How J R R Tolkien became a best-selling author

I posted the other day about how J R R Tolkien’s  The Lord Of The Rings broke the rules of writing – yet, eventually, became an icon, and justly so. But it shouldn’t have, all things being equal. By usual standards, Tolkien’s characters  were cyphers. He broke his narrative in ways that obscured dramatic tension. And he got away with it. Spectacularly.  The book is fantastic.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.
The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view, albeit with wonderful blue skies, which seldom featured in his work.

How did it happen? The first answer is that – initially – Tolkien didn’t get away with it at all. Or even later. As late as 2001, for instance, the book was described in the New York Times as ‘pedantry’ and ‘death to literature’.

In some ways this isn’t surprising. Tolkien began the book as a sequel to The Hobbit, but it had – as he said himself – ‘grown in the telling’. This, I think, goes quite a long way towards explaining the structure, which reflected that evolution. At times he ran flat out of ideas, stalling – for instance – at the point where the Fellowship reached Moria, not knowing where to take the story next.

There were also issues flowing from the fact that Tolkien was a tinkerer – he constantly re-thought, revised and re-cast, making it almost impossible to keep consistency across the work.

Time didn’t help; Tolkien plugged away at it during the Second World War, but not quickly. It was broadly finished by 1949, about 11 years after he began, and he turned up at the Allen and Unwin offices with a monolithic typescript that Rayner Unwin, his friend, publisher and former student, was reluctant to publish in one go. It didn’t seem saleable.

So they insisted it had to be broken into three – hence the trilogy. It’s ironic: the book – and specifically the ‘trilogy’ aspect – became the model for a LOT of fantasy that followed. But the fact that it was a trilogy was purely accidental.

The first of them, the Fellowship Of The Ring, was published in July 1954 with a run of just 4550. The second, The Two Towers, followed 18 months later on an even lower run – 4250. By the time The Return Of The King was published in October 1955, the publishers felt able to up the run to 12,000. These were minimal even by UK standards, and although the book was reprinted a number of times, the runs always remained low. It was very much an average book in that sense. Figures are unusually vague, but the net total seems to have been less than 80,000 copies over 15 impressions by 1966, variously issued by Allen and Unwin or Hodder and Stoughton, not including foreign translations.

Then something happened. The book had been sold in the US, but Ace books believed they could issue their own unauthorised edition in the US. Allen and Unwin objected; the upshot was that Tolkien produced a second edition – materially revised for detail – which became the one we continue to read and enjoy, mostly, today. And it began selling like hotcakes. In the parlance of the 1960s, readers ‘grokked’ it. Without that commercial boost, I think the book would have had a place in fantasy literature – alongside classics as Dunsany’s The King Of Elfland’s Daughter and such like. It would also have been recognised in literary circles for what it was (more of this anon). But it would never have become the defining fantasy, as it did.

In 1994, with editorial input from Christopher Tolkien, a slightly revised version of the Second Edition was produced to incorporate and rationalise some of Tolkien’s minor variant revisions during the process of preparing that second edition, and to mop up some niggling small corrections and consistency matters – but the changes didn’t materially affect the story.

So – Tolkien had produced a rule-breaker, and it took off. The question is why. But those reasons are not hard to find. More next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

10 thoughts on “How J R R Tolkien became a best-selling author

  1. LOTR has achieved such fantasy bible status that there are those who’ll argue with you over its trilogy origins. Apparently, I’m to assume, Tolkien became a white wizard and determined the road to deliverance—and fantasy novel success—was via the three-book set (perhaps the elves figured it out?). I’ve long known differently, but hearing the details was fascinating. Thank you!


    1. Glad to be of assistance. Yes, it’s amazing how the ‘fantasy trilogy’ has become so embedded in that genre now – all thanks to authors following a structure that was entirely accidental!

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  2. So glad you’re doing this series of posts on Tolkien, Matthew. I am really enjoying them. Your wealth of Tolkien knowledge benefits us all. Thank you!


  3. As Matt said: THE SUSPENSE! My little noggin is reeling with hypotheses. Did LOTR take off *precisely* because it broke the rules — and was therefore unlike anything readers had previously encountered? Did the public embrace it as a retelling of ancient mythology? Or did the complete and richly detailed descriptions of Middle Earth offer an irresistible bit of escapism from a problem-filled world that was all too real? I can’t wait to read your analysis.


  4. Hi Matthew! I scheduled this as a guest post for the morning of July 29th! I’m looking forward to pointing my readers to more of your great articles. : )


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