I think anytime the total number of books sold wanders within range of holy books, the work speaks for itself. While it is always dangerous to equate quality with popularity, connecting with over 150 million readers is a pretty big deal.
But I’m very biased in this case.
J.R.R. Tolkien not only built a world of fantasy and philosophy, filled with various races, monsters, languages and lands — his combination of poetry, riddles, song, epic battles and the good hearted conquering impossible evil odds helped to build and shape my world as well.
When I looked up some information on the website Tolkien Books, I was surprised to discover the series had sold only 171,000 copies in the first decade of publication. I found it interesting the series gained substantial ground in subsequent decades, before finding a place in everyday culture with mega blockbuster movies and all.
Interesting, yet unsurprising since it was so not cool to admit you were reading fantasy novels in the early 1980’s. Or worse, to play the fantasy games inspired by Tolkien at that time either. Oh sure, nerds rule the world now, it just took a while.
Admittedly, fantasy can still be considered an intellectual stepchild when contrasted with other fiction genres, but the impact of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on the modern world cannot be ignored. When jokes about hobbits and precious power rings make it to late night talk show monologues, even the most ardent critics have little room to marginalize Tolkien’s epic.
Whether read as an analog to industry and technology sweeping nature aside, or a unique way to show the effects of racism among peoples, or the need to unite against a great threat are all reasons to love the work beyond the Elvish riddles written above doorways. If you enjoy it because it was a classic hero’s journey, or a story of redemption for the grandson of a failed king, there many paths to take in this massive adventure through Middle Earth.
I think Tolkien saw a lot of what I see in the world. I believe his writing connects because anyone alone in a forest, with any kind of imagination can begin to see the trees move on their own. If we stay too long in those woods we can almost see shadowy creatures stirring beneath piles of pine needles or hear unmistakably supernatural sounds in the dark, as the sun fades away.
I love that Tolkien loved Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, which were two amazing stories I later discovered and read because of the influence of Lord of the Rings. I later found Robert E. Howard, Anne McCaffery, Stephen R. Donaldson, Raymond Feist, George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss due to my first adventures with swords like Sting, that would glow when evil orcs and goblins drew too near.
Fantasy and myth have always been more than escapism to me, they reflect the human spirit as “realistically” as any kind of storytelling. As the wise Neil Gaiman once said, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
One of my dragons is thinking it may not be possible to write anything closely resembling a saga the likes of Tolkien. But knowing his work kicked open the proverbial Elven door, allowing my imagination to produce some unique adventures as well, then I shall take little hobbit steps forward on my own.
After all, while Tolkien dreamed up everything from maps of new worlds to giant spiders, I doubt he imagined his words would be purchased 150 million times and counting.