Master of Middle Earth

When J.R.R. Tolkien finally completed his Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1949, the Oxford don scarcely imagined his fantasy epic would entrance readers

"He wrote, most often, late into the night, in a modest study cluttered with heaps of books and papers and looking out into a garden. The Oxford don, harried by the necessity of preparing lectures and publishing scholarly research, had little time to call his own. The midnight hours, then, became his refuge, the interlude when he could turn to the epic he was writing, scrawling page upon page, over a period of a dozen years beginning in 1937.

"He was, of course, J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, creator of the magisterial Lord of the Rings, the story cycle that appeared in three volumes during the 1950s." That sprawling, eloquent saga has at last made its way into a long-awaited cinematic adaptation from director Peter Jackson; the first installment in the tripartite blockbuster, The Fellowship of the Ring, is packing audiences into theaters across the country.

Tolkien himself, a bookish, self-effacing sort, who favored tweed jackets and good pipe tobacco, would have been bemused by all the fuss the movie is stirring up. Born in South Africa to expatriate British parents in 1892, he lived in England from the age of 3 on. When he commenced his undergraduate career at Oxford, in 1911, at the age of 19, he found his life's work, the study of historical linguistics.

His gift for archaic languages led him into the world of medieval epics and, so, into the kind of storytelling that lays the groundwork for the trilogy. Readers the world over have been entranced by the quest of Frodo, the unprepossessing hobbit-hero who must prevent a golden ring, invested with terrible powers, from falling into the hands of the evil wizard, Sauron.

Sales of the trilogy started off respectably as soon as the first volume was published, in 1954, and soared when, during the 1960s, the vast audience of American college students took up the books.

No one, as it turned out, was more surprised by the success of the Lord of the Rings than Tolkien. When he completed the trilogy in 1949, after a dozen years' labor, he had predicted failure. "I now wonder," he speculated gloomily, "whether many beyond my friends would read anything so long." One hundred million readers have proved him wrong.

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