Recent polls by Waterstones and other bookshops found that Lord of the Rings was the most popular book of the 20th century. The book (or three books) has stayed in print for almost 50 years and sold more than 50 million copies.
The film-the first of three-was made over the last two years in New Zealand. It had a budget of £210 million-three times that of Titanic. The New Zealand army were heavily involved in the making of the film, only getting out of their orc costumes to go to East Timor. The film industry's expectation is that a big budget film has to make three times the original budget to be considered a success.
Pundits are sure that Lord of the Rings will easily achieve that. The book has been a bible to environmental activists, Christian mystics and counter- culture hippies in the US of the 1960s. Tolkien described it as a 'mythology for England' and created languages, a social and military history, religions, maps and calendars for Middle Earth. Tolkien put a huge effort into constructing his alternative world. This is no ordinary swords and sandals fantasy story.
The book is fundamentally a rejection of the post First World War England that Tolkien and his friends at Oxford hated so much. Industrial development, the decline of the monarchy and religion, the spread of democracy and rationalism are all developments that Tolkien wrote out of his alternative world.
Lord of the Rings expresses a longing for a country life based on continuity and tradition, where everyone knows their place and there is a place for everyone. Tolkien was obsessed with documenting imaginary ancestral genealogies which show how a hero can be the king because of his ancestors.
It is the world of a feudal paradise, where despite some deaths (always of minor characters) good will triumph over evil, the few will fight on behalf of the many, and only the wise adult types will understand how the world really works. Oh, and there are only maybe five women (including elves) on the whole of Middle Earth.
The books represent the desire for an escape from the modern world into a simplified place of high romance. There is nothing wrong with escapism. But, as the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock puts it, 'jailers don't mind escapism-it's escape they are scared of.'