It was not Tolkien’s original ambition to become a popular author. Instead, he was interested in philology, particularly the ancient languages and epic literature of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. After graduating from Oxford he served in the First World War, then returned to the UK to take up a post as lecturer in Philology, first at Leeds and then at Oxford.
As early as 1918 Tolkien was devising the elaborate mythology and languages that would form the basis for the Middle Earth of his novels, but his first fantasy book didn’t begin to take shape until the late 1920s, when he told his young sons the stories that would become The Hobbit. These were first written down in the early 30s, and in 1936 a former student recommended the story to the publishers Allen & Unwin, who agreed to publish the book following an excited review from their most suitable reader, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Rayner.
One of Tolkien’s original illustrations for The Hobbit.
As discussed in previous posts, one of the reasons that people collect first editions is because the author often has a hand in the design of the book, and Tolkien is an excellent example. Though Allen & Unwin had not planned on illustrating the book due to the expense, Tolkien submitted a number of his own drawings for consideration.
The publishers were so charmed by them that, as Susan Dagnall wrote to the author, “we could not but insert them, although economically it was quite wrong to do so. And when you sent us the second batch we felt just the same!” (Hammond & Anderson p. 10).
This led to the request that Tolkien design the dust wrapper himself, resulting in the unique and striking jacket depicted below. They also solicited Tolkien’s advice on the cloth binding, accepting his design of a dragon at the bottom edge and mountains at the top. Both the jacket and the binding are now iconic.
The first edition of The Hobbit was published on 21 September, 1937 in a print run of 1,500 copies that was sold out by 15 December of that year.
The best way to identify a first edition of The Hobbit is to check the publication information on the title page, where the publisher should be named as “George Allen & Unwin Ltd”. The back of the title page should list no dates later than 1937. When the first edition had sold out, a second impression was published that included colour illustrations for the first time. It looks similar to the first impression and is also dated 1937, but states “second impression” on the back of the title page. Though the second impression is more easily attainable than the first, it is desirable particularly for the attractive colour illustrations, and makes an excellent choice for new collectors or as a gift.
Issue points for the first edition
The other point to look out for is on the dust jacket, if your copy has one. The rear flap has a misspelling that only appears on first editions: “Dodgson” is incorrectly spelled “Dodgeson”, and in most cases this has been hand-corrected in ink by the publishers, as in the example above.
Following the success of The Hobbit, Allen & Unwin pressed Tolkien for a sequel. He first suggested the publication of material he had composed for the history of Middle Earth, stories and poems that would later be published as The Silmarillion. Finding this assortment of material confusing, the publishers asked instead for another book about Hobbits. Tolkien did his best to oblige, beginning The Lord of the Rings as a simple story in the vein of his earlier work. But, as he explained in the foreword to the second edition, “the tale grew in the telling”, and the Hobbits found themselves deeply involved in the mythic history that had always preoccupied their creator.
First editions of The Lord of the Rings
This novel took much longer to write, with Tolkien composing on and off between 1939 and 1952, and its final length was an astonishing 1,192 pages. Allen & Unwin were wary. Rayner Unwin, the little boy who had enthusiastically endorsed The Hobbit, was now a young man working with the family firm, and he wrote to his father that the book was “a work of genius” (Hammond & Anderson p. 88). But the cost of printing was immense, and commercial success, despite the popularity of its predecessor, was uncertain. To minimise their financial risk they convinced Tolkien to publish the novel in three instalments, with the understanding that if the first failed they would not publish the remaining books. They also came to an arrangement, unusual for that time, in which the author would not receive profits until after the books had paid for themselves. These novels would not be illustrated, but Tolkien did design the dust jackets and his son Christopher drew the maps.
The three books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were published in the following order:
The Fellowship of the Ring – 29 July, 1954 in an edition of 3,000 copies.
The Two Towers – 11 November, 1954 in an edition of 3,250.
The Return of the King – 20 October, 1955 in an edition of 7,000.
Given these limitations, there are only 3,000 possible complete first edition sets of the trilogy in existence, and with attrition the actual number is even lower, making these sets genuinely scarce in commerce. A second edition, extensively corrected and with Tolkien’s new preface explaining the origin of the novel, was published in 1966, and the first one-volume edition (based on the text of the second edition) was published in 1968. This one-volume edition was the first time that the book appeared as the author had originally intended it. Both of these later editions are also considered collectable, and are less difficult to obtain than first editions.
The best way to identify first editions of The Lord of the Rings is by checking the publication information at the front of each volume. The publisher should be named on the title page as “George Allen & Unwin Ltd”. Check the dates on the back of the title page – the first two books should be dated 1954, and the third dated 1955, with no later dates present.
One of the most common questions we get about copies of these books is “How can it be a first edition if the dust jacket lists the later books in the series?” For most books (for instance James Bond novels and the Harry Potter series) it is important to make sure that the dust jacket or list of works by the same author does not name books published later, which would indicate that your copy is not a first edition.
The Lord of the Rings is a significant exception to this rule. Because the series was originally written as one long book, and only split into three for financial reasons, the publishers could anticipate the books to come and used the dust jacket flaps to advertise them.
A first edition of The Silmarillion published in 1977.
Despite the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien never gave up the hope that his mythology of Middle Earth would be published. Much of the material existed in manuscript form, but in his latter years Tolkien was not able to devote the time and energy that editing it entailed.
On his death in 1973 he appointed his youngest son Christopher, who had been intimately involved in the inception and publication of the earlier books and, like his father, was an English lecturer at Oxford, to serve as editor and prepare the manuscripts for publication. The result was The Silmarillion, first published in 1977 by Allen & Unwin.
First editions of this text are more common than those of of Tolkien’s earlier books, and fine copies can be obtained for under £100, making it an excellent starting-point for new collectors.
This article only scratches the surface of Tolkien collecting. In addition to the posthumously published books of mythology such as The History of Middle Earth, there are his professional academic publications, children’s books unrelated to Middle Earth, signed copies, letters and manuscripts, and volumes from his personal library. To learn more you can consult the resources outlined below:
- The best resource on Tolkien’s books, their publishing history, and how to identify them is J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography by Wayne G. Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson (this is out of print, but copies are available from used book dealers for between £60 & £200 pounds).
- The definitive work on Tolkien’s life is Humphrey Carpenter’s J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography.
- Another excellent resource is The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
- To find out what students Martin Amis and Philip Larkin thought about their Anglo-Saxon lectures with Professor Tolkien see this recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik.