The work of J.R.R. Tolkien, father of ‘high-fantasy,’ writer, artist, and philologist, continues to grow in popularity, even fifty years after his death. In 2021 Tolkien’s final writings on Middle-earth were published as The Nature of Middle-Earth. In September 2022, Amazon released the most expensive TV series ever produced: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. A collection of Tolkien’s writings of the Second Age, The Fall of Númenor, was published in November 2022. In March 2023, HarperCollins will release a new Tolkien book, a prose translation of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, “together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth,” which is Tolkien’s alliterative poem.
J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892, in the Orange Free State, part of present-day South Africa. His father was of German ancestry, while his mother Mabel’s family, the Suffields, had been settled in Birmingham, England, since the 1810s. Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary struggled with the climate of South Africa, and Mabel took the boys back to England to live with her parents, and when he was just four years old his father passed away. Although Mabel was raised Protestant, she converted to Roman Catholicism a few years after the passing of her husband. Then, when Tolkien was twelve, Mabel passed away as well, leaving him in the care of Father Francis Morgan, a Catholic priest. At the age of 16, Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, who was an orphan as well. His guardian disapproved of Tolkien’s interest (she was Protestant) and barred him from speaking to her until he was 21.
As a teen, Tolkien excelled in Classical and modern languages at school. In 1910 and 1911, he attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham and in 1911, enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford. On the evening of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote a proposal to his love interest, Edith Mary Bratt, but in the five years since she had spoken to him, she had gotten engaged to someone else. Upon receiving his letter, she quit the engagement and accepted Tolkien’s proposal. The couple was formally engaged in January 1913 and married on March 22nd, 1916.
Britain entered WWI in August 1914, but Tolkien delayed enlistment to finish his degree. He graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1915 with first-class honours in English literature and literature. In July 1915, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant and sent to France the following summer. In October, he contracted trench fever, remained sick, and was deemed unfit for service for the remainder of the war. Many of his school friends were killed in service.
After the War, Tolkien took a job with the Oxford English Dictionary, where he further explored his interest in language (mainly the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with W.) He also began working at the University of Leeds and was the youngest member of the academic staff at twenty-eight. His first book, A Middle English Vocabulary; Designed for Use with Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (1922), was published there. Two thousand copies were printed, although many of these were later bound with Sisam’s book, so few remain in original wrappers.
During this time, Tolkien also edited a definitive edition of Sir Gawain & The Green Knight along with E.V. Gordon, published by Oxford University Press in 1925.
In 1925 Tolkien received an appointment as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford Oxford University. During the 1920s, he translated an edition of the Old English epic poem Beowulf for his Oxford students to use as crib notes. Tolkien taught Beowulf for 20 years, and its influence is in his fantasy writings.
JRR Tolkien’s Publishing History: What to Collect
Song for the Philologists (1936)
One of the rarest Tolkien books is a 1936 collection of poems and songs, original and traditional, compiled with E.V. Gordon for the ‘Viking Club.’ at Leeds University. Thirteen of the poems were written by Tolkien. This typescript was privately printed in the Department of English at University College in London by a former student, A.H Smith. Since Smith did not have permission from Gordon or Tolkien to publish the work, he only distributed a few copies to select individuals. A bombing and resulting fire during WWII destroyed the remaining copies in storage. In 2011 a Song for the Philologists was listed on Biblio for $23,900. Four copies of the work are held in libraries in the United States, including the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, and eight others are held in libraries worldwide.
The Hobbit (1937)
Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit, was published in 1937 by Allen & Unwin. Although others had published in the fantasy genre prior to Tolkien, The Hobbit made him a legend and the father of ‘high fantasy.’ Along with Beowulf, Tolkien was inspired by his Roman Catholic faith, his relationship with C.S. Lewis and other Inklings, and his education and interest in languages.
Although he considered himself an amateur artist, Tolkien did the illustrations for the book, sketching, painting, and mapping out the worlds as he imagined them.
A first edition, first printing of the UK edition, published a year before the American edition, can value at over $50,000.
One interesting edition of The Hobbit is a 1962 version in Swedish, Bilbo: En Hobbits Aventyr. This book includes 58 line drawings, including 12 full-page illustrations, by Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins.
While you’re saving up for an original edition of The Hobbit, you might be interested in some alternate editions. Many original Tolkien works have been rereleased in limited, deluxe, and illustrated editions by HarperCollins, George Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Easton Press, and The Folio Society, so there are numerous variations on original editions from which to choose.
Farmer Giles of Ham (1949)
Published in 1949, this was Tolkien’s second published work of fiction.
