NEW YORK – Call it Lord of the Fans.
Since the epic The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters and shot to the top of the box office last month, hordes of people have not only flocked to the film, but have also tackled J.R.R. Tolkien's famously dense trilogy.
And these new devotees are not just the teenage boys and the Dungeons and Dragons geeks usually associated with the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Women and men of all ages are suddenly fascinated by Middle Earth, the Elvish language and the work habits of Hobbits.
"When I was in high school all the nerdy kids would walk around with the series and they were infatuated," said Judy Choi, a 24-year-old Tolkien convert who works in e-commerce. "I never really got into it, but the film's previews looked really good and after seeing the movie I was hooked."
Choi, who lives in New York, has just cracked Tolkien's daunting The Fellowship of the Ring. But she said she may skim it and go directly to The Two Towers, the second part of the trilogy.
Tolkien's longtime publisher, Houghton-Mifflin, said all the books of the trilogy are experiencing stratospheric sales that reflect a growing fanbase.
"Generally, the books are selling like gangbusters since the movie opened," said Clay Harper from Houghton-Mifflin. "So far this year, in five days, we've already taken in $1.7 million in Tolkien revenue — just in five days. ... Houghton-Mifflin total sales for all [Tolkien] books are 10 times in 2001 what they were in 2000."
And most people are not just skimming the books. They are delving into the nitty-gritty details of Frodo Baggins' sense of self, or maybe Gandalf's dark side.
"There are definitely a lot of new fans out there," said Michael Regina, 23, one of the founders of the fan site, TheOneRing.net. "The site was getting 350,00 hits a day before the movie came out. We are still maintaining those large numbers. And you can tell the e-mails and posts that are from 'newbies.' We have a new newbie section where we direct them, and there's a tutorial."
New, information-hungry fans are popping up in unexpected places.
Carolyn Moreland and her book club in Alexandria, Va., read The Hobbit last year, and The Fellowship of the Ring just before the film came out. Now she considers herself a serious fan.
"I have visited the Web site for the movie and I bought the soundtrack," she said in a telephone interview. Included with the soundtrack is an Internet link to a special fan site that provides trivia and perks such as downloadable cards and e-mail stationery.
Houghton-Mifflin acknowledged the film is the main catalyst for the 50-year-old trilogy's renewed popularity, but said the books provide their own best publicity.
"Whenever lots of people read Lord of the Rings, lots more people read Lord of the Rings. It snowballs," said Harper. "One of the great beauties of Lord of the Rings is that it has a perennial appeal."
And judging from the new generation of fans, he seems to be right.
As a 34-year-old professional woman, Moreland said she doesn't usually read fantasy/sci-fi books, and is more prone to pick up titles from Oprah's book list. But, she said, reading the Lord of the Rings has opened her eyes to the genre.
"It's an epic, like Titanic is an epic and Laurence of Arabia is an epic," she said.
Choi agrees. "In high school all the guys who were a little more brainiacs were reading it. That's how I knew about it. Back then I thought of it as a guy's book."