Prophet of His Own Universe

As I write this it is September 2, 2009, the 36th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. Though this won’t go up for a few days, it seemed a good time to think about what The Lord of the Rings
meant to me back when I discovered it.

There’s a famous line about Tolkien—I don’t know the person who wrote it, but it goes something like this:

How did one man, in the course of a single lifetime, become the literary equivalent of an entire people?

The writer was referring, of course, to Tolkien’s creation of a whole mythology, complete with sacred books, founding myths, pantheons of gods, devils, and heroes. The other day I was looking at The Silmarillion, a book I have not read in many years, and was struck that there are actually competing stories about the early stages of the world. This truly reflects the way mythologies build up, for there is never just one story line, one official version. Different sources find their way into the canon.

(People who take the Bible literally are always getting into trouble, not just because they have to accept that all of it is true as history, but also because they have to begin with the assumption of a single author—God. Thus, the fact that there are two versions of Creation in Genesis becomes a real problem. To the skeptics this simply disqualifies the whole text, renders it empty. But there are creative approaches that avoid either absolute literalism or total dismissal.)

In fact, I would argue that Tolkien did something more than create a mythology. His work reads as if it is the source of all mythologies, the original account of a history that gets garbled and mis-remembered in “later” generations and cultures. And the nice thing is, he was smart enough never to spell this out, never to step outside his created world and explain to us, for example, that Numenor is the actual place dimly remembered as something called “Atlantis,” or that the palantiri are the originals of what we now call crystal balls, or indeed, that the Valar were later confusedly remembered as “gods.”

Something struck me as I started thinking about LOTR again. There is no religion in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. No churches, no rituals, no offerings, no priests. Why should there be? In terms of the book they have the solid reality, why would they create representations?

In my previous entry I commented that I discovered the books around 1961, and that the date was significant because at that time, and for some four or five years after very few people—certainly no one I knew, or even read—had ever heard of it. This was before the first huge wave that led to posters, “Frodo Lives” buttons, and some 100,000,000 copies sold. God knows how many copies have sold now, after movies reignited the fans.

Is it snobbery to make a big deal about discovering it myself? Well, partly. When you’ve found something all by yourself and later it becomes a huge craze you don’t want people thinking you’re just another person caught in the wave. I remember, at the height of that first surge, reading a comment in The New Yorker. The writer said it used to be if you went to a party and discovered someone who’d read LOTR the two of you went off to a corner and talked about it all night. Now, he said, when he went to parties, he pretended he hadn’t read it.

The reason why the book remained a kind of secret for so long was another kind of snobbery. Tolkien refused to allow a paperback edition, and in those days almost nobody—certainly not science fiction fans, the most obvious audience—bought hardcover books. There were book club editions in hardcover, but I’m sure Tolkien wouldn’t have gone along with that idea. And no large format “trade” paperbacks, either, for classy books. What we now call mass market was the only real alternative to expensive hardback, and Tolkien considered that beneath him.

Then, in 1965 (or thereabouts, I’m writing this from memory, not Google) the publishers of Ace Books discovered a loophole in the copyright status of LOTR. Somehow, there was nothing forbidding a paperback edition on its own to appear in America. Not Britain, apparently, but America (Britain and the States have always had parallel copyright systems). So they came out with a cheap edition.

I still remember seeing that. It was in a book rack in Grand Central Station, as I waited for a train to go home from college for the weekend. I was thrilled. The book I’d been talking about for years to my friends was suddenly available!

The Ace edition forced Professor Tolkien’s hand. He made a deal with Ballantine Books to publish an “only authorized paperback” edition, and in fact took the occasion to revise the original publication (I believe all hardback editions since then have been the revised version). Ace withdrew (whether gracefully or not I have no idea), and then, amazingly, the books took off, became a full scale generational mania.

Here’s another interesting bit of LOTR history, that I happen to know about. In that first wave the slogan “Frodo lives” became a rallying cry for the fans, seen on buttons and posters in great multitude. I actually know its origin, and saw the original.

One of the very first (if not the original) campus cults for LOTR, from before the paperbacks, was at Columbia College in New York. In fact, the very first person I met who’d read the books without me pushing them at him or her was a woman from Columbia who was dating a friend of mine.

My friend invited me to go somewhere with them, and when we were in his car together he said to her “Go ahead! Say it!” His girlfriend then said to me “Have you ever heard of a book called The Lord of the Rings?”

That period was not terribly long after the early death of the great jazz genius, Charlie Parker, known as Bird.

(People assume the nickname came because his music soared, which it certainly did. But in fact it was short for Yardbird, a reference to him being kind of a momma’s boy when he was young and hanging around at home a lot. Again, this is memory, not Google, so I may be off.)

In tribute to Parker’s music, and his everlasting influence, someone came up with the slogan “Bird Lives.” As a joke, someone in the Columbia Tolkien group spray-painted “Frodo Lives” on the wall of the 96th St. subway stop. When the craze began, the expression took off.

Does all this sound like I resent the fan mania that took away my special secret treasure? Actually, I was grateful for it. My fascination with LOTR had become something of an obsession, and the craze kind of eased me out of it.

Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t thrilled when the movies came out. But that’s a subject for another time.

Next: The Return of the Tarot, with an entry on “Tarot Blessings.”

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 4:32 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I remember reading the book when I was 13 years old. I also remember persuading my parents to buy me the audio version so I could listen to it on my way to school🙂 .

    There is no religion in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. No churches, no rituals, no offerings, no priests. Why should there be? In terms of the book they have the solid reality, why would they create representations?

    That’s an awesome observation.

    Great post🙂

    All the best,

    Doug

    …Frodo Lives!😉

  2. I found The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a young teenager while browsing the fiction shelves of my local public library, probably on a Saturday morning. The original American hardback editions, (read only a few times before) with the beautiful fold out maps printed in black and red.

    I took the books home and spent the rest of that weekend reading them–amazed!–until I finished sometime Sunday night. I became a lifetime fan.

  3. Hi Rachel! This is such a neat post. I haven’t even read the books but I love beginnings, and special cult fascinations, and how they become worldwide phenomenons. Sometimes when I re-hear the story of how JKR created Harry Potter it still brings a tear to my eye. *sigh*. It’s just so … magical.

  4. i love that you wrote this — especially on that topic. it was today that i stumbled upon your blog after wondering about your other works. I have your Kabbalah Tree book at home.

    I’m a comic artist as well and that book has inspired me immensely.

    And now, this post is exactly what I have been thinking.

    I’ve always thought that a storyteller has more powers than one would think.

    Thank you for sharing!

  5. thank you, Pamela. I’m with you on the powers of storytellers. I’ve been working some years now on what looks to be a very large novel about a magical storyteller. Fun to do.


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