Talkin' Tolkien

Who has the right to write about the lord of the Ring's fictional tongues?

Salo insists Hostetter and E.L.F., with the Tolkien Estate's blessings, have been instrumental in quashing the publication of his book. "They don't like it when other people try to publish stuff about Tolkien's languages," he says, "because they think they're the only ones who ought to." Hostetter denies Salo's claims while acknowledging that theirs long has been a strained relationship. In November 1996, there even surfaced on the Internet long postings from both men detailing, in wildly varying accounts, Salo's visit in October of that year to Hostetter's Maryland home.

Hostetter says he's "earned [Salo's] animus solely by pointing out that since Tolkien's languages are the artistic product of an author whose works are protected by copyright, if one wants to publish work containing or mostly consisting of large amounts of material from these copyrighted works (as, for example, a substantial dictionary of Tolkien's invented languages), then one should ask the Tolkien Estate for permission to do so, if for no other reason than courtesy."

Which is absolutely correct, says Jane Johnson, London-based publishing director at HarperCollins Publishers and, until recently, the longtime editor in charge of the Tolkien catalog. For more than a decade, it was her job--indeed, a dream come true, she likes to say--to oversee and approve the repackaging and reissuing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit and any other primary and secondary works, including illustrated editions and atlases of Middle-earth. Johnson says HarperCollins would "love to" publish a dictionary of elvish languages, such as the one Salo's trying to shop, but that it would require approval that, for now, is unlikely to come. Rarely do Tolkien's heirs allow for publications about the author or his books; one recent exception was Tolkien: Author of the Century, written by Professor Tom Shippey, Tolkien's successor at Oxford. (Ironically, J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film rights to the trilogy in 1969 for a few thousand bucks because of tax problems, and the estate has no say over the film or the licensing of tie-in products, such as Burger King goblets.)

Elves in love: Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel, speaks in tongues to Elijah Wood's hobbit, Frodo Baggins.
Pierre Vinet
Elves in love: Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel, speaks in tongues to Elijah Wood's hobbit, Frodo Baggins.

"If an author uses any sort of quotation from the books themselves," Johnson says, "it would contravene copyright law in the U.S. or the moral rights law in Europe, which is quite widespread and covers a great deal more than the copyright law in the United States. It's about intellectual property, which covers a very, very wide area indeed. And people know the estate can be quite litigious, so it's always wiser to check things with them first rather than embarking on them on your own." No kidding: In 1997, the estate sued a clown in Brooklyn for using the name Gandalf the Wizard Clown, insisting that people might mistake the clown for the character in Lord of the Rings.

Besides, says Johnson--who became a college student of ancient languages, such as Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic, after getting hooked on Tolkien when she was 12--there's really little need for new books when the old ones sell just fine. Sales are up significantly, she explains, nearly 700 percent from this time last year. "I think we've just touched the tip of the iceberg at the moment," she says. "There are a lot of people who've never heard of Tolkien, never read Lord of the Rings, and they're all going to go out and buy the book after the movie opens. I feel quite sure of it. Whether they actually read it or not is another matter entirely, but I think we will see a sort of Harry Potter effect here." Though there will be a handful of movie tie-ins--including a visual companion penned by Johnson under her nom de sci-fi, Jude Fisher--HarperCollins is quite content to work back catalog.

Not that Johnson's entirely happy about it. Though she's honored and thrilled to be working with Christopher Tolkien--"He's so close to the source," she says with proper reverence--she does admit there have been moments when the publisher and estate didn't agree. But the relationship between the two is an unusual one in publishing, a rare instance where respect for the work overrides the desire to exploit it. So David Salo will have to wait, whether he--or, for that matter, HarperCollins--wants to or not.

"The estate wants to keep the canon pure," Johnson says. "That is their raison d'être...But Christopher is a deeply erudite and deeply charming man who was an Oxford don, like his father, and brings that vessel of scholarship and meticulousness to every aspect of this business, which can be quite difficult sometimes." She laughs. "But it's out of a total respect for the words and his father's intent, and you have to respect that. We do."

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