The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition

So a boy walks into a bookstore…

A good while ago, the girlfriend and I embarked on what turned out to be an abortive attempt to watch through the entirety of the Lord of the Rings movies (not the extended versions—nobody has that much free time). We got through one, and even that took more than one sitting. I suspect that this is not atypical.

If you’re anything like me—and why wouldn’t you be?—then even prior to the initial release of the movies, you hadn’t read the books for many a year. The last time, in fact, may have very well been the first time, ever. If you are especially like me, then the first/last read was in your awkward middle school years.

I myself had a four volume box set of the series—The Hobbit, The Fellowship, and the rest—published 1983 by Del Rey. The paperbacks came in a garish purple box, and the covers of each featured some campy ’80s fantasy art, the same kind you expect on the cover of Conan the Barbarian novels.[1] I didn’t know at the time, being so young, but these editions were riddled with misprints and errors and terribly outdated even by the time I bought them in the early 2000s.

Still, it was high fantasy, and as far as high fantasy went, they amply satisfied the escapist needs of a quiet teenager who wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons but didn’t have the social skills to organize a group. I’d made it a point to stuff whichever volume I was reading into my backpack every morning, and pull it out whenever I could throughout the day—after rushing through tests,[2] during lunch, at any free moment. And when I reached the end of the story proper, I read the appendices and studied the maps and family trees. So, yes, Readership. I was That Kid.[3] I was not much fun to be around, frankly. And keeping your nose in a book is not an especially good way to talk to people. But it helps a little, when kids at school make fun of you for reading so much.

But I had to be finished with them eventually, and I put them away. I started talking to people, just a little at first, and then not much more than that. The movies came out some years later, and I grudgingly admitted that they did a fine job, a fine job indeed, even if they did take out Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire,[4] and Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy-movie track record is good enough at this point that I am even looking forward to seeing The Hobbit.[5]

The thing about reading something like The Lord of the Rings as a kid is that one loses out on a lot. Like a lot a lot. I’d always found the seemingly endless singing unbearable, for example, and I’d largely written off Return of the King as a textbook.[6] The core story—classic good versus evil—remained compelling, though. And given the abortive movie marathon attempt, and with the Hobbit trilogy (!!!) coming up soon-ish, the time seemed right to give the ol’ series another go.

Since I’m apparently an adult now and have implicit permission from society to spend money on stupid things, I decided I wouldn’t put up with my outdated mass market paperbacks anymore. Or, for that matter, any mass market paperbacks. I wanted a more luxurious edition. Something that looked imposing on bookshelves and screamed, “I am a nerd who likes to spend money on stupid things.” Houghton Mifflin graciously sells the 50th Anniversary Edition for just such a need.

A book in a box

This edition packages up The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King into one volume. It comes in a box, in case the brown cardboard that Amazon ships it in is found lacking. Both book and box are bound in plasticky faux-leather, which, despite aforementioned plastickyness, has a pleasant soft-touch texture. It has a smoky, grainy look up close, and makes the whole set look adequately intimidating from a distance.

The box makes it a point to say which edition it contains.

Which I find tacky. The medium is message enough.

The cover of the book proper is stamped with two-color foil, showing the Eye of Sauron and the inscription of the One Ring, plus the Three Rings. Nice touch: Gandalf’s ring Narya bears a bit of orange-red and sits between the flames, as is appropriate. Naturally, the title appears on the spine—gold and orange foil for that. Tolkien’s signature is stamped on the back, and looks suspiciously elvish. Page edges are also gilded, ensuring that the maximum amount of foil is used in each copy’s manufacture.

To no one’s surprise, the book is cussedly heavy, which makes the physical act of reading, especially for extended periods of time, difficult. This thing is definitely made for showing off. Plus side: you’ll have fit forearms afterwards. In fact, the book is so big that, once you take it out of the box, it will not fit back in without effort.

The pages are matte-smooth and a pleasant cream color. Print quality is good—text is crisp and easy on the eyes. I’ll take a wild stab and say that the typeface looks a lot like Garamond, but I may just be saying that to impress you. The maps are huge and look excellent as well.

This volume also uses continuous page numbering, for maximal satisfaction when you tell your friends that you’ve just finished reading a 1000+ page book. Then they’ll look at your embarrassingly huge forearms and know the truth, and you’ll feel ashamed.

As for the story and text itself—well, the former’s been discussed ad nauseum, so let’s just move on.

The text is no doubt going to be considered by the publisher as the most accurate version, as it hews as close to authorial intent as anyone can guess. I’ve noted a couple misprints, though, just minor misspellings. With a text as voluminous as this, that’s to be expected. On the other hand, it seems like typos are something that somebody would have caught at some point. But it still looks nice in its box. So then—for showing off, rather than reading.

Which I think brings us to the heart of the matter

Let’s face it—you probably don’t really want to spend something in the neighborhood of $85 (at time of publication) on this, do you? It weighs nearly five pounds. It’s a fantasy novel, and it weighs five pounds. Come on, grognard. It might look nice on your shelf. It is probably not worth the cost for most use cases. And it feels a little bit like cheap pandering.

Okay, but you know what? I’ve been pandered. I like this edition. I like the huge maps, even if it feels like I’m about to accidentally tear them out when I unfold them, and I like the (frankly excessive) amount of foil. I also like that it comes in a box. A book! In a box! What?!

Not to mention, I like the story. I read it for the first time in years, and enjoyed it even more, despite my inadequate (but now mighty) forearms. I was super into it. I’d forgotten how much I’d liked it when I was fourteen and got pushed around a lot for liking this kind of thing, and didn’t really have any friends, and didn’t especially enjoy being around other people.

So here’s the thing:

It isn’t immediately obvious to fourteen year-olds like past-yt., but The Lord of the Rings is filled with tremendous melancholy. Sure, there are hobbits and dwarves and elves and wizards, and generally everyone spends a lot of time singing and embarking on adventures. But it’s a story about destroying the one thing—as evil and terrible as that one thing is—that keeps magic in the world. And not even the wizardy throwing-fireballs kind, strictly, but the kind that keeps trees beautiful and gives courage to very small people in very dark places.

Once that thing is gone, so is the magic. The elves leave across the western sea. The dwarves retreat to their underground kingdoms. The hobbits establish the British Empire. Fourteen year-olds become twenty three-year olds. The magic fades. It has to. The world would end if it didn’t.

But the hobbits write a book so that they don’t forget about it.

And a twenty three year-old buys it so that he doesn’t either.

  1. This particular cover of The Hobbit featured Gollum as a kind of amphibious lizard-insect-man horror, with pale green, multifaceted eyes that were literally the size of dinner plates. The movie Gollum makes much more sense.  ↩

  2. Generally with mixed results, grade-wise.  ↩

  3. Yt. will even admit to attempting The Silmarillion, and while yt. did in fact read the entire thing, the endeavor was not what one could call successful, as very little was retained from the reading except that everyone said “yea” a lot, and that Melkor stole the Silmarils from under the nose of Eru Ilúvatar and put them in a lead box so as not to be burned by their light, if memory serves, and oh god.  ↩


  5. Incidentally, has anybody else heard that Bullseye interview with Benedict Cumberbatch where he describes himself as (reciting from memory here) mysterious and ethereal? What a delightful guy.  ↩

  6. He said, having just admitted to reading The Silmarillion.  ↩