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The Best New Tolkien for Christmas

In England, in January 1997, The Lord of the Rings won the Waterstone’s poll as the Book of the Century. (For those who don’t know, Waterstone’s is large bookstore chain in England.) This result was alternately hailed or derided. The English literati squealed in horror at the result, but many readers welcomed it. A few months later, a poll by the Folio Society (also in England) got the same result. Across the Atlantic, in July 1998, the Editorial Board of the Modern Library unveiled what it called the 100 Best Novels in English of the Twentieth Century, and The Lord of the Rings didn't even make the list. Many howled at both the selections chosen, and the omissions, for the list is decidedly of the snobby New York type. And then in 1999, the online bookseller Amazon.com did its own poll, and The Lord of the Rings came in first again.

What (if anything) can we learn from these polls and lists? That "lists" themselves are suspect, conveying the hidden prejudices of the compilers; that polls and lists are virtually meaningless, depending upon who draws up the lists or who participates in the polls; that lists and polls are as much about exclusion as they are about inclusion; that they stir up extreme reactions, leaving people to argue about what to read instead of just reading.

Tolkien himself was aware that The Lord of the Rings stirred up very polarized reactions, ranging from high praise to complete contempt. In his bath one day, soon after The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s, he came up with a short rhyme:

The Lord of the Rings
Is one of those things:
If you like you do:
If you don’t, then you boo!

Meanwhile, despite various literary critics barking to themselves from their high towers, Tolkien’s books are selling better than ever. More and more new readers come to Tolkien and learn for themselves the various joys found in his writings-- joys ranging from simple ones (at times) to vastly erudite ones (at other times).

Here, I know that I’m writing for the converted. Most people who come to TheOneRing.net™ are already in the know about Tolkien. So let’s talk here about one the recent editions of The Lord of the Rings–in particular this so-called Millennium Edition.

The Millennium Edition
Click Here to Purchase from Amazon.com

Besides the obvious fact that it is a marketing gimmick, just what makes the Millennium Edition different from other editions? First of all, it is the first edition where the six books of The Lord of the Rings are published separately, with a seventh volume containing only the appendices. Tolkien’s long novel is made up of two "books" per volume, usually found in three volumes, with additional appendices found in volume three. In the Millennium Edition, Tolkien’s titles for the six books are restored to the novel (they are usually numbered merely as Book One, Book Two, etc.). In order, and including the additional seventh book, the titles are: The Ring Sets Out, The Ring Goes South, The Treason of Isengard, The Ring Goes East, The War of the Ring, The End of the Third Age, and Appendices. (A few of these titles have also been used for volumes in Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth series, and those are entirely different books, so don’t confuse them.)

The books in the Millennium Edition are small hardcovers, about the size of regular mass market paperbacks. They do not have dust-wrappers, and all seven volumes come in a sturdy slipcase. The maps are mostly found at the end of the Appendices book (redrawn very nicely by Stephen Raw; these have appeared in previous editions), though the Shire Map still appears in its usual place just before chapter one in the first book.

This edition contains the latest corrected text of the novel. This text is available in other editions (published by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S., and HarperCollins in England), and these editions are most easily identified by the presence of an interesting "Note on the Text" by Douglas A. Anderson (who also did The Annotated Hobbit). This "Note on the Text" (the latest version is dated April 1993) gives a fascinating thumb-nail description of the publishing history of The Lord of the Rings, and of certain of the textual problems in various editions of the book. I’m pleased to say that we at TheOneRing.net™ have the special permission of the author and the publisher to post the entire "Note on the Text" here. (Thanks to Clay Harper, of Houghton Mifflin Company, and to Douglas A. Anderson.)

The entire run of the Millennium Edition of The Lord of the Rings was printed in England, and thus the paper that the book is printed on is of a lesser quality than we in the U.S. usually find in books. And there is one notable difference between the Houghton Mifflin (U.S.) edition and the HarperCollins (British) edition. The British edition also contains a CD, in a paper slipcase, of J. R .R. Tolkien reading poems and songs from The Lord of the Rings. I understand that the American publisher could not distribute the CD in the U.S. due to the rights being owned by a different company. But for those who have been around a bit, the recording of Tolkien on the CD is the same as the one distributed in the 1970s as LP records. And these recordings have been more recently available in the US as cassette tapes, in the J. R. R. Tolkien Audio Collection, (Caedmon, a division of HarperAudio, 1-55994-675-X, $25.00). This collection includes much more than the Millennium Edition CD, with poems sung by William Elvin to the accompaniment of Donald Swann, and Christopher Tolkien reading chapters from The Silmarillion. (I think it’s still in print, but I’m not sure.)

All in all, the Millennium Edition of The Lord of the Rings is very nice set to own. Collector’s might prefer the larger hardcovers, and some might prefer an illustrated edition, like the very nice hardcover with fifty full color plates by Alan Lee (I love this one! It came out in 1991, and is still available (Houghton Mifflin, $70.00, 0-395-59511-8). But the Millennium Edition is a very nice set for reading and quick reference. Some (like myself, I confess) will never been happy with only three, six or ten editions of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m pleased to mark the new Millennium by the addition of this special edition to my bookshelf.

Meanwhile, the critical pendulum will swing, and one poll or list will give way to another. I like these lists as much as anyone, but I can’t take them very seriously. Is The Lord of the Rings the "Book of the Century," or even the "Book of the Millennium"? To be honest, I don’t really care about the answer to such a question. I’m just glad it’s here, to read and re-read, to pass on to friends and to family, from one generation to the next. And that progression will last a lot longer than these various lists.


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