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Tolkien 'bout a Revolution

It's the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit - just 36 years short of Bilbo Baggins' fabled eleventy-first birthday! The occasions is, of course, being celebrated by Tolkien fans all over the world, and will culminate in the release of the first of director Peter Jackson's three over $500 million Hobbit films at Christmas. It's a remarkable achievement for a book that was written for the literature professor's personal amusement and sneerily dismissed by many of his Oxford University colleagues.

"How J.R.R and his merry band of hobbits changed our world"

With total sales of his novels estimated at around 300 million, Tolkien remains a publishing powerhouse, but his influence stretches far beyond the world of books. From music to green politics, he's had a surprisingly broad impact on our lives.

- Danny Scott

The godfather of film epics

Most experts agree that the movie blockbuster was born with Jaws in 1975. But Tom Craig, senior lecturer in film at Derby University, UK, argues that Tolkien's books pre-empted most modern blockbuster conventions years before they made it to the big screen.

"Concepts like an emphasis on action, set piece battles, variety of locations and clearly defined heroes/villains still provide the principal structure of such films," says Craig.

The godfather of film epics: Lord of the rings poster

George Lucas, the man behind Star Wars, has said Tolkien was an influence. "both stories feature an evil overload, a savior and a universe in peril," explains Craig. "But what Lucas and Tolkien  also share is a depth of detail and mythology. Most cinema is very superficial but Lucas created intricate worlds with their own language, customs and history. I'm not sure he'd have done that without Tolkien."

Rocking all over middle earth

Though originally published in the mid 1950s, the success of the Rings trilogy built slowly through the 1960s. By 1968, sales of The Lord of the Rings had reached three million, and its mixture of magic and morality appealed to the spot-smoking rockers of the Summer of Love, a 1960s hippie gathering. Tolkien references soon appeared in songs by likes of Led Zeppelin, black Sabbath and Uriah Heep.

The Canadian band Rush even wrote a song called Rivendell. "Back then, almost every young musician I met was reading The Lords of the Rings," remembers lead singer Geddy Lee. "A lot of us were hippies and believed we were going to change the world.  We wanted peace and love, an end to the Vietnam war. No wonder we found solace in a place of beauty like Rivendell."

"In 1968, the Beatles talked to Stanley Kubrick about making a film version of The Lord of the Rings."

Even the Beatles wanted to pay artistic homage to Tolkien. In 1968, they approached Director Stanley Kubrick with the idea for a film version of the Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien wasn't keen on Fab Four Hobbits, and killed it. 

The lads were lined up for the roles of Gandalf, Frodo, Samwise and Gollum... but can you guess which Beatle was was linked to which character? Answers at the below.

John: Gollum, Paul: Frodo, George: Gandalf, Ringo: Samwise.

Tolkien's influence on music remains strong today, with hundreds of artistes having recorded Middle earth themed tunes. They include everyone from numerous mythology obsessed metal bands to Annie Lennox, who sings two songs on the 2003 Return of the King film sound track.

Fan Male: Dave Myers, Hairy biker TV chef

"I First read The Hobbit when I was about 15, that strange age betwixt boy, man and, well, hobbit. It was more than a book to me - I lived it! Brought up near the Lake District, England Grizedale Forest became my Mirkwood. I turned my bedroom into a Hobbit-hole, and I even took to smoking a church warden pipe - though, try as I might, I never could blow a smoke ring. Obviously, I could identify with the hobbits... having several meals a day and spending lots of time sleeping. Oh, and my feet were hairy! Even when I went to art school, I still wore red kickers and green velvet cord trousers. The book so fired my imagination that I began The Lord of the Rings with almost religious reverence. I never finished it. Maybe my passion stayed at home... in Hobbiton."

Elvish Takes on English

"Having an effect on an entire language is an awful lot to ask of any writer," says peter Gilliver, an associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and co-author of The Rings of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. "But I've counted 44 words or meaning of words on the OED database for which Tolkien is given as the first authority. One of the most obvious ones is 'hobbit'. If you describe someone as 'hobbit-like', people know what you mean. There was a semantic gap for that type of person, and Tolkien filled it."

"Elf" is another example of Tolkien's philological influence. "Not that many years ago, an elf was rather twee creature that lived at the bottom of your garden, but Tolkien changed all that, and we now think of them as being bit like humans, but higher, nobler."

