Petty Service Announcement: The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy

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Aug 17, 2017

Petty service announcement: The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy.

Now, I understand why you would make this mistake. After all, there are three of them. (Or even seven, if you were lucky enough to snag a supersweet Millennium Edition.) Walk into any bookstore you’ll find the T section of the sci-fi/fantasy section dominated by little trios of Tolkien. And the movies themselves are a trilogy.

Nonetheless, it is my duty to inform you that despite all this seeming evidence to the contrary, The Lord of the Rings isn’t a trilogy.

It’s a novel.

How do we know this? Because J.R.R. Tolkien wrote it as a novel. In fact, he complains about this mischaracterization in his letters. Hell hath no fury like a fussy Oxford don made to do something he doesn’t want to do because of something as silly as “common sense.” (We have our differences, Tolkien and I, but I will always admire his pettiness.)

So why, if Tolkien wrote it as a novel, wasn’t it published in a single volume like, you know, most novels? Well, let’s go back to 1950, when Tolkien presented the final draft of The Lord of the Rings to George Allen & Unwin, the publisher of The Hobbit. Obviously, we don’t have a transcript of that meeting, but I imagine it went a little something like this:

J.R.R. TOLKIEN: Here it is, the Hobbit sequel you wanted.
STANLEY UNWIN: Fantastic! Is it as delightful, droll, and universally lovable as The Hobbit?
TOLKIEN: It’s over one thousand pages of dense epic historical fantasy inspired by Norse mythology! And several appendices where I explain how their whole world works and, of course, how the languages work, because that’s the best part …
UNWIN: Wait, how many pages?
TOLKIEN: And it comes with a companion volume called The Silmarillion that’s just all backstory
UNWIN: … Jack, maybe we should—
TOLKIEN: THAT YOU HAVE TO PUBLISH OR I WALK.
UNWIN: what

Unwin refused to publish The Silmarillion alongside The Lord of the Rings. (Don’t feel too bad for Tolkien; he should have known better, since they’d already turned down The Silmarillion the last time he tried to foist it off on them.) A frustrated Tolkien took The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to a different publisher, who had the same exact reaction. After two years of getting nowhere with what he knew was his magnum opus, Tolkien crawled back to Unwin, offering to jettison The Silmarillion entirely and just go with The Lord of the Rings. Unwin agreed.

There was just one problem: There wasn’t enough paper in England to print it in its entirety.

Literally.

After World War II, Britain faced paper shortages that limited the amount of books that book publishers could produce in a year. Unlike most modern movie studios, Unwin wasn’t about to double down on an extensive and expensive production without some tangible results first. The solution was to publish in the novel in three parts over the course of a year or so—The Fellowship of the Ring in July of 1954, The Two Towers in November of 1954, and The Return of the King in October of 1955.

Voila: a single novel, just delivered in three volumes for economic reasons. The next time you want to revisit The Lord of the Rings, you should reach for an omnibus.

Why does this matter, beyond being one of my pettiest pet peeves? Because Tolkien’s influence on fantasy is impossible to overstate. The best modern fantasy fiction figures out where it wants to stand in relation to Tolkien and rises above him. (The Sundering, Jacqueline Carey’s amazing deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, even riffs directly on this issue!) The mediocre merely follow in his footsteps without interrogating why, which, inevitably, leads to copying the plot structure of The Lord of the Rings—in series that are actual trilogies!

The folly of trying to imitate the plot structure of a single novel over the course of three novels is obvious—it results in an unsatisfying mess that forces you to stick it up until the bitter end just for any resolution. Nobody starts reading The Fellowship of the Ring without intending to finish The Lord of the Rings. (They may get lost for good in the Council of Elrond, but that’s not intentional.) Series ought to be constructed out of individually satisfying installments that also further the overarching story. In this case, it’s best to take structural cues from Harry Potter, not a misunderstanding of The Lord of the Rings.

And God help you if you try to take structural cues from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whiff — that’s how you get Batman v Superman. Yurgh.

This has been a test of the petty service announcement system.