By K.E. Roberts / August 29, 2016
In the summer of 1965, as the first U.S. troops put boots on the ground in Vietnam, a gathering swell of young, educated, dissident Americans discovered a then obscure epic fantasy written by an Oxford don—a devout Catholic and World War I veteran—between 1937 and 1949. Over the next three years, the first paperback editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would sell three million copies and forever popularize what is today among the three best-selling novels in the world. The period, one of the most convulsive in American history, also marked the establishment of fantasy as a popular genre, the rapid commercial expansion of all media associated with speculative literature, and the emergence of a more immersive relationship between audiences and fantastic-fictional worlds. Had Tolkien had his way, none of it would have happened.
The mass-market paperback, a revolution in publishing that made it possible for the working class to become generationally literate, in both senses of the word, did not become commonplace in America until the 1940s, following the success of Penguin Books (founded 1935) in the U.K. and Pocket Books (founded 1938) in the U.S. Tolkien voiced his hostility to the medium, a hostility shared by nearly every university-educated person of the day, in a letter to Rayner Unwin, of British publisher Allen & Unwin, dated December 10, 1961:
I do share your reluctance to cheapen the old Hobbit… And I am not fond of Puffins or Penguins or other soft-shelled fowl: They eat other birds’ eggs, and are better left to vacated nests.
The occasion of the letter was an offer from children’s publisher Puffin Books, a division of Penguin, to publish The Hobbit, or There and Back Again in paperback. Allen & Unwin, due mostly to the persistent encouragement and tolerance of Stanley Unwin’s son Rayner, had published the original edition of The Hobbit in 1937 (10-year-old Rayner’s positive review of the manuscript draft convinced Sir Stanley), followed almost twenty years later by the The Lord of the Rings, released in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. Tolkien’s fear that a Hobbit softcover would “eat other birds’ eggs” refers to the much higher profit margin of the hardcover format, and his comment about “vacated nests” stamps paperbacks as a vulgar, commercial phenomenon: they were displayed in wire racks and sold in drugstores and tobacco shops—definitely not the lofty packaging Tolkien wanted advertising any book of his. Tolkien and Unwin did allow Puffin to release the “soft-shelled” Hobbit shortly thereafter, however, perhaps to test the emergent market, but it didn’t do well enough to secure an American counterpart, and a paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was never mentioned.
Three extremely influential figures in the popularization of science fiction and fantasy would converge to change Tolkien’s mind: Donald A. Wollheim, and husband and wife Ian and Betty Ballantine. Wollheim, a science fiction author who edited the first paperback science fiction anthology, 1943’s The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction, became an editor at Avon Books, a leading rival of Pocket Books, in 1947, where he introduced authors such as C.S. Lewis, A.E. Merritt, and H.P. Lovecraft to a mass market audience. Wollheim moved to Ace Books in 1952, becoming editor-in-chief of the science fiction list he established the following year. The titles he selected were presented in a format he innovated with Ace founder A.A. Wyn called the “Ace Double”—that is, two books published in one paperback, with two different front covers, the one book upside down in relation to the other. Ian Ballantine, meanwhile, had been developing the paperback industry for Penguin Books’ American distribution since 1939. He founded Bantam Books in 1945, which became another strong Pocket Books competitor until 1952, when he and Betty founded Ballantine Books. Ballantine’s first sci-fi paperback, published in 1953, was The Space Merchants, by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. That same year, for Ace Books’ first foray into the genre, Wollheim combined two A.E. van Vogt novels, The World of Null-A and The Universe Maker.
Both publishers continued to shape and legitimize—commercially, if not yet socially or academically—the science fiction market for the next 10 years, Wollheim introducing Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula Le Guin to paperback, the Ballantines launching Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon into the genre’s pantheon. In 1964, according to Donald Wollheim’s daughter Betsy, when Wollheim
called up… Professor Tolkien and asked if he could publish Lord of the Rings as Ace paperbacks, Tolkien said he would never allow his great works to appear in so ‘degenerate a form’ as the paperback book.
Tolkien doesn’t reference this conversation in any of his letters, but we know that Wollheim, at some point in 1964, requested the paperback rights from Tolkien’s American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and was turned down. This alone would not have been enough to hurt and anger Wollheim to the extent that Betsy recollected: Wollheim was an admirer of Tolkien’s work who had spent most of his life advocating for (as Wollheim saw it) both Tolkien’s imaginative brand of fiction and, more important, the paperback medium. At any rate, Wollheim subsequently discovered that The Lord of the Rings, due to an obscure loophole regarding import quotas, was out of copyright in the U.S., and thus in the public domain: Houghton Mifflin couldn’t grant the rights to Wollheim, he concluded, because Houghton Mifflin didn’t have the rights to give. Not only was Ace Books in the clear to publish the nearly half-a-million-word novel, but Wollheim was not obligated to pay the author any royalties—nor would the author have been able to accept any without effectively authorizing the Ace edition. So Wollheim proceeded, releasing each volume of the trilogy, adorned with wildly colorful covers painted by Jack Gaughan, between May and July of 1965.
