And you thought The Lord of the Rings was only a story . . . entire families are smitten by the hobbit habit, says Arabella Warner

My 15-year-old son was approached recently in the playground by a prefect demanding he hand over his ring. Jewellery is not allowed at school and he thought that his Lord of the Rings trinket, bought at a pop festival last summer, was about to be confiscated.

“Just as I thought,” said the older boy. “It is the ‘One Ring’.”

Turning it lovingly in the palm of his hand, the boy began to read the feathery, Arabic style script engraved on it.

“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul,” he read, in menacing tones. “It is the language of the Dark Lord, though the script is in elvish. Keep it safe.” And with that he handed it back and walked off.

How thrilled J. R. R. Tolkien would have been to eavesdrop on that exchange. When he published The Lord of the Rings in 1954, his motivation was, in part, to find an imaginative landscape for languages he had invented. Now, 50 years on, the world seems to have gone mad — or ambar i alassëa as an elf would say — for his book. Although in truth, it took the film to do it.

Since the third part of the cinematic trilogy based on Tolkien’s opus, The Return of the King, was released last December, there has been talk of little else in our household. While the stirring soundtrack pounds as a backdrop to my older son’s GCSE revision, my 11-year-old spends much of his spare time painting miniature dwarfs and orcs from the Lord of the Rings Warhammer collection, boasting on the phone to his cousins that his Riders of Rohan will wipe the floor with their army of Uruk-hai. It’s not just a boy thing either. I recently overheard my 14-year-old daughter in earnest discussion with three friends about the relative attractiveness of the films’ actors. “Orlando Bloom’s well hot,” said one, of the man who plays Legolas. “Nah, he’s a poof,” said another. “Viggo Mortensen’s the one.” “Yeah, but have you seen him without his beard?” said a third. “He’s only fit when he’s Aragorn.” And we are not alone. A colleague has just given his seven-year-old son a Lord of the Rings birthday party in which a somewhat baffled entertainer was made to re-enact the Battle of Helm’s Deep for a group of jelly hurling warriors dressed as Aragorn, Boromir and Gandalf. A pricy afternoon: a Legolas suit costs £28.99 (bow and arrows extra).

Now it may seem odd that a seven-year-old should be thrilled by a film that is, by its 12A certificate, allegedly restricted to older cinemagoers. But smaller people have fully absorbed the phenomenon through its spin-offs: the video games, the toys, the dressing-up opportunities. On our high street, there is a Games Workshop, where children as young as seven are cheerfully deposited by their parents every Saturday morning to spend hours rolling dice and moving tiny models of the Lord of the Nazgul over the fields of Pelennor. When I popped in and quizzed an under-ten about the Rings, he instantly knew the names of all the members of the Fellowship, knew their destination and every challenge that faced them.

Put him in an exam room and he was way beyond GCSE and A level and was almost touching PhD Tolkien. “My favourite is the cave troll,” he said, indicating a model nasty. “That’s some wicked monster.” As it turned out he had seen all three films. The truth is, many a parent has turned a blind eye to the warnings on the posters about how scenes might be disturbing to the younger child and actively encouraged their children’s interest because they have bought into the whole phenomenon themselves. And that is the real cunning of The Lord of the Rings: it unites the generations. At my colleague’s party, the most energetic participant of all was the father, decked out as Saruman, who insisted on quizzing all the young guests on the details of hobbit husbandry. Peter Jackson’s trick has been simultaneously to introduce Tolkien’s imagination to a whole new audience, while not disappointing those already familiar with it. Because the book has always had a dedicated cult following.

During the Sixties and Seventies it was a counter-culture bible. The rock group Led Zeppelin took The Lord of the Rings as the inspiration for the lyrics to their songs Ramble On and Battle of Evermore, a rock venue in Covent Garden was called Middle Earth, and Marc Bolan’s partner in Tyrannosaurus Rex called himself Steve Peregrine Took after a Tolkien character.

Back then, students wore badges saying “Frodo is God” and “Gandalf for President”, they changed their names to Bilbo and Galadriel. Some saw it as a political text, the story of the Ring an allegory for the need to destroy nuclear weapons after the Second World War. More recently, just before the invasion of Iraq, an e-mail circulated globally bearing the message, “Frodo has failed”. An attachment showed a picture of George Bush wearing the One Ring of power, wielded in the book by the evil Lord Sauron. For me, brought up on the book, and read all 1,000 pages three times by my father, it was the complete alternative moral universe that I loved. Here was a detailed world of peoples, landscapes and languages, which was recognisable enough to be real, but fantastical enough to transport you somewhere else. Initially sceptical that anyone could film that imaginative sweep, I found myself just as absorbed in Jackson’s work as my children. What a vision, capable of turning a mass audience alleged to possess only a three-minute attention span into aesthetes who will sit through almost nine hours of cinema. Mind you, he was working with the finest source material. It was all there in the book: the battles and love stories, princesses and monsters, pin-ups and role models. Like many a parent I was thrilled that we had common territory that excited us together. Even as the film cycle concludes, there is no end in sight to this phenomenon. Via internet sites you can study language courses in Quenya, the ancient tongue of the elves, discuss the sexual leanings of the two friends Legolas and Gimli, and purchase any Lord of the Rings paraphernalia you could imagine. Including the One Ring. Except, as my son discovered when his was eventually confiscated and popped into a box containing several other specimens, it isn’t the one ring at all. There are thousands available in all shapes and sizes.