Tolkien's Good Name Soiled by Success

Which book was cited "greatest of the century" in several British polls? Which first two films of a trilogy grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide? What author sold at least 100 million books -- 11 million in the United States alone last year -- and also wrote what has been called "the world's most popular work of fiction"?


If you're thinking Ulysses, Star Wars, or J. K. Rowling, think again. The answer to all three is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his much beloved, misunderstood, and now massively marketed The Lord of the Rings.


Tolkien's staying power is unprecedented. That a spotlight-shunning Oxford professor, dead for three decades, who specialized in the rather mundane field of philology (the history of languages), still casts such an enchanting spell over contemporary culture is a remarkable achievement.


However, Tolkien's impact is greater than popularity contests, box office and book sales. Resurrecting an anachronistic genre, "heroic romance" (the term he preferred to "fantasy"), he tapped into a tradition he traced back to Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte d'Arthur. Tolkien's innovation was to take epic storytelling a step further: In its scope, detail, and realism, his creation of Middle-earth is a literary achievement that competes with any in world literature. Some speculate that Rings is the second-most read book in the United States, after the Bible.

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