In order to copyright The Lord of the Rings in the U.S., Houghton Mifflin, according to Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “would have to make a number of textual changes so that the book was technically ‘new’.” Some months prior to the publication of Ace’s edition, Rayner Unwin visited Tolkien in Oxford to explain what Ace was planning, and to get Tolkien to make revisions to both the trilogy and The Hobbit, which was also unprotected by U.S. copyright, as soon as possible. In October 1965, Ballantine Books, in concert with Houghton Mifflin, published the first authorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, with a note by Tolkien printed on the back cover of each: “This paperback edition, and no other, has been published with my consent and cooperation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other.”
The Ace paperbacks continued to sell well, however. Because Ballantine was paying royalties, each of its volumes was priced at 95 cents, whereas the Ace editions, which paid Tolkien nothing, were priced at an irresistible 75 cents a volume. (The hardcover set, all that had been available up to that point, cost an unruly $15, at minimum.) Tolkien immediately began asking his “dozens” of American “fans” to spread the word about Ace’s pirate edition. A grassroots campaign took hold in the U.S., bolstered by the newly formed Tolkien Society of America and the Science Fiction Writers of America, resulting not only in dwindling sales for Ace by the end of the year, but in the Ace editions being pulled from bookstore shelves. Tolkien had written his son Christopher in October 1965, just as the Ballantine paperbacks were being released:
Campaign in U.S.A. has gone well. ‘Ace Books’ are in quite a spot, and many institutions have banned all their products. They are selling their pirate edition quite well, but it is being discovered to be very badly and erroneously printed; and I am getting such an advt. from the rumpus that I expect my ‘authorized’ paper-back will in fact sell more copies than it would, if there had been no trouble or competition.
These offhand remarks would become an extraordinary understatement. First, Ace sent Tolkien an “amicable agreement” in response to the backlash, paying him full royalties, and agreeing never to reprint the book again (less than a month later, Tolkien would flat-out deny that the “Ace Books edition” had anything to do with his overnight fame). Second, Ballantine’s The Lord of the Rings sold a million copies in a matter of months and became the bestselling paperback of 1966. On college campuses from UC Berkeley to Harvard, the high fantasy transplanted perennial favorites Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Times had changed, and American students were finding in Middle-earth an antidote to the “foul” (according to one Harvardian) real world, while the myth-maker himself quickly became an object of veneration—much to his dismay and regret. Tolkien described his fans, who would call him from the U.S. in the middle of the night and drop by his house unannounced, “my deplorable cultus,” and the members of the Tolkien Society, while just short of being “real lunatics,” filled him with “alarm and despondency.” Tolkien also did not appreciate his work becoming a “substitute faith” for the religiously unmoored: “many young Americans,” he told a reporter, “are involved in [my] stories in a way I’m not.”
Nevertheless, young people continued to respond viscerally to the moral clarity of Tolkien’s heroic quest, as well as the expansive mythological universe of Middle-earth, so meticulously consistent that it seemed to carry the weight of history—or scripture. They also identified with the epic’s utopian narrative, driven by what Nick Otty called “a deep regret for the passing of time.” Tolkien detested industrialization and the machinery of modernity (“the cursed disease of the internal combustion engine of which all the world is dying,” he once wrote), his idyllic and bucolic Shire a “representation of all that he loved best about England,” to quote Carpenter again. Just as Tolkien felt his country had abandoned the principles he held dear, so the young of America felt betrayed by what they saw as their country’s insolent rush into turpitude, technocracy, and belligerence. Tolkien’s nostalgia-born epic, peopled with diverse races that learn fellowship despite generational grudges, offered a blueprint for a better way of life, the foundation of a real Shire in which the courage of “ordinary hobbits,” who would much rather be eating six times a day and smoking “pipe-weed” among friends, might purify a corrupted world. Peter S. Beagle, whose The Last Unicorn (1968) greatly benefited from the market Tolkien created, summed up the zeitgeist in his introduction to Ballantine’s 1973 edition of The Lord of the Rings:
The Sixties… were the years when millions of people grew aware that the industrial society had become paradoxically unlivable, incalculably immoral, and ultimately deadly. In terms of passwords, the Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness, and escape stopped being comically obscene.
