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Lord of the Gold Ring

Once upon a time, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was considered a work of literary genius. But now, thanks to movie and merchandising spinoffs, the author's reputation is foundering in a sea of commercialism.

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.

Devoted readers immerse themselves in the annals of Middle-earth. Linguists, medievalists, and literary societies analyze the books with a passion usually reserved for religious texts. The field of "Tolkien studies" produces doctoral dissertations, fan clubs from Poland to Argentina, and, at last count, translations of The Hobbit and Rings into 38 languages. Tolkien has spawned a whole international subculture of escapism and fueled a boom in science fiction and fantasy that's now 10 percent of the total trade-book business. Even Rowling's phenomenal success is due, in part, to the appetite for fantasy that Tolkien whetted (though her Harry Potter series still sold less than the venerable Rings last year).

But while Tolkien also inspired Dungeons and Dragons, computer games, and yards of swords and sorcery shelves in your local bookshop, these entities are not so much commercial spinoffs as they are tributes to Middle-earth. Before 2000, few if any marketing executives were likely to have discussed Rings in Harry Potter terms: as a "literary property" with a "market share" and a "saturation point." For nearly five decades, Tolkien was untouched by that morass of Rowling-sized sales hysteria of Happy Meals and bubble bath.

Everything has changed since the release of the first two films in director Peter Jackson's chart-busting Rings film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and The Two Towers in 2002. As Tolkien's fame and fortune have swollen to unprecedented levels, ranks of movie-driven enthusiasts have multiplied like Saruman's orcs, trampling any vestiges of that deep-rooted if naive grass-roots movement that once prevented Tolkien's corporate-driven mass exploitation.

"Get your talking plush Gollum here!" No quaint cottage industry anymore, marketing Middle-earth has assumed a world-girdling corporate form, a behemoth encompassing publishers, merchandisers, educators, law firms, webmasters, not to mention countless hordes of opportunistic hangers-on. For sheer commerciality, Rings has arguably become the most profitable fictional work of all time.

Amid this unharmonious convergence of forces clambering for some acreage of the Tolkien empire, there is also a literary reputation at stake. Can the words of Tolkien, the serious author, be heard above the din of Middle-earth's ravenous strip development? Should Tolkien's heirs safeguard the family name? Will the movies bring critical acclaim to the books, or will the combination of fan devotion and marketing savvy prove lethal and taint Rings as mere "adolescent fantasy" forever?

Now the all-out marketing blitz builds to December 17, the release date of the film trilogy's finale, The Return of the King. This magic charm Tolkien conjured -- has it become something of a curse?

ARRANGED ON MY DESK IN PARIS, there's Sam Gamgee, Merry and Pippin, the ethereal Galadriel, and Frodo, who, despite my warnings -- "No, Frodon" (his French name), "put it away!" -- insists on brandishing his Ring of Power. Given to me by a friend, the most recent addition is Legolas. Now he stands with his quiver of arrows, guarding the telephone against the Nazgul.

To collect the entire set of these Le Seigneur des Anneaux figurines, I will have to buy many more Kinder-Surprise candy eggs and crack them open. And I will happily comply. For, alas, I long for Gandalf, Gimli, and Aragorn to join the rest of this plastic, 2-inch-high Fellowship.

My desire to be part of this international pop-culture phenomenon is the impulse merchandisers prey upon to the tune of millions of dollars. But chocolate eggs are one thing. A $299.99 "Glamdring Foe-hammer" reproduction of the prop sword used by Gandalf in the movies is quite another.

Hungry commercial forces happily churn out infinite tie-in products: merchandise, DVDs, fan websites, books. But few consider how the feeding frenzy gradually chips away at the image of the literary artist. Every hobbit cake decoration, balrog votive candleholder, or Aragorn shot glass spreads the Tolkien name as brand, not author.

Merchandising is the most disposable element of the marketing machine, but all the plastic junk has a practical purpose: an insurance policy against box-office failure. According to The New York Times, New Line Cinema's 300-plus international licensing agreements alone recouped the movie trilogy's $300 million price tag months before the first film even hit the multiplex.