Other words and phrases Tolkien invented include "sun-shy," "orc," "overweight," "tree-peo-ple," and "slag-mound," " He was famously obsessive about language," says Gilliver. "I'm sure it would put a smile on his face to know that all these words are still being used."

Tolkien also, of course, had a huge impact on literature. "There were fantasy novels before him, but nothing that reached that global success," says the British book retailer Waterstones spokesman Jon Howells. "He transformed the genre from something that occupied dark corners in bookshops into big business. The Hobbit's sold out first publishing run of 1500 copies was considered a success. Las year, George R R Martin's A Dance with Dragons sold 298,000 copies in one day!"

Fan male: Alice Cooper, Rock legend

"Of course I read the books... loved'em! However if I'm being totally honest, I've always been an orc sympathizer. Even when I was a kid, I was always drawn to the bad guys. Which is probably why I ended up singing songs like killer and Street Fight."

"Granted, the orcs' personal hygiene wasn't always great, and some of their eating habits left a little to be desired, but I still feel they got a raw PR deal. Plus, you gotta admit that, if you were in a war with full on, hand to claw combat, you'd want them on your side."

"To show my support for them, I've actually hired a murderous mob of orcs for my UK tour this year. Well, you might call them orcs-we call them the road crew."

Bilbo's big society

British Prime Minister David Cameron's notion that local groups and communities, not politicians, should take control of community affairs and good causes is an idea that Tolkien would have been very familiar with, says Alison Milbank, associate professor of literature and theology at the University of Nottingham, and author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.

"From what we know about Tolkien, he certainly believed in local governance and, as a devout Catholic, he would also have been aware of the faith's social teaching - the importance of craft, guilds and class collaboration; the value of community and localized, family run businesses. The shire seems to operate by doing things at the most basic and local level possible. And the Rings trilogy concludes with different races and different classes banding together for the common good - which in their case was the defeat of tyranny."

Tolkien's original 1937 cover of The Hobbit

Nature boy

There was no such thing as "green politics" when Tolkien began creating Middle-earth in the 1930s. But his vision of a bucolic, pre-industrial world - where giant trees fought back against the evils of mankind - provided impetus and ammunition for the nascent environmental movement of the 1960s.

"The Lord of the Rings has industrial overtones, and what shines through in the travels of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves in The Hobbit is Tolkien's affinity with the British landscape," says Tim Atkinson, network developer at Friends of the Earth, a grassroots environmental network. "His world is full of creatures that cherish nature, from the elves' connection to their woodland home, to Bilbo's adventures through awe - inspiring scenery.

"The Hobbit certainly played its part in inspiring my environmental action. It's everyday heroism like Bilbo's that we encounter in people finding their voice for the first time by supporting wind farms or opposing airport expansion."

Thanks to Shaun Gunner and the Tolkien Society for their help with this feature. Visit

Fan female: Shelagh Fogarty, BBC Radio 5 live presenter

"The Hobbit was the first prize I got at grammar school, and I still have that book. The certificate glued to the inside front page says, 'Awarded to Shelagh for the consistent effort.' I received it at the school's annual prize giving, and the sense of occasion meant the book has always felt like something special to me."

"As a child, the story was just a great adventure full of fantasy characters and scary imaginary worlds. I read it again quite recently, and it had a whole new meaning, Bilbo leaves home to find treasure and faces all kinds of challenges. Don't we all! The choices he has to make, and the characters that help or hinder him, chime with the myriad people any of us come across in life. I loved it all over again."

Fan male: Daniel Sloss, comedian

"When I was a kid, being a nerd was a big problem. If you played Warhammer [a table top miniature war game, set in a science-fantasy universe] and read sci-fi books, you had to be careful about who you told, or your classmates could make your life a living hell."

"All that changed in 2001, when I was 11, with the release of the first Lord of the Rings film. I thought, hang on... wizards, dwarves and magic? This is a nerd's film. Afterwards, I went up to a couple of cool kids and said, 'have you seen The Lord of the Rings?', fully expecting to get punched in the face. But no! To my surprise, everyone loved it! Tolkien undoubtedly changed the lives of millions of people like me. For the first time in my life, I could say, 'I'm proud to be nerd'."