Source: Lester del Ray, “A Report on J.R.R. Tolkien,” Worlds of Fantasy 1 (1968): 84-85.
Nothing could seem less revolutionary than being a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, with a chief interest in such works as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original. Yet Professor J. R.R. Tolkien is well on the way toward creating the major literary revolution of our generation.
The man not only writes about magic, but he seems capable of working spells in real life. No dictum of publishing or tradition of literature can withstand his quiet assault, as a simple listing of his achievements demonstrates.
The modern tradition is against fairy stories, even for children. But The Hobbit by Professor Tolkien had become a classic, and the publishers wanted a sequel. They got one — one based on the same characters, background and magic as the original, but for adults! Not only that, but it was to be in three volumes, with no false endings to make each volume stand as a complete book. The reader would have to get it like a serial. And where long novels were selling for a few dollars, this one would come to fifteen dollars! No sane publisher should have risked such a venture, but George Allen & Unwin couldn’t resist the book.
Nobody expected it to do well, and the American copyright on The Lord of the Rings was not protected, with the result that the work became public domain. It did quite well, however, with little but word-of-mouth advertising; my 1963 copy of the first book lists thirteen hardcover printings. The work refused to die.
Everyone knows that a copyright is the author’s only protection. But when the soft-cover volumes were issued, Tolkien was able to exercise control, even without legal protection. His simple request that only the authorized Ballantine edition be purchased was enough to make readers pay the extra twenty cents per volume and to force the other publisher to come to terms with him. This created a major furor in publishing circles and established a tradition for which every writer must give perpetual and incredulous thanks.
Soft-cover books don’t get serious reviews, normally. The Lord of the Rings received unusually full reviews. And for over a year, the books led the soft-cover bestseller list. They are still selling excellently, though there isn’t a hint of “daring” words or events in them.
The new editions were published during the great youth revolt, when the young were supposed to be cynical about all values and turning to the literature of protest. Yet millions turned at once to these books, filled with such things as the love of beauty, the dignity of ordinary people, and the conflict of good and evil. They bore no resemblance to anything being read before — but they outsold everything else.
The Tale of Wonder passed from 1 the literary scene about three hundred years ago. Its demise was ‘noted by many and seemingly mourned by few. Yet today, as the result of one man’s work, it is back with us. And it is causing excitement in the most serious academic circles, under the new name of mythopoetic literature.
This year Belknap College, in ‘Center Harbor, N. H., will hold a serious conference on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien over the weekend of October 18-20, with joint sponsorship by the Tolkien Society of America. Many of the papers, to be published later, will deal with scholarly aspects of mythopoetic literature. It took science fiction forty years to accomplish what Tolkien has achieved in three.
The revolution has had a major impact on all fantasy publishing. Five years ago, there was little market for fantasy; today, a great many publishers are actively seeking such fiction. Fantasy has suddenly become a “hot” item in soft-cover publishing.
Meantime, Professor Tolkien is working on another project that violates all normal publishing sense. Despite the fact that even serious books shouldn’t have too many pages of notes and references, Tolkien finished his work of fiction with over a hundred pages of appendices and the world developed there has been so fascinating that readers have insisted he give them still more.
He is now doing so — as he probably intended all along. He is working on what may be another three-volume novel about the age before that of the first novel — to be called The Silmarillion. After that, there is still an earlier age to provide a work now known as The Akallabeth.
Sometimes his publishers despair of ever having the final manuscripts, already long delayed by Professor Tolkien’s tendency toward perfectionism. He is now 76, and the work of correlating all his notes and making countless revisions is seemingly endless.
But when a man consistently works miracles, nothing should be considered impossible.
— Lester del Rey