- Purchase/rental options available:
Book History 8 (2005) 245-286
[Access article in PDF]
Middle America Meets Middle-Earth
American Discussion and Readership of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, 1965–1969
At one point during a 1997 episode of the NBC sitcom Friends, a conversation among the three male principals alludes to Gandalf, a character from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Two of the men are surprised that the third has never heard of the character. "Didn't you read Lord of the Rings in high school?" one asks. To which the third responds, "No, I had sex in high school."1
This exchange illustrates several interesting aspects of the popular attitude toward Tolkien's work. One is the simple fact that Tolkien is popular at all. Friends epitomized mainstream American television. The show's enduring popularity derived at least in part, over its long run, from not surprising its viewers; its pop culture references could be expected to be just that, recognizable parts of the popular culture. And yet widespread recognition of The Lord of the Rings could not always have been assumed. Since its publication in the mid-1950s, The Lord of the Rings has provoked a wide variety of reactions. A number of reasons for this exist: the book's [End Page 245] length and ambition, its strange combination of extreme conservatism and mythic recasting of modern dilemmas, its downright peculiarity of content. Additionally, the book is unusual not just in terms of content, but physically as well, with its tripartite division and extensive scholarly apparatus.2 For the average reader—and to the surprise of many observers who did not anticipate the sort of mainstream popularity The Lord of the Rings has subsequently attracted—these features have seldom proved particularly problematic. The book has, in fact, remained spectacularly and perennially popular.3 But while Tolkien's popularity is truly a global phenomenon, readers in the United States have always especially welcomed his fiction. Considering that Tolkien was extremely English (in any sense of the word) and never visited this country, the popularity of The Lord of the Rings here does, in itself, constitute an interesting fact.
As Tolkien's bibliographer Wayne Hammond has noted, "even with an audience somewhere in the future, as Tolkien hoped, he did not tailor his work for anyone but himself, or for a select audience only: his son Christopher, and C. S. Lewis, both close to him in blood or sentiment."4 As a friend of Lewis's who was also acquainted with Tolkien later commented, neither was "writing to be avant-garde … They merely wrote the sort of books that they liked which turns out to be the sort of books that many other people like."5 This unexpected coincidence of taste proves to be one of the most outstanding facts of the reception for The Lord of the Rings. But while the passage of time verified the accuracy of this statement, from the perspective of 1954, a book written to amuse Tolkien and his cronies—and even some of these, "the Inklings," demonstrated open hostility to the text—would hardly seem to promise big sales beyond Oxford, or perhaps even beyond Lewis's sitting room in Magdalen College. "Indeed, the hulking Rings saga … looked at first like a sort of art-house anomaly."6
A second telling insight gleaned from Friends is the assumption that one reads The Lord of the Rings "in high school." Clearly, the perceived audience for Tolkien's work is young. However, this association of the book with a youthful readership has not always been self-evident. Although Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to his popular children's book, The Hobbit, he stated unequivocally that The Lord of the Rings was most certainly not written for children. As Sir Stanley Unwin (chairman of Tolkien's British publisher, George Allen & Unwin) later recalled, his firm was "longing for a sequel [after the success of...