How Great a Writer was JRR Tolkien?

Back in the 1980’s the only people who’ve read LOTR were English majors for their comp lit assignments, and a handful of fantasy buffs (just a small handful.) Paperbacks of his works were very rare, and among the current fantasy novels, I think only the Shannara series tried to copycat him.

The forward in LOTR already gives us a glimpse of how the literati received his trilogy but I’d like to hear from knowing Dopers.

He has his faults. He’s sometimes a little purple. But he’s actually pretty good. He conveys a mood, paints a scene, he’s a master of connotations. He has the knack of knowing when to use Latinate multi-syllable words, and when to go Anglo-Saxon with short, hard words. His characters are likable, and his overall vision is grand. He avoids cheap allegories (C.S. Lewis, ahem, ahem.) And he had the guts to have Frodo succumb to the temptation of the Ring at the critical moment. That’s heavy duty.

He belongs with Chesterton and Kipling as one of the popular greats of English literature. That may be faint praise, but he has earned a place among the immortals.

ETA: You might enjoy “The Mythology of Middle Earth” by A.A. Rowland, a book of analysis of Tolkien’s myth-making.

Are you crazy? I was in college in the 1970s, and Tolkien was all the rage. My entire dorm floor was into LOTR, and we were NOT English majors. We were mostly engineering majors. I think he’s been pretty mainstream since the mid sixties.

Where on [middle] earth did you get those ideas? I read LotR in the late 60s/early 70s and everyone I knew was reading it. It was very popular in that time period.

Knock-knock. My 1980’s was in the Philippines; an English-speaking country but may not have the same depth in readership as the US, Canada or UK. I’m speaking for my generation, of course. Those before us knew about the trilogy when it came out in the 50’s.

I never much cared for him. I don’t think he entered the literary pantheon until around 1980, maybe later.


It’s the #2 best selling book of all time, selling over 150 million copies. It’s never been out of print. Just because you didn’t know many people who’d read it in the 1980s, doesn’t mean it wasn’t being read.

That would be the 1980’s Unwin paperbacks which, I understand, was something of a publishing breakthrough.

Yeah, I kinda remember the Eddings and Donaldson books in the shelves back then but Terry Brooks, whom I read, takes the cake. He even had his own version of Gollum. And then there was the Dune series which fans claimed surpassed LOTR in terms of imaginative faction. Nah.

The authorized US editions (following an unauthorized edition by Ace Books in the early 1960s) first appeared in the mid-1960s in the US, and they were huge. By the 1980s, AFAIK, it was pretty rare to find a white American college student who was unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work.

There was already an animated movie then. Anyway, the replies seem to bolster my observation that many people read the trilogy at the college level. But this may not be the case for most. There was a thread here before, and many Dopers insisted they read LOTR before their college freshman year.

Hell, I’d read it before I finished grade school…1977, that was. For that matter, by that time I’d plowed my way through The Silmarillion!

IIRC, since it was “rediscovered” C1965 there hasn’t been a single year when it didn’t make the top 100 list of best selling English language novels. Added to that, The Silmarillion was the best selling novel of the year in 1977 and in the top 10 for 2 years afterwards, which tells you a lot about the demand created by LOtR.

To suggest that LOTR was only read by handful of people is just crazy. It’s one of the best selling Engish language novels of all time. In many lists it is *THE *number 1.

Up to the mid 80s, sure, because of the objection of the author/publisher. the fact that the book was a consistent best seller for 20 years despite never being published in paperback does not indicate a lack of popularity, quite the opposite.

No. Just no.

Many of us did read it in college. But we *first *read it in our early teens. It’s one of those books that tends to get re-read every few years.

A point ot consider, the hero of the 1984 movie “Neverending Story” was a 12 year old boy. The book was well known enough to the general public that it could be casually included alongside Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz in a list of books that a well-read 12 yo in 1984 would have been expected to have read.

Ok, now that I’m paying the full price for not initially qualifying my 1980’s observation to my native Philippines, maybe I can now see some comments on writing style, classical and previous works used as reference, the author’s experiences during the great war, that kind. :smiley: Trinopus’ comment deserves frequent quotation.

It’s probably in fact the top-selling novel of all time. That estimate of 200 million sold for A Tale of Two Cities looks dubious to me. On the other hand, I was told in 2005 by someone who had just been to visit the offices of Tolkien’s British publishers that the estimate at that point was that it had already sold more than 150 million copies around the world. I think that it’s probably sold something like 170 to 180 million copies by now.

Looking at that Wiki list, it seems more books are being printed and sold now, meaning this generation beginning 1995, than before which is a good sign. I’ve a feeling LOTR is enjoying a much much bigger readership today than before. Only The Little Prince and books by Agatha Christie, books I saw in the shelves as kid, are there in the >100 million bracket. I don’t know the last two. No sign of Ludlum, or Forsyth, or Sheldon, or Le Carre anywhere. Good that Puzo is somewhere there, as are Richard Bach, Jack Higgins, Gibran and Jaqueline Suzzane. These were supposedly the blockbuster authors in the 60s and 70s.

:confused: :confused: Where are you getting this idea that LOTR paperbacks were “very rare” up to the mid-80’s? The first (authorized) Ballantine paperback versions were produced from 1965 to 1973 (the ones with the distinctive Barbara Remington pinky-purple cover art), and they sold like fucking gangbusters. Those were the LOTR paperbacks that I had as an elementary school student around 1973, and they were everywhere.

You do realize there are about two billion more people alive today than in 1990, a number equal to about one-quarter of today’s total global population, right? It would be very remarkable if there weren’t many more books being sold now than a few decades ago.

Oh, yeah? Well, I read it in kindergarten!!

And yeah, the paperbacks were the only versions I ever saw in the 1960s. I wasn’t poor or anything, but the idea of buying a hardback of anything would never have crossed my mind.

Oh, yeah? Well, I read it in utero. Really set the mood for the Moria scenes.