Quick! Name a four-letter word that:
(1) is common in ordinary English, and
(2) ends in "K," and
(3) means "intercourse."
Give up? Probably not--most native speakers of English (and many non-speakers) can name this word fairly easily. Or rather: one such word. For there are two words that fit the above criteria. Can't think of the other one? Don't be embarrassed: only a genius is likely to be able to. A genius like . . . J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tolkien is now so much a part of global culture that he seems almost a part of the landscape. Scholar speak of him in the same breath as Shakespeare; scientistics casually call a new-found species of short-statured hominins "hobbits"; legislators quote Gandalf against capital punishment; "elves" are no longer cute little sprites who hide in buttercups but knife-wielding death machines with perfect hair.And the literary movement that Tolkien spearheaded--"high-fantasy"--has made possible everything from A Wizard of Earthsea to World of Warcraft.
According to Publisher's Weekly, by the year 2000 The Lord of the Rings had sold 100 million copies in 40 languages. By 2008, according to UNESCO, Tolkien's works had been translated 1,198 times, making him more frequently translated than Poe, Plato, or Perrault. Mind you, those 100 million copies were sold before Peter Jackson's movies were released, and before LotR's translation into Mandarin. Following publishing's general rule of thumb that every book has a minimum of three readers, and assuming that at least half of the people alive in Y2K could read, Tolkien was familiar to roughly one out of every ten literate people on the planet.
Of course, J. K. Rowling has by now far surpassed Tolkien in terms of popularity. But unlike Tolkien, the worthy Ms. Rowling had the advantage of being carried by the world's largest publisher of children's books--and they had and still have the advantage of a captive audience in every elementary school in America. Thanks to Scholastic's marketing department, Rowling may never know if her work is really as good as her sales figures attest, of if her appeal is merely the result of saturation advertising. Which is a terrible pity: I'm sure she'd rather be known as a good writer than as "that lady who's richer than the Queen."
But perhaps it's just as well that Harry Potter is more popular with the kids than Frodo Baggins. Rowling by all account is a sweet Scottish lady you'd invite to your mum's for tea. Tolkien, on the other hand . . . Tolkien was more than he seemed. For John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was in cold fact two very different people in a single form a flesh: a veritable Jekyll and Hyde of high fantasy. By day: tweed-suited Oxford don, staunch Roman Catholic, war veteran, loving husband, doting father. But by night . . . .
That's right: the greatest pornographer of the 20th century was none other than J. R. R. Tolkien--and I can prove it. Don't believe me? Tune in again next week--if you dare. . . .
(to be continued)