Thursday, October 5, 2006

Apple #199: Was there Once a Tolkien Craze?

I am a fan of the Harry Potter books. I have all the existing books on tape, and I listen to them at night before I go to sleep. I have listened to them enough times, I can hear places where the tapes are wearing thin.

So, like countless others, I await the final book in the series with an impatience that doesn't entirely want to be satisfied. Because once that book is published, it will be over. To tide me over, I check JK Rowling's website every now and again to see if there's anything new. If you haven't played around on the website, it's kind of fun to try to find the various objects hidden throughout the site. And if you get too frustrated, lots of people have posted helps elsewhere.

Most times when I check on the latest Harry Potter news, it occurs to me to wonder whether the Hobbit books by J.R.R. Tolkein drummed up such anticipation in their day. Those books actually established the genre; without them there would be no Harry Potter (Rowling has claimed Tolkien as one of her influences). The Lord of the Rings books also appeared over time, and they have a huge fan base now, especially after Peter Jackson's super-produced (and woefully acted) movie versions.

But I wonder, back in the day when the novels first appeared and there wasn't as big an advertising machine, did people get worked up waiting for the next installment of The Lord of the Rings? Did people line up at the bookstore to get the newest copy?

  • The Hobbit was published in 1937. Tolkien began it after writing haphazardly on a blank page at the end of a student's exam booklet, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
  • He decided to investigate what a hobbit was, and then he decided to keep writing. What he produced grew out of his love of the study of languages (philology) and his knowledge of epics such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
  • By the way, Tolkien says he never intended The Hobbit to be written for children. If you think it's mawkish or sentimental or overly instructional, he says that was by mistake. He tried harder with his next book to avoid doing anything like that.

Tolkien. Nice guy in favor of goodness.
(Photo from Tolkienet)

  • Fourteen years later, he completed The Lord of the Rings. He typed the 1,200 plus pages with two fingers. It is commonly referred to as a trilogy, but it was actually intended as a single book, and most serious Tolkien folks refer to it as such.
  • Even so, the publishers decided to break it into three parts, which we now know as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King. They were published from 1954 to late 1955.
  • Sales of the so-called trilogy exceeded publishers' expectations and they had to issue reprints. The book(s) didn't sell insanely well, though, because in 1961, one critic without his crystal ball proclaimed that it looked like the Tolkien enthusiasm had died out.
  • But in 1965, an unauthorized paperback version of the book was published, and sales exploded.

Covers of the rogue paperbacks, published by Ace books. All three of these together are currently worth anywhere from $60 to $260.
(Photo from Absolute Elsewhere)

  • On college campuses, where LOTR seemed to find its most enthusiastic followers, the New York Times reported that "hobbits have quite replaced Salinger and Golding as 'in' reading."
  • Several fan groups sprang up, including the Tolkien Society of America, which was founded in 1965, and two years later, boasted 1,000 members.
  • In 1967, sales of the book worldwide had topped three million copies, with the United States ringing in with the greatest number of fans by far.
  • By 1968, the book was adopted as the seminal text for thousands of "Alternative" readers, and the "cult" of Tolkien was underway.
  • From 1965 to 2001, Ballantine (only one of many publishers who've had rights to the book) sold 32 million copies of The Lord of the Rings. After the first film was released, they sold 14 million in two years.
  • So let's stack up the data on LOTR and compare with Harry Potter

On the first day you could order advance copies of the last book in the Harry Potter series, orders were more than five times higher than the number of first-day pre-orders for the sixth book. So it looks like total pre-orders for this book will smash the number of total pre-orders for the sixth book, which amounted to 1.5 million copies.

  • So the answer is, no, the excitement over the Lord of the Rings books was not as pronounced as what we know today.
  • Make no mistake, however, there were some pretty devoted fans of LOTR in 1965. It has been noted in several places that, at the time, you couldn't go far on most college campuses in the country without seeing a bumper sticker reading "Frodo lives," or hearing people greet each other with, "May the hair on your toes never grow less."

Bilbo Baggins, as seen in the animated movie of The Hobbit

David Doughan, Who Was Tolkien? available at The Tolkien Society's web page
Philip Norman, "The Prevalence of Hobbits,"
The New York Times, January 15, 1967
Phyllis Meras, "Go, Go, Gandalf,"
The New York Times, January 15, 1967
Pat Reynolds, "The Lord of the Rings: The Tale of a Text," Tolkien Society page
Andy Seller, "'Rings' comes full circle,"
USA Today, December 16, 2003
Julian Dibbell, "Lord of the Geeks," Village Voice, June 6-12, 2001
Roberto Rivera, "The Lord of the Rings: a fan of the book reviews the film," Boundless webzine, date not provided
Shmuel Ross, Harry Potter Timeline, Infoplease
"Potter pre-orders exceed previous book," Bloomberg News, February 2, 2007

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