Tolkien himself was an early defender of “‘escapist’ literature,” specifically tales of fantasy. As he wrote in his 1947 essay “On Fairy-Stories,” at a time when such tales were met with “scorn or pity” by “serious” literary criticism: “Fantasy is a natural human activity” and “a human right” that “certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason.” In fact,
Fantasy… is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.
The imaginative retreat into a self-consistent and pre-industrial “Secondary World” was meant to lead to a “recovery,” in some way, of things existing in the real or “Primary World,” “freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.” In many ways, the essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1939, was a philosophical apology for all the time and energy he would spend—time wasted, according to many of his Oxford colleagues—on The Lord of the Rings. While The Hobbit, he knew, was children’s literature, he had great hopes that its sequel would gather respect as “a rare achievement of Art.” Tolkien’s initial refusal to consider a Lord of the Rings paperback was, in his mind, an act of protest meant to bolster the tenuous integrity of fantasy literature, which was “considered to be bad for everybody.” That the paperback medium itself might be unfairly maligned as “cheap” and “degenerate” did not seem to occur to him.
The American obsession with Tolkien, apart from immersion in the books themselves—which, it should be mentioned, coincided with and complemented another popular form of escape: LSD—came in the form of numerous fan clubs and societies, “hobbit picnics” that saw revelers dressing up as their favorite Tolkien characters, psychedelic posters (“Come to Middle Earth!”; “Gandalf the Grey”), lapel buttons (“Frodo Lives,” available in English and Elvish; “Go Go Gandalf”), Middle-earth jigsaw puzzles, Middle-earth wall maps, Middle-earth-themed sex parlors. Students would “[exchange] notes in Tolkien runes” and graffiti “J.R.R. Tolkien is Hobbit-forming” and “Gandalf for President” on university and subway walls. The Lord of the Rings inspired several classical and instrumental albums, rock bands took their names from Tolkien’s work (Gandalf, The Hobbits), while Led Zeppelin referenced “Gollum,” “Ringwraiths,” and the Misty Mountains. London’s biggest music club was called Middle Earth, as were record stores, bookstores, and clothing stores on both sides of the Atlantic. Communes named after Middle-earth, or locations or characters within Middle-earth, mushroomed across the U.S.—in California, Oregon, Taos, Tennessee, New England—and as far away as Sydney.
A London-based mystical community and shop called Gandalf’s Garden pronounced in the first issue of its self-published magazine that “the crusader spirit in Gandalf is echoed in the cry of the Now Generation seeking an Alternative to the destructive forces of today’s world, by spreading human love and aid, for the unity of all the peoples of the Earth.” The first book-length study of Tolkien’s epic appeared in 1968: The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry, later renamed Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. (The author was William Bernard Ready, a former Director of Libraries at Marquette University who had purchased Tolkien’s original manuscripts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1957 for a mere $5,000. Tolkien found Ready’s book—a truly awful, pretentious, incomprehensible volume—“insulting and offensive.”) The soon-to-be founders of National Lampoon, fed up with the fawning reverence, wrote the parody Bored of the Rings in 1969 for the Harvard Lampoon.
The Beatles, whose appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 had sparked a national obsession with all things British, approached Stanley Kubrick in 1968—by way of Apple Films executive Denis O’Dell—about directing them in a Yellow Submarine-styled Lord of the Rings film, to be accompanied by a double album soundtrack. According to O’Dell, Kubrick declared that a cinematic adaptation was “unmakable,” though Tolkien, disgusted at the report, would never have allowed it. In 1957, sci-fi enthusiast and literary agent Forrest Ackerman, Al Brodax (future creator of The Beatles animated series and a producer on Yellow Submarine), and young filmmaker Morton Grady Zimmerman had pitched a Lord of the Rings film to Tolkien, who was impressed by the concept artwork (courtesy of a then 20-year-old Ron Cobb), but did not enjoy the misspelled character names or the fact that the fledgling group had no money. Tolkien turned Ackerman down, eventually selling the film rights to United Artists in 1969 (very shortly after the Beatles scare) for $250,000.
