AS THE final weeks of the 20th century drew to a close, much attention was given to the question of what had been the best—the best of the century or best of the millennium? An endless flurry of polls, surveys, Top 10 and Top 100 lists were compiled.

And when it came to the best book or best author of the past 100 years, in poll after poll, survey after survey, list after list, J.R.R. Tolkien was nearly always at the top.

At Waterstones, the giant British bookstore, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was declared the book of the century after it received the most votes at 104 of the store’s 105 branches—the lone exception being the branch where James Joyce’s “Ulysses” came in first and “The Lord of the Rings” second.

Also ranking high among vote-getters in Waterstones’ Top Books of the Century, “The Hobbit” came in at No. 19.

When The Daily Telegraph asked readers across the United Kingdom to vote for their favorite author and favorite book, Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings” won again. Tolkien’s epic was also at the top of a poll taken by the BBC to determine the “Nation’s Best-Loved Book”—and was at the top of similar polls in Australia and Germany.

Not to be outdone, U.S. customers voted “The Lord of the Rings” as the best book of the millennium, ahead of “Gone With the Wind,” which came in second; “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which came in third; and even ahead of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which took fifth place.

Only two authors had more than one book in Amazon’s Top 20. Tolkien was one of them, with “The Hobbit” coming in at No. 12. With his “Complete Works” at 16 and “Hamlet” at 17, the other author was William Shakespeare.

In this century, Tolkien’s writing remains as popular as ever. Current estimates put sales of “The Lord of the Rings” at well over 150 million copies, and sales of “The Hobbit” at well over 100 million, making them among the best-selling books of all time.

The film adaptations of Tolkien’s works are also among the top-grossing movies of all time and have further helped to make their characters—Bilbo Baggins, his nephew Frodo, the ever-faithful Sam Gamgee, and Gandalf the Wizard—into household names.

But it was not always this way. In fact, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” may both be described as books that very nearly weren’t. The story of how an obscure Oxford professor came to write these books, and then went on to become the most-beloved author of the century, is as amazing as any of the fictional stories that Tolkien himself would create.

Begun by Tolkien in 1930 merely as a bedtime story to amuse his children, “The Hobbit” was not finished and released until 1937. The sequel took even longer. Begun in 1937, “The Lord of the Rings” took 12 years to finish, including two periods where Tolkien quit writing altogether. He then had to wait another five years before it was finally published in 1954.

In the years since their release, Tolkien’s two great masterpieces have gone on to delight readers all over the world, becoming the kind of stories that are read again and again and are passed from one generation to the next.

Through his stories about imaginary creatures in an imaginary world, Tolkien reminds us of who we are and what is important in this world.

Devin Brown is a professor of English at Asbury University and the author of the most recent Tolkien biography. His Great Lives Series lecture on Tolkien will be held in Dodd Auditorium on the University of Mary Washington campus on Thursday, March 21, at 7:30 p.m. It is open to the public free of charge.

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