Rare Books

A guide to collecting J.R.R. Tolkien's books

The old that is strong does not wither. Thanks to more than eight decades of publishing history, the fan following created by Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and the growing number of books written in the fantasy genre, Tolkien rarely fades from popularity. Amazon's new The Rings of Power series has also put the spotlight back on the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Tolkien literary landscape is huge and constantly growing. Collecting true first editions of Tolkien’s most famous books is expensive. AbeBooks sold a copy of The Hobbit for $65,000 and a single volume from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a first edition of Return of the King) for $5,000. A few J.R.R. Tolkien signed books are likely to be priced in five figures.

But all that is gold does not glitter. If you want to become a Middle-earth collector, the possibilities are endless, with limited editions, deluxe editions, illustrated editions, box sets and attractive modern editions of Tolkien’s books, most of which are continually being republished. You can also find books signed by JRR's son, Christopher Tolkien, who edited several posthumous editions of his father’s writing, and by the illustrator Alan Lee.

Other Tolkien collectibles include calendars, maps and art. The 2021 Gawain and the Green Knight movie brought renewed interest in Tolkien’s translation of the text. In 2022, The Fall of Gondolin, and Beren and Luthien were published as standalone works for the first time.

Not all those who wander are lost. Find your pearl in the oyster of the Tolkien universe.

Reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Frodo and his companions leave the Shire on a quest to ensure the Ring doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. There are Black Riders, a Ranger, elves, Misty Mountains and treachery.
Hordes of orcs attack, the Riders of Rohan ride, Gandalf goes white, the Hobbits head off to Mordor, and Gollum reappears with some malevolent spiders.
A big finish with a king on a mission to defeat evil. Battles, duels, a marriage, and back to the Shire where things have changed, and not for the better.

Collecting Allen & Unwin first editions

A piece of literary history – this is a scarce book with most first edition copies owned by collectors. Only 1,500 copies were printed. Tolkien designed the jacket. There is an ink correction to the "e" of "Dodgeson" on the rear flap. AbeBooks sold a first edition for $65,000. Today, even a later printing of the first edition is priced in five figures.
Fellowship of the Rings and Two Towers were published in 1954, and Return of the King in 1955. A first edition set of the three volumes with their original dust jackets will be priced in the high five figures. The condition of the jackets and the fold-out maps influence price. A Lord of the Rings set sold on AbeBooks for $19,500 in 2015.

Lord of the Rings - key US editions

Houghton Mifflin published Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the US in 1954, 1955 and 1956. The yellow, blue and grey dust jacket designs feature a dragon interwoven into the limbs of a tree. AbeBooks sold a Houghton Mifflin first edition set for $8,000 in 2013 but prices have risen since then.
Published without Tolkien’s consent in 1965, the unauthorized Ace paperback editions of Lord of the Rings are scarce and collectible. The red, yellow and blue covers are simple but effective. These editions were quickly pulled from circulation. They cost 75 cents at the time and are worth much more now.

Leather & illustrated editions

The Folio Society has published Tolkien since the 1970s. The 2002 limited edition of Lord of the Rings, bound in black leather, is fantastic – 1,750 copies were produced and prices stretch to $5,000. In 2022, they released a new edition of Lord of the Rings illustrated by Alan Lee with 1,000 numbered copies.
Easton Press has produced various leather-bound editions of Tolkien’s books in single volumes and sets since 1984. They are easy on the eye and prices stretch up to $800 for an unread set - although it's possible to find cheaper copies of standalone volumes.

More books by J.R.R. Tolkien

Allen & Unwin published this book in 1962, with illustrations from Pauline Baynes of Narnia fame. AbeBooks sold a signed first edition second printing for $7,100 in 2021. This book offers 16 poems, two of which feature Tom Bombadil, a character from The Lord of the Rings.
This is a fairy story unconnected to Middle-earth. It was published in 1967 by Allen & Unwin with no dust jacket. The US first edition, published by Houghton Mifflin, does have a jacket designed by Pauline Baynes. You can find early copies of this novella for less than $200. AbeBooks sold a signed copy for $7,500.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this story before World War I but did not finish it. His son, Christopher Tolkien, edited the manuscripts and it was published in 2007. The book contains 33 illustrations by Alan Lee – look out for copies signed by Lee and Christopher Tolkien. There’s a deluxe edition. The story is set in the ‘First Age’ of Middle-earth.
Published in 1949 by Allen & Unwin, this is a comic fable about a farmer and a dragon set in Britain in the Dark Ages. Pauline Baynes supplied illustrations. AbeBooks sold a first edition for $980 in 2015. Houghton Mifflin issued the first US edition in 1950.
First published in 1977. This collection of stories was edited by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, who signed some copies. It was written as a sequel to The Hobbit but rejected as too obscure. There’s an Easton Press edition and several illustrated editions from HarperCollins.
Tolkien’s study of this Middle English Arthurian tale was published in 1925 by Oxford University’s Clarendon Press. First editions in a dust jacket are rare. HarperCollins produced a slipcase edition in 2020 with illustrations by Bill Sanderson.

More books about Middle-earth

Alan Lee, production designer on The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, discusses his approach to turning the stories into paintings. This book contains more than 100 sketches by Lee and 25 color paintings.
Canadian author David Day specializes in books about J.R.R. Tolkien and his novels. Day produces reference books for avid readers who want to go even deeper into the realms of Middle-earth.
Karen Wynn Fonstad's book is the definitive guide to the geography of Middle-earth, from its founding in the Elder Days through the Third Age, including the journeys of Bilbo, Frodo, and the Fellowship of the Ring, from the Shire to the Misty Mountains.
A tour of Middle-earth, visiting not only places central to Tolkien's stories, including those beyond the horizon.
This illustrated book showcases the complete artwork created by J.R.R. Tolkien for The Hobbit, including related pictures, more than 100 sketches, drawings, paintings, maps, and plans.
Published in 1979, 1992 and 2021, this is a collection of watercolor pictures and drawings by J.R.R. Tolkien, with a text by Christopher Tolkien, depicting Rivendell, Forest of Lothlorien, Smaug, and more.
Tolkien's final writings on Middle-earth. This collection, edited by Carl F Hostetter, a Tolkien expert, is a treasure-trove of information.
Tolkien’s novellas (Farmer Giles, Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton, & Roverandom) and one book of poems (Tom Bombadil) in one volume.
Bilbo’s Last Song is considered by many to be Tolkien’s epilogue to The Lord of the Rings. As Bilbo Baggins takes his final voyage to the Undying Lands, he must say goodbye to Middle-earth.

Podcast interview with Tolkien specialist seller Mark Faith


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