If you don't count the widely distributed religious texts that influenced it, The Lord of the Rings is the second-bestselling book of all time. Yet this successful story did not emerge from its author, J. R. R. Tolkien, overnight. Tolkien’s attempt at getting the book published has been well documented over the years, and it makes the Fellowship’s journey look like a walk in the park by comparison.
Requested by his publishers Allen & Unwin to write a sequel to his successful 1937 novel, The Hobbit, Tolkien set out to write a followup story in which Bilbo Baggins has spent his entire fortune and must embark on a new journey to acquire more. Fearing the tale would be a poor imitation of his prior works, the author decided to switch the focus of his new book to the unexplored power of the One Ring.
Due to having a full-time academic position at Pembroke College, and later Merton College, Oxford, Tolkien worked quite slowly on what would become The Lord of the Rings, and even abandoned it for a short time. From the first page to the last word, it eventually took Tolkien 12 years to write his story, which the publisher decided would be split into three volumes to conserve paper during wartime and limit the ultimate price to a reasonable amount.
Yet the first volume of the Fellowship’s journey would take another five years to publish, as Tolkien often clashed with Allen & Unwin about the way the novel was being handled. Tolkien objected to each volume having its own separate title, instead suggesting that all three should fall under the title The Lord of the Rings, each with a separate subtitle: Part I: The Return of the Shadow, Part II: The Shadow Lengthens, and Part III: The Return of the King. In time, these subtitles became The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, though Tolkien sincerely disliked the latter two.
Even though Tolkien himself suggested The Return of the King for the title of the third volume, he realized that it would spoil the ending of his story. He later proposed that The War of the Ring would suit the final installment better. Allen & Unwin dismissed this notion, and were eventually able to talk Tolkien into accepting the initial subtitle. They were less successful, however, in coaxing the author into appreciating The Two Towers.
Essentially, Tolkien felt as though the title of the second volume was a copout, as each volume of The Lord of the Rings was composed of two books, and The Two Towers was the only thing he could think of that connected the books within. While he liked the ambiguity of the subtitle, noting that it could refer to the tower of Cirith Ungol, he later stated in a letter to his publisher, “I am not at all happy about the title … There is, of course, actually no connecting link between books III and IV, when cut off and presently separately as a volume.” Despite this, the title remained for publication.
By the time the final volume of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1955, Tolkien was already receiving high praise for his imaginative concept, with many critics claiming it surpassed The Hobbit in sophistication and quality. Most of the author’s letters to Allen & Unwin were eventually collected and published in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, depicting the trouble that underlay the publication of what is now regarded as a masterpiece. While Tolkien’s dislike of the final subtitles is hardly the biggest blemish in the story’s 17 years of creation, it’s odd to think that one of the most familiar aspects of The Lord of The Rings was so displeasing to its author and could have completely different.
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