Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Return of the King, the third and final volume in J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-selling novel The Lord of the Rings.
The Return of the King was published on the 20th October 1955, following on from The Fellowship of the Ring on 29th July 1954, and The Two Towers on 11th November 1954. Together, The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-selling novels of all time, having sold a combined total of 150 million copies and been translated into over 50 languages. In 2003 it topped the Big Read survey as Britain’s favourite book, in 1999 Waterstones customers voted The Lord of the Rings as the “Book of the Century”, whilst a poll of Amazon.com customers went a step further and gave it the title of “Book of the Millennium”.
Tolkien himself did not intend for the novel to be split into three volumes, but, due to the book’s size, it was decided to split the book into three volumes on the grounds of cost. However, Tolkien originally planned a different name for it:
I now suggest as titles of the volumes, under the over-all title The Lord of the Rings: Vol. I The Fellowship of the Ring. Vol. II The Two Towers. Vol. III The War of the Ring (or, if you still prefer that: The Return of the King). [..] On reflection I prefer for Vol. III The War of the Ring, since it gets in the Ring again; and also is more non-committal, and gives less hint about the turn of the story: the chapter titles have been chosen also to give away as little as possible in advance.
— Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 140
Tolkien wrote the The Lord of the Rings when he was living in Oxford, with The Return of the King being first drafted in the mid-1940s when he was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. The story itself covers the conclusion to War of the Ring: events in Gondor with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas passing through the Paths of the Dead; Gandalf and Pippin reaching Minas Tirith before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields whilst Merry rides with Éowyn in the Ride of the Rohirrim. Following success in battle, the remaining Free Peoples of Middle-earth challenge Sauron at the Black Gate whilst Frodo and Sam complete their journey into Mordor with Gollum falling into the Crack of Doom.
After the crowning of Aragorn as King Elessar, and their journey home, the hobbits have to finally contend with the Shire changed under the influence of Saruman before Frodo is able to join Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Bilbo on a Grey Ship into the West. Usually published with The Return of the King are six Appendices that cover the wider history and languages of Middle-earth.
Shaun Gunner, Chairman of the Tolkien Society, said:
It is testament to Tolkien’s profound abilities as a writer that The Lord of the Rings continues to be a much-cherished book in millions of households around the world. The impressive number of characters capture the full range of emotions of the human condition, whilst the story itself shows the devastating impact war has on everyone.
Many authors rightly regard Tolkien as the father of modern fantasy literature, and this book – more so than The Hobbit – is a pivotal, defining book in the genre. Tolkien has created the archetypal fantasy story with Gandalf, Gollum, hobbits, the Ring now being all-pervasive in popular culture – it’s no wonder that so many authors have followed in his wake.
Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society’s digital operations, including this website.