JRR Tolkien was a deeply religious Oxford professor and World War I veteran – but his works had a huge impact on the ‘60s counterculture. Jane Ciabattari reports.

It was a time of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Not to mention protest against the Vietnam War and marches for civil rights and the women’s movement. Who would think a figurehead for this social upheaval would be a tweedy Christian philologist at Oxford? But during the 1960s, a time of accelerating social change driven in part by 42 million Baby Boomers coming of age, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings became  required reading for the nascent counterculture, devoured simultaneously by students, artists, writers, rock bands and other agents of cultural change. The slogans ‘Frodo Lives’ and ‘Gandalf for President’ festooned subway stations worldwide as graffiti. 

Middle Earth, JRR Tolkien’s meticulously detailed and mythic alternate universe, was created against the backdrop of two world wars.  As a professor at Oxford , Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon, Old Icelandic and medieval Welsh and translated Beowulf, which inspired his later monsters. His fantasy vision, and his sense of evil looming over the good life, was shaped by his devout Catholicism and his experience serving in World War I, in which he lost all but one of his close friends.  “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to northern France after the Battle of the Somme," he wrote in a 1960 letter. Frodo and Sam struggling to reach Mordor is a cracked mirror reflection of the young soldiers caught in the blasted landscape and slaughter of trench warfare on the Western Front.

For decades, fans have been obsessed with Tolkien’s Great War of the Ring, with its wizards and magicians, the legions of hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs, giants, ents, the dragon Smaug guarding his treasure and the threatening Dark Lord. They were popular initially but sales of The Hobbit (published in 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (beginning in 1954) exploded in the mid-1960s, driven by a young generation charmed by Tolkien’s imaginative abundance, the splendour of his tales from a pre-Christian time and his obsessive cataloguing of the history, language and geography of his invented world. But deeper than this, certain aspects of Tolkien’s worldview matched the perspective of hippies, anti-war protestors, civil rights marchers and others seeking to change the established order. In fact, the values articulated by Tolkien were ideally suited for the 1960s counterculture movements. Today we'd think of Tolkien’s work as being aligned with the geek set of Comic-Con, but it was once closer to the Woodstock crowd. How did this happen?

A real trip

The drug culture of Tolkien’s novels may have served as an initial hook for the Boomer generation. Many of the characters of Middle Earth are drawn to hallucinogenic plants. The ‘little people’ in the Shire used hallucinogenic drugs, mostly “the herb called pipeweed”. Even the dark wizard Saruman, who was curious about the Shire because Gandalf showed an interest, had taken to the “halflings' leaf”. He was sceptical of it too: Saruman says to Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, “Your love of the halflings’ leaf has clearly slowed your mind”.

The high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings was “hobbit-forming,” as T-shirt slogans of the ‘60s and ‘70s put it.  “A whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the intricacies of this triple-decker epic,” said Professor Ralph C Wood, a Tolkien scholar. Middle Earth was a literary escape hatch for a generation haunted by the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb, a return to simple living. Many felt the experience of reading the text itself is akin to an acid trip. According to Wood, “Indeed, the rumour got about – a wish seeking fulfillment, no doubt – that Tolkien had composed The Lord of the Rings under the influence of drugs.”

Also appealing to the burgeoning anti-war, feminist and civil rights movement activists was Tolkien’s political subtext of the ‘little people’, the Hobbits, and their wizard ally, leading a revolution.  The military industrial complex targeted by protestors resembled Mordor in its mechanised, impersonal approach to an unpopular war. When he is drafted into bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, Frodo feels an “overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace… in Rivendell.” Those who led the fight against Sauron’s army stood reluctantly, hoping this would be the “War to End All Wars”.

Likewise, Lady Éowyn of Rohan, struggling to overcome the limits of patriarchal society, answered Aragorn’s question, “What do you fear, lady?” with lines that resonated among the second wave feminists of the 1960s: "A cage," Éowyn said. "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."

Tolkien’s anti-materialistic worldview, in which he extolled the wonders of growing things and of the ordinary – “stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine", as he put it in his 1947 essay On Fairy-Stories – also dovetailed with the countercultural values. Some hippies built hand-crafted houses, went back to the land to grow organic vegetables, wore simple clothing, ate vegetarian meals and lived communally, all seemingly in keeping with the pleasurable simple life in the Shire.  Earth Day, which launched the environmental movement in 1970, with 20 million Americans rallying from coast to coast in a rare show of bipartisanship, aligned with Tolkien’s glorification of nature, clean and pure, and his distaste for the polluting aspects of industrialisation. (This was a professor who rode his bicycle instead of driving a car.)

Mordor matters

Tolkien’s literary world directly inspired some of the most high profile agents of change within the counterculture. Rock bands whose anthems served as a soundtrack for the upending of the establishment clearly read Tolkien’s work. In the 1960s the Beatles envisioned a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings – Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, George as Gandalf and John as Gollum – that never came to fruition. Pink Floyd’s 1967 song The Gnome featured a little man named Grimble Grumble in a red tunic, and others like him in their homes, who were, like the hobbits, “Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Genesis all had Lord of the Rings-themed songs on the charts. In the opening verse of Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On, Robert Plant sings, “’Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair/But Gollum and the evil one crept up…” Two 1971 Led Zeppelin songs, Misty Mountain Hop and The Battle of Evermore, in which the “ring wraiths ride in black”, also were inspired by Tolkien. Black Sabbath’s The Wizard is an anthem for Gandalf. Genesis’ Stagnation was clearly influenced by the Middle Earth ethos.  Rush recorded Rivendell, based on the Elven homeland, in 1975 and followed in 1976 with The Necromancer (Tolkien’s original name for Sauron), who keeps watch with “magic prism eyes.”

This ground-breaking music mirrored the mind-expanding drugs, magical excursions, pagan celebrations and Bohemian lifestyle associated with the counterculture – and characters in Tolkien’s books.

It’s hard to imagine anyone today watching The Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films and thinking of alternative lifestyles or radical activism. What happened?

Tolkien himself would possibly be horrified by the multiplatform industry built upon his work.  Today his saga is best known through Peter Jackson’s multi-billion-dollar-grossing movies. In these blockbuster films, Tolkien’s intricate narrative arc has been scaled beyond its original humanity and reduced to CGI eye-candy. The spirit of his work remains, in his original texts. Go there to the books, and rediscover Tolkien the mythmaker, the believer in the mysteries of faith and storytelling. And someone who was once so square he was cool.

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