Sometimes, the right book comes along with the right message at the right time and ends up not only a literary classic, but a cultural phenomenon that ushers in a new age. One such book is the first official, authorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien…
And when I talk about the book ushering in a new age, I’m not referring to the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth—I’m talking about the creation of a new mass market fictional genre. While often comingled with science fiction on the shelves, fantasy has become a genre unto itself. If you didn’t live through the shift, it’s hard to grasp how profound it was. Moreover, because of the wide appeal of fantasy books, the barriers around the previously insular world of science fiction and fantasy fandom began to crumble, as what was once the purview of “geeks and nerds” became mainstream entertainment. This column will look at how the book’s publishers, the author, the publishing industry, the culture, and the message all came together in a unique way that had a huge and lasting impact.
My brothers, father, and I were at a science fiction convention—sometime in the 1980s, I think it was. We all shared a single room to save money, and unfortunately, my father snored like a freight train chugging into a station. My youngest brother woke up early, and snuck out to the lobby to find some peace and quiet. When the rest of us got up for breakfast, I found him in the lobby talking to an older gentleman. He told me the man had bought breakfast for him and some other fans. The man put his hand out to shake mine, and introduced himself. “Ian Ballantine,” he said. I stammered something in reply, and he gave me a knowing look and a smile. He was used to meeting people who held him in awe. I think he found my brother’s company at breakfast refreshing because my brother did not know who he was. Ballantine excused himself, as he had a busy day ahead, and I asked my brother if he knew who he had just shared a meal with. He replied, “I think he had something to do with publishing The Lord of the Rings, because he was pleased when I told him it was my favorite book.” And I proceeded to tell my brother the story of the publishing of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, and its impact.
About the Publishers
Ian Ballantine (1916-1995) and Betty Ballantine (born 1919) were among the publishers who founded Bantam Books in 1945, and then left that organization to found Ballantine Books in 1952, initially working from their apartment. Ballantine Books, a general publisher that devoted special attention to paperback science fiction books, played a large role in the post-World War II growth of the field of SF. In addition to reprints, they began publishing paperback originals, many edited by Frederik Pohl, which soon became staples of the genre. Authors published by Ballantine included Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, C. M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, and Theodore Sturgeon. Evocative artwork by Richard Powers gave many of their books’ covers a distinctive house style. In 1965, they had a huge success with the authorized paperback publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Because the success of that trilogy created a new market for fantasy novels, they started the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, edited by Lin Carter. The Ballantines left the company in 1974, shortly after it was acquired by Random House, and became freelance publishers. Because so much of their work was done as a team, the Ballantines were often recognized as a couple, including their joint 2008 induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
About the Author
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was a professor at Oxford University who specialized in studying the roots of the English language. In his work he was exposed to ancient tales and legends, and was inspired to write fantasy stories whose themes harkened back to those ancient days. His crowning achievement was the creation of a fictional world set in an era that predated our current historical records, a world of magical powers with its own unique races and languages. The fictional stories set in that world include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as a posthumously published volume, The Silmarillion. Tolkien also produced extensive amounts of related material and notes on the history and languages of his fictional creation. He was a member of an informal club called the Inklings, which also included author C. S. Lewis, another major figure in the field of fantasy. While valuing the virtues and forms of bygone eras, his works were also indelibly marked by his military experience in World War I, and Tolkien did not shy away from portraying the darkness and destruction that war brings. He valued nature, simple decency, perseverance and honor, and disliked industrialism and other negative effects of modernization in general. His work also reflected the values of his Catholic faith. He was not always happy with his literary success, and was somewhat discomforted when his work was enthusiastically adopted by the counterculture of the 1960s.
The Age of Mass Market Paperback Books Begins
Less expensive books with paper or cardboard covers are not a new development. “Dime” novels were common in the late 19th Century, but soon gave way in popularity to magazines and other periodicals which were often printed on cheaper “pulp” paper. These were a common source of and outlet for genre fiction. In the 1930s, publishers began experimenting with “mass market” paperback editions of classic books and books that had previously published in hardcover. This format was widely used to provide books to U.S. troops during World War II. In the years after the war, the size of these books was standardized to fit into a back pocket, and thus gained the name “pocket books.” These books were often sold in the same way as periodicals, where the publishers, to ensure maximum exposure of their product, allowed vendors to return unsold books, or at least return stripped covers as proof they had been destroyed and not sold. In the decades that followed, paperback books became ubiquitous, and were found in a wide variety of locations, including newsstands, bus and train stations, drug stores, groceries, general stores, and department stores.
The rise of paperback books had a significant impact on the science fiction genre. In the days of the pulp magazines, the stories were of shorter length—primarily short stories, novelettes, and novellas. The paperback, however, lent itself to longer tales. There were early attempts to fill the books with collections of shorter works, or stitch together related short pieces into what was called the “fix-up” novel. Ace Books created what was called the “Ace Double,” two shorter works printed back to back, with each having its own separate cover. Science fiction authors began to write longer works to fit the larger volumes, and these works frequently had their original publication in paperback format. Paperbacks had the advantage of being less expensive to print, which made it possible to print books, like science fiction, that might have narrower appeal and were aimed at a particular audience. But it also made it easier for a book, if it became popular, to be affordable and widely circulated. This set the stage for the massive popularity of The Lord of the Rings.