Farmer Giles of Ham is a light-hearted satire for readers of all ages that tells the tale of a reluctant hero who must save his village from a dragon. It allows readers into Tolkien’s world without having to invest in the sweeping scale of the Lord of the Rings epic. ‘Embellished’ by Pauline Diana Baynes, an English illustrator who worked on over 100 books, including multiple Tolkien books and the Narnia series for C.S. Lewis.
The Lord of the Rings Series
After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publisher asked that he produce a sequel. He wrote what became The Lord of the Rings between 1939-1954. Although written as one big work comprised of six books, The Lord of the Rings was broken into three separate volumes because of post-World War II paper shortages and size and price considerations. The print run of the first editions was very small: 3,000 copies for The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), 3,250 copies for The Two Towers (1954), and 7,000 copies for The Return of the King (1955). The Lord of the Rings went on to become one of the best-selling novels ever, with more than 150 million copies sold.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the first of three volumes of the epic novel The Lord of the Rings. It takes place in the fictional universe of Middle-earth. Originally published in the United Kingdom on July 29th, 1954, the volume consists of a Prologue, “Concerning Hobbits, and other matters,” followed by Book I and Book II.
The Two Towers (1954)
The second of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Two Towers, is composed of “Book III: The Treason of Isengard” and “Book IV: The Ring Goes East.” The first edition, published in November 1954 by George Allen & Unwin, includes a 1954 version of the map of The West of Middle-earth at the End of the Third Age inserted on a fold-out sheet at the rear.
The Return of the King (1955)
Published on October 20th, 1955, in the UK by Allen & Unwin, the last and final volume of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Return of the King is made up of Books V and VI, plus appendices.
Other Collectible Lord of the Rings Editions:
Originally The Lord of the Rings series was imported to America by Houghton Mifflin. The owner of Ace books reached out to Tolkien about paperback rights but was dismissed – Tolkien did not want his series to be published in what he considered a ‘degenerate form.’ Offended and persistent, Ace found a loophole in the copyright laws, and in 1965, they released their pirated versions of the series. They sold over 100,000 copies. Motivated by the piracy of his books, Tolkien got to work on revising the series for American paperback, and in 1966 Ballantine released an edited and authorized version. After a lot of rejection by fans and some negotiation with Tolkien, Ace discontinued printing their pirated copies. Today those shortly-famous paperbacks are collector items (and the reason books bear the ‘authorized editions’ tag.
The Easton Press
In 1984 The Easton Press released a three-volume set of The Lord of the Rings in full gilt-embossed Sherwood-green calf with a frontispiece by Michael Hague.
The first Folio Society edition of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1977 with illustrations by Ingahild Grathmer, the pseudonym for Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. The illustrations were re-drawn by Eric Fraser for this edition. It has since been released multiple times, including in 1979, 1990, 1997, 2002, and 2022.
JRR Tolkien’s Works Published in the 1960s
In the 1960s, Tolkien published a few more minor works:
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is a poetry collection by J.R.R. Tolkien that was published in 1962 by George Allen & Unwin, London, and Houghton Mifflin, Boston. The book contains 16 poems, only two of which deal with Tom Bombadil, a character made famous from his encounter with Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. The rest of the poems are an assortment of bestiary verses and fairy tale rhymes. Two of the poems also appear in The Lord of the Rings series.
Tree & Leaf (1964)
Tree and Leaf is a small book published in 1964, containing two works by J. R. R. Tolkien: a revised version of an essay called “On Fairy-Stories,” initially published in 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, and a short story called “Leaf by Niggle,” originally published in the Dublin Review in 1945. “Leaf by Niggle” is seen as an allegory for Tolkien’s life, demonstrating the usefulness of fantasy for adults. The poem “Mythopoeia” was added to the 1988 edition.
The Tolkien Reader (1966)
First published in 1966 as a mass-market paperback by Ballantine Books, The Tolkien Reader includes short stories (including “Tree and Leaf,” “Farmer Giles of Ham,” and “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”), poems, a play, and some non-fiction.
Smith of Wootton Major (1967)
The first edition of the novella Smith of Wootton Major, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, was published by Allen and Unwin, London, in 1967, and Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Posthumous Works of JRR Tolkien
On November 29th, 1971, Tolkien’s wife of over 50 years, Edith, passed away. Tolkien had the name Lúthien engraved on her headstone, after a character in his Middle-earth legends. Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. Not even two years later on September 2nd, 1973, Tolkien died, and Beren was engraved on his headstone.
After his death, Tolkien’s son Christopher, also an Oxford academic, took over his father’s vast literary estate, and under his guidance, it continued to grow.