To help keep up a continuous buzz, Peter Jackson made an unprecedented filmmaking decision. The trilogy was filmed consecutively during a 16-month New Zealand shoot that used a 2,400-member crew -- an idea now called "simulsequeling." If you consider the trio as one massive, nine-hour film, in terms of shooting schedule, crew size, and overall budget, Rings is the biggest film undertaking of all time.

Simulsequeling has made it possible for Jackson to release a Rings movie three years running to a progressively more primed and impatient audience, condensing global attention to what will be a roughly five-year maelstrom, from 1999 (the year before the release of Fellowship) to 2004 (the year after Return of the King).

The strategy has worked. Rings has transcended old notions of "blockbuster" to become a cosmos of images, sales, and airplay unto itself. To the surprise of many, the films were praised by critics and serious fans as entertaining successes. The worldwide response was, in a word, staggering.

"In Turkey, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are the number one films ever," says producer Barrie Osborne. In Denmark, New Zealand, and Russia, they also hit number one. In Austria, Bulgaria, Iceland, Spain, the United States, and even France, the films guard spots in lists of top-10, all-time grosses. The Return of the King is expected to perform as well as the first two films.

Osborne says that "our star was the novel," more so than any single actor, and that "the films are a powerful incentive to read the books." But Osborne's obviously on no literacy crusade.

"We've got an even bigger battle in the third film than we did in Two Towers," Osborne boasts. Principal shooting was finished in December 2000, but reshoots this summer were tailored to give more screen time to popular actors like heartthrob Orlando Bloom, who plays the elf Legolas. "We wanted to make sure we had some great 'Orlando moments.' "

Cashing in is hard for even the Tolkien Society, a registered British "educational charity," to resist: Its "Trading Company" hawks Aragorn and Arwen mugs. Everyone wants in.

"This very dear person [Tolkien] has been magnified into something unrecognizable," says webmaster, Erica Challis, whose site attracts some 1.1 million visitors each month. But even Challis profits from the fad, directing Red Carpet Tours, whose two-week "The Year of the King" movie location bus trips around New Zealand go for $2,300.

As if to counter the wanton profiting, Tolkien's official publishers lay claim to a literary legacy, and they position themselves above the fray. "We are the keepers of the flame," says Clay Harper, Tolkien projects director at Houghton Mifflin Co.

From his ninth-story office on Boston's Berkeley Street, Harper can see the intersection of Art and Commerce. "They are not titanically opposed," he says, "though it has certainly been necessary to raise our hands and have the book be considered as art rather than 'merely' a commercial prospect."

But it's easy to shout "literary genius" from the rooftops when Houghton grasps the brass, er, gold ring. Rings titles in 2002 claimed four of the five best-selling slots for trade paperbacks. Overall sales of Tolkien titles accounted for a whopping one-third of Houghton's revenue last year. The publisher's strategy is to offer several "high road, nice edition" versions of Tolkien titles, such as seven presentations of The Hobbit to match different market segments: cartoonier covers for kids, leather-bound for collectors. Houghton also diversifies by publishing the "making of" the movie trilogy books -- a move, Harper says, that has "allowed us to have our cake and eat it, too."

But selling a Weapons and Warfare film-companion book with "battle plans" and "fighting styles" of key action scenes hypes the hack-and-slash aspects of Tolkien. Houghton's fall catalog also advertises a $75 "lovingly sculpted" Book/Bookends Gift Set "that no fan should be without." This is no fly-by-night junk producer but Tolkien's own mouthpiece -- the longest continuous publisher of his works in the world -- selling collectible tie-ins.

Houghton Mifflin talks about "long-term stewardship," but aspects of its Rings franchise vulgarize a novel it paradoxically pushes as a lasting, artful accomplishment, "the greatest adventure story ever written," according to Harper.

Apologists will say the master of Middle-earth himself had a firm grasp of the realities of the marketplace and enjoyed, as Tolkien put it, "the grosser forms of literary success." After all, he peddled his books' film and merchandising rights and even the drafts of his manuscripts.

But in 1969, when he sold the rights, merchandising was in its infancy. He was paid 10,000 pounds, about $17,000 in US dollars today, a figure dwarfed by today's multimillion dollar payoffs. By then, his books had sold only 3 million copies. To put 2003's juggernaut in perspective, this August, The Two Towers' DVD and videocassette sold a record-breaking 3.5 million units -- on the first day of its release.

