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Q&A with Clay Harper, Tolkien Projects Director


What are some of the highlights of Houghton Mifflin's long history of publishing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien?

Houghton Mifflin has been J.R.R. Tolkien's U.S. publisher since the beginning, with the first U.S. publication of The Hobbit in 1938, and Tolkien's work is one of the crown jewels of our publishing program. We have published every book by the author, including children's stories, novels, poems, and scholarly essays. We've also published nearly every significant book about the author and his work, including Christopher Tolkien's monumental twelve-volume The History of Middle-earth. The Hobbit was an immediate success upon publication, and readers asked for more stories set in Middle-earth right from the start. But it was a very long wait for the expected sequel. The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, didn't arrive in stores until 1954 — sixteen years later.

As a cultural phenomenon in America, Tolkien's work has captured a wide public consciousness on several different occasions. In the mid-1960s, the first paperback editions were authorized, and the novels became immediate bestsellers. By the 1970s, Tolkien's work was very popular on American college campuses and inspired everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics to graffiti and buttons (the inspirational slogan "Frodo Lives" and the satirical "Gandalf for President"). Animated films of The Hobbit produced by Rankin/Bass and then a portion of The Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi, appeared on the scene. The Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon was partly inspired by Tolkien's work, and it could be argued that the big fantasy sections in bookstores today owe a large part of their existence to Tolkien's popularity. But there has never been anything like the massive audience growth we've experienced over the last few years, coinciding with the epic motion picture trilogy directed by Peter Jackson.

Why has The Hobbit been so popular for more than six decades?

It has been hailed as one of the greatest children's stories of all time, and generations of readers have identified with the reluctant hero, Bilbo Baggins. Hobbits are amiable, likable, peaceful folk who don't like to meddle in the affairs of others, and who don't quite understand the forces at work in their imaginary world of Middle-earth. By nature, they don't often travel, and they enjoy the simple things in life most of all: home, hearth, family, riddles, song, and good food. The wise wizard Gandalf enlists Bilbo's help in a quest that Bilbo would prefer to have nothing to do with. There is great humor in the tale, and great adventure as the wonder of Middle-earth is revealed to the reader through the wonder of Bilbo's reaction to being far from home — and of course there is great danger in the guise of the dragon Smaug the Magnificent, and from other sources as well.

But Tolkien's real achievement is to tap into the great literary traditions and deepest roots of the English language — Beowulf comes to mind, particularly regarding the dragon's hoard — and make these modes of storytelling accessible to and enjoyable for children. I believe it is that attribute, in addition to the wonderful cast of characters and the story itself, that has helped the book stand the test of time as a perennial favorite among readers of all ages.

What are the major themes of The Lord of the Rings, and what are its virtues?

Many readers and critics have proposed answers to these questions over the years. The Lord of the Rings is a vastly more complex work than The Hobbit. My view is that some of the simplest explanations are the best, but perhaps these bedrock, foundational notions are the most difficult to grasp — at least as to how much Tolkien intended. Middle-earth is such a complex invention that it is difficult to fully know the mind of its creator, and we must always remember that he was famously opposed to allegorical interpretation. He believed that the book "is what it is" and should stand on its own as a heroic romance. But fortunately there are clues to a deeper understanding within the book itself, more clues to be found within his letters, and still more within the story of his life. The first and foremost virtue to me is the fact that The Lord of the Rings is the profound and spectacular creation of a single mind, a mind steeped in the legends of Europe and exceptionally well versed in the expression of its mythologies — the sheer enormity of Tolkien's achievement is just astounding. To have created a 1,200-page novel with hundreds of characters and centuries of invented history, culture, and language permeating every page and every action in an enormously eventful plot; to have created passages of heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching terror; to have made this entire invented world come alive in a very real way for the reader through unshakable logic and intricate design; and then to have set these characters in motion toward such incredible heights of excitement, intrigue, danger, and bittersweet triumph — it's just mind-boggling to me. And every single incident and character, even every thing, is in The Lord of the Rings for a reason — it isn't just "wallpaper" put there for "atmosphere." I've never had an experience in fiction that comes close to achieving that.