These are some other collectible Tolkien books published after his death:
Published on the 3rd anniversary of his death, The Father Christmas Letters are a collection of letters written to his children between 1920 and 1924. They tell of the adventures and misadventures of Father Christmas and his helpers, including the North Polar Bear and his two sidekick cubs, Paksu and Valkotukka.
The Silmarillion (1977)
The Silmarillion is a collection of myths and stories edited and published by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977 from materials left behind after his death.
Finn and Hengest (1982)
Finn and Hengest is a study by Tolkien about two Anglo-Saxon heroes appearing in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. The book is an edited version of Tolkien’s lectures on Beowulf given before and after WWII.
The Art of the Hobbit (2012)
Tolkien drew over 100 original illustrations for the Hobbit before realizing they would have to be greatly reduced. The original Hobbit has ten black and white pictures, two maps, plus binding and dust-jacket designs by Tolkien. Later Tolkien painted five scenes reproduced as color plates, which helped deepen the reader’s experience of the book. In 2012, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit’s publication, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released The Art of the Hobbit, a full-color art book containing more than one hundred sketches, drawings, paintings, and maps completed by Tolkien for the original work.
Pictures By J.R.R. Tolkien (1979)
Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien was originally published in 1979, and now has been revised and released by Harpercollins Publishers in 2021. Intricate designs and beautiful watercolors of Tolkien’s created worlds show off his skilled artistry. The 2021 edition is cloth with a slipcase.
In 1926 Tolkien translated the Old English poem Beowulf, and over the course of his academic career, he would lecture about the epic work. His translation and commentary was first released by Harper Collins in 2014, edited by Christopher Tolkien. A slip-cased edition is available as well.
Beren and Luthien (2017)
Published by Harper Collins in 2017, Beren and Luthien tells the love story of Luthien, an immortal elf, and Beren, a mortal man. The parallels between the couple and Tolkien’s relationship with his wife were so strong that the couple had the names Beren and Luthien inscribed on their tombstones. Parts of the story of Beren and Luthien were published in The Silmarillion.
Want More? Here are 6 Books about JRR Tolkien:
There are dozens of works written about Tolkien and his works:
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977)
An acclaimed biography of Tolkien, written by Humphrey Carpenter and first published in 1977.
Published in 1993 by St. Paul’s Bibliographies, this book by Wayne G Hammond and Douglas Allen Anderson is the definitive bibliography of all works by Tolkien, including fiction, non-fiction, and scholarly works with detailed publishing histories. It also covers translation, ephemera, dust jackets, and artwork and includes previously unpublished works and letters.
The Tolkien Family Album (1992)
The Tolkien Family Album (1992) was written by Priscilla, Tolkien’s only daughter, and her brother John.
Edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christine Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (1995), includes reproductions of 200 examples of Tolkien’s artwork, from pictures he made for his children to illustrations for his books, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Meditations on Middle-Earth (2001)
Meditations on Middle-Earth, edited by Karen Haber, is a collection of essays by authors, including Terry Pratchett, Ursula LeGuin, and Orson Scott Card, expounding on Tolkien’s influence.
This art book was written by Catherine McIlwaine, who has worked as the Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, for over twenty years. It was released in conjunction with an exhibit of Tolkien’s art, curated by McIlwaine, in 2018.
Another Notable Work:
This collection of essays was intended to be presented to the writer and scholar Charles Williams to mark his departure from Oxford, but Williams died before the presentation. The work became a posthumous celebration of his life, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both contributed essays, among other authors.
Tolkien Special Collections to Visit:
The Tolkien Archive at Marquette University contains the original manuscripts and multiple working drafts for three of the author’s most celebrated books, The Hobbit (1937), Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), as well as the original copy of the children’s book Mr. Bliss (published in facsimile form in 1982). This library in Wisconsin has a treasure trove of Tolkien papers because of the foresight of library director William B. Ready, who approached Tolkien in 1956 before any other institution was interested in collecting his work.
The Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe, which serves as the main research library of the University of Oxford, holds a large collection of original Tolkien manuscripts donated by the Tolkien Estate. This collection, with the exception of family papers, is open to access by scholars.
Resources on the Web:
Biblio Stores Specializing in Tolkien:
- The Tolkien Bookshelf: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/the-tolkien-bookshelf-billings
- Peter Harrington: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/peter-harrington-london
- Lucius Books: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/lucius-books-york
- Raptis Rare Books: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/raptis-rare-books-palm-beach
- Bookbid Rare Books: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/bookbid-rare-books-beverly-hills
- Burnside Rare Books: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/burnside-rare-books-abaa-portland
- Brought To Book: https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/brought-to-book-ltd-london
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.