Tolkien probably would have been horrified by today's sales and marketing tactics. Yet he, too, was tempted to take his imagined realm to extremes. "I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good," Tolkien wrote to his publisher in 1955, "cert. not for me, who find that kind of thing only too fatally attractive."

AS A YOUNG MAN, CHRISTOPHER TOLKIEN read early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, then followed in his father's scholarly footsteps as a lecturer at Oxford. After J.R.R. died in 1973, Christopher edited thousands of unfinished manuscript pages: legends, poems, and languages. Now 79, Christopher remains the ultimate Tolkien archivist and gatekeeper of his father's treasures. As literary executor, he heads the family estate.

But besieged by interview requests, Christopher has sequestered himself somewhere in southern France far from the movie-driven crowds. This solitude reflects his overall attitude toward his father's work: the less PR, the better. According to those close to him, he worries that Rings will be exploited for frivolous reasons. So the Tolkien estate jealously guards the family name as if it were a Ring of Power. Or, at least, to the extent that it legally can. Since J.R.R. sold the subsidiary rights to The Hobbit and Rings, Christopher is powerless against the big-screen adaptation and the merchandising. So the estate fights back through access to the archives, granting of reprint rights, and court battles over copyright infringement.

Estate approval as an official Tolkien scholar is not easy. The touchy subject of who has access to the mass of unpublished papers -- some at Oxford's Bodleian Library and others at Milwaukee's Marquette University -- has led to infighting. Case in point: the Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, whose grammars and vocabularies Tolkien endlessly revised. Christopher named only four "experts" to dig through the language papers to study them.

"Some people are absolutely offended that they have not been given access to the papers," says Christina Scull, describing the dispute among Tolkien scholars as "almost venomous."

Based in Williamstown, Scull and her partner, Wayne G. Hammond, are old-guard scholars in Christopher's good standing. Their massive, two-volume, 1,600-page reference, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, will be released in early 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. They have also been commissioned by HarperCollins UK to edit the definitive text for Rings's 50th-anniversary editions.

But their efforts come with one catch: The finished product is subject to estate approval. "It's not that that estate tries to suppress things that they don't agree with," says Hammond. "But if the book comes out from Tolkien's official publisher, they want to make sure it's accurate." The estate's attitude has even led to authorized Tolkien projects being delayed. Different doors get opened for different people at different times.

The door to Tolkien's ivory tower was slammed shut on Michael Perry, author and publisher of Seattle-based Inkling Books. Perry wrote a reference work called Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings. The estate accused Perry of plagiarism, asking for $750,000 in damages and that all books be destroyed. An out-of-court settlement reached in May finally allowed him to publish the book.

"Talented authors often feel complimented when others build on what they've written," Perry says. "The family, unable to create anything nearly as brilliant, see [the work] as a precious treasure to be guarded by any and all means." Perry respects copyright law but thinks the prohibition shouldn't be so broad that it "turns fans who want to use that same material into criminals."

Perry hypothesizes that overzealous guardianship explains Christopher Tolkien's distancing from the Rings movie trilogy. In 2001, Christopher issued a statement declaring that the "Tolkien estate would be best advised to avoid any specific association with the films." This dispelled any rumor that director Jackson had received his blessing. But not every member of the Tolkien Company, the board that maintains the relationship between the estate and the outside world, was in agreement. Simon Tolkien, one of J.R.R.'s six grandchildren, expressed interest in cooperating with the filmmakers. For Simon's traitorous views, Christopher removed his son as a trustee.

My several attempts to reach Christopher or interview an estate lawyer were handily deflected. But via telephone I did reach Simon.

"The essential thing was that I crossed my father on a Tolkien issue, and he never looked back," Simon, 44, says from London. "I never saw the films as a threat. I've enjoyed the movies for what they are."

Obviously hurt by his father's rejection, Simon hasn't spoken to him in 4 1/2 years. He's not permitted to discuss the estate. "I do have a relationship with the money, but I can't talk about it. If what you're after is someone who will tell you the estate's attitude toward this and that, I can't. I'm cut off. It's a source of grievance for me."

The Tolkien studies community widely acknowledges Christopher's difficult balancing act: preserving the sanctity of his father's legacy while hopelessly trying to rein in Tolkien's cultural impact. But ultimately, it's the estate's secrecy, protectionism, and reputation policing that may harm the Tolkien name, not the phenomenon's crasser aspects.