A Cultural Phenomenon
The Lord of the Rings was first published in three volumes in England in 1954 and 1955: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It was a modest success in England, and was published in a U.S. hardcover edition by Houghton Mifflin. Trying to capitalize on what they saw as a loophole in copyright law, Ace Books attempted to publish a 1965 paperback edition without paying royalties to the author. When fans were informed, this move blew up spectacularly, and Ace was forced to withdraw their edition. Later that year, the paperback “Authorized Edition” was released by Ballantine Books. Its sales grew, and within a year, it had reached the top of The New York Times Paperback Best Seller list. The paperback format allowed these books a wide distribution, and not only were the books widely read, they became a cultural phenomenon unto themselves. A poster based on the paperback cover of The Fellowship of the Ring became ubiquitous in college dorm rooms around the nation. For some reason, this quasi-medieval tale of an epic fantasy quest captured the imagination of the nation, particularly among young people.
It’s hard to establish a single reason why a book as unique and different as The Lord of the Rings, with its deliberately archaic tone, became so popular, but the 1960s were a time of great change and turmoil in the United States. The country was engaged in a long, divisive, and inconclusive war in Vietnam. In the midst of both peaceful protests and riots, the racial discrimination that had continued for a century after the Civil War became illegal upon passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gender roles and women’s rights were being questioned by the movement that has been referred to as Second Wave Feminism. Because of upheaval in the Christian faith, many scholars consider the era to be the fourth Great Awakening in American history. Additionally, there was also wider exploration of other faiths and philosophies, and widespread questioning of spiritual doctrines. A loose movement that became known as “hippies” or the “counterculture” turned its back on traditional norms, and explored alternative lifestyles, communal living, and sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Each of these trends was significant, and together, their impact on American society was enormous.
The Lord of the Rings
At this point in my columns, I usually recap the book being reviewed, but I’m going to assume that everyone reading this article has either read the books or seen the movies (or both). So instead of the usual recap, I’m going to talk about the overall themes of the book, why I think it was so successful, and how it caught the imagination of so many people.
The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, a paean to simpler times, when life was more pastoral. The Shire of the book’s opening is a bucolic paradise; and when it is despoiled by power-hungry aggressors it’s eventually restored by the returning heroes. The elves are portrayed as living in harmony with nature within their forest abodes, and even the dwarves are in harmony with their mountains and caves. In the decades after the book was published, this vision appealed to those who wanted to return to the land, and who were troubled by the drawbacks and complications associated with modern progress and technology. It harkened back to legends and tales of magic and mystery, which stood in stark contrast with the modern world.
The book, while it portrays a war, is deeply anti-war, which appealed to the people of a nation growing sick of our continued intervention in Vietnam, which showed no sign of ending, nor any meaningful progress. The true heroes of this war were not the dashing knights—they were ordinary hobbits, pressed into service by duty and the desire to do the right thing, slogging doggedly through a despoiled landscape. This exalting of the common man was deeply appealing to American sensibilities.
The book, without being explicitly religious, was deeply infused with a sense of morality. Compared to a real world filled with moral grey areas and ethical compromises, it gave the readers a chance to feel certain about the rightness of a cause. The characters did not succeed by compromising or bending their principles; they succeeded when they stayed true to their values and pursued an honorable course.
While the book has few female characters, those few were more than you would find in many adventure books of the time, and they play major roles. Galadriel is one of the great leaders of Middle-earth, and the courageous shieldmaiden Éowyn plays a significant role on the battlefield precisely because she is not a man.
And finally, the book gives readers a chance to forget the troubles of the real world and immerse themselves completely in another reality, experiencing a world of adventure on a grand scale. The sheer size of the book transports the reader to another, fully-realized world and keeps them there over the course of huge battles and long journeys until the quest is finally finished—something a shorter story could not have done. The word “epic” is overused today, but it truly fits Tolkien’s tale.
The Impact of The Lord of the Rings on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Genres
When I was first starting to buy books in the early 1960s, before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, there was not much science fiction on the racks, and fantasy books were rarely to be found. Mainstream fiction, romances, crime, mystery, and even Westerns were much more common.
After the publication of The Lord of the Rings, publishers combed their archives for works that might match the success of Tolkien’s work—anything they could find with swordplay or magic involved. One reprint series that became successful was the adventures of Conan the Barbarian, written by Robert E. Howard. And of course, contemporary authors created new works in the vein of Tolkien’s epic fantasy; one of these was a trilogy by Terry Brooks that began with The Sword of Shannara. And this was far from the only such book; the shelf space occupied by the fantasy genre began to grow. Instead of being read by a small community of established fans, The Lord of the Rings became one of those books that everyone was reading—or at least everyone knew someone else who was reading it. Fantasy fiction, especially epic fantasy, once an afterthought in publishing, became a new facet of popular culture. And, rather than suffering as the fantasy genre expanded its borders, the science fiction genre grew as well, as the success of the two genres seemed to reinforce each other.
One rather mixed aspect of the legacy of The Lord of the Rings is the practice of publishing fantasy narratives as trilogies and other multi-volume sets of books, resulting in books in a series where the story does not resolve at the end of each volume. There is a lean economy to older, shorter tales that many fans miss. With books being issued long before the end of the series is completed, fans often have to endure long waits to see the final, satisfying end of a narrative. But as long as it keeps readers coming back, I see no sign that this practice will be ending any time soon.
The huge success and broad appeal of The Lord of the Rings in its paperback edition ushered in a new era in the publishing industry, and put fantasy books on the shelves of stores across the nation. Within a few more decades, the fantasy genre had become an integral part of mainstream culture, no longer confined to a small niche of devoted fans. Readers today might have trouble imagining a time when you couldn’t even find epic fantasy in book form, but that was indeed the situation during my youth.
And now I’d like to hear from you. What are your thoughts on The Lord of the Rings, and its impact on the fantasy and science fiction genres?
Originally published in January 2019 as part of the Front Lines and Frontiers column.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.