Q&A with Clay Harper - Tolkien Projects Director, Houghton Mifflin Company

Q&A with Clay Harper, Tolkien Projects Director, Houghton Mifflin Company

What are some of the highlights of Houghton Mifflin's long history of publishing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien?

Houghton Mifflin has been J.R.R. Tolkien's U.S. publisher since the beginning, with the first U.S. publication of The Hobbit in 1938, and Tolkien's work is one of the crown jewels of our publishing program. We have published every book by the author, including children's stories, poems, and scholarly essays. We've also published nearly every significant book about the author and his work, including Christopher Tolkien's monumental twelve-volume The History of Middle-earth. The Hobbit was an immediate success upon publication, and readers asked for more stories set in Middle-earth right from the start. But it was a very long wait for the expected sequel. The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, didn't arrive in stores until 1954 -- sixteen years later.

As a cultural phenomenon in America, Tolkien's work has captured a wide public consciousness on several different occasions. In the mid-1960s, the first paperback editions were authorized, and the novels became immediate bestsellers. By the 1970s, Tolkien's work was very popular on American college campuses and inspired everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics (including "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Ramble On") to graffiti and buttons (the inspirational slogan "Frodo Lives" and the satirical "Gandalf for President"). Animated films of The Hobbit produced by Rankin/Bass and then a portion of The Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi, appeared on the scene. The Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon was partly inspired by Tolkien's work, and it could be argued that the big fantasy sections in bookstores owe a large part of their existence to Tolkien's popularity.

Why has The Hobbit been so popular for more than six decades?

It has been hailed as one of the greatest children's stories of all time, and generations of readers have identified with the reluctant hero, Bilbo Baggins. Hobbits are amiable, likable, peaceful folk who don't like to meddle in the affairs of others, and who don't quite understand the forces at work in their imaginary world of Middle-earth. By nature, they don't often travel, and they enjoy the simple things in life most of all: home, hearth, family, riddles, song, and good food. The wise wizard Gandalf enlists Bilbo's help in a quest that Bilbo would prefer to have nothing to do with. There is great humor in the tale, and great adventure as the wonder of Middle-earth is revealed to the reader through the wonder of Bilbo's reaction to being far from home -- and of course there is great danger in the guise of the dragon Smaug the Magnificent, and from other sources as well.

But Tolkien's real achievement is to tap into the great literary traditions and deepest roots of the English language -- Beowulf comes to mind, particularly regarding the dragon's hoard -- and make these modes of storytelling accessible to and enjoyable for children. I believe it is that attribute, in addition to the wonderful cast of characters and the story itself, that has helped the book stand the test of time as a perennial favorite among readers of all ages.

What are the major themes of The Lord of the Rings, and what are its virtues?

The Lord of the Rings is a vastly more complex work than The Hobbit, and many readers and critics have proposed answers to this question over the years. My view is that some of the simplest explanations are the best, but perhaps they are the most difficult to grasp -- at least as to how much Tolkien intended. First and foremost to me is the fact that The Lord of the Rings is the profound and spectacular creation of a single mind, a mind steeped in the legends of Europe and exceptionally well versed in the expression of its mythologies -- in other words, the sheer enormity of Tolkien's achievement. To have created a 1,200-page novel with hundreds of characters and centuries of invented history, culture, and language permeating every page and every action in an enormously eventful plot; to have created passages of heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching terror; to have made this entire invented world come alive in a very real way for the reader through unshakable logic and intricate design; and then to have set these characters in motion toward such incredible heights of excitement, intrigue, danger, and bittersweet triumph -- it's just mind-boggling to me. And every single incident and character, even every thing, is in The Lord of the Rings for a reason. I've never had an experience in fiction that comes close to achieving that.

Is it an epic adventure story? Of course. Is it about good and evil? Yes . . . but not just. It is partly a tale of pastoral, isolated, and innocent beings -- the hobbits -- swept up in the perilous history of their times. They find that their world is far more complex and dangerous than they had ever imagined. But a bit like soldiers going off to war (which in a sense they are), they find they have an important part to play in the outcome. Tom Shippey argues quite persuasively in his recent book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that the book is in part a response to the existence of evil in our world, particularly as it manifested itself in Tolkien's times. The hobbits must make a simple moral choice between doing what they feel is right and doing otherwise -- including the choice of doing at all. They find that they must engage the world around them -- just as we all do in the end. So in this sense the book is a kind of coming-of-age tale, structured a bit like a funnel -- the story opens up from their happy origins to encompass a vast world of grim danger through which the hobbits must travel to perform what they come to see as their duty. They persevere and ultimately prevail through the power of such simple to state but difficult to achieve virtues as courage, determination, bravery, and the renewable bonds of friendship and love. The world of Middle-earth they encounter is populated by creatures and cultures that embody these and other attributes, including wisdom and beauty but also tyranny, aggression, greed, ugliness, jealousy, and cruelty. In this way, Middle-earth is more than a little like our own world, and the conflicts in it and in the hearts of the characters are as personal as our own. Every single character is changed, marked, by personal experience, as we are in life.

