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Tolkien and the Contemporary Reader


Fifty years ago, on 2 September 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien died of a gastric ulcer at the age of eighty-one. The news received a surprisingly muted response from the press. While the obituaries acknowledged the extraordinary impact that The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954) made upon a generation of readers, they implied that their author’s death was likely to bring an end to his literary acclaim. To The New York Times, Tolkien was the man who “cast a spell over tens of thousands of Americans in the nineteen-sixties,” while The Guardian placed him in the ranks of Dennis Wheatley and Harold Robbins, sometime superstars of genre fiction whose flames have long since tapered out.

But Tolkien’s reputation was to follow a different trajectory, reaching a high point at the turn of the millennium—largely thanks to numerous film, TV, and video game adaptations of his oeuvre. The Lord of the Rings plunged an entire genre into the mainstream, characterized by sprawling epics ranging from Terry Brooks’ 1970s The Sword of Shannara trilogy to Robert Jordan’s 1990s Wheel of Time series (of which a TV adaptation is currently airing on Amazon Prime) and George R.R. Martin’s mega-bestseller series A Song of Ice and Fire, with its TV spin-offs. All these works of high fantasy bear the mark of…

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