NewsWire: The Universally Revered Hobbit - Reuters

Houghton Mifflin still receives mail addressed to Tolkien.

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- In 1969, a lieutenant with the United States Army in Vietnam ran beneath the wash of a helicopter's rotor blades and clambered into the chopper, where the first thing he saw was a picture of a Hobbit on the back of the pilot's helmet.

"It struck me -- the universality of the book. Wherever you go and whatever the situation, the book is so popular that somebody has read it and liked it enough to adopt the Hobbit as a logo and talisman," recalled Robert Burgmann, the 59-year-old Vietnam veteran, from his home in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" became popular during the Vietnam era because, to some readers, it portrayed the triumph of good over evil. For many, the trilogy was a refuge from the chaotic events of the time.

Three decades later, Burgmann revisited the squat, sweet-tempered and hairy-footed creatures from the books, prompted by the first of three films based on Tolkien's epic.

His interest is shared by another generation of readers drawn by the film rendering of Tolkien's mythical world as the United States fights its war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

With 13 Oscar nominations and nearly $300 million in sales after its first two months in U.S. cinemas, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" has cast a spell on millions. That magic, in turn, has stoked sales of Tolkien books, including "The Lord of The Rings," its predecessor "The Hobbit," and titles related to the movie which opened in December.

Published in 1938, "The Hobbit," the first of Tolkien's books, introduces audiences to Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and an enchanted world of dragons and wizards. Between 1954 and 1955, Tolkien wrote "The Lord of the Rings," which for reasons of cost his publisher split into three parts: "The Fellowship of The Ring," "The Two Towers," and "The Return of The King."

Once a best seller ...

The Tolkien trilogy first hit the best-seller lists when it was first published in paperback in the 1960s and became a favorite on college campuses. The trilogy tracks Hobbit Frodo Baggins' quest to save the world by destroying a magical ring with evil powers.

Tolkien a philologist, studied Finnish and Germanic folklore and elements of these are scattered throughout his work.

Tom Shippey, who wrote "JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), says he believes readers are attracted to the Tolkien stories because they portray a battle between good and evil. This mythical pull may have become particularly strong after the September 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

"It remained relevant and important to people because it is a response to the great problems of the 20th century, which have been warfare, politics, survival and the origins of evil," says Shippey. "Lots of people took it as a Vietnam commentary and it still has relevance now."

The sales figures would support that.

"Sales have been building in the last three years," says Clay Harper, Tolkien special projects director of Houghton Mifflin, which publishes Tolkien's work in the United States.

According to Harper, a single-volume paperback incorporating the trilogy with artwork from the film on its cover sold 1.1 million copies last year. Year-to-date sales of that edition totaled 640,000 copies.

Houghton has several versions of Tolkien's trilogy priced from $12 to $75. There are also various related books like guides to the film characters and an official movie guide.

"The history from a sales standpoint is not peaks and valleys. It is like steps steadily climbing on," says Harper. "For an almost 50-year-old best seller to ride to the top of the best-seller lists is a bit of a phenomenon."

Hobbits and Harry

For some younger readers, Tolkien's world of Middle-earth is not their first taste of magic, thanks to the popularity of bespectacled wizard, Harry Potter. "A lot of librarians and book sellers recommend The Hobbit and Tolkien's work as the next step," Harper says.

But whether J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series will enjoy the resilient appetite among readers in 50 years remains to be seen. Houghton Mifflin still receives mail addressed to Tolkien, who died in 1973. Letter writers quiz the author about details in his books such as how he created certain character names.

But the pace may wane. After all, there are two more films of the trilogy due, one in December and the final one December 2003.

"I'm a little worried the public will be burned out. If you walk into Borders or Barnes and Noble, it would be hard to miss the large presence of Tolkien's novels," Harper says. "It is tough to keep that going for three years without people getting tired."

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