Is it an epic adventure story? Of course it is. Is it about good and evil? Well, yes . . . but not just. It is partly a tale of pastoral, isolated, and innocent beings — the hobbits — swept up in the perilous history of their times. They find that their world is far more complex and dangerous than they had ever imagined. But a bit like enlisted soldiers going off to war (which in a sense they are), they find they have an important part to play in the outcome. Tom Shippey argues quite persuasively in his recent book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that the novel is in part a response to the existence of evil in our world, particularly as it manifested itself in Tolkien's times. The hobbits must make a moral choice between doing what they feel is right and doing otherwise — including the choice of doing at all. There's a profound difference between "good vs. evil" and "right vs. wrong" to my mind. The hobbits find that they must engage the world around them — just as we all do in the end. So in this sense the book is a kind of coming-of-age tale, structured a bit like a funnel in its first third — the story opens up from their happy origins to encompass a vast world of grim danger through which they must travel to perform what they come to see as their duty. They persevere and ultimately prevail through the power of such simple-to-identify but difficult-to-achieve virtues as courage, determination, bravery, and the renewable bonds of friendship and love. The world of Middle-earth which they encounter in a kind of anti-quest — they are trying to throw away the Ring, after all — is populated by creatures and cultures that embody these and other attributes, including wisdom and beauty but also tyranny, aggression, greed, jealousy, and cruelty. In this way, Middle-earth is more than a little like our own world, and the conflicts in it and in the hearts of the characters are as personal as our own. Every single character is changed, marked, by personal experience, as we are in the course of our own lives.

Another wonderful thing about The Lord of the Rings, cherished by many of its readers, is that it contains a host of aphorisms, including "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom," "Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens," "The wise speak only of what they know," "All that is gold does not glitter,/Not all who wander are lost;/The old that is strong does not wither,/Deep roots are not reached by the frost," and countless others. Whenever I need to decide about packaging issues or strategy for the Tolkien publishing program, the one that rings in my head is "It is not our part here to take thought only for a season." Tolkien has created a complete world within a world — our world — inside the covers of this novel.

What should readers know about the author?

Tolkien himself felt that details about an author's life distract attention from the author's work. That said, Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography tells us that J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892, and died on September 2, 1973, at the age of eighty-one. He immigrated to England at the age of three but was orphaned at twelve and went to live in an orphanage. From a very early age, Tolkien invented his own languages as a hobby — more than twenty of them by the time of his death. He married his sweetheart from the orphanage, Edith, in 1916. Tolkien served in the First World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, but nearly all of his closest friends were killed in that war. A student of the English written traditions and philology (the study of the history of words), he worked for a time as an assistant lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary. Later, as his career progressed, he taught at the University of Leeds, and then became a don at Oxford, where his scholarly reputation grew.

Tolkien wrote his fiction in his spare time. A jovial and deeply spiritual man, he was good friends with C. S. Lewis and the two discussed their novels while they were writing them. Tolkien was delighted with the popular success of his novels in many ways, but he always fought their interpretation as allegory. To him, they simply were what they were, and the American college campus craze of the late 1960s, with its embrace of his work toward unintended ends, was a source of consternation. In 1972 he was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II.

Upon Tolkien's death, his youngest son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, an Oxford don in his own right, prepared his great cosmology of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, for publication. Christopher later produced a twelve-volume account of the origins, evolution, and writing of his father's epic tales, The History of Middle-earth. The History is a remarkable and important act of literary detective work, and a treasure trove for fans of his father's work.

In what order should readers approach Tolkien's work?

"Should" is too prescriptive for the kind of advice I can offer, since readers' interests will vary widely. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are intimately linked with events happening in a similar time frame and with several characters like Bilbo, Gollum, and Gandalf appearing in both stories, but they are independent works and it isn't necessary to read one before the other – though the three-volume editions of The Lord of the Rings should be read sequentially. Readers under the age of ten often begin with The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings is often seen as daunting before the mid-teen years because of its complexity and length – but is certainly a rewarding experience. From there, readers who want to read more tales of Middle-earth should read The Silmarillion, a beautiful book of episodic stories set in the First Age. It has been described as a kind of "Old Testament" to The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien struggled throughout the last decades of his life to see it finished to his satisfaction. Unfinished Tales contains a number of shorter tales set in Middle-earth, supplements in a sense, to the primary works.

