Fifty years: Governments fall in less time. Young men grow old and old men die. Not only did we get to the moon in the last 50 years, we became bored and stopped going. Species have disappeared, Al Gore invented the internet and communication is virtually instant. The world has shrunk and our view into the universe has grown exponentially. During that time an Oxford professor and a New Zealand filmmaker with a zombie fetish have changed all of pop-culture.
Fifty years is an anniversary celebrated almost universally no matter what the occasion. A person turning 50 or a couple celebrating its 50th anniversary are both landmark occasions as are the memories of sports milestones, inventions, wars and just about everything else one can think of. Fifty is golden and there is nothing like it. Fifty is fifty.
J.R.R. Tolkiens first part of The Lord of the Rings was published 50 years ago today in the United Kingdom by publisher George Allen & Unwin. The publisher felt that the book was a big risk but that the work was brilliant and in either case it was considered a sequel to the its successful 1937 childrens book The Hobbit. The gamble was great enough that instead of a standard fee for the finished work, a profit sharing plan was arranged. Tolkien would not receive money for the book until the printing costs were paid for and then he would receive a much bigger percentage of the profits than if he took the money upfront. It was a way to mitigate costs for the publisher in case sales were slow.
The author was apprehensive about what critics might say, a full 16 years after he started the Hobbit sequel and he told Stanley Unwin, It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can do no other. Critics, including friend C.S. Lewis, gave the book enough positive reviews that it began to sell; well enough in fact to clear out the 3,500 copies printed in the first run. Six weeks after publication a second printing was ordered. Today, if you can find an owner willing to part with those books, they cost hundreds or thousands of times more than the original price.
The Two Towers was printed by November of 1954 and those waiting for the third volume might have felt the suspense difficult to endure. Readers of these words will know very well that the story leaves Frodo alive but taken by Orcs while Sam is barred from his master behind a door. The Return of the King was waiting on Tolkien to submit the finished appendices before publication and the wait turned out to be long – for publisher and audience. Such pangs of impatience are hard for todays reader to imagine as nearly everyone has the three volumes either collected together or published in a single edition. Despite urging from the publisher, and letters from readers the final copy for the appendices wasnt ready until late May of 1955. Due to a variety of challenged the book didnt reach store shelves in the UK until October, almost a full year after The Two Towers. Readers across the pond had to wait until January of 1956 for Houghton-Mifflin to get the final volume to the public.
Fans today on message boards, at fan conventions and even in their own homes often dont realize that not every critic despised the work. It seems a widely held myth that all critics dismissed LOTR. But on the contrary, several embraced it and gave it the highest praise. It wasnt free from its detractors, but there were definitely strong supporters of the work as soon as it was published. In todays world there are probably more supporters and more fanatics than ever before but there are still those who classify it as just escapism and cultish fantasy for adolescents and adolescent boys at that; often without having read it. There are also literary snobs who cannot tolerate anything that is audacious enough to be popular. In some eyes that alone condemns it to the trash heap. There are still others who just don’t find it to their taste.
But the book has moved far beyond being subject to any critic. It has sewn itself into the fabric of numerous cultures and in far more societies than those who speak the English it was written in. Soon after its initial publication, translations started to appear, the first being the Dutch edition in 1956 followed by many others. It is practically impossible to gauge and more difficult to express the influence the book has had on so many all over the world since that time. Its penetration into so many languages (including Esperanto, an invented language) illustrates at the very least its popularity, while the imitations and influences have shown up in nearly every conceivable art form and many of those influenced have produced remarkable works of their own.
TheOneRing.nets own Greenbooks has a section of tributes to J.R.R. Tolkien from a number of authors. As today is a birthday of sorts I suggest reading them as they are moving and fitting but I quote here from author Terry Pratchet directly from our site:
. . . I can’t remember where I was when JFK was shot, but I can remember exactly where and when I was when I first read JRRT. It was New Year’s Eve, 1961. I was babysitting for friends of my parents while they all went out to a party. I didn’t mind. I’d got this three-volume yacht anchor of a book from the library that day. Boys at school had told me about it. It’d got maps in it, they said. This struck me at the time as a pretty good indicator of quality . . .
Other authors like the best-selling and highly esteemed George R.R. Martin, who shares the double middle initials (Raymond Richard), list Tolkien as a master writer rather matter-of-factly. In a 2001 interview posted on his own website he said the following after being asked if high fantasy has peaked:
I can’t speak for other writers. I definitely don’t think it’s peaked. If it peaked artistically, it was in the 1940s with Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings still remains the great exemplar of the form. I don’t think anything has been done since that’s close to it. But that’s plenty of motivation for the rest of us to climb that Mount Everest and see what we can do But even so, very few of these people have ever approached Tolkien. So I think the best of epic fantasy is yet to come.
Pratchet, Martin and scores of others are examples of those feeling thee effects of Tolkiens handiwork. Without a doubt professor Tolkien changed the world he lived in through his words, one person at a time. That isnt to say he caused world peace to breakout or that cases of domestic violence are dramatically lower among those who read his books, but his ideas and vision and values and his very life-blood that he told Unwin he had written his work in, were spread to a vast audience. He planted, with no intention of doing so, a bit of himself in a significant portion of the population. His idea of giving the U.K. a mythology of its own has instead become a mythology shared by much of the world. While Britain may lay a special claim to it, it surely extends far beyond its boarders.
Like Martin, Pratchet, Robert Plant, Christopher Lee, Geddy Lee, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling, Ursula Le Guin, and a host of others that found inspiration by reading Tolkiens words, a whole new generation is discovering the books now. Peter Jacksons films continue to drive the masses to book retailers where they are eager to find the source of the wonderful films. Their literary experience may be skewed by having watched the story unfold first, but there is little doubt that among the millions of new readers new Le Guins, Lees, Lucases and Rowlings will emerge. The shockwave of Tolkiens writing feat will not diminish after 50 amazing years but will amplify.
