Into a writer's life, very rarely, there can come an opportunity so stupendous that there's a slim hope of being able to retire on the proceeds. All you need do is seize the chance to write an utterly crass, exploitative and madly commercial rip-off. In the winter of 2002-3, the opportunity was dangled temptingly before me ...
It had been noted in certain circles that the venerable Tolkien spoof Bored of the Rings (dating from 1969) stormed the UK bestseller lists in 2002, as a result of some movie or other. One is amazed by the staying power of jokes based on the idea that 1960s American brand names are inherently hilarious. Also a bestseller, despite not in fact being particularly funny, was Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody.
The master plan, hatched in the offices of a publisher I had better not name, was for humble hack Langford to leap aboard the Tolkien bandwagon – and maybe anticipate Peter Jackson's next film project – with a deplorable, low-comedy spoof of The Hobbit.
Naturally this couldn't be called Bored of the Hobbit, since the litigious Tolkien estate would crucify anyone making impious use of the great man's word "hobbit". This is why games like Dungeons and Dragons call them halflings: Tolkien used that word when he needed an upmarket name for hobbits, but it was already in the dictionary. Moreover, the allegedly even more litigious Harvard Lampoon, owners and US publishers of Bored of the Rings, would surely launch intercontinental ballistic lawyers at a title so artfully close to theirs.
A possible alternative was The Habbit, referring to the main character's hopeless addiction to pipeweed (no, better make it the good old English term "sot-weed") and leading with grim inevitability to many a merry jest about kicking the habbit. Or, if that's too obvious, how about the more esoteric Hoard of the Bobbitt? Younger readers may not remember the celebrated US inspiration for this: "To the Men of the West, though, beyond the Sea, these stunted people were known as bobbitts. It was said that this was the Westerlings' word for an unnaturally shortened little man. But none knew why." Either way, the subtitle had to be To the Bank and Back Again.
Naming the actual characters was a problem throughout. For Bilbo, dared we pinch the forename unwisely given to Frodo in Tolkien's early drafts – Bingo? The dragon, lolling on its priceless hoard of nicotine patches, would surely be Smug. For Gollum, I planned an awful joke on the current UK publisher of Bored of the Rings. This soggy cave-dweller, being lank and given to gobbling noises, must be called Gollank. "Lucky it was that there was only one of him." Perhaps the dwarves could be Breezy, Cheesy, Queasy, Sleazy, Wheezy, the twins Easy and Peasy, and one with a permanent sniffle who cannot speak his name owing to a curse placed on him by the black sorcerer Disneyslegaldepartment ...
Of course it was necessary to spoof some of Tolkien's own lines, like his gag about the invention of golf. "When at last the great Goblin-leader Bassketborl's head was knocked off by the Bullshitter, it flew a hundred feet, and lodged in a bird's nest far up a cliff – so in the same instant the battle was won and a game invented which the Habbits were all too short to play." Speaking of ball games, what would dwarvish war-songs really be like? "The Dark Lord only has one ball / Nazgûl have two but very small ..."
Well, perhaps it would have been funnier after the second draft. With typical publishing irony, the whole Habbit deal fell through before I was very far into my first draft.
The project needed to be kept dark. Loose lips sink hobbits! Suppose another publisher got wind of it, and some other author did a rush job of spoofing The Hobbit while Langford was still polishing his finely honed masterpiece? Er, well, that's just what happened. Although I kept my mouth shut, swearing my family to secrecy and not even writing an SFX column to gloat about the deal, there was a leak at the publishing office. Another author heard about it – maddeningly, one of the same publisher's own writers – and rapidly bunged in a rival version as an unsolicited submission.
Naturally our publishers, who had been just about to sign the lucrative Langford contract, loyally declared since they now had a manuscript ready to be rushed into print, my services were no longer required. I'm not complaining, mind you. They did the decent thing and offered a generous kill fee.
So, if another mirthful (or otherwise) spoof of Tolkien should appear on the bookstands this year, it won't be mine. I'm just the chap who got paid not to write it.
Indeed, my literary agent thinks this is splendid business, and is trying hard to set up other deals which will result in me accepting large sums of money to refrain from writing books. It's a gruelling job, but someone has to do it. I shall set an example to Jeffrey Archer.
David Langford is currently not writing a hilarious parody of Terry Pratchett.