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Is "Lord of the Rings" a trilogy of books?

It was published as 3 separate books, but can it be called a trilogy? Was it intended to be a trilogy by Tolkien himself?

The question arose in comment discussions here, so I figured it's information not universally known and can benefit people.

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This reminds me of the confusion over the Dumas œuvre. To cast it into an F&SF light, consider the homage Steven Brust did to that earlier work with his Khaavren Romances, which closely parallel Dumas in structure. It is a trilogy of three separate novels: The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, and The Viscount of Adrilankha. However, the last of those novels was published in three separate volumes, each with its own (sub)title. That does not make those three volumes a trilogy. They’re just parts 1, 2, and 3 of one single story. –  tchrist Jan 5 at 2:02
    
Ok, I’ve just spelled it all out in better detail in this answer. –  tchrist Jan 5 at 2:54
    
For those who have no idea what @tchrist is referring to: Alexander Dumas (the author of "Three Musketeers") wrote 2 more sequel novels in the D'Artagnan Romances cycle: "Twenty Years After", and "The Vicomte of Bragelonne" (aka "Ten Years Later"). The last one was usually published split into three parts: "The Vicomte de Bragelonne", "Louise de la Valliere", and "The Man in the Iron Mask" –  DVK Jan 5 at 13:16
    
Can The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion be considered a trilogy? –  user14111 Jan 14 at 2:44
    
@user14111 - can? yes. Did Tolkien do so? Not sure without digging –  DVK Jan 14 at 3:19
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4 Answers

up vote 54 down vote accepted

TL;DR Tolkien himself did NOT consider it a trilogy.

It shouldn't even be called 3 books, since Tolkien didn't refer to them as books, but as volumes, and any time he used the word he air-quoted it as 'books'.

Wikipedia gives us a good start:

Tolkien regarded it as a single work and divided it into a prologue, six books, and five appendices. Because of post-World War II paper shortages, it was originally published in three volumes.

To back that up, we can refer to Tolkien's letters:

Letter 136
P.S. I have given some thought to the matter of sub-titles for the volumes, which you thought were desirable. But I do not find it easy, as the 'books', though they must be grouped in pairs, are not really paired; and the middle pair (III/IV) are not really related.
Would it not do if the 'book-titles' were used: e.g. The Lord of the Rings: Vol. I The Ring Sets out and The Ring Goes South; Vol. II The Treason of Isengard, and The Ring goes East; Vol. III The War of the Ring, and The End of the Third Age'?
If not, I can at the moment think of nothing better than : I The Shadow Grows II The Ring in the Shadow III The War of the Ring or The Return of the King. JRRT.

.

Letter 149
The (unavoidable) disadvantage of issuing in three pans has been shown in the 'shapelessness' that several readers have found, since that is true if one volume is supposed to stand alone. 'Trilogy', which is not really accurate, is partly to blame. There is too much 'hobbitry' in Vol. I taken by itself; and several critics have obviously not got far beyond Chapter I.

And the most direct one:

Letter 165
P.S. The book is not of course a 'trilogy'. That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost. There is no real division into 3, nor is any one pan intelligible alone. The story was conceived and written as a whole and the only natural divisions are the 'books' I-VI (which originally had titles).

Further details can be found in this excellent article from The Tolkien Society: "The Lord of the Rings: The Tale of a Text":

The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy: by the time it was being prepared for publication in 1950, Tolkien was thinking of it as a duology: a book of two parts, the other being The Silmarillion - a work concieved of as being of equal size to The Lord of the Rings (Letter 126 to Milton Waldon, 10/3/1950).

... Tolkien's publisher, Stanley Unwin, was not convinced by the idea of publishing The Silmarillion, and wanted to publish just The Lord of the Rings. In 1952 the publishers estimated the price for a single volume would be at least £3 10s, and were looking into the possibility of publishing the work in two volumes, as well as for a cheaper printer. As we know, Allen and Unwin decided that three volumes was the best number: an economic, not a literary descision: Tolkien at this point was still thinking of his work as six books (Letter 136 to Stanley Unwin, 24/3/1953)

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I guess "pans" in letters 149 and 165 is an OCR error for "parts"? –  user14111 Jan 14 at 2:40
    
Naturally Tolkien wouldn't call LotR a trilogy; he would have been using the word "trilogy" in its traditional sense, not the current fannish sense which seems to be something like "a fantasy epic in three volumes, like The Lord of the Rings." –  user14111 Jan 14 at 2:43
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At least one of the editions of The Lord of the Rings that I have includes a Note on the Text written by Douglas A. Anderson, October 1986.

It starts:

The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy, when it is in fact a single novel, consisting of six books plus appendices,1 published for convenience in three volumes.

And the footnote:

1 Tolkien's titles for the six books were not used. A contents listing with the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings at Marquette University gives them as follows: Volume I, "The First Journey" and "The Journey of the Nine Companions"; Volume II, "The Treason of Isengard" and "The Journey of the Ringbearers"; Volume III, "The War of the Ring" and "The End of the Third Age." A variant set of titles can be found in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 167.

A similar passage can be found here, but is dated April 1993.

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This has been documented in the Lord of the Rings movies' extended edition bonus materials (for The Two Towers if I recall right). Tolkien originally wrote Lord of the Rings as a single volume; at the time, paper was expensive, and publishing as a single volume would have been expensive, and it would have had to be highly priced, limiting the potential readership. The publisher