On the morning of March 15, 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, aged forty-six, died in a hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Despite his frequent travels and an enormous body of correspondence, Lovecraft was essentially a recluse and little known outside a relatively small circle of friends and fans. He had never published a book in hardcover despite repeated opportunity. He had seldom held a job. His brief marriage had ended without issue. Forced into evermore dire circumstances, he more or less died from malnutrition and neglect. Lovecraft was also essentially an amateur. He had made some small arrangements for the handling of his literary estate, but by all appearances, the entirety of his work has fallen into the public domain. (For that we can be thankful.) August Derleth became Lovecraft's champion after his death and published a number of hardbound collections of Lovecraft's stories and poems. Arkham House, the firm co-founded by Derleth expressly for the purpose of reprinting Lovecraft's work, was never a big operation. The initial print run of The Outsider and Others (1939) for instance amounted to 1,268 copies. It would take the explosion in mass market paperbacks of the 1960s for Lovecraft to become truly popular and well known. Today, he is considered among the pantheon of twentieth century authors of fantasy.
Six months after Lovecraft's death, on September 21, 1937, to be exact, (1) George Allen & Unwin of London published its own book of fantasy in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reviewers were enthusiastic in their praise for Tolkien's book. As a result, the initial print run of 1,500 copies sold out by the end of the year. The publisher issued a second printing at the end of 1937. An American edition followed in early 1938. Still more editions rolled off the presses in the decades afterward. Like Lovecraft, Tolkien became enormously popular during the 1960s when college students and the counterculture latched onto his stories. From 1937 until his death in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed an unbroken string of success and popularity. (2)
The Hobbit is a fine book, light in tone, full of imagination, with well wrought imagery, characters, and sequences of action and dialogue. It's aimed at children of course and it's not so British as The Chronicles of Narnia (3). In short, The Hobbit makes for easy and enjoyable reading. It was succeeded by the more adult and challenging Lord of the Rings. Writing in the New York Times, W.H. Auden exulted at the first installment: "No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring." Other critics raved as well: "extraordinary," "distinguished," "one of the great literary achievements of our time," "one of the best wonder tales ever written." Michael Straight of The New Republic was unequivocal: "There are few works of genius in recent literature. This is one." (4)
As I write this, The Hobbit is playing in theaters all around the world. It has been nearly a decade since the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released. That film, The Return of the King, went on to win the Academy Award for best picture. There are parallels in the lives of Lovecraft and Tolkien. There are also strong contrasts. In any case, it's hard to imagine that a film based on one of Lovecraft's tales will ever receive an Oscar for best picture. That may have as much to do with moviemaking as it does with source material. Then again, it may not.
To be continued . . .
(1) It's worth noting that those two dates--March 15 and September 21--resonate in Western culture. March 15--the Ides of March--is of course the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar. The Feast of Saint Matthew takes place on September 21, the eve of the autumnal equinox, which is, not by coincidence I'm sure, the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
(2) Names, titles, and imagery from Lovecraft and Tolkien even crossed over into popular music in songs by Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and the psychedelic rock group H.P. Lovecraft.
(3) Written by Tolkien's friend, C.S. Lewis.
(4) If you have the Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings from the 1960s, you have already seen these reviews.