Like the famous Boston dowagers, the publisher Houghton Mifflin possesses some priceless antiques. And Houghton, inevitably – and not always charitably – described as ”venerable,” knows when to polish them off, and make a few dollars in the process.

”The monkey pays the bills” used to be the watchword at Houghton’s Park Street headquarters, referring to H. A. and Margret Rey’s Curious George books, which have poured untold millions into the publisher’s coffers. This year, it is going to be different. Houghton’s trade division is spewing forth its usual line of quality fare: a memoir by John Edgar Wideman, a novel by Philip Roth. But Bilbo Baggins will be paying the bills.

Three years ago, Houghton had the idea of introducing J. R. R. Tolkien’s fabulous ”Lord of the Rings” epic to the children of the ’60s generation, who embraced the paperback trilogy almost as enthusiastically as they embraced sex, drugs, etc. (Factoid: Tolkien considered LOTR a single novel, not a trilogy. It was broken into three volumes for sales purposes.) There was talk of a ”Rings” movie, but no one knew whether it would get made, and, if it got made, whether it would be any good. ”We wanted to make sure people would get the real story by reading the books,” says Clay Harper, Houghton’s Tolkien czar.

After Houghton started gearing up, word arrived that the long-delayed LOTR movie project had finally gotten off the ground. Filmmaker Peter Jackson spent 14 months in New Zealand in 1999 and 2000 with stars Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Liv Tyler, and is now preparing the first of three movies, ”The Fellowship of the Ring,” for December release. Early clips have caused a huge sensation on the Internet, and the early word of mouth, based on a 20-minute sequence, is quite positive. Yes, one could probably string together 20 good minutes of ”Pearl Harbor,” and yes, a movie about a young British boy named Potter will offer stiff competition, but the early divinations bode well for Houghton.

(Factoid: Tolkien sold the movie rights to his work in 1971 and laid down strict guidelines for their use. None of his characters could be used in scenes that were not in his books, and he enjoined Hollywood from dreaming up prequels or sequels to the epic. Potentially, this makes the as-yet-unfilmed ”The Hobbit” a very valuable property.)

Backed by a $300,000 promotion campaign, Houghton’s Tolkien sales are gaining momentum – and the real action is still to come. New Line Cinema plans to release one LOTR movie each of three coming Christmas seasons, and every order of Frodo’s Fries at Burger King (just kidding; but Burger King does own the movie tie-in promotion) will be, in effect, a mini-ad for Tolkien-ana.

”We don’t want to look like slathering opportunists who see there is a movie coming,” Harper says. Then again, fortune favors the prepared publisher. Houghton has just published a biography of Tolkien and a one-volume version of the epic with movie art. Still to come in 2001: separate movie tie-in volumes of each novel in the ”trilogy”; a reissuing of Tolkien’s ”Unfinished Tales”; a young adult version of ”The Hobbitt”; ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Visual Companion,” and ”The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide.”