When various bookstores, newspapers, magazines and literary societies compiled their rolls of all-time greats at the end of last year, J.R.R. Tolkien topped list after list.
First it was a chain of bookstores, polling more than 25,000 readers. Dickens, Tolstoy and Jane Austen did well, but the bloke with the pipe and friends in dwarfish places came out on top.
Then the prestigious Folio Society asked its 50,000 members. Connoisseurs of fine literature, these good men and women were certain to make a different choice. They didn't.
Finally, in the summer of 2000, the short trailer of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was put on the producing film company's official Web site, part of an early publicity blitz for the release of the first of the three productions, slated for the end of this year.
On the first day the trailer was available, it was downloaded 1.5 million times — twice the number for the previous record, held by Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Informed insiders believe that The Lord of the Rings could become the most commercially successful movie series ever made.
The support for Tolkien is fascinating not only because of its vast dimensions but also because of its diversity. Devotees include science-fiction and fantasy aficionados, fans of dungeon-and-dragon epics, devout Catholics, zealots on the fringes of the political far right, dabblers in the occult, old hippies and, now, the new wave of people opposed to globalization and free trade.
The reason for this unholy alliance is really a reflection of the nature of the man himself. Tolkien was an old-style Catholic, never happy with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and somewhat sympathetic to the aspirations of Franco and his gang during the Spanish Civil War.
This needs context.
There were many British and North American Catholics who, while totally opposed to Hitler and Nazism, were shocked by the slaughter of priests and nuns by the Republicans in Spain and grudgingly preferred the Generalissimo to a left increasingly dominated by Stalinism and the Kremlin's thugs.
Tolkien's elves, dwarves and hobbits had Christian qualities.
Yet Tolkien was an anti-Nazi before it was altogether respectable, and indeed when many on the political left were still ambivalent.
Shortly before the Second World War, a German publisher wrote to him and inquired about buying the rights to his works. They asked if he was an Aryan. He replied that the word made no linguistic or ethnic sense. But, he added, if they were in fact asking him if he had any Jewish blood he regretted that this was not the case, although he would like to have some connection with such a gifted people. He finished by telling the letter-writer that he would never allow him to publish his work and that the Nazis were destroying German culture and the beauty of the northern spirit.
Tolkien's religious conservatism simply did not transfer into political action. He viewed the industrialization of his beloved Warwickshire, that country in the middle of England that inspired the characters and locations in The Lord of the Rings, with unrestrained horror. The working people of his youth had, he thought, a special dignity. That had been expunged with the advance of the factory, the collective, the multinational.
As for globalization, Tolkien believed in the small community. He once said that Belgium was the perfect size for a country. Large enough to be distinct, small enough to feel like an extended family. The idea of universal free trade and a one-world corporate government terrified him.
His fame and success was, in essence, an American phenomenon, or at least it began in the United States, when the new radicalism of the 1960s looked to a most surprising hero. Tolkien's books sold in quite staggering numbers and graffiti began to appear on college walls. Beneath slogans demanding withdrawal from Vietnam would be written, “Frodo Rules” and “Bilbo for President.” No surprise, then, that the man should be read again now by the pierced ranks determined to bring down Starbucks, Nike and international capitalism.
Science fiction and dungeons and dragons? The appeal is obvious. The issue here is that Tolkien initiated the whole thing. But whereas his emulators fill their books with babes in red leather and muscular chaps in jerkins, Tolkien gave them character and depth and, yes, fundamentally Christian notions of value, virtue and truth.
So the fan base sure to turn out for these films is a delicious mingling of types who would not normally give each other the time of day.
The movies, their movies, will annoy as well as delight. There is none so fanatical as a Tolkien fan. By Gandalf's beard, they had better get Gandalf's beard right. And, as Tolkien's triumph is largely within the individual imagination, any interpretation will inevitably displease some.
But that is the delight of the man and his work. Tolkien gave us the magnificent playing field, we play the game. It never stops. It wasn't supposed to.
Michael Coren is the author of the new biography JRR Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings. Contact him at http://www.michaelcoren.com