Bilbo the Billionaire: A Short History of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Greed Wars

‘Really you know,’ said Bilbo in his best business manner, ‘things are impossible. Personally I am tired of the whole affair.’

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, one Oxford summer while “laborious[ly]” grading papers for some always welcome side money. Both of us, he could have added, will be stinking rich someday.

One could argue that day arrived when An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit‘s film trilogy, officially scored its inevitable cool billion worldwide. But “whether he gained anything in the end” is still up for debate, the famed philologist wrote in The Hobbit of middle-class slacker, Bilbo Baggins, although he was speaking of himself –and us.

Because the same greed war that’s gripped readers of The Hobbit since its unassuming publication in 1937 has gone viral outside of its postmodern canon. From An Unexpected Journey‘s talented filmmakers and canny copyrighters to the spiritually exhausted Tolkien estate, everyone’s fighting for Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium as if their economies counted on it. Because they do.

If they didn’t before, they do now. New Zealand scored nearly $12 million on a million invested in An Unexpected Journey‘s local premiere alone. It’s not for nothing that the (breathtaking, beautiful) nation changed its slogan from “100 % Pure New Zealand” to “100 % Middle-Earth” — or that its laborers and overlords battled over compensation for The Hobbit‘s sprawling production.

But New Zealand is Hobbit-sized compared to the economic and political might of America’s grey havens, which is likely why Jackson sued for The Lord of the Rings back pay before he agreed to embark on The Hobbit‘s blockbuster returns. The result so far is a serviceable but also surreal first film which, it bears repeating, scored a historical billion.

The first installment from Jackson, parent corporation Warner Bros. and Saul Zaentz‘s Middle-earth Enterprises — once formerly, and ironically, known as Tolkien Enterprises — could have happened to a more loyal adaptation. Thanks to Jackson’s raiding of Lord of the Rings‘ appendices, exiled king Thorin Oakenshield and his hardy dwarve diaspora are transformed into more heroic warriors. While Tolkien’s own “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money,” An Unexpected Journey‘s band of brothers are fierce fighters hunted by the Orc nemesis Azog, who Tolkien killed off before The Hobbit takes place.

But as much as their impressive CGI heroics try to upgrade The Hobbit‘s sparse warfare, what Tolkien would likely call its sinful avarice can’t help but escape An Unexpected Journey‘s frame and envelop us, 3-D style. Because the greed war over Tolkien’s lucrative market — which has spoken, as the aphorism goes — has become as much a part of his legendarium as its author’s memorable life and work. His estate and An Unexpected Journey‘s rebooters are already fighting in court, as you read this, over its billion dollar benchmark.

But to what end? In both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey, the lust for recovering lost revenue inexorably leads to dragon sickness, what Bilbo describes in the book as the fierce desire “to sit on a heap of gold and starve.” It also leads to a cash-hungry anticlimax called The Battle of the Five Armies, one of many examples of what Tolkien derisively called a “‘War to end wars,’ that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.”

And he meant it: The Battle of Five Armies pays back the broken bonds and internal strife over Smaug’s golden hoard with heaps of dead bodies and wasted time. Much like An Unexpected Journey‘s phantasmagoric Battle of Azanulbizar — which Jackson adapted from The Lord of the Rings‘s appendix, “Durin’s Folk” — it wasn’t worth it. (“If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it,” Tolkien, once a soldier, beautifully wrote.)

But while the fantasy visionary knew that greed wars make for historically engrossing and morally enriching reading material, he did not foresee how sensorium adaptations of his remixed mythography would generate Smaug-sized piles at the malls. Or casinos, taking into account Zaentz’s recent countersuit against the Tolkien estate, which seeks one jury ruling to rule them all for blanket permission to spin Tolkien’s legendarium into golden slot machines.

All of these quite well-off armies are locked in a more postmodern vortex. Except the choice of weapons is pointed litigation deciding just who gets to reboot Tolkien’s instantly recognizable works and characters to sell not just more blockbuster films but fast food, plastic gyre fodder and worse. And you’re likely to find as much fellowship between An Unexpected Journey‘s dwarves, elves and orcs as you are between Zaentz, WB and Jackson, whose cumulative film and animated adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have already clocked over $6 billion.

None of this is to say that Tolkien’s own haul hasn’t unearthed an Erebor hoard. While reliable numbers are as hard to come by as heroic dwarves, The Hobbit has sold somewhere between 35 to 100 million copies. (Adjust for inflation at your infinitely regressive peril.)

