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'Return of the King' brings back the epic hero - and crowds

Hunks, babes, and a battle for the soul of mankind.

These might sound like ingredients in a cynical Hollywood producer's recipe for a surefire blockbuster. But they were also tapped, half a century ago, in the prose of a proper professor of Old English named J.R.R. Tolkien.

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This week, it is his vision brought to life on the big screen that is drawing record-breaking audiences of every age to see "The Return of the King," the final installment of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

The linguist from Oxford University, it turns out, knew that it takes some bodacious swashbuckling to keep readers' eyes open. And he delivered something more that is now resonating in a post-9/11 world: deeper truths about man's struggle against evil and fight for redemption. "It's all the technology of Hollywood harnessed to telling a story that is worth something for the ages ... even the smallest creatures can make a significant difference in a war that encompasses the world," says Mel Campbell, who waited from 6 a.m to midnight midnight to see "Return of the King" at its opening showing Wednesday. The recreation manager from Palos Verdes, Calif., and several friends huddled around a table playing a "Lord of the Rings" board game to pass the time as they waited.

The epic, 200-minute finale has already won "best film" accolades by numerous groups, led by the New York Film Critics Circle. This has not staved off a certain level of "Ring" fatigue, inevitable given the nearly three years it has taken to complete the film-watching journey.

"For every one of my students who've become converts through the movies," says Charles Nelson, associate professor of literature at Michigan Technological University, "there are those who can't stand the books and think the movies are a waste of time." Nonetheless, says the professor who has taught one of the two longest running courses on Tolkien in the US (since 1973), just because a student isn't caught up in Tolkien's vision, doesn't change the fact that "Lord of the Rings" is one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century. A recent Amazon.com online poll dubbed it book of the millennium. It was No. 1 on the BBC's Big Read project.

"It touches on all the great themes of the old epics and sagas," says Nelson. "There's the loyalty of the fellowship, the idea of the roundtable and being bound together by a mission or a task," he says, adding that this focus on the contribution of the smallest member of the group is what sparks most with his students. "None of them really thinks they'll go on a big adventure like Aragorn, but they can identify with Frodo and Sam, two little people struggling against a big burden."

While Tolkien made a point of describing the hobbits as sort of half-men, Nelson says it's the valor of the ordinary "man" in extraordinary circumstances that makes the hobbits the story's heart. "They are short in stature, but not in vision."

"I think it's the hobbits which give normal people access into this larger saga," says Steven Hlebasko, a tennis instructor standing in line here. "People like the idea that even a tiny player without magical can affect the big picture."

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In post-9/11 America, they also like the idea of heroes without irony, observers say - a turn away from many of the successful novels of the 20th century in which the dominant character was an anti-hero.

"My students are resonating with the return to heroism with a completely straight face, like the fire and policeman running straight into the World Trade Centers without fear," says Professor Michael Drout, a medieval specialist at Wheaton College. Attendance at his classes has doubled in the past three years. "[Students] have gotten tired of the wisecracking Han Solos, and figures like Holden Caulfield ["Catcher in the Rye"] that refuse to accept phoniness but aren't out to save the world."

Tolkien himself thought a film of his epic would be impossible. But Hollywood - now able to do computer animation of prominent characters as well as vast armies - has finally caught up, says Tom Shippey, a professor at Saint Louis University and one of the world's foremost Tolkien experts (he teaches the other longest-running Tolkien course in the country).

And the genre has taken off. But Tolkien, to many, did it first and best. The veteran of the horrors of World War I eschewed simplistic allegory. "Tolkien on his own generated the genre of heroic fantasy, which is one of the most prolific and popular genres in the world right now," says Dr. Shippey. The reason is simple, he adds. Combine the psychological depth of his timeless themes with the latest technology and you have the recipe for a blockbuster.

While similar plaudits have been showered on other fantasy blockbusters ("Star Wars," "The Matrix"), "Rings" has something none of the others possess: Tolkien's towering intellect that created a fully realized world, complete with languages and detailed histories. In fact, the books were intended as a sort of updated "Beowulf," ancient tales that contained all the learning of a culture in a single, grand saga. Says Nelson: "He was trying to put into readable English what he thought was being communicated by these old books."