August 1, 2001
Meet Bilbo, the 'New'
A generation gone potty for Potter is beginning to take up with Tolkien, and if the upcoming movie version of Lord of the Rings lives up to the hype, the number of young Tolkien readers could turn into an avalanche.
The link between Potter and Tolkien is not much of a stretch. Retired Carleton University professor Tom Henighan says that on a recent tour promoting his own book, Viking Quest, children across Canada told him what they like about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series -- and many of those same things show up in the half-century-old Lord of the Rings.
"What they like in Harry Potter is exactly what they would like in Tolkien, and that is narrative interest, that is the thrill of the story, the thrill of the adventure," Henighan says. "There's not so much humour in Tolkein, but there is magic and mystery -- and they get that in Harry Potter."
Since the beginning of the year, when New Line Cinema started ramping up advertising for the film, bookstores have had a hard time stocking the Lord of the Rings, which has already sold more than 150 million copies worldwide.
The $270-million U.S. film, the first in a planned trilogy, stars Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf and is due in North American theatres Dec. 19.
Book publisher HarperCollins and Chapters, Canada's biggest bookseller, won't provide exact sales figures, but both say recent interest in the Lord of the Rings has been phenomenal.
"It's one of the hottest books we have right now," says Tracy Nesdoly, a spokeswoman for Chapters and Indigo bookstores, which together with Coles bookstores form Canada's largest book retailer. "We're seeing terrific sales in that kind of book for young people, books about another world and secret powers and wizards, really imagative, fantastical stuff."
In the U.S., a special Rings edition tied to the film has already sold 250,000 copies, and publisher Houghton Mifflin ordered another 100,000 last month. Houghton Mifflin has called Tolkien its "great and treasured crown jewel."
HarperCollins is planning a Tolkien publishing extravaganza. Several movie tie-in books, including the Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide, Fellowship of the Ring No. 1 Visual Companion, Insider's Guide to Lord of the Rings for Kids and Photo Guide for Lord of the Rings for Kids, will be released on Nov. 6, six weeks before the movie arrives in theatres and seven weeks before Christmas.
"There's a number of quite luscious movie tie-in books, these guides that show all kinds of stills from the movie, as well as a whole series of movie tie-in books," Nesdoly says.
"They're just re-issuing practically everything Tolkien."
The publisher also plans to offer a deluxe, limited edition of 1,000 boxed sets of leather-bound volumes, she says. There's also a whole series of children's books being re-released, including the Father Christmas Letters and The Hobbit.
In fact, the early readers of the Rings were not children at all, but students on university campuses, says Henighan. They were attracted by the idea of life as a quest and the series' rejection of science as the answer to life.
"I think it was tied in together with the counterculture, with a kind of rebellion, with a kind of nostalgia, a kind of general resistance to what was considered important, namely science and engineering," Henighan says.
"It was medievalism to the hilt. It was that kind of rebellion."
In the past couple of decades, students coming into university were less familiar with Tolkien, though Henighan credits him with single-handedly reviving the fantasy genre.
Henighan says some of the revival being seen today can be attributed to the anti-backlash movement, which recognizes the writer has been somewhat overlooked in recent years.
Though Tolkien became to some extent a cult figure during his lifetime, his huge acceptance 38 years after his death, especially in the U.S., is a vindication of his work.
When The Fellowship of the Rings was published in 1954, it was reviled and called "juvenile" by two high-profile critics. The American writer and critic Edmund Wilson wrote in a 1956 review in The Nation, that "there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child."
But Henighan says Wilson was a Marxist reacting against the very conservative tone of the Rings books.
Moreoever, he says, the very fact that Wilson, W.H. Auden and Yale English professor Harold Bloom reviewed the book shows it was considered adult literature at the time.
Auden commented in a New York Times review that the work continued the story begun in the 1938 work The Hobbit, "but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70."
(Bloom incidentally doesn't like Harry Potter any better than the Rings, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal that "if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.")
Henighan believes there has been "a bit of a backlash against the backlash, so that recently I've seen more books saying we've neglected this about Tolkein, there's a tough strain in here, something here that's a bit more interesting than we thought. He's had a lot of positive things coming up."
A renewed interest in things spiritual likely also play a role in the book's comeback, though as a practising Roman Catholic Tolkien may not have appreciated being linked to New Age spirituality, Henighan says.
There are obvious connections, however, including the view of nature as rich and mysterious, the sense of magic and mystery and the belief that rationality doesn't solve the problems of life.
The greatness of the book lies, perhaps, in its wide appeal -- the attraction of a great story, of heroism, of an epic battle between good and evil.
"So, of course, you can have New Agers come out of this," Henighan says. "You can have Christians, you can have ecologists, you can have medievalists, neo-medievalists, you can have any kind of group come out and find something in it. It is kind of universal."
And that's good news for New Line Cinema, HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin.