Why You Won't Be Reading a New Tolkien Biography

February 20, 2013

Tags: J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth, Biography, Copyright, Daniel Grotta, Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, Hobbit

by Daniel Grotta

Several years ago, my 1976 biography J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth, about the Oxford professor who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, went out of print.

For more than three decades, the biography had gone through several editions and numerous printings, had been issued as both a hardback and mass market paperback, and had been translated into a half-dozen different languages. (Besides being the very first biography of Tolkien, its other, somewhat dubious distinction, was that shortly after the biography appeared, it became the most stolen book out of libraries!) My book enjoyed modest but consistent sales for most of its editorial lifetime, which peaked with brisk sales (and very decent royalties) with the release of Peter Jacksonís trilogy of Rings movies. Then my bookís original publisher, Running Press, was acquired by the Perseus Books Group, which allowed a number of its older titles to go out of print.

Thirty-six years in continuous publication is a damn good run.

According to my original contract with Running Press, should the book go out of print, all rights would revert back to me. Which they did. Since The Hobbit movies were in production, I decided to capitalize on Tolkienís reemerging popularity by revising and expanding my original biography, which would then be reissued as an eBook. Whatís more, we were going to distribute it for free, as a way of publicizing our new boutique publishing house, Pixel Hall Press.

However, donít look for any re-issue of J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth on Amazon or B&N or Apple, or anywhere else for that matter. You wonít find it. Thatís because I never finished the revision. The reason why it never got off the ground has nothing to do with laziness or writerís block. Itís because we couldnít risk publishing it, for free or no.

Hereís why.

Back in 1975, as part of my original research, I had as a matter of course contacted the Tolkien family. I had hoped to interview them about their famous father, as well as seek access to Tolkienís private papers and letters. What I didnít know at the time was that Christopher Tolkien had contracted with Humphrey Carpenter to write an ďofficialĒ biography, and he wanted to actively discourage and frustrate all other would-be biographers from the field. Therefore he responded to my first request with a curt, nasty letter suggesting that I abandon the project. A follow-up letter that I sent elicited an even nastier, threatening letter that informed me that I would have no success in my research, and I could expect no cooperation from the family. Whatís more, he informed me that none of Tolkienís personal and academic associates would give me even the time of day. Indeed, as I later discovered while in Oxford, most of Tolkienís close associates had been specifically asked by Christopher Tolkien not to talk to me. Fortunately, enough of his old friends thought that was contrary to their sense of academic freedom and openness, and agreed to be interviewed at length.

As I continued my research in London and Oxford, my publisher applied to Houghton-Mifflin, Tolkienís American publisher, for permission to quote from The Lord of the Rings and other of Tolkienís works. It was denied. However, I discovered that, though all subsequent editions of the Rings trilogy are copyrighted, the original American edition had been imported improperly, and technically, was therefore uncopyrighted. (You can read all the details in J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, which can still be found in second-hand bookstores and probably on Amazon.). I managed to track down a copy of the uncopyrighted version. (Itís a paperback that had been briefly published by Ace Books, until the release of an official Ballantine Books paperback edition, as well as unfavorable publicity, persuaded Aceís publisher, Donald Wollheim, to let it go out of print.) So, all my quotes from The Lord of the Rings came from that well-worn uncopyrighted paperback. As for excerpts from other Tolkien works, my publisher applied the Fair Use doctrine that permits use of limited excerpts of material without requiring permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

In the biography, I quoted extensively from other authorsí and literary criticsí work; my publisher received and paid for permission to use those excerpts.

Iíve been told that Christopher Tolkien was quite incensed when my book came out (especially when it was published well ahead of the ďofficialĒ biography, and generated excellent reviews). Tolkienís English publisher, Allen & Unwin, sent Running Press several letters threatening to sue; they also demanded that Running Press cease publication of my book immediately and remit all profits to them. My publisherís lawyers believed that we had a strong legal and moral position, so they ignored the threats. They were right Ė Allen & Unwin never followed through with legal action.

Fast-forward to late 2012. In order to further protect the copyright of valuable properties that would otherwise enter the public domain (most notably, Disney protecting Mickey Mouse et al), Congress decided to close a loophole that retroactively extended copyright to works whose original copyrights had been flawed. This meant that the uncopyrighted version of The Lord of the Rings that I had been forced to quote from is now copyrighted. Emails that I sent to the publisher asking for permission to include quotes from the Rings in what I hoped would be the new, expanded, free edition of my Tolkien biography have gone unanswered. To make matters worse, itís common knowledge in the publishing industry that the Tolkien family is notoriously litigious toward any perceived threats to their franchise.

To assess how much trouble I would be in if I published a revised eBook biography, even if I made it free to everyone, I first outlined my dilemma to a trio of lawyers doing pro bono work for the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA). Unfortunately, none of the NYFA lawyers were copyright attorneys, so they were unable to give me a definitive answer. Then, as a member of The Authors Guild, I sent a lengthy email to their copyright lawyer. Her advice: forget it. It may be a grey area, legally speaking. But thatís not the problem. We simply donít have the resources that the Tolkien family and their publishers have. Responding to any suit from them, whether sound or not, would involve hiring a lawyer and appearing in whatever court has jurisdiction. (With a book that would be distributed over the Internet, that could be in any state, including faraway Alaska and Hawaii). Even if we won, the costs could bankrupt us.

So that is why you wonít be reading a new edition of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth.

By the way, just for the record, though I loved the three Lord of the Rings movies, I think that The Hobbit movie was terrible.


