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Tolkein, book design and my library

2010 September 22

Over the past few weeks I have re-read all six of the books by J.R.R. Tolkein which I own. This re-reading was enjoyable, certainly, and has also inspired a good deal of critical thought about Tolkein and his writing; for the time being, however, this blog will be more interested in the visual components of these works.

Covers of six works by J.R.R. Tolkein

My personal Tolkein "library"

I came to the works of Tolkein somewhat late. As a child I’d seen the Hobbit animated film, or most of it, on cable once or twice. I knew of The Lord of the Rings but had not read it; though always an avid reader, as an adolescent my tastes in fiction were drawn much more toward science fiction than fantasy.

For some reason, though, the promotional build-up to the Lord of the Rings films drew my interest (instead of repelling me, as is often the case with such shock-and-awe marketing blitzes). So I checked out all three volumes of the Rings story from the local library, and read them. And it was good.

Some while after the last of the films was released, I decided that I wanted my own copies of Tolkein’s work. Not just any copies, either. I was in the market for good, handsome, hardback editions which I would very likely keep around the rest of my life. Thus, about seven and a half years ago I began a very deliberate and at times almost agonizing assessment of various editions of Tolkein’s novels.

Of which there were, and are, very very many. I think my options at the time were slightly more limited, even excluding new editions introduced since; I don’t think there was anything like the Official Tolkein Book Shop site in 2003, nor an Amazon Marketplace. But there was quite a lot to choose from all the same.

The really tricky element to my search was that, less than a year after the film trilogy was complete, there were plenty of Tolkein books in stores but they were overwhelmingly movie tie-in editions. And while I enjoyed the films very much, I wanted my books in a form befitting the timeless works they are, i.e. not turn-of-the-21st-century movie merchandise.

Thus I was mostly hunting online, which offered greater options but required a certain amount of guesswork because I couldn’t actually examine the books in my hands. I weighed a number of different options and scrutinized whatever details were provided, probably to an excessive degree.

Among the editions I considered, I know there was at least one “prestige” edition, i.e. leather binding, gilt edged pages, etc. That seemed a bit much (and a bit expensive). I know that I encountered at least one monolithic edition of Lord of the Rings in a single volume; LotR is in fact a single novel rather than a real trilogy, but it did seem an awful lot to bind into one book. I did want to be able to lift these things, after all.

Much more intriguing was the approach taken by a seven-part set that I gave serious consideration to, in which each of the six books and the appendix which make up Lord of the Rings was a separate piece. That was a very close contender.

The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

The winners

In the end, though, there were some things about the material qualities of the seven-piece set which made me hesitate. Plus, the three volume structure, while not intrinsic to the novel itself, has been the traditional form of Lord of the Rings, so I ended up purchasing the set which you see here, sold along with a nice foil-stamped slipcase.

Slipcased Lord of the Rings

It comes in a nice box!

On the whole I’m pleased with what I ended up with. These are sturdy, respectable volumes. The binding is first-rate; these books will hold up over time.

Interestingly, they’re all British editions; each displays a price in sterling, only, and the quotation style is single, then double, rather than our reverse custom (and I have to admit, in this case the British style does make a good deal more sense). Given that Tolkein was British and, moreover, intended his Middle Earth stories as a kind of native heroic mythology which he felt English culture was lacking, it feels by no means inappropriate for my editions of the work to reflect this British-ness.

These are also great editions in which to own a set of Tolkein’s various Middle Earth stories. As can be seen in the first photo of this post, they all feature a runic border at the top and bottom of the dust-jackets which matches with my editions of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. (The Children of Húrin does not match, obviously; there may be a matching edition of it now but I bought the first edition when it was newly-released. Life goes on.) They also make a nice set without the dust jackets:

Tolkein novels without dust jackets

I've considered displaying them in this way, honestly. Though the green cover of The Hobbit does raise questions.

These editions aren’t perfect, of course. Nothing is. The paper quality leaves a bit to be desired; it’s got a lot of “tooth” and it’s already yellowing with age, though neither of these things is entirely bad. The printing is not quite up to the high standard of the binding. In some sections there is obviously considerable dot gain. There are also, I was surprised to discover on this recent re-reading, even a few typos.

More than anything else, though, the covers of these editions have left me with very mixed feelings from the start. As this post is quite long enough already, I think I’ll come back to this issue.

Random bonus note: In glancing at Tolkein’s jacket-flap biography during this recent re-reading of his books, I made a surprising little discovery. Tolkein, who lived from 1892 to 1973, was an almost exact contemporary of the fictional George Sprott, born 1894 and died 1975. I feel that this is probably, in all likelihood, a coincidence… but I would certainly love to ask Seth about it if I ever got a chance.

3 Responses
  1. September 22, 2010

    My father has long been a huge Tolkien fan so I had a lot of exposure to the books at an unusually young age. I recall my art teacher in second grade wanted to read the passage from The Hobbit describing Gollum and have each of the students draw their own interpretation. I was scolded because I started drawing the animated movie version immediately before she began reading. 🙂

    The copies I finally bought for myself in college were just for casual reading. Cheap, used bookstore paperbacks. No sense in buying my own good copies since Dad already had several.

    What he DIDN’T have, and I found for his birthday about five years ago, was the original American print run of the trilogy. It was actually printed illegally, the publisher was sued, and they recalled everything from bookstores to destroy what hadn’t been sold to individuals. My brother found a complete set in an antique bookstore. Excellent condition books, which are now in a special display case on one of Dad’s shelves. I’m still pretty pleased I was able to get those for him. (Pretty generic fantasy illustration covers, though.)

    Although that edition was rushed out the door and featured a huge number of typos/errors, my understanding is that every edition has some problems in it. I believe the story I heard was that the first publisher did a bad job of editing the original. Tolkien went through and made corrections for the next edition, but new errors were introduced in resetting the type. Every subsequent edition (at least for many years) featured some combination of errors from the two books. I seem to recall hearing that some of the errors were new ones that Tolkien himself inadvertently put in when he was correcting a publisher’s changes. I don’t know if those have all been resolved once the layout/formatting went digital, but I believe every edition prior to, say, 1990 has problems.

  2. Matt permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Awesome comments, man. Let me see… my copies date from 1991, and actually include a “Note on the Text” that summarizes the typographical error whack-a-mole history that you describe. I find typos in a lot of works, really, and Lord of the Rings is like 1,000+ pages long, after all.

    That is fantastic that your dad has a complete set of the original, pirated American edition of Lord of the Rings. I have one or two old/unusual edition books, but those have to be in a pretty exclusive class as collectible books go. What a great gift.

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