By aggressively defending the family brand like a corporate bulldog rather than accepting it as a public artifact, the estate only reinforces the commerciality of the entire enterprise and alienates its most devoted fans. Its holier-than-thou position also seems hypocritical. Though no one will divulge details of their contractual agreement, Tolkien's heirs receive a share of HarperCollins UK's profits on Rings.

Meanwhile, the releasing of J.R.R.'s obscure scribblings as if they were fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls only adds to Tolkien's mystique. I wonder if that's the image Christopher wants to project: his father as prophetlike apparition, speaking intermittently from beyond the grave.

But Simon Tolkien won't comment: "I'm not going to speculate at all on what my father thinks."

A barrister by trade, Simon recently published a courtroom thriller, Final Witness (Random House, 2003). In the book he's currently writing, Simon says, "The main character has murdered his father. And the father may have committed crimes in the past."

Marginalized as unworthy of the label "literature," Tolkien is usually taught in classrooms under the rubric of children's, fantasy, or mass culture. But if it were up to Michael Drout, he'd be taught alongside Joyce, Hemingway, and Woolf.

"We reappraised Hemingway," Drout says, popping open a Coke. "Melville was never read in his day." Commanding his fiefdom of Tolkien activity from his tiny office requires confidence, if not cockiness, and plenty of caffeine. "We have to convince the doubters, but at the same time, not to be snotty or fan-bashing."

Drout begins to explain how Dickens was once considered trash, then realizes the time. It's 11 a.m. on May 13, and he's late for Wheaton College's annual seniors' honors parade. The self-described "anti-idiotarian English professor, medievalist, Anglo-Saxonist, and J. R. R. Tolkien scholar" dons his doctoral gown, hood, and floppy tam, tucks a stuffed falcon under his arm, and marches out of Meneely Hall and across the Norton, Massachusetts, campus as if on a crusade.

The parade is a tradition to lend some pomp to the otherwise uncelebrated delivery of theses to the college administration. Students and their sponsoring faculty, some in silly costumes, toss Mardi Gras streamers, blow horns, and bang drums. Joined by grounds-crew mowers and tractors, the crowd marches around the quad to the registrar's office.

Students look up to the 35-year-old associate professor, but it's not far. One senses that the shortish, balding Drout wants to be as much their friend as teacher (they named him faculty member of the year in 2003, and he just got tenure). Drout talked one student into studying the same Icelandic sagas that inspired The Lord of the Rings. Last year, a student wrote on "Blood-Sucking, Cross-Dressing, and Why Is Frodo Baggins So Effeminate Anyway? -- Lord of the Rings Gender Structure in Its World War I Context."

Drout personally dislikes the merchandising but doesn't seem too bothered by the idea that bookish English departments might be at loggerheads with pop culture, or that the commerciality will damage Tolkien's reputation. "When kids get excited about Anglo-Saxon and medievalism, that's great. If it takes a couple of battles and cut-off orc heads to do it, then I'm all for it."

Drout's passion is Tolkien, and if anyone is able to unite the forces of celebrity, fandom, and scholarship, he seems best equipped for the quest.

His armament includes his Tolkien bibliographic database, an online Old English translation tool, this fall's debut of Tolkien Studies, the first university-sponsored academic journal devoted to the author, and a forthcoming book on the "cultural poetics" of the Anglo-Saxon 10th century. His book Beowulf and the Critics, an annotated study of how Tolkien revised his landmark essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," just won the 2003 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies. This past spring he was the keynote speaker at a "monsters" conference in Sicily. This summer he taught Beowulf to kids from Brockton and presented a paper at an Anglo-Saxon conference in Arizona. This fall he's teaching a senior seminar on fantasy literature at Wheaton, and he just signed a contract to edit The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, to be published in 2006 by Routledge.

Given his modest success so far, could Drout be accused of cashing in on the Tolkien fad? "I wouldn't mind being offered piles of money to 'sell out,' " he says, jokingly. "Just to see if I would succumb to the temptation, of course, as a test. But no one has."

