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Enduring spell of a trilogy that leaves the critics cold

The story goes that, when JRR Tolkien read a newly-composed passage of The Lord of the Rings to his fellow Christian writers in the Oxford of the 1950s, his friend and colleague C S Lewis muttered: "Not another fucking elf." Sceptics still feel much the same.

Tolkien has incurred charges of escapism, nostalgia and reactionary politics ever since the trilogy (first published in 1954-55) broke through to cult status among the young a decade later. Yet the distinguished medieval scholar's tales, which started with The Hobbit in 1937, have shifted about 50 million copies, with a recent boost from his centenary in 1992. HarperCollins, his publisher, says they "still sell very vigorously all around the world".

Let's assume that the Waterstones' survey hasn't fallen victim to a Today- style poll hijack by the shadowy ranks of the Tolkien Society, and that the trilogy legitimately heads its list - with a third more votes than Orwell's 1984 in second place. If true, the epic quest - in which the flawed but striving creatures of Middle-earth do battle with forces of Sauron, the Dark Lord - continues to cast its spell almost 30 years after hippie traders first gave names like Gandalf's Garden to their market stalls.

The result is none the less a surprise. Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote in The Inklings about Tolkien's donnish club and who will be talking about him on Channel 4's Book Choice tomorrow, says he "had the impression that the Tolkien culture had dwindled to a hard core of fans", and that a great gulf divides enthusiasts from readers who never succumbed. "There are many people who simply laugh at the mention of Tolkien," says Carpenter, who suspects the Internet culture helped to mobilise his anorak-clad troops.

One critic who doesn't laugh is John Clute, editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Fantasy. He describes the trilogy, with its hard-won triumph of good over evil and its "earned happy ending", as "a comprehensive counter- myth to the story of ths 20th century". Clute stresses that Tolkien began to draft it in the First World War, and that it enshrines his sense "that what had happened to life in the 20th century was profoundly inhuman". The idea of escapism meant "not an escape from responsibility but an escape from prison".

Clute suggests that Tolkien's lowly critical reputation derives from the Modernists' aversion to plot - "an aberration that allows Establishment critics not to see what a superb act of storytelling The Lord of the Rings is".

He admits: "I don't find Tolkien's attitude to women pleasant, and I don't find his Catholicism or his belief in social hierarchy attractive. But that's missing the point. A counter-myth is a description of a universe that feels right - another reality that the soul requires in this waste- land century".

Those elves will be stalking the bookshops for a long time to come.