's a commentary on life, as I think all great literature is."

For fantasy fans

Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, and those interested in learning more about the author and his works, can contact any of the following groups:

The Mythopoeic Society, the grand-daddy of Tolkien interest groups. An international, non-profit literary organization, it is devoted to the study and enjoyment of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. The society publishes Mythlore, a quarterly journal, and Mythprint, a monthly newsletter. An annual conference includes papers, panels, a masquerade and an art show. For information, write the Mythopoeic Society, P.O. Box 6707, Altadena, Calif. 91003.

Knossos, a discussion group affiliated with the Mythopoeic Society. The group meets on the third Friday of each month, in various locations in the Washington area. Discussion focuses on not only works by Tolkien, Lewis and Williams but other works of fantasy and science fiction. For information, contact the group's secretary, John Epperson, 3202 Wellington Rd., Alexandria, Va. 22302, or call (703) 379-4085.

Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an organization for linguists and others interested in Tolkien's invented languages. The organization publishes a bi-monthly journal, Vinyar Tengwar (Elvish for news-letters). For information, contact Carl Hostetter, 2509 Ambling Circle, Crofton 21114.

American Tolkien Society, an educational non-profit organization dedicated to the appreciation of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The society functions as a source for Tolkien-related information and speakers, and sponsors annual "Hobbit Day" and "Tolkien Week" activities. A quarterly journal, the Minas Tirith Evening Star, publishes both scholarly and light-hearted articles and reviews. For information, write American Tolkien Society, P.O. Box 373, Highland, Mich., 48357-0373, or call Paul Ritz, (813) 585-0985.

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