To understand Tolkiens connection to the 60’s we must look at the times themselves. When people talk about the 60’s they are generally speaking about a time between 1963 and the early part of the 1970s, David Carridine in the film Ringers: Lord of the Fans says the 60’s started when Kennedy was assassinated. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination the nation is embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. Three months earlier Dr. Martin Luther King had given his I have a dream speech. Protests over civil rights and the war come to define the 60’s as a decade of unrest. Much of America felt as if the world was not as it should be and tried to change it in their own way. This much dislike of the status quo led to the rise of a counter-culture who often used psychologist and LSD advocate Dr. Timothy Leary’s phrase of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” as a guide to life.
This contrasts nicely with Tolkien himself who was a stout catholic conservative. Born in 1892, he would have been 71 in 1963 and very much part of the old guard. he was classically educated and graduating oxford in 1915, he immediately headed off to war to fight World War I feeling it was his patriotic duty.
First published in the summer of 1954 The Fellowship of the Rings first printing had only 3500 copies, It opened to mixed reviews but enough of the reviews were positive that the publishers “ began to not think of losing a thousand pounds, but perhaps of making a thousand pounds, but all on this kind of scale.” These sales remained steady until the early 1960’s when in 1965 Ace books published the first paperback editions of the book in the United States. While Ace Books was the first to publish the books, they didn’t actually own the rights to do so. They claimed that the British copyright law that the original hardback publisher Houghton Mifflin used did not apply to the publications in the United States. Ace Books published and sold these books without permission or paying anything to Tolkien for his work. The unauthorized versions featured trippy, psychedelic images on the covers that were completely unrelated to the contents of the books. While Tolkien may not have approved, The covers of the unauthorized versions certainly spoke to the youth of the time. On college campuses across the country students were flocking to the now 12 year old Lord of the Rings. These new fans were rabid, They sent many fan letters to Tolkien. Tolkien had always responded to fan mail personally and with much joy and thanks. With the new found popularity of the books came a flood of new fan mail, however since these paperbacks were unauthorized no additional flow of revenue came. Tolkien was somewhat uncomfortable with his popularity in the United States, saying “I observe in general that North America has been much more easily kindled” than Britain or other European countries. When Ballantine Books finally released the authorized version later in the year; Tolkien took to responding to these fan letters by telling the reader the story of the unauthorized versions and asking the readers to spread the word and tell their friends to buy the authorized versions. Surprisingly enough this worked, with sales exploding in the later part of the 60’s. While the authorized paperbacks did at least provide Tolkien with income, the printing itself was still not something Tolkien was entirely satisfied with. The covers again featured art unrelated to the plot of the book, but current to the times. The Hobbit in particular featured a cover that included a lion and emus. In a letter to Rayner Unwin in Sept. of1965 Tolkein says this of The Hobbit cover “ what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus?”
In an article from Time magazine published July of 1966 “The hobbit habit seems to be almost as catching as LSD. On many U.S. campuses, buttons declaring FRODO LIVES and GO GO GANDALF—frequently written in Elvish script—are almost as common as football letters.” By the end of 1968 more than 3 million copies of the authorized Ballantine Books version of The Lord of the Rings had been sold and Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings were ingrained in the counter culture which began the pop culture that turned The Lord of the Rings into one of the best selling books of all time.
What sparked this hunger for The Lord of the Rings? I think that there are several key themes that must be examined to see why Tolkiens work became so popular with the counter culture of the 60’s.
The first I will look at is the idea of Fellowship. Fellowship for this purpose is defined as a group of people meeting to pursue a shared interest or aim. We see fellowship in Tolkien when the free people are all united against the forces of Mordor. In the Fellowship of the rings at the Council of Elrond It is no coincidence that representatives from many races are chosen to try and destroy the ring. I think this really spoke to the youth of the 60’s. The Idea that together we are stronger, that our differences can actually be a strength when working together to try and accomplish something is a very central theme to both the counter culture revolution and the Lord of the Rings. I think you see fellowship reflected in the civil rights and anti-war movements in that people are starting to see that in order to get any change to occur in our world, they must band together towards a common goal. Together we can save the world was a driving idea behind a lot of the movements in the 60’s. The thought that ordinary people when placed in hard situations can do something extraordinary and cause change is seen throughout the 60’s. Another thing that would have attracted the hippie generation to the Lord of the Rings would have been The Hobbits themselves. The Hobbits while small in stature and not physically powerful, but they managed to save the world. With protests of all kinds coming to define the era, we see “little” people with no political power joining together with peoples of all races, to change and perhaps even save the world.
