The unlikely story of J.R.R. Tolkien, a tweedy Oxford professor whose beloved "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has made him lord of the pop-culture realm

It’s an overcast Sunday morning in the suburbs of Oxford, England, and here in Wolvercote Cemetery, a crowd has gathered around a headstone with four names on it. Two of the names are recognizably human: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien, husband and wife, both of whom entered our world in the 19th century and departed in the 20th. Carved underneath those names are two more—names that mean something to you only if you’re fluent in the complicated lore of Middle-earth. These are Beren and Lúthien, respectively. Beren is the name of a man from the age of Morgoth, and Luthien is the name of an elf.

Over the years, so many people have come to pay homage to J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, that the earth sags in front of his grave. Past visitors have left behind the puzzle of detritus that you tend to find around famous headstones: a green jar, six yellow roses, a tiny metal fairy, a scorpion amulet. But today’s congregation is a lot different from, say, the death-wish cowboys who balance empty bottles of Wild Turkey at the foot of Hank Williams’ resting place in Alabama. This feels like a solemn diplomatic rite—the anniversary of the Rescue at Dunkirk, maybe. About 100 people are standing in a loose semicircle, and they’ve bowed their heads. Two wreaths—abloom with roses, carnations, and daisies—are placed on the ground, one on each side of the grave.

This is Enyalië, a ceremony that serves as the climax of Oxonmoot, an annual three-day festival that’s been held by the Tolkien Society since around 1974. Much of the weekend tends to be rowdier and kookier than this—and rightly so, since Oxonmoot coincides with the fabled Sept. 22 birthday blowout of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins—but it comes to a head with a yearly rite of protocol and gravitas. For some, the trek out to Wolvercote has the sacred tenor of a pilgrimage. ”At Enyalië, there is a sense of stillness and reverence. I remember Tolkien and his wife. I think of the tradition,” says Anders Stenström, a Swedish participant who’s going by the Middle-earth name of Beregond. ”Although Tolkien is someone I have never met, I’ve seen a part of him.”

Unless you’ve been trapped on the Icebay of Forochel for the past half a century, you’ve seen a part of Tolkien too—and not just because of those opulent trailers for New Line’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The man is everywhere. ”When you inhale air, it’s made up of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other elements,” says Phish drummer Jon Fishman, who, naturally, played in a high school band called Frodo. ”Tolkien is part of the molecules you breathe in your artistic surroundings, whether or not you’ve actually ever read Tolkien.” Globally, Tolkien has sold some 100 million books, yes, and he ignited the whole fantasy genre in publishing, sure, and he enjoyed (or endured) a fantastic surge in popularity at the crest of the lysergic ’60s, but…well, it’s bigger than that.