An Unexpected Party
by Michael Foster
The sudden boom in the popularity of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s began with the simple fact that it became available in paperback.
An unauthorized American edition arising from a seeming loophole in the book’s copyright stirred Tolkien’s publishers like a sleeping dragon roused.
In October 1965, Ballantine published an approved and slightly revised three-volume edition at 95 cents each. Now anyone with three dollars could buy a passport to Middle-earth.
By 1966, the book was the top-selling paperback, with three quarters of a million copies in print.
Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson (author of The Annotated Hobbit) believes it was “an accident of chronology” that The Lord of the Rings found a wide audience thirty years after Tolkien began writing it and ten years after its first publication.
“Part of it has to do with the rise of mass market publishing, and the fact that a mass market edition came out in 1965 surely spurred things along. Before then, the hardcovers were at least $5 each volume. Of course, the fact that the establishment didn’t look kindly on Tolkien probably only fueled the fact that the younger generation did.”
Tom Shippey adds other reasons:
“Perhaps one could say he offered a ‘mellow’ kind of heroism, which he was convinced was also old, familiar, and natural. And also, the students of the 1960s were perfectly well able to see that through the metaphor, Tolkien was writing about real life: the connection to Vietnam and the military-industrial complex (Mordor and Saruman) was obvious–though not intended.”
Rightly or wrongly, contemporary accounts of the sales surge handcuffed it to the collegiate counter-culture. In “The Hobbit Habit,” published July 15, 1966, Time magazine proclaimed that Tolkien was the new literary BMOC (Big Man On Campus):
“Holden Caulfield is a moldy fig; the Lord of the Flies is swatted. This year, the unquestioned literary god on college campuses is a three-foot-high creature with long curly hair on his feet, a passion for six vast meals a day, and the improbable name of Frodo Baggins.”
A tract for its time
The Time article noted the proliferation of buttons declaring FRODO LIVES and GO GO GANDALF on many U.S. campuses and declared, “The hobbit habit seems almost as catching as LSD.” Three reasons for this vogue were suggested:
“To some, it is a poetic portrayal of the times, with Sauron and his destructive force seen as an analogy to atomic war. For others, the Frodo saga represents a way to escape the mundane realities of life. … Another enthusiast likes the Rings’ old-fashioned moral simplicity: ‘You cheer the hero and boo the villain.'”
The backlash against the so-called Tolkien cult came swiftly, and it was based not so much on the book itself as on its readers: an ad hominem attack. On February 24, 1967, Life associate editor Charles Elliott declared:
“Tolkien is obscure no longer. He has become, in fact, the literary darling of an entire generation of high school and college students, who have made him a flagrant best-seller–smack at the top of the 1966 paperback list.” Elliott accused “the opt-out crowd” of liking The Lord of the Rings because it was “innocent of ideas.” He concluded, “These days the student must find solace where he can, if necessary in the Baggins of Bag End bag.”
The painfully dated slang aside, Elliott’s article reveals one problem Tolkien’s advocates faced in those early years: literary snobbishness. Edmund Wilson’s scathing 1956 Nation article “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” is another notorious example. Wilson dismissed the trilogy as “balderdash” and “juvenile trash.”
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