According to J.R.R. Tolkien, hobbits are furry-footed, comfort-loving, pipeweed-smoking creatures, ”smaller than dwarves,” who live in Middle-earth. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, hobbitomanes are devotees of hobbits. And according to the Jan. 30, 1967, issue of Publishers Weekly, which announced that Tolkien’s The Hobbit; Or, There and Back Again had been the biggest-selling mass-market paperback of 1966, hobbitomania had reached a pinnacle.
The author of this phenom and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, made an unlikely cult figure. Tolkien, an Oxford philologist and scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, began The Hobbit as a story he told his children. The book, which follows the adventures of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who joins a band of dwarves to recover a treasure stolen by the greedy dragon Smaug, was well received when first published in Britain in 1937. But the books didn’t really take off until the mid-’60s, when they came out in paperback in the U.S.
Hobbitomania was especially virulent on college campuses. Dorm rooms were decorated with ”Visit Middle-earth” posters. Furry-faced youths saluted each other with the hobbitish greeting, ”May your beard never grow less.” And dogs named Gandalf, after a good wizard, roamed university quads.
Tolkien explained the success of his books by noting that they ”fell into the lap of a generation which was growing up…in a world deprived of faith and religion. The books provided a substitute faith.” (His horrified protests, however, could not squash the widespread belief that the pipeweed enjoyed by hobbits was actually marijuana.)
Translated into 26 languages, with a total of 55 million copies in print, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy continue to sell steadily, though not in the huge numbers of the ’60s. And Tolkien, who died in 1973, cast a lasting spell over popular culture. ”Before Tolkien there was hardly any fantasy in bookstores,” says Glen H. GoodKnight, founder of the 800-member Mythopoeic Society, devoted to the writings of Tolkien and two of his Oxford pals, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Today the fantasy genre, filled with elves and dragons, accounts for 10 percent of all paperback fiction sales. As Tolkien put it, ”The road goes ever on and on….”
Jan. 30, 1967
JFK conspiracy theorist Mark Lane made his own Rush to Judgment. Annette Funicello addressed the film question How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. And we went bananas over the Monkees’ No. 1 hit ”I’m a Believer.”