Another of the ideas that the counter culture of the 1960’s really identified with in Tolkiens works were his environmentalist ideas and even some of the anti-technology messages in The Lord of the Rings. With the Cuban missile crisis and China's development of atomic weaponry, nuclear war was a real possibility. Protests on college campus across the nation against the threat of nuclear arms coincided with Tolkiens rise in popularity. Tolkien’s introduction of the ents foreshadows the concerns for the environment that resonated with the hippies by pitting the technologically inclined goblins and orcs led by Sarumon and their destruction of the forests against the forest itself, He shows the conflict between advancement of society through technology and the whether that is truly progress. An allegory is seen between The Lord of the Rings and the nuclear arms race; with the ring being the ultimate in destructive technology, ala the atomic bomb. The youth of the era saw themselves as a simple people caught up in a great conflict, much like the hobbits. The ring and the atomic bomb can be seems as advancements of technology that are abominations of the natural order, and exist only to destroy. The fellowship of the ring are people of all races banding together to destroy the ring. In the 60’s people of all races were banding together to try and stop the threat of nuclear war. The advancement of technology was being questioned by the counterculture, was it a good thing? It seemed to be causing nothing but tensions in the world. Some sought the return to simpler times, represented by the shire and a simpler way of life. Others choose to escape, Some did both.
Escapism is the desire to retreat from reality, while not one of the real elements from the Lord of the Rings story, It is certainly seen in a lot of the actions and ideas of people of the 1960’s. What better place to escape from reality than the massively detailed world that Tolkien has created. All the ideas of fellowship and environmentalism seen in the book drew people to leave their world and enter Middle Earth. This escapism took many forms. LSD users would go on “trips” to alternate realities; there senses, exaggerated and distorted led their imagination to run wild. A potent combination when combined with the detailed world that Tolkein provided. In the movie J.R.R. Tolkien, Jenny Fabian Author of GROUPIE says “ A lot of us did use Tolkien as a guide almost through the journey of life and acid trips were very similar to the journey that’s told in the story of the Lord of the Rings, Its a journey into the inner psyche... The club middle earth actually had a similar feel to it with the black walls...a lot of people took their acid down there because they felt they were in another world, that it would take them to other places.”
In the United states where large tracts of land are still available we see the establishment of communes. These communes were essentially a community separated from society at large. People at these communes would go and try and return to a simpler form of life. People would work together for the common good, and try to create a Utopian society were the ideas of freedom and love could reign free. In Britain where creating your own community was out of the question due to land constraints, people escaped with music and drugs. A Popular rock club in London was called “Middle Earth”, that Pink Floyd played. there were underground magazines called Hobbit and Gandalf’s Garden that talked about drug lore and other counter culture topics. To help raise money to start Gandalf’s Garden, the founder had a benefit concert that featured many artists including David Bowie.
With drugs being a large part of the counter culture at the time, the fact that the hobbits smoke an undisclosed “pipe weed” and love mushrooms could not have been missed. “Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not” Tolkien is quoted as saying. Undoubtedly Tolkien did not approve of the rampant drug use in conjunction with his book. Combined with rampant adoration from his fans which included late night calls from Americans unaware or unconcerned with the time difference, and people beating a path across his lawn and ruining his garden, you could see why Tolkien might declare that his fans were “deplorable cultists. Though Tolkien and his fans were not necessarily of the same mind, his fans in the counter culture propelled his work to fame.
In Ringers: Lord of the fans Dominic Monaghan says “ That counter culture was fueled by three main things, flower power, rock and roll and J. R. R. Tolkien. David Carradine says that the books were the “metaphysical statement of the times” As you can see the influence of Tolkien on the 60’s, and the influence of the fans from the 60’s on the popularity of Tolkiens work are intertwined. Without Tolkiens Lord of the Rings perhaps the 1960’s are defined by different ideas. Without the counter culture of the 1960’s Tolkiens great novels may have remained in obscurity.
Walmsley, Nigel. “Tolkien and the ‘60s.” J.R.R. Tolkien This Far Land. Ed. Robert Giddings. U.S.A: Vision Press Ltd, 1984. 73-85. Book.
Carpenter, Humphery. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. Book
McClusky, Joan “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Short Biography.” A Tolkien Treasury. Ed. Alida Becker. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1989. 9-44. Book
“Students: The Hobbit Habbit” Time.com Friday, July 15, 1966. accessed Wednesday April 20, 2011. Web
Ringers: Lord of the Fans. Carlene Cordova. Narrated by Dominic Monaghan. Planet BB Entertainment, 2005. DVD
J.R.R. Tolkien. Julian Birkett. BBC/NVC Arts. 1998. DVD
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