The closest he's come to stardom is appearing as an expert in a National Geographic documentary to be released next month, Beyond the Movie, about The Return of the King. The same weekend, Drout will also be featured at the fan convention The Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. At the Gathering, Drout will present his lecture "Tolkien and Beowulf," based on an unpublished translation Tolkien began of the epic poem he considered the single greatest influence on his literary vision. Drout unearthed the translation during a research trip to Oxford's Bodleian Library archives and got permission from the estate to edit it. Erroneously reported as Drout's "discovery," the Beowulf manuscript generated reams of media attention and ire from fans who accused him of grave-robbing. (At press time, the estate had "indefinitely postponed" the project, Drout wrote via e-mail.)

Drout's in demand now but fully aware just how fickle cultural memory can be. "In another eight months, none of this media attention is going to exist," he writes. So, he keeps up with his "traditional" work, his "Anglo-Saxon stuff," all the while forging ahead. "I want to make Wheaton the center of the universe for Tolkien studies," he declares.

Amateur writer, academic outsider, publishing-biz naif, Tolkien was doubtful his creation would have any appeal beyond his children and Oxford colleagues like C. S. Lewis. Yet, uniquely positioned at the crux of the modern age, probably no other author than Tolkien -- even a scheming, market-savvy one -- could have thought up Middle-earth or duplicated the success of its universal myth.

Why? Most authors of the early 20th century were busy smashing Victorian conventions and reassembling the pieces into irony-laden Modernism. Not Tolkien. He didn't even read contemporary fiction. To a medievalist, a 1,000-year-old poem like Beowulf was the epitome of British literature. Domineering dragons and world-weary wizards seemed perfectly legitimate characters for 20th-century fiction. Freed from fashion, Tolkien wrote his mythology in a "thou" and "lo!" days-of-yore style and didn't worry whether it was seen as high art or bedtime story.

"The lesson of Tolkien is a writer working in a 'high' tradition is perfectly capable of producing massively popular work, but only if he isn't limited by his allegiance to the somewhat phony cultural hierarchy of high, middle, and low that Americans are often limited by," says John Seabrook, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, and former Oxford student. "An American writer of Tolkien's generation might have rejected the subject matter of hobbits as beneath him."

Tolkien's status as a respected British scholar freed him to take the risk of devoting his life to an imaginary realm. If Middle-earth failed to catch on, he'd always have his academic career to fall back on.

As it turned out, of course, his narrative resonated with millions around the world as a timeless parallel history, a perennially applicable tale of war and evil, fellowship and loss, for an age increasingly shaken by technology and progress. Look past the fantasy packaging and archaic language: There's a work deserving to be read alongside other dystopian, doom-saying masterpieces by George Orwell, H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. Tolkien's irony is that the "escapist" world he so meticulously constructed turned out to be just as troubled as our own.

Make no mistake, Rings is serious, and the money-grubbing and hype do not jibe with Tolkien's medieval aesthetic or his sober themes. Commercialization degrades his creation to a lowest-common-denominator enterprise. Market forces pare down a nuanced story to its superficial aspects, confusing the experience of literature with buying mass-produced plastic junk. But die-hards can take solace in remembering that Middle-earth's sudden surge of middle-of-the-road appeal was not driven solely by marketers. Tolkien's creation is popular because it still responds to the zeitgeist.

That his visceral fiction works on so many levels -- as escapism, scholarship, community, lucrative revenue stream -- remains a testament to a unique genius. Even the worst aspects of the commercial machine are a backhanded tribute to what Tolkien created.

Perhaps Tolkien deserves better, but he's powerless to shape his legacy now. By conjuring for the public an imaginative space with such broad and far-reaching appeal, the Oxford don unintentionally became the author not only of a book but of its unimaginable consequences.

Ethan Gilsdorf ( is a writer, critic, and poet.

The man who would be king, J.R.R. Tolkien. Below, the original US editions of "The Hobbit" and "The Return of the King." The man who would be king, J.R.R. Tolkien. Below, the original US editions of "The Hobbit" and "The Return of the King." (Tolkien photo by AP)
The winning Oscar team  for best visual effects for "The Fellowship of the Ring." The winning Oscar team for best visual effects for "The Fellowship of the Ring." (AFP Photo)
A poster for the upcoming film "The Return of the King." A poster for the upcoming film "The Return of the King."
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