Another wonderful thing about The Lord of the Rings is that it contains a host of aphorisms, which readers have taken to heart, including "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom," "Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens," "The wise speak only of what they know," "All that is gold does not glitter,/Not all who wander are lost;/The old that is strong does not wither,/Deep roots are not reached by the frost," and countless others. Whenever I need to decide about packaging issues or strategy for the program, the one that rings in my head is "It is not our part here to take thought only for a season." Tolkien has created a complete world within a world -- our world -- inside the covers of this novel.

What should readers know about the author?

J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892, and died on September 2, 1973, at the age of eighty-one. He immigrated to England at the age of three but was orphaned at twelve and went to live in an orphanage. From a very early age, Tolkien invented his own languages as a hobby -- more than twenty of them by the time of his death. He married his sweetheart from the orphanage, Edith, in 1916. Tolkien served in the First World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, but nearly all of his closest friends were killed in that war. A student of the English written traditions and philology (the study of the history of words), he worked for a time as an assistant lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary. Later, as his career progressed, he taught at the University of Leeds, and then became a don at Oxford, where his scholarly reputation grew.

Tolkien wrote his fiction in his spare time. A jovial and deeply spiritual man, he was good friends with C. S. Lewis, and the two discussed their novels while they were writing them. Tolkien was delighted with the popular success of his novels in many ways, but he always fought their interpretation as allegory. To him, they simply were what they were, and the American college campus craze of the late 1960s, with its embrace of his work toward unintended ends, was a source of consternation. In 1972 he was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II.

Upon Tolkien's death, his youngest son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, an Oxford don in his own right, prepared his great cosmology of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, for publication. Christopher later produced a twelve-volume account of the origins, evolution, and writing of his father's epic tales, The History of Middle-earth.

What is Houghton Mifflin's role in the global Tolkien publishing enterprise?

We work closely with our UK partners, HarperCollins Publishers, to develop ideas for new editions, and we're in constant communication with the estate of the author to discuss opportunities and results. We also monitor the activities of others and the potential impact on our copyrights, trademarks, and the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Our market is obviously a large and influential one in this global context, but Tolkien's work has been translated into more than thirty-five languages, including Armenian, Icelandic, Moldavian, Portuguese, and even Esperanto. Lifetime global sales of The Hobbit are estimated to be in excess of 40 million copies, and of The Lord of the Rings at more than 50 million copies -- which makes Tolkien one of the most popular authors of all time.

What have been the sales trends in the United States throughout Houghton Mifflin's history?

More than 30 million copies of Tolkien's work are known to have been sold in the United States since 1938. After each of the major cultural way-points when the audience has expanded, the work has never seemed to fade in popularity. Now Tolkien's work has been passed down through several generations, and each generation finds in his stories an inspiring set of values and ideals that fits its own life and times. Over the last few years the readership has been expanding at a great pace, and today Tolkien's work can be found in more retail outlets and on more bookshelves than ever.

Houghton Mifflin's own sales figures in 2000, on a dollar basis, were in the "mid-seven figures," with unit sales (not including set components) of very close to half a million books. In 2001, we expect that the dollar-sales number will easily grow into a substantial eight figures, with unit sales of well over a million units. Our sales (U.S. only) doubled in each of the past three years, and it is very likely that this year's sales will at least triple last year's before the first film opens. Our new one-volume paperback with movie art on the cover, released in May, has sold five times as many copies as last year's full-year sale of the previous edition through mid-July, and there are already a million copies of it in print through six printings.

What has Houghton Mifflin's publishing strategy been? How has this strategy evolved over the years?

Houghton Mifflin has promoted, protected, and nurtured the work throughout its history, and will for generations to come. We believe that the best advocate for the work is the work itself; for years, readers have encouraged their friends and family to experience Tolkien's creation, so there is a certain snowball effect whenever the audience expands. We've always treated the work like the extraordinary literary achievement that it is -- as a timeless classic -- rather than as the cornerstone of a particular genre. Because The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other books invite rereading and close study, many readers who first come to them in paperback later move on to hardcover editions that they cherish for years. Consequently, we've published attractive quality paperbacks, solid hardcover editions, copiously illustrated editions featuring the art of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Lee, and others, as well as elaborate gift and collector's editions over the years -- and all are built to last. So the novels are available at a variety of price levels, with different packaging for different audiences. Every major new edition finds a welcome home, and the introduction of each is an opportunity to find a new audience and reintroduce the best-selling backlist to retailers and readers alike.

