With its tales of the life or death battle of Frodo Baggins and his friends against the Dark Lord Sauron it has won an army of devoted readers and inspired a series of acclaimed films.

But JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings almost didn't see the light of day after its author threatened to throw the book's manuscript into the fire.

It has emerged that it was only the intervention of George Sayer, Tolkien's close friend and mentor, which saved his work for publication and eventual posterity.

Now Sayer is to receive a prestigious honour for his influence on budding writers from Malvern College, where he taught generations of students.

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Sayer met Tolkien at Oxford in the early 1930s, through CS Lewis, his tutor and close friend, and the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Narnia Chronicles series.

Margaret Sayer, his widow, has now confirmed that during one visit to their home in Malvern, Tolkien - disillusioned by the difficulty he was experiencing in finding a publisher for the fantasy novel he was working on - contemplated throwing the manuscript on the fire.

Sayer would have none of it. He praised the power of the writing and persuaded his friend to persevere in trying to have it published.

The story he rescued from the flames eventually became Lord of the Rings, written in stages between 1937 and 1949, and published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, when it went on to become one of the bestselling novels of all time.

Mrs Sayer said: "In one of his visits to our home in Malvern, while sitting around the fire, Tolkien was down about struggling to find a publisher.

He even threatened to destroy the whole thing, but George reassured him and asked him to read some passages from it aloud. He told him that it certainly deserved a publisher and that he might even be able to find one."

It is possible Tolkien may have earlier also discussed his early drafts of The Hobbit with Sayer, before its publication in 1937.

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During Tolkien's visits the pair would walk in the Malvern Hills - which Tolkien compared to the White Hills of Gondor in Lord of the Rings - talk, drink and collaborate on literary projects.

Sayer also remained close to CS Lewis, who beneath his jovial exterior suffered from anxiety. Sayer counselled him over whether to marry Joy Gresham, the American poet and writer, a divorcee nearly 20 years his junior, and advised him against the marriage, partly on religious grounds.

Although it eventually went ahead, she died of cancer only four years later - a version of their story being told in the 1993 film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Sayer went on to write an authorised biography of Lewis, Jack: CS Lewis and his Times, which was published in 1988 and is widely considered the best account of the author's life, due to the deep personal bond between the two men.

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Sayer was Head of English at Malvern College from 1949 until his retirement in 1974 and was said to have profoundly influenced his pupils, returning their essays with witty, encouraging comments scrawled on them in red pen, along with the occasional marmalade stain and the paw prints of his cat.

Jeremy Paxman, the broadcaster, who was taught by Sayer during the mid-Sixties, said he was the best teacher he ever had, describing him as "a profoundly decent and compassionate man".

The idea for the George Sayer Fellowship came after a blue plaque to him was erected at his former home in Malvern Link last summer, acknowledging his friendship with Lewis and Tolkien and the influence the area had on the trio.

The Fellowship will be launched at Malvern College on March 8.

Its first recipient will be Alister McGrath, the Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, who will give an open lecture about Sayer and Lewis's friendship at the College.

- The Sunday Telegraph