This new rush to the bookstore did a favor for the Tolkien estate as well as Tolkiens publishers: it poured in new money. Demand for the books never stopped after the 1960s but in the midst of the mania over the films not only did The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit enter prominent spots on bestsellers lists, so did The Silmarillion edited by Christopher Tolkien.
The Silmarillion is most often viewed as Tolkiens other book, which is only part of the truth. Work on the grand history started long before there was a book about hobbits but publication didnt come until after the authors death in 1973. When son and literary heir Christopher did manage to organize and edit it for publication in 1977 it sold over 1 million copies in the U.S. alone. But it has not been the last we have heard from the Tolkiens, far from it in fact.
As anybody familiar with The Silmarillion knows, it is a dense text that freezes some readers in their literary tracks. Today, 50 years after The Lord of the Rings was unleashed, no reader need feel that the sometimes cold path (but rewarding and beautiful for those who stick it out) is the only choice available. There are plenty more directions a reader of LOTR can go than just into the mythologically complex story of the creation of Middle-earth and the origin of the Elves in the worlds primordial ages. We live in a time, thanks to the popularizing film and the widespread dissemination of information, when more and better reading material is available by and about Tolkien than ever before.
Today, and all year, as we celebrate the Golden Anniversary of this most remarkable of texts, let us find new Tolkien material to explore. If we truly appreciate the author and his gift of myth and literature, let us celebrate with words. Many readers are still unaware of the vast material available for discovery, looking no further than for a sequel to his magnum opus.
A friend at TheOneRing.net, Balin as he is known among the staff, listed 10 of his most memorable Tolkien moments in no particular order. One was the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. I felt like I had lost a mentor, he said. I also thought I would never see any more of his writings. Another of the moments was ordering a copy of The Silmarillion before it was published. This account is remarkable because things are so different now when there is so much of his writing and The Silmarillion and so many other gems in most every passable bookstore. Indulge me in an exploration of the offerings and forgive me for stepping slightly into territory that belongs to TORn’s own Turgon’s bookshelf.
While we are still deprived the insights of the living writer, there is a wealth of material from and about Tolkien available and more is published constantly. The Silmarillion isnt the authors last word nor the last edited volume from his son while more and more about the author is being produced all the time. Much of the basic biographical information presented in this essay can be read about in interesting detail in Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography. There are a number of readers of The Lord of the Rings who blanch at the prospect of reading a biography, but they should overcome their suspicions and indulge in the quiet pleasure of discovery. The portrait of a philologist, a professor, a writer, frien and a husband and father is far more interesting than it appears ‘on paper’ and is in fact good reading. It ought to be required reading for those wanting a seat on the very populated Tolkien bandwagon. A companion piece of sorts is Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. The topics the professor addresses are wide-ranging and curiously contemporary and of course, the reader is free to browse.
A recent addition to the collection of biographical works is John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. While delving into the horrors of trench warfare the book has memorable warmth as it takes the reader into the close friendships of Tolkien’s school-boy days. In breaks new ground in the record of Tolkien’s early life and earliest writing. Other memorable choices include J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century where Tom Shippey, prominent medievalist and scholar of fantasy, makes the case that Tolkien is what the title claims and refutes those who criticize his works. Also available is Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator which looks into the visual side of his creative life with lavish illustrations.
If readers are hungering for Middle-earth more than Tolkien, one easy place to start is The Annotated Hobbit by Douglas Anderson. The full text of the book is present but in the margins and footnotes are heaps of information that pertain to the book and the writer. This is a light introduction to Tolkien scholarship featuring over 150 illustrations from Tolkien editions from all over the world. Beyond that, the volume contains additional Tolkien writing, specifically the full text of The Quest of Erebor which is Gandalf’s explanation of how he came to send Bilbo Baggins on his journey with the dwarves. This is another must read and presents the big question: Where is the much needed The Annotated Lord of the Rings?
Unfinished Tales is every bit as good of a starting point for post LOTR reading as The Silmarillion. It has tales from the ancient of days, presents the most complete tale of the lost city of Men (Numenor) and has some startling stories from the perspective of the Hobbits from LOTR. It is easy going and since it presents bits from all the ages of Middle-earth and not a chronological narrative, readers can skip here and there to find what most interests them. This wonderful book is far too often ignored.
Another figure too often under-appreciated by those with a familiarity of only Tolkien’s most famous works is Christopher Tolkien. Not only did he organize the content for The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales he completed the massive twelve volume History of Middle-earth, a feat of true scholarship all on its own. Too dense for many, it is a work worthy of great admiration. Few know that J.R.R. wrote much of LOTR with Christopher in mind and sent chapters to his son during service in WWII. At the insistence of C.S. Lewis, Christopher attended meetings of the Inklings to read his father’s chapters (a much better reader than his father according to Lewis) and was considered a full member of the group. For those less inclined to wade into the massive history of his father’s writing, a four volume collection has been pulled from the larger series to present The History of The Lord of the Rings which focuses on the content of the most interest to the most people.
There are many more works by Tolkien in the form or short stories or translations that are wonderful and worth a reader’s time. Finding them is easy enough, so enjoy the search but whatever you choose to read, please do read. Celebrate the first fifty years of The Lord of the Rings with a book or books of your choosing. Take advantage of the wide-ranging choices and learn. Devour the delectable selections of the Tolkien library in celebration of the man and the myth he created that will continue to ring in the hearts and heads of generations of readers world-wide for far longer than the next 50 years.