Our current efforts began ramping up in the spring of 1999, with the first U.S. publication of a one-volume paperback of The Lord of the Rings. Later that fall, the three-volume editions and The Hobbit were reissued. Readers often want to learn more about the author and his work once they've experienced it -- and the growing popularity of Tolkien throughout the Internet community has certainly helped readers find others who share their enthusiasm. In each season since 1999, we've steadily reissued and published new related works, including The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, The Atlas of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, and, for the first time on American shelves, paperbacks of the books known as The History of The Lord of the Rings. The audience keeps expanding to accommodate these wonderful books as well.

In December 2000, Houghton Mifflin reached an agreement to become the sole U.S. publisher of books related to the major motion picture trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, in production from New Line Cinema under the direction of Peter Jackson. We're using our expertise to reach as many readers as possible both before and after the first of the films opens on December 19, 2001. In May 2001 we introduced the first edition of The Lord of The Rings that used art from the forthcoming films as cover illustration, and as of now (7/01) one million copies of it are already in print through six printings. In September we'll be introducing three-volume editions in paperback, hardcover, and boxed sets. On November 6, the first two books containing extensive imagery from the films will be available -- and there are more titles to come.

Are there unique challenges in publishing film tie-in books?

There has never been an opportunity for us like this one. We've been working hard to spread the news of the impending film installments of The Lord of the Rings throughout our expanding customer base for Tolkien. Working closely with New Line Cinema, HarperCollins UK, and our customers, we're determined to meet the challenge with a carefully calibrated, quality publishing program over the entire three-year period of theatrical releases and beyond. This is the first time that one monumental tale has been told through three films all filmed at once -- and the films are being made by a vast crew of extremely talented fans of the books for fans of the book, including those who have yet to read it. We are very encouraged by their determination to be as true to Tolkien's vision as they can be, and by the fact that the two illustrators most closely associated with Tolkien's work -- Alan Lee and John Howe -- have been involved in the production design. You won't see a flood of opportunistic "product" on the shelves from us or anyone else, but rather a selection of high-quality books that are faithful to the story and that take you behind the scenes of this unique filmmaking effort.

Besides managing the challenging logistics of acquiring, launching, producing, and marketing these new books -- and believe me, many, many people are involved -- one of the most interesting opportunities for me personally was the chance to look through New Line's archive of more than 80,000 still photographs from the production in search of cover art for our novels. Our art director and I spent two days hunched over a light table looking through this mind-boggling array of possibilities, and everything I saw looked spectacularly rich in detail and true to the novels to me.

What are your hopes for these films?

I have been a fan of Tolkien's work for more than twenty-five years and have read The Lord of the Rings many times. It has come to mean something different, something fresh and new, something more powerful and more admirable, each time, and I deeply cherish the images in my mind's eye, put there through Tolkien's beautiful prose and poetry. But for more than a decade I've also been a fan of the thoughtful, illustrated interpretations of his work in Alan Lee's and John Howe's paintings, and to see those visual interpretations serve as the basis for the films' design, lovingly recreated and crafted in three dimensions, has been a thrill. What I've seen of these films so far compliments what's in my mind's eye.

Houghton Mifflin obviously has a vested interest in the success of these films directly through our publishing program, but it is my passion and our hope that these films become an opportunity to encourage thousands and thousands of readers to discover Tolkien's wonderful books for the first time -- or to revisit his work again. By that measure, the films are already a huge success.

What are the significant new Tolkien books to be aware of this year?

There is a new edition of The Hobbit, featuring cover art by the renowned illustrator Peter Sis and completely new typesetting which restores the text to exactly the way it was when the author last made corrections; this will reach American shelves in August. In early September there will be a reissued edition of Unfinished Tales, which is a collection of shorter works set in Middle-earth. In late September, new editions of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes arrive -- hardcovers, paperbacks, and boxed sets. Then on November 6 come the first of the books that focus specifically on the films: The Fellowship of the Ring Visual Companion by Jude Fisher, an introduction to the characters, cultures, and settings of Middle-earth as depicted in the films, and The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide by Brian Sibley, a behind-the-scenes introduction to the challenges that faced the filmmakers, actors, and crew.

What can we look forward to from Houghton Mifflin's Tolkien publishing program beyond 2001?

In the spring of 2002 we'll publish a book related to the art and design of the first film as well as a completely redesigned edition of Douglas A. Anderson's The Annotated Hobbit. The lists beyond that are still in development, but you can expect to see more quality books about the films and more books about Tolkien from us in the future.

Do balrogs have wings?

This question, about a pivotal character and incident in The Fellowship of the Ring, embodies one of the great reader-inspired arguments of all time. And there are others: "Who or what is Tom Bombadil?" and "Who killed the Witch-King of Angmar?" My answer to the first question is "perhaps," but for the second and third, you will have to consult The Lord of the Rings and draw your own conclusions.

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