So who’s right when Zaentz and WB’s countersuit argues that “the fame and goodwill developed” in Tolkien’s Middle-earth “marks, products, goods, and services” is “largely the result of the dedicated efforts of Zaentz and its licensees (including Warner Bros.) over the past four decades”? Which is to say, not Tolkien, or however many books he wrote or sold?

“These are indeed all very interesting questions, that unfortunately given the complicated state of affairs we are not at liberty to discuss,” Adam Tolkien of the Tolkien Estate told me, before well-wishing me on my journey down The Hobbit‘s hyperreal hole.

Despite the Tolkien estate’s reticence, it’s clear that Zaentz has thrown quite the claim grenade. At the estate of a former soldier and cryptographer who served in World War I’s Battle of the Somme, no less. (For the record, the Somme cost around a million lives, with zero to no return on its tragic investment.)

Zaentz and WB’s countersuit is aimed more squarely at Christopher Tolkien, who has spent most of his 88 years with the Tolkien estate bringing his father’s unfinished legendarium to market. First conceived and fleshed out by J.R.R. Tolkien in WWI’s fevered trenches, his Middle-earth legendarium was later exhaustively compiled and rebooted by Christopher as the sprawling epic, The Silmarillion. But the greed wars over Tolkien’s legendarium have evidently cost Christopher’s labor of love much more than he expected.

Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher told Le Monde last year during a rare interview. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”

Although he wouldn’t comment at length for my analysis, Christopher’s son Adam did make time to disabuse me, and Middle-earth fandom in general, of any fantasies we might harbor of The Silmarillion becoming Tolkien’s Next Big Trilogy for Hollywood, or New Zealand. “The licensing rights to The Silmarillion are retained by the Tolkien Estate, and we have no intention of releasing these rights in any foreseeable future!” he shouted from England.

But who can blame the Tolkien estate for their frustration, and their legal remedies? The commercialization and hyperconsumption of Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit‘s product lines have arguably polluted the real earth that Tolkien loved perhaps more than his heirs. On the other hand, the blockbuster rebooters making billions are arguably doing what Tolkien did himself, according to his excellent biographer Tom Shippey. That is, taking “the fragments of ancient literature, expand[ing] on their intensely suggestive hints of further meaning, and ma[king] them into a coherent and consistent narrative.”

And money. Don’t forget the money.

All the same Mr Baggins kept his head more clear of the bewitchment of the hoard than the dwarves did. Long before the dwarves were tired of examining the treasures, he became weary of it and sat down on the floor; and he began to wonder nervously what the end of it all would be.

Of course, Zaentz and WB are by no means first parties to try and claim Tolkien’s gold hoard.

In fact, by the time Zaentz got to Tolkien, the author was already an experienced copyright warrior. An orphan who spent his early life stretching what money he had, Tolkien labored, sometimes tragicomically, to get paid. Once The Hobbit caught fire in the UK, he spent time fighting U.S. pirates over unauthorized paperbacks of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Most egregious were those calculating dwarves from…where again?

“O my mind is a sieve!” Ballantine Books’ venerable co-publisher Betty Ballantine poetically struggled to remember during a recent Tolkien geekdown with the Woodstock Times. “Oooooh – Ace! Yes, that’s right, Ace went ahead and printed a pirate edition, selling a great many copies which paid no royalty at all!”

Ballantine Books’ publishing contract with Tolkien worried Houghton&Mifflin, who had cornered the American hardcover market. But Ballantine was also no stranger to calculation. Although it held no Tolkien copyright in the U.S., Ballantine still tossed H&M a few thousand bucks in favor of a hasty Hobbit-like fellowship aimed at hoard invaders like Ace and others. The old professor even joined the melee with stern back-page calls for boycotts of “unauthorized editions.”

“It began something like, ‘If you honor living authors…” Ballantine quoted Tolkien’s screed. “That was a shot heard round the world,” she added, “in terms of ‘the gentleman’s business of publishing’ fighting back against a new breed of jackals.”

Not just jackals, but lions and emus too, if you take into consideration The Hobbit‘s first authorized U.S. paperback (right). “I begin to feel I am shut up in a madhouse,” a cutting Tolkien complained to his UK publisher Rayner Unwin, taking Ballantine to task over her publisher’s disloyal marketing. “Why is such a woman let loose?”