  1. February 20, 2013 11:51 AM EST
    Sigh. That's a great pity. Take a black magic marker to all the quoted bit and publish it as the redacted biography.
    - Ernest
  2. February 20, 2013 12:02 PM EST
    Wish we could, Ernest. However, the way Daniel used the quotes within the body of the biography, they are integral to the book.
    - sally grotta
  3. February 20, 2013 5:32 PM EST
    Maybe You should ask someone to stole your old, not used any more, computer with a copy of the "never published" edition on it?

    Then the thief could put that file on some P2P network?

    Or maybe it is possible to publish it in China?
    also without copyrights, and if you add this post as introduction I'm sure Yor work would be a grate success.

    In that introduction you should just ask every on who is reading the book share the book with their friends and to enter some page (www.grotta.net/I_have_read_it).
    - RockFord
  4. February 21, 2013 6:24 AM EST
    Contact the EFF and ask if they can recommend a lawyer. Ask the lawyer for a quote. Start a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds. If that doesn't work out, you can still bury the project.
    - gergo
  5. February 21, 2013 6:36 AM EST
    For what it's worth, I can confirm that Christopher Tolkien was - and probably still is - a deeply unpleasant man. He interviewed me when I applied for a place at New College, Oxford.

    His rooms stank, he stank, he was unshaven (long before it was fashionable!) and his shirt was greasy round the collar and cuffs. He was rude, bitter, dismissive and abrupt. The presence of a candidate in his rooms was clearly an intolerable intrusion, and he made his contempt for both his duties and me very clear. God only knows why he had been required to interview me, anyway, as I didn't even want to read English.

    He was vile throughout, and not in a constructive, challenging 'Oxford' way of testing a candidate's intellect, resilience or analytical skills. He was simply an odious, smelly homunculus. Meeting him was a memorably repellent experience, and reading later of his obsessive, sclerotic control of the Tolkien literary estate came as little surprise to me.
    - Oliver Beard
  6. February 21, 2013 6:37 AM EST
    Fair use, at least in the UK (where it is called "fair dealing") does extend quite far. It is most often applied (at least where I work, in a library) in the case of non-commercial research but does also cover commercial "criticism and review". The question of how much can be quoted is really the issue and no strict definition is given in statute but, provided full bibliographical details are provided, quite substantial extracts are permitted. The rule of thumb is that quotes should not be so long that they are sufficent to save the reader the trouble/expense of purchasing the original work. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, as we all know, these would have to be very long quotes indeed!
    - Neil W
  7. February 21, 2013 9:40 AM EST
    Fighting this case would not only probably bankrupt me financially, but also creatively and personally. I would have liked to publish a new extended eBook biography and distribute it for free. However, I'm not willing to turn my life over to it. I have other books to write, including a novel is nearly finished, and a life to live beyond the Tolkien biography.
    - Daniel Grotta
  8. February 21, 2013 9:43 AM EST
    I am saddened that Daniel's Tolkien biography will never again be published. Not just because it is my husband's book, but because I believe it has become part of Professor Tolkien's legacy. The story of his life from a literary point of view, respectful, yet honest, putting his great works within context of his life. But the used copies are still out there, and I'm proud to say, still being gobbled up and appreciated.
    - Sally Wiener Grotta
  9. February 21, 2013 9:58 AM EST
    Hi Daniel,
    I'm not a lawyer but you should not wait for Tolkien etsate sue you,
    but file yourself for Declaratory Judgement... that you using quotation is not a copyright infringement on the basis of Fair Use Doctrine.
    Your seeking advice of Author Guild lawyer IMO was a bad idea because this institution is VERY copyright maximalist and anti fair use. Better idea would contact http://www.vlany.org/
    They provides pro-bono services


    This will cost a fraction compared to the normal lawsuit
    - Anonymous
  10. February 21, 2013 10:16 AM EST
    Presumably your original biography is copyrighted? Could you rerelease it unchanged? At least that way it wouldn't stay out of print.
    - Paul Baughman
  11. February 21, 2013 11:20 AM EST
    I agree with the suggestion to use Kickstarter and approach the EFF. whilst you may not want to devote too much time to this, there is a certain responsibility to society to fight this sort of thing.
    - martin wass
  12. February 21, 2013 11:55 AM EST
    Alas, no. The book may be unchanged, but switching publishers (or even if I self-published it) means that all rights must be reacquired. That's the law.
    - Daniel Grotta
  13. February 22, 2013 10:57 AM EST
    Another Website picked up this story. http://www.themarysue.com/tolkien-biography-copyright-dispute/
    - Sally Wiener Grotta
  14. February 27, 2013 10:46 PM EST
    You should read Christopher Carrie's book he says its because their all pedos. http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Kloneit-the-reality-of-Tolkien-a-collectors-item-exclusive-interview-/281067750082?pt=Antiquarian_Books_UK&hash=item4170f182c2
    - Jim R
  15. March 15, 2013 12:40 PM EDT
    Daniel -
    Why don't you agree to turn the royalties for the book over to the Tolkien family in return for their agreement to allow quotations? And then offer the book for free...
    - ted krever
  16. October 3, 2013 10:06 AM EDT
    I am Christopher Carrie and I've just discovered this page. If Daniel wishes to know the full story behind this dreadful Tolkien family he need only email me at kloneit@aol.com and Iíll send full copy to him free of charge. I extend that same offer to any other interested person. If you need to verify my credibility see www.jtolkien.com my web site and title I had the temerity to purchase a long time ago.
    - Christopher Carrie
  17. January 26, 2014 8:49 PM EST
    Hi Daniel! I purchased a copy of your book back around 1978 when I was 10. Loved it, always thought it better than HC's official bio - it lacked some info and some was inaccurate, but it was more "humanistic" in its flavor. Always found HC's bio very stiff. Anyway, sorry you're having this grief, best wishes!
    - mjb
  18. January 26, 2014 9:58 PM EST
    Thank you, MJB, for your kind comments
    - Daniel Grotta