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Think you Had a Bad Day? Try Taking the Ring to Mordor

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My reading is on track for my 10 books of Summer even if my posting isn’t.  I am currently half way through the third LOTR book, The Return of the King.   The fellowship that set out with the purpose of taking the ring to Mordor has been sundered; war has come to Rohan and Gondor, and the forces of evil arrayed against the West are building and building.  All hopes are pinned on one frail hobbit and his friend Sam…

I was able to read the first and half the second volume during  a short break in Italy – what is a holiday for if not for reading?  But once returned I had to make frantic edits to my own manuscript.  Editing is very much on my mind at the moment and how it takes over your whole life.  In some ways it is easier than writing a blank page, because there are already words and ideas there to mess about with.  In other ways its harder.  An initial draft can be altered numerous times but eventually book production edits need to be finalised.  And that’s it.  What you have written will be staring back at you forever.  Or will it?

I have decided to write this post less on the story of LOTR (what is there to say that hasn’t been said) and rather on the story behind the publication of the books, which is itself considerable.

I was surprised to discover that even Tolkien had endless problems with proofs and edits.

Or perhaps I should say, especially Tolkien, because he was a linguist and apart from writing one of the world’s most iconic stories, he invented an entire language.

But none of this came without its problems.  Firstly The Lord of the Rings is often described as a trilogy.   It is not a trilogy.  It is a single novel, sometimes published in three volumes.

The Fellowship of the Ring was first published by George, Allen & Unwin in July 1954; The Two Towers in November 1954 and The Return of the King in October 1955. (US dates of publication differed slightly).  Typographical errors and unauthorised corrections proliferated pretty much from the get go, compounded by the difficulties of publication in both the US and UK.  There were no computers and no digitisation.  Every word of every book had to be typeset by fallible human beings.

This from ‘Notes on the Text’ written by Douglas Anderson in 2004.

“In the production of this first volume, Tolkien experienced what became for him a continual problem: printer’s errors and compositors mistakes including well-intentioned corrections.”

Such changes included dwarves to dwarfs and elven to elfin.

Goodness, fancy correcting Tolkien’s work!  Such unauthorised changes apparently also  included alterations to the author’s spelling,  despite the fact that he had been a Professor of Anglo Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford and later a Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College.

In the mid-1960s Tolkien set to work on a revised and authorised edition to his work which would be published in the US by Ballantine Books – called the Ballantine edition. This would appear as the ‘Second Edition’ from Allen & Unwin (now Harper Collins) in the UK.

Again however,  many of Tolkien’s revisions did not make it into the three volume British hardcover edition in 1966.  Certain errors and omissions were compounded and each time the text was reset, new errors crept in.  The author also compiled an index and appendices to the entire work.  The mind can only boggle at the amount of work that must have been involved, at a time when Tolkien was within a few years of the end of his life.

After Tolkien’s death, it fell to his son and literary executor Christopher to maintain the  textual integrity of his father’s books.  A task somewhat equivalent to taking the ring to Mordor on several occasions.

Douglas Anderson is a scholar and editor who was written a number of books on Tolkien’s work.  He recommends the first five volumes of Christopher Tolkein’s 12 volume series The History of Middle Earth, for those interested in the textual development of the LOTR from early drafts to published text.  This of course is an entire academic area of study.  I am somewhat ashamed that I have not done more to get to grips with Christopher’s work.


But what of the story itself?  On rereading LOTR I found it as wonderful as ever.  But I still struggle with identifying some of the characters away from Peter Jackson’s  films, even though I haven’t seen the films for years – I think they are indelibly printed on the brain.   King Theoden’s eve of battle speech I was convinced was this, and this.  But no. The film actually combined parts of two different speeches from the book given by two different characters.   Does this matter I ask myself?  Yes, comes back the immediate reply.    It matters to me.   I’m a bit of a purist.

Also, grumble, grouse, complain, it was almost impossible to find an image for this post that wasn’t taken from the film.

Galadriel I found didn’t necessarily have to look like Cate Blanchett but Aragorn stubbornly refused to be anyone except Viggo Mortensen.     Without Tolkien there would have been no academy award winning films; yet it is necessary to remember that the films bring whole new generations of readers to the books.

So I leave you dear reader with the words of the man himself.  The following quote is taken from the Foreword to the Second Edition.

May it be a light in the darkness of writing and book production, when all other lights go out.

“It was during 1944 that, leaving the loose ends and perplexities of a war which it was my task to conduct, or at least to report, I forced myself to tackle the journey of Frodo to Mordor.  These chapters, eventually to become Book Four, were written and sent out as a serial to my son Christopher, then in South Africa with the RAF.   Nonetheless it took another five years before the tale was brought to its present ‘end’; in that time I changed my house, my Chair and my College and the days, though less dark, were no less laborious. Then when the ‘end’ had at last been reached the whole story had to be revised and indeed largely re-written backwards.  And it had to be typed and re-typed by me; the cost of professional typing by the ten fingered was beyond my means.”

As an experiment, try typing out the whole work, including the index and appendices on an old manual Olivetti typewriter, with two fingers, combine with teaching and scholarly commitments, and then tell me you had a bad day!

7 responses to “Think you Had a Bad Day? Try Taking the Ring to Mordor”

  1. It always boggles my mind when I think of all the books- long books!- that were written on typewriters or by hand. With Tolkien and his editor’s well-meaning spelling changes, you remind me of his use of ‘nasturtian’ or ‘nasturtium’. He didn’t care which spelling they used for that, but the editor had annoyed him so much he decided to be fussy about the spelling. I think ‘nasturtian’ is what shows up in the text.

    Christopher was still correcting mistakes in LOTR as last as 2004, when he hired Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull to help him work on a new, corrected edition as well as the Reader’s Companion. It’s just mind-blowing how much work has gone into these books, and how deeply you can go into the lore and its many, many version. And it’s all by one person!

  2. What a wonderful post, Frances. I had no knowledge of Tolkien’s publishing challenges, and never considered how much harder corrections were before everything could be completed digitally. Oh my, authors had to have incredible patience and perseverence. The LOTR books have a special place in my heart. I didn’t care for reading until I picked up The Hobbit, and I remember a whole new world opening to me as I continued my travels through Middle Earth. It was magic. I think I read the four (Hobbit and LOTR) books in two weeks – astonishing for a teen who thought reading was boring. 🙂


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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