Most authors dream of following on from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – writing a novel that becomes not just wildly popular, but an iconic pillar of western literature.
Why was The Lord Of The Rings so iconic ? Tolkien himself had no such ambitions. He had to be prodded to finish and publish the book. For him the pleasure came from the creation – not the publishing, and certainly not the fame.
The Lord Of The Rings was released in three books during the mid-1950s. It sold OK. But then, in the mid-1960s, it was published in the US – at first illegally, then in an authorised and revised edition. Instantly it took off. I think there were several reasons:
1. Tolkien accidentally keyed into the counter-culture.
The mid-1960s was the age of the counter-culture, who consciously rejected the industrialised, mechanised values of their parents in favour of romanticised fantasies about pre-industrial life. Tolkien’s Hobbits – with their rustic, rural settings – keyed directly into hippie fantasy imagery of a perfect, de-industrialised world. So did his immortal, moonlit elves.
The link was clear enough at the time; Beard and Kenney, authors of the brilliant 1969 LOTR parody Bored Of The Rings, skewered the whole accidental LOTR/drop-out culture connection with their send-up of Tom Bombadil. Well, Tim Benzedrine and his wife Hashberry.
The actual origins of these themes and icons in Tolkien’s work was significantly deeper; he was harking back to earlier ‘counter-culture’ ideas of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, including the ‘Merrie England’ fantasies of pre-industrial Britain.
2. Tolkien deliberately keyed into our culture at many levels
The links between Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth and western thinking ran far deeper than just hippie dropout culture. Tolkien had quite consciously written a mythology for Britain – a land which, he felt, lacked it. His broader themes and ideas struck chords with a much wider slab of the populace than the drop-out movement. As I have outlined elsewhere, he drew from his own experiences in England and on the Western Front to lend colour, depth and emotion to his writing. These ideas were shared by a very large part of his generation.
3. Success begats success
Once the momentum of sales began – driven by the way the book keyed into our society at so many levels – it kept going. Tolkien became iconic. The result was a marketers dream; a word-of-mouth spread through western culture that transcended any paid advertising.
And all of it – certainly the level to which the book and mythos became such an integral part of western culture – was unplanned and accidental.
The question for novel writers today is whether this feat can be repeated?
I suspect that anybody who deliberately tried – who engineered a book to key into what they suppose society triggers from today – would end up with something obviously contrived. What do you reckon?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012
Postscriptum: I’ve been away on a writing break the last 9 days – had some surprising results (including some wonderful discussions with other writers and people about books). I have some posts to follow – my adventures and some thoughts on the writing processes involved. Plus all the usuals – worldbuilding, grammar and writing tips – and some surprises.