We recently tracked down a rare and very sought after first edition set of books: J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. The books are in three volumes complete, to include The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The books were published by Allen & Unwin in London and are all first editions.
After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings over the span of thirteen years, between 1939 and 1952. Its final length was an astonishing 1,192 pages. Allen & Unwin, his original British publishers, were wary of both the cost of printing and the viable commercial success of such a long fantasy tale, despite the popularity of its predecessor. To minimize their financial risk, they convinced Tolkien to publish the novel in three installments, and agreed that Tolkien would not receive profits until after the books had paid for themselves. Unlike The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings novels were not illustrated, but Tolkien did design the original dust jackets and his son Christopher drew the maps.
The Fellowship of the Ring is a first edition, second impression printing, published in November of 1955. The Two Towers is a first edition, fourth impression printing, published in November of 1956. Return of the King is a first edition, second impression printing, published in November of 1966.
The three books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were first published in the following order: The Fellowship of the Ring was first published on July 29, 1954 in an edition of 3,000 copies. The Two Towers was published November 11, 1954 in an edition of 3,250. The final installment, The Return of the King, was published on October 20, 1955 in an edition of 7,000.
Since the first edition print runs were so small, there can only be about 3,000 complete true first edition sets of the trilogy in existence. Even fewer could have survived today, since existing copies may have been damaged over time. True first edition sets, all in their first impressions, are selling for upwards of $30,000- $50,000, while signed copies surpass that.
These first edition books have been expertly rebound to protect the volumes. The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be written as one long book, and was only split up into three volumes for financial reasons. Thus, any first edition dust jackets of The Lord of the Rings will list the other two volumes in the series, even if they weren’t published yet! Normally, any publication that denotes later books to come is a sure sign that the book you possess is not a first edition. However, this was not the case for The Lord of the Rings, and publishers advertised the later volumes in the dust jacket as they anticipated their publication dates. They chose to publish the story in three volumes, so that if the first book was a flop, they could choose not to publish the other two volumes and save themselves from financial hardship. Needless to say, the success of the work has far exceeded such expectations!