Those who become interested in the author should read Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography and the fascinating Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which is one of the few places you can find the author speaking about his work in his own words – it's a wonderful book that any fan would find rewarding. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull is an excellent and informative book on that topic. To learn about Tolkien's sources and literary accomplishment, Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century are both wonderfully illuminating, as is Douglas A. Anderson's The Annotated Hobbit. Tolkien once gave a lecture about imaginative fiction that he adapted into the essay On Fairy-Stories. This work is usually presented alongside a fictional story, Leaf by Niggle, demonstrating the principles described in the essay. These two together offer much insight into his views on storytelling.

Christopher Tolkien's account of the origins and evolution of his father's fiction appears in The History of Middle-earth, of which The History of The Lord of the Rings is a subset. There are rich rewards within that series for serious students who understand they're reading a mammoth work of literary scholarship. Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-earth is a great resource for readers, as is Karen Wynn Fonstad's The Atlas of Middle-earth.

Beyond all these, there are numerous secondary Tolkien works not set in Middle-earth, including children's stories such as Roverandom, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Letters from Father Christmas.

What is Houghton Mifflin's role in the global Tolkien publishing enterprise?

We work closely with our UK partners, HarperCollins Publishers, who hold the Tolkien publishing rights worldwide, and we're in constant communication with the estate of the author to discuss issues related to Tolkien's work. We also monitor the activities of others and any potential impact on our copyrights, trademarks, and the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Our market, the U.S. only, is obviously a large and influential one in this global context, but Tolkien's work has been translated into more than thirty-five languages, including Armenian, Icelandic, Moldavian, Portuguese, and even Esperanto. Lifetime global sales of The Hobbit are estimated to be in excess of 40 million copies, and of The Lord of the Rings at more than 50 million copies — which makes Tolkien one of the most popular authors of all time.

What have been the sales trends in the United States throughout Houghton Mifflin's history?

More than 45 million copies of Tolkien's work have been sold in the United States since 1938. After each point in its long history when the audience has expanded dramatically, the work has never seemed to fade in popularity. Now Tolkien's work has been passed down through several generations, from parent to child as well as from friend to friend, and each generation finds in his stories an inspiring set of values and ideals that fits its own life and times. Over the last few years the readership has been expanding at a great pace, and today Tolkien's work can be found in more retail outlets and on more bookshelves than ever before.

What has Houghton Mifflin's publishing strategy been? How has this strategy evolved over the years?

Houghton Mifflin has promoted, protected, and nurtured the work throughout its history, and will for generations to come. We believe that the best advocate for the work is the work itself; for years, readers have encouraged their friends and family to experience Tolkien's creation, so there is a certain snowball effect whenever the audience expands. We've always treated the work like the extraordinary literary achievement that it is — as a timeless classic — rather than as the cornerstone of a particular genre. Because The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other books invite rereading and close study, many readers who first come to them in paperback later move on to hardcover editions that they cherish for years. Consequently, we've published attractive quality paperbacks, solid hardcover editions, copiously illustrated editions featuring the art of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Lee, and others, as well as elaborate gift and collector's editions over the years — and all are built to last. So the novels are available at a variety of price levels, with different packaging for different audiences. Every major new edition finds a welcome home, and the introduction of each is an opportunity to find a new audience and reintroduce the best-selling backlist to retailers and readers alike.

Do balrogs have wings?

This question, about a pivotal character in The Fellowship of the Ring, embodies one of the great reader-inspired arguments of all time. And there are others: "Who or what is Tom Bombadil?" and "Who killed the Witch-King of Angmar?" My answer to the first question is "perhaps," but for the second and third, you will have to consult The Lord of the Rings and draw your own conclusions.

Clay Harper, a former bookseller, has worked for Houghton Mifflin since 1988 in a variety of roles, including director of adult marketing. He has been managing the Tolkien publishing program since 1999.