In short, The Lord of the Rings was a literary and cultural blockbuster that became a touchstone and a currency of the coalescing American and British countercultures, as well as an international sensation—Tolkien’s monomyth stretched all the way to Iceland, North Borneo, and Saigon, where South Vietnamese troops were seen adopting the lidless eye of Sauron as a “battle emblem.” Wollheim’s obstinacy and Tolkien’s snobbery had collided to set in motion what Betsy Wollheim would later call, absolutely correctly, “the Big Bang that founded the modern fantasy field.” After 1965, the science fiction section in bookstores became the “science fiction and fantasy” section, and fantasy elements quickly entrenched themselves in sci-fi literature and film: what is the original Star Wars incarnation but a space fantasy that follows the quest formula, the easy moral dualism, and the archetypal characterizations and symbols (i.e. Frodo loses a finger to Gollum, while Luke loses a hand to Vader) of The Lord of the Rings? (John Boorman, hired by United Artists in 1969 to write and direct a live-action Lord of the Rings adaptation that was never produced, was able to make Excalibur only because Star Wars “put fantasy back in fashion“). As for the “pure” fantasy epic, it has never shaken Tolkien. Given the obscene success of Peter Jackson’s computer generated puppet shows, given Harry Potter and his “Dark Lord” nemesis, given the obsequiously myth-sustaining Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and given the endless parade of superheroes we can no longer do without, it never will.
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Tolkien was certainly not the first 20th century writer to spin tales of sword-swinging heroes, dueling wizards, and gruesome monsters sharing a mythic, supernaturally charged world. Five years before publication of The Hobbit, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian debuted in Weird Tales, a pulp magazine now famous for launching the careers of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Howard himself, among other fantasy fiction innovators. Alongside the shiny, post-war idealism of Hollywood’s historical epics and Arthurian dramas (Jackie Kennedy described her husband’s brief presidential term as “Camelot”), the more lurid “sword and sorcery” genre (the phrase was coined by Fritz Leiber in 1961 to describe Howard’s brand of swashbuckler) gained traction during the 1950s, after Gnome Press anthologized Howard’s Conan stories (and only novel) and published them in seven hardcover volumes. Sci-fi-fantasy author and genre popularizer L. Sprague de Camp, who had edited and—controversially—rewritten many of Howard’s tales for the Gnome editions, received permission from Howard’s estate in the early 1960s to shop around Howard’s Conan stories, many of which were unfinished, to a paperback publisher. Almost immediately after the Ace-Ballantine Lord of the Rings joust, he found one in Lancer Books.
Lancer’s Conan editions put Howard’s name on the marquee for good, due in large part to Frank Frazetta’s spectacular cover paintings. Though Frazetta had been a professional illustrator since the late ’40s, he didn’t become known as a cover man until his work—with mentor Roy Krenkel—on the popular Ace editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels starting in 1962. (The Burroughs revival was, in fact, a determining factor in Wollheim’s decision to publish Ace’s Lord of the Rings paperbacks: fantasy-adventures were steady sellers, and Burroughs’ work had, like Tolkien’s soon would, fallen into the public domain; the Burroughs estate’s authorized paperback publisher was, of course, Ballantine Books, whose volumes were priced 10 cents higher than Ace’s to account for royalties.) Frazetta’s Conan paintings, as well as much of his cover work for Warren Publishing—the landmark cover of Eerie #2 (March 1966) featured a black-robed wizard conjuring a hideous beast from a curtain of flames—were immediate and definitive visual representations of fantasy’s Howardian strain: grim, bloody, realistic yet otherworldly, and Romantic as hell. Where the Oxonian Tolkien prized fellowship and courage in a universe that is always ultimately redeemed by the good, and where he yearned for a civilization devoid of “progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their… ‘inexorable’ products,” Howard, a lifelong Texan, prized self-reliance and defiance amidst a conspiracy of tyrannous men and fickle gods, and harbored disdain for all “civilized men,” a sentiment borrowed from Burroughs’ Tarzan, a major influence on Howard:
He had always held the outward evidences of so-called culture in deep contempt. Civilization meant… a curtailment of freedom in all its aspects…
In civilization Tarzan had found greed and selfishness and cruelty far beyond that which he had known in his familiar, savage jungle…
The combination of the ascendant “Hobbit Habit,” as Time magazine called it in 1966, Lancer’s Conan editions, and Frazetta’s prolific and exhilarating cover output ushered in a golden age of fantasy: a rush of novels and short stories, conventions (the first World Fantasy Con was held in 1975), collectables, fanzines, comics (Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian debuted in 1970), magazines, comics magazines (innovated by James Warren), heavy metal and progressive albums, and even custom van art and t-shirt iron-ons made obeisance to swordplay and magic—and its often scantily clad practitioners. Science fiction, popular as a commercial genre long before fantasy, greatly benefited from the rediscovery of its antediluvian sibling. (The first science fiction convention, incidentally, took place in Philadelphia in 1936, and consisted of some 10 to 15 fans, about half of whom had taken a train from New York. The organizer of the event was 21-year-old Don Wollheim.) Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek premiered in 1966 and, while not a direct descendant of Tolkien, presented a similar cast of diverse adventurers exploring a similarly fantastic, far-flung, and utopian alternate universe. And there’s no doubt that Roddenberry’s creation inspired the same voracious loyalty and fandom among the same demographic: educated youngsters fed up with the hang-ups and prejudices of the over-30 crowd. Then, in 1968, Betty and Ian Ballantine commissioned fantasy author Lin Carter to select, edit, and write introductions to a series of formative fantasy novels, hoping to reproduce the lasting commercial success of The Lord of the Rings. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series covered 65 titles between 1969 and 1974, almost all of them older works either long out of print or never published in book form. Sales were middling, but the series proved fantasy as a popular and commercially respectable genre, established the first fantasy canon, and, as the series title made clear, recast fantasy fiction as literature written by and for adults—a rebranding Tolkien himself had attempted more than 20 years earlier.
It wasn’t just fantasy fiction that prevailed throughout the Watergate and recession decade, but a more pervasive form of escapism. In April of 1966, a flyer appeared on the UC Berkeley campus addressed to “lovers of chivalry.” It advertised an “international tournament” to be held on the first of May, encouraging guests “to wear the dress of some age of Christendom, Outre-Mer, or Faerie, in which swords were used.” The event was organized by Diana Paxson, a recent medieval studies graduate who wanted to stage a “protest against the 20th century.” The result was the Society for Creative Anachronism, a name coined by Paxson’s friend and eventual fantasy fiction collaborator Marion Zimmer Bradley, who had written one of the first critical essays on The Lord of the Rings in 1961: “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship,” notable for naming Sam the true hero of the quest, as well as casting Tolkien’s epic as a somber reflection on “the passing of the Heroic Age.” Paxson was quoted in the first major press article on the “Tolkien movement,” the Saturday Evening Post‘s “The Hobbit-Forming World of J.R.R. Tolkien” (July 2, 1966), where she is said to be a member of the “fandomish group” called “Elves, Gnomes and Little Men Science-Fiction and Fantasy Chowder and Marching Society.”
Five years later, in 1971, Guidon Games released Gary Gygax’s and Jeff Perren’s Chainmail, a miniature wargame set in the medieval era. A 15-page “Fantasy Supplement” was included, offering instructions on how to play hobbits, wizards, elves, dwarves, balrogs, ents, orcs, and other “fantasy creatures” taken directly from The Lord of the Rings. (Gygax would later be legally pressured by Tolkien Enterprises to remove references to Tolkien’s explicit creations.) This supplement would evolve into Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially available role-playing game and the first tabletop game to tap the heroic and high fantasy settings. Developed by Gygax and Dave Arneson and first published by Gygax’s Tactical Studies Rules in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons forever changed the nature of games and escapist entertainment: fantasy enthusiasts (shortly, as role-playing games proliferated, practically any kind of enthusiast) no longer had to depend on writers like Tolkien to create “Secondary Worlds” in which heroic deeds were performed; they could create those worlds themselves, and cast themselves in the role of hero. Selective historical reenactment became improvisational fantasy, grounded by statistical rules governing character creation, movement, combat, health, and so on. D&D, as the game came to be called, would not only influence the development of the next great escape, video games, but also spark a second fantasy boom before the initial “Big Bang” finished inflating. The original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) would circumscribe the outer limits of fantasy’s commercial expansion, and the effect on popular culture was everlasting.
As the late ’60s wore on, the Vietnam War escalated, as did violence at home. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in April and June of 1968, respectively, followed in August by the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the American anti-war movement became irrevocably politicized, if not radicalized. Tolkien’s triumphalism, his “even darkness must pass,” was no longer tenable. The darkness didn’t pass, and many of the young people who were not fighting and dying in Southeast Asia, who were not being beaten and murdered for peaceably demanding the right to sit at a lunch counter or enter a bowling alley, turned to Che Guevara, Abbie Hoffman, and, when imagination was permitted, the cosmic pessimism of H.P. Lovecraft. The allure of fantastic worlds as a source of energy and escape, however, had already caught on, and would soon become a lifelong preoccupation among a sizable world community. We live in a culture that feeds on the myths Tolkien so reluctantly agreed to serve us, a culture that long ago relieved itself of the obligation to recover anything meaningful from the “Primary World” in the process. The most popular online role-playing game in the world, with 12 million subscribers at peak and over 50 billion hours of game time logged between 2004 and 2012, is World of Warcraft, in which “players from around the world assume the roles of heroic fantasy characters and explore a virtual world full of mystery, magic, and endless adventure.” We have only Donald A. Wollheim to thank, or to blame.