Tolkien Publishes

An Oxford professor’s epic fantasy became an unexpected best seller and sparked a long-term resurgence of fantasy literature, defining the conventions of the genre and its offshoots in cinema and gaming for generations to come.

Summary of Event

The first publication of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes was preceded by a long gestation period. The book’s origins can be traced as far back as 1917, when Tolkien was invalided out of active combat duty toward the end of World War I. An early fascination with languages (Old and Middle English, Norse, Welsh, and Finnish, among others) led him to create two languages Languages;fictional of his own, based on Welsh and Finnish, and to create legends and myths that might, as it were, have been written in those languages originally. The first such story was called “The Fall of Gondolin”; other early stories were “The Children of Hurin” and “Beren and Luthien.” The two languages evolved as the “Elvish” languages of Quenya and Sindarin. [kw]Tolkien Publishes The Lord of the Rings (June, 1954-Oct., 1955)
[kw]Lord of the Rings, Tolkien Publishes The (June, 1954-Oct., 1955)
Lord of the Rings, The (Tolkien)
Fellowship of the Ring, The (Tolkien)
Two Towers, The (Tolkien)
Return of the King, The (Tolkien)
Middle Earth
Fantasy literature
Lord of the Rings, The (Tolkien)
Fellowship of the Ring, The (Tolkien)
Two Towers, The (Tolkien)
Return of the King, The (Tolkien)
Middle Earth
Fantasy literature
[g]Europe;June, 1954-Oct., 1955: Tolkien Publishes The Lord of the Rings[04490]
[g]United Kingdom;June, 1954-Oct., 1955: Tolkien Publishes The Lord of the Rings[04490]
[c]Literature;June, 1954-Oct., 1955: Tolkien Publishes The Lord of the Rings[04490]
Tolkien, J. R. R.
Unwin, Rayner
Lewis, C. S.
Tolkien, Christopher

By the late 1920’s, these stories were already being revised and edited under the title of The Silmarillion. Silmarillion, The (Tolkien) In the early 1930’s, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s colleague both at Oxford and in the Inklings Inklings , a discussion group formed mainly of Oxford academics, had listened to parts of The Silmarillion and had urged Tolkien to finish the volume with a view to publication.

Tolkien was a perfectionist and preferred to rework his material, filling out the languages and geography of his mythic world. He also attempted a verse account of several of the stories. At the time, moreover, Tolkien had a growing family of four children, for whom he invented numerous fantasy stories with illustrations. Tom Bombadil became a character in one of these, and Tolkien’s later book Farmer Giles of Ham
Farmer Giles of Ham (Tolkien) (1949) grew out of another.

The most famous of these stories is The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again
Hobbit, The (Tolkien) (1937), which was first drafted by 1931. Over the next few years, Tolkien added elements of his mythology to it until, almost by chance, it was shown to an editor of the British publishers George Allen & Unwin George Allen & Unwin publishers[George Allen and Unwin] in 1936. Tolkien was persuaded to add several missing chapters and to submit the book for publication. The publisher, Stanley Unwin Unwin, Stanley , asked his ten-year-old son Rayner to read it as a test. The boy reported favorably on Tolkien’s book, leading to its publication in September, 1937, and the subsequent publication of a U.S. edition by Houghton Mifflin Houghton Mifflin . The Hobbit received a good reception on both sides of the Atlantic; the first edition was sold out by Christmas, and the New York Herald Tribune awarded it a prize as the best juvenile book of the season.

Inevitably, Unwin wanted a sequel; Tolkien submitted several of his other children’s stories and also part of The Silmarillion. Unwin was not happy with any of these but suggested that some stories could be quarried from the latter text. In considering this, Tolkien was struck by the idea of a return of the ring found by Bilbo, the protagonist of The Hobbit. A preliminary chapter done the next year met with a favorable reception.

As work proceeded on the new story, Tolkien finally saw a way of incorporating his original idea of a “mythology for England” Mythology;in literature[literature] with The Hobbit’s setting, the country of the Shire (based on the countryside of Oxfordshire). Such a move shifted the new book’s style and matter decisively away from children’s literature toward the heroic romance style of The Silmarillion. During World War II, Tolkien was writing intermittently as the concept of the magically powerful ring, the quest for its destruction, and the adventures of the book’s heroes grew in his mind. He read many of the chapters to the Inklings, Lewis especially being again very encouraging. Lewis was shown the final typed-up version of some half million words in 1949.

Further delays to publication were caused by Tolkien’s abortive search for a publisher who would publish both The Lord of the Rings, as the story had come to be called, and The Silmarillion. In the end, Rayner Unwin, who had succeeded his father at Allen & Unwin, decided to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, each with a separate title, at twenty-one shillings each (four dollars approximately); Tolkien was offered a half-profits agreement. Unwin expected both small sales and small profits. The print run for the book’s first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, released in June, 1954, was thirty-five hundred. Slightly fewer copies of the second volume, The Two Towers, and the third volume, The Return of the King, were printed. The Two Towers was released in October, 1954, but The Return of the King, delayed by Tolkien’s inability to finish a series of appendixes for the book, did not appear until October of 1955. Houghton Mifflin published the American edition of The Lord of the Rings beginning in October of 1954.

Initial reviews were favorable on the whole, with Lewis the most enthusiastic British critic and W. H. Auden Auden, W. H. the book’s leading champion in the United States. A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) dramatization Radio;drama (done without Tolkien’s approval) also helped make the work known. Tolkien’s first half-profits check in early 1956 came to more than his annual professorial salary.

Although Tolkien was surprised by even this modest success, the immediate effect of the book’s publication on him was not great. He had committed himself not to retire until he was sixty-seven, which meant that, even with his new income, he was obligated to Oxford until 1959. He had put off publishing a number of academic works for which he now had time, and he continued to work on The Silmarillion. He did take seriously the fan mail that began to arrive and to give selective interviews. A film about him and a biography were produced in the early 1960’s, and reprintings of The Hobbit kept up with regular hardback reprintings of The Lord of the Rings.


The real impact of The Lord of the Rings was not felt until the mid-1960’s, when the book was printed in paperback. Response to the book took two distinct forms, an immediate “cultic” form and a longer-term literary one.

By the mid-1960’s, Tolkien’s popularity was, if anything, greater in the United States than in Great Britain. Tolkien societies had been set up in New York and elsewhere, much to Tolkien’s “alarm and despondency,” as he put it. The 1965 printing of an American paperback edition was controversial; a small publisher (Ace) went ahead with a pirated edition before Houghton Mifflin, in association with Ballantine Books Ballantine Books , could bring out a revised, copyrighted version. In the end, Tolkien, with American writers and supporters, forced Ace to pay royalties and promise not to reprint. The controversy attracted national publicity, and while Ace sold more than a hundred thousand copies, Ballantine’s sales soon reached a million.

Already a popular best seller, The Lord of the Rings then spawned a campus cult. By the end of 1966, the book topped sales at Yale University and Harvard University. Lapel badges reading “Frodo Lives,” “Gandalf for President,” and “Come to Middle Earth,” referring to characters and places in the book, mushroomed, as did the psychedelic magazine Gandalf’s Garden, aimed at hippies particularly. More Tolkien societies sprang up in California and New York. Tolkien remained horrified by the whole phenomenon, seeing it as a distortion of his own vision. He put it down to the different mental climate of America, which, he felt, had become polluted and impoverished.

Other explanations for the popularity of Tolkien’s trilogy in the United States have been sought in the ecological, antimachine bias of The Lord of the Rings, which expressed its author’s reaction to and rejection of modern civilization. The best explanation for the book’s astonishing success probably lies in the sense of “cosmic insecurity” of much of the youth of the 1960’s, together with the generation’s widespread desire for a new consciousness and a new value system; such things need a new mythology and a new language.

This understanding of Tolkein’s work, however, was at odds with the deeply religious Christianity;literature —at times almost sacramental—and moral themes of the trilogy as a kind of modern reflection on the doctrine of Original Sin and on the interplay between good and evil and of virtue and vice in the human soul and in society writ large. That it is also a tribute to such old-fashioned values as loyalty, honor, and friendship is also obvious. In this latter regard, perhaps Tolkien’s “fellowship” also promised new possibilities of heroic community and extended family, a renewing of aspects of the American Dream.

The longer-term impact was literary: to establish fantasy as a major genre in modern literature, one for which publishers and writers could confidently expect a large audience. Previously, fantasy and children’s literature in the United States had been marginalized (in Great Britain, children’s fantasy had always been popular). The immediate impact was to move popular writers such as Andre Norton and Ursula K. Le Guin Le Guin, Ursula K. , whose A Wizard of Earthsea appeared in 1968, from science fiction to fantasy. New fantasy writers appeared and have continued to do so—Anne McCaffrey, Stephen Donaldson, Peter Beagle, Poul Anderson, David Eddings, and Robert Silverberg, to name but a few. Publishers specializing in fantasy, including Ballantine, grew enormously, and other publishers developed fantasy sections.

Few writers have managed to establish the concrete reality of Tolkien’s Middle-earth or to maintain the rhythms and style of his prose. Some have merged science-fiction features with their high fantasy. There has been a simultaneous drift among fantasy devotees toward horror and even fantasy games—something totally alien to Tolkien’s own philosophy of myth as true reality. The drift to occult settings would doubtless have been deplored by Tolkien, a devout Catholic. Other fantasy writers such as Lloyd Alexander Alexander, Lloyd have received more indirect inspiration, preferring to keep to more traditional Arthurian themes. Such general popularity of high fantasy can even be seen as reflecting a profound shift in the Puritan, materialistic, and enlightenment ethics and outlooks of the Western world, and as a turning away from America as consoling dream toward imaginary lands. Lord of the Rings, The (Tolkien)
Fellowship of the Ring, The (Tolkien)
Two Towers, The (Tolkien)
Return of the King, The (Tolkien)
Middle Earth
Fantasy literature

Further Reading

  • Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A difficult theoretical book on fantasy in general, but contains a useful chapter on The Lord of the Rings in which other theoretical views are also discussed. Bibliography, index.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. The “official” family biography, charting Tolkien’s life from his birth in South Africa, through his time as an academic at Leeds and Oxford, to his retirement and death. Deals sympathetically with his marriage and Catholicism. Four appendixes, index, and photographs.
  • Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Collection of scholarly essays that consider Tolkien’s world-building and myth-making projects, as well as the general impulse to such endeavors in the fantasy genre. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Day, David. Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Mitchell Beazley, 1991. Brought out to coincide with the centenary of Tolkien’s birth. More lavish, but not better, than Robert Foster’s production.
  • Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle Earth: From “The Hobbit” to “The Silmarillion.” New York: Ballantine, 1978. The most highly praised encyclopedia of Middle-earth, bringing together facts and information about names, languages, and history.
  • Isaacs, Neil D., and Rose A. Zimbardo, eds. Tolkien and the Critics. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. The first attempt at a critical evaluation of The Lord of the Rings, including C. S. Lewis’s and W. H. Auden’s essays. Though written at the height of the campus cult, manages to retain sufficient objectivity to make it a worthwhile contribution to literary criticism. Indexes.
  • Kocher, Paul. Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. Reprint. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Discusses Tolkien’s literary merits in the light of his theory of fairy stories and also in the light of some of the earlier negative criticism. Notes and index.
  • Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Considers the cultural reception and influence of Tolkien’s works in the twentieth century, as well as the place of those works in the history of ideas. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Salu, Mary, and Robert T. Farrell, eds. J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. Collection of essays about Tolkien’s work that contains particularly important pieces by Derek Brewer on romance, William Davie on theology, and T. K. Shippey on philology. Bibliography of all Tolkien’s works.
  • Strachey, Barbara. Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” New York: Ballantine, 1981. A series of fifty maps, derived from close reading of the text, each with an exact description of distances traveled by the characters. Illustrates Tolkien’s perfectionist desire for accuracy in his text.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. London: Allen & Unwin, 1981. Selections from 354 of Tolkien’s letters written from 1914 to 1973. A valuable backup to Carpenter’s biography. Full notes, introduction, appendix.
  • _______. “On Fairy Stories.” In The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. Originally given as a lecture at the University of St. Andrews in 1938, this much-reprinted essay sets out Tolkien’s own literary credo on the power of myth and the status of fantasy writer as subcreator.

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