The Best New Tolkien for Christmas
In England, in January 1997, The Lord of the Rings won the Waterstones
poll as the Book of the Century. (For those who dont know, Waterstones 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
The Lord of the Rings
Is one of those things:
If you like you do:
If you dont, then you boo!
Meanwhile, despite various literary critics barking to themselves from their high
towers, Tolkiens 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 Im writing for the converted. Most people who come to
TheOneRing.net are already in the know about Tolkien. So lets talk here about
one the recent editions of The Lord of the Ringsin particular this
so-called Millennium Edition.
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. Tolkiens 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, Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens History of Middle-earth series, and those are entirely different
books, so dont 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. Im 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 its still in print, but Im not sure.)
All in all, the Millennium Edition of The Lord of the Rings is very nice set to own.
Collectors 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 Im 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 cant 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 dont really care about the answer to such a question. Im just glad
its 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.