LONDON (AP) _ Before Harry Potter and wizards, there was Bilbo Baggins and hobbits.

The hairy-footed, diminutive creatures charmed children and adults worldwide when British writer J.R.R. Tolkien introduced them in his 1937 fantasy book, “The Hobbit.”

Since then, “The Hobbit” has continually graced children’s recommended reading lists. Tolkien’s fantasy epic, “The Lord of the Rings,” was named the top novel of the 20th century in numerous surveys of British adults. And poet W.H. Auden once declared it “one of the best children’s stories of the century.”

Fan clubs have sprouted across Britain and the world, as die-hard Tolkienites seek each other out to converse in Elvish, read aloud parts of the novel and debate whether or not Balrogs have wings.

Now the first installment of the $273 million “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy is due to hit theaters in December, not long after the first Harry Potter movie, putting Bilbo and Frodo in direct competition with the students of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And HarperCollins, Tolkien’s publisher in Britain, is releasing a new edition to tie-in with the film. Houghton Mifflin is doing the same in the United States.

If Tolkien’s enduring popularity in his home country is anything to go on, the elves, orcs and wizards that inhabit Tolkien’s Middle-earth should hold their own against Harry Potter.

Tolkien “is not ironic and modern and all-knowing, but he appeals to people,” said Ian Collier, a member of the British-based Tolkien Society, which welcomes fans from around the globe.

“It is a great story and like all great stories, it connects with people in some way,” said Collier, (35), who has read “The Lord of the Rings” 25 times.

The trilogy describes the perilous journey by hobbit Frodo Baggins across Middle-earth to territory deep inside the control of Sauron, the Dark Lord. Baggins must reach the Cracks of Doom, a fiery chamber, and destroy a magical ring before Sauron can recapture it. If the ring falls into Sauron’s hands, he will be able to dominate the world.

But it is the background scenery of the novel, rather than its plot, that seems to captivate most readers. Tolkien creates a new universe with its own fantasy creatures, language, genealogy, history and geography. For many readers, Middle-earth becomes as vivid as the real world, though slightly more exciting.

“A lot of us lead fairly humdrum lives, so sitting on a commuter train and having something to read which takes you away from that is very attractive,” said Tolkien Society member Trevor Reynolds.

Plug Tolkien’s name into an Internet search engine, and hundreds of devoted Web sites appear. In Britain, the Tolkien Society boasts about 400 active, fee-paying members. Smaller clubs can be found in most British cities.

Britain’s Tolkien Society also has about 150 members in the United States, where smaller city or university-based fan clubs are equally as numerous. Tolkien groups sponsor Internet chats, meet to discuss their favorite author and attend Tolkien-related events across America.

Tolkien’s popularity also stretches far beyond English-speaking countries. “The Lord of The Rings” has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and fan clubs exist everywhere from Germany to Russia to Japan.

But academics and other writers have been reluctant to embrace Tolkien, who died in 1973. Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock once said, “The Lord of the Rings …. is Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic.”

Tolkien’s literary popularity has perhaps been hurt by his enormous popularity, said Thomas Shippey, a former Oxford University fellow and Tolkien expert who now teaches at St. Louis University in Missouri.

“There is a deep philosophical and literary snobbery, a strong class element,” Shippey said. “There is a literary bourgeois that believes it shall decide what is literature and what is not, and they get very annoyed when they aren’t followed.

“I wouldn’t say academics have been cautious; they have been violently hostile for nearly 50 years,” said Shippey, who wrote “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.”

Even at Oxford University, where Tolkien taught, the press office concedes that the closest they can come to a Tolkien expert is a specialist in 20th-century English literature.

Shippey said that one of the reasons may simply be professional hostility between English literature and English language professors, who often must compete for jobs in the same department. Tolkien was the latter.

“He challenged the notion that the language side was hopelessly fuddy-duddy,” Shippey said. “His work suggested that the language side, in fact, had something interesting to offer that had been ignored or suppressed.”

Shippey also believes that academics wrongly viewed Tolkien as reactionary, out of place with his contemporaries. Tolkien’s work, with its dramatic themes of good and evil, said more about the 20th century than other so-called modernist writers, such as John Updike, Shippey said.

Tolkien is “part of a group of traumatized authors,” Shippey said, naming also war veterans Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell.

“They had a personal involvement in the major political changes in the 20th century and these have revolved around industrialized warfare and the growth of totalitarian systems,” he said. “The modernists school … is not politically very important.”

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa to British parents. After his father died in 1896, he returned to central England with his mother and younger brother, Hilary.

The geography of Tolkien’s childhood home _ a mix of idyllic farmland and Birmingham’s grim urban center _ had a strong influence on his later writings. The proximity of Wales, with place names such as Llanfihangel-Crucorney and Nantyglo, also left an impression on the young Tolkien, who developed a strong interest in languages.

As a student at Oxford, Tolkien studied Welsh, Finnish and German before switching his major to English language and literature. During World War I, he served on the Western Front until trench fever forced him to return home.

In 1925, he accepted what seemed to be a dream job: to return to his former university and teach. At Oxford, Tolkien befriended C.S. Lewis and served as a founding member of “the Inklings” _ a loose grouping of literary friends.

It was during those years that “The Hobbit” was born.

“I wrote it as a relief from examining school (tests),” Tolkien said later. “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it, ‘In a hole on the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Eventually, I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like.”

From the start, “The Hobbit” was geared toward children. Tolkien’s son, the Rev. John Tolkien, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he grew up hearing the tales that would later make up the best-selling book.

“We used to hear two or three chapters each Christmas,” the author’s son said.

“The Hobbit” was followed by the epic-length “The Lord of the Rings,” published in 1954. The book, which recounts a battle between good and evil, attracted audiences of all ages. By the 1960s, it was a must-read on most American college campuses. Ironically, Tolkien _ an elderly man and conservative Roman Catholic _ had become a hero of a generation of pot-smoking, anti-authoritarian students.

Fans phoned Tolkien at all hours to ask about the book, Oxford’s Merton College received bags of mail for the professor and crowds of students pestered him for autographs.

“Tolkien was more than a little bemused by the fuss,” said a former neighbor in Oxford. Tolkien was also disturbed by all the hidden meanings that readers _ and critics _ tried to attach to his work. Some saw it is an allegory depicting World War II or the ideological battle between East and West.

“The prime motive was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them,” Tolkien wrote in a forward to the book’s second edition.

Tolkien admitted that the primary joy for him in writing was his made-up linguistics. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” he once said. “To me, a name comes first and the story follows.”

Tolkien’s fans said they aren’t sure what the author would make of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, being filmed by New Zealand’s Peter Jackson. His family reportedly dreads it. Lawyers acting on behalf of the Tolkien Estate did not return repeated telephone calls from The Associated Press.

The Tolkien Society has taken a wait-and-see approach, but individual members, such as Reynolds, said they are excited. Reynolds said he expects the movie will introduce a new generation to the tales of Middle-earth.

But as most Tolkien fans agree, getting people to read the books has never been much of a challenge, despite a lack of critical approval.

After “The Lord of the Rings” was voted the best book of the 20th century in a survey of British readers, writer Germaine Greer agonized over what that meant for 20th century literature.

“It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century,” she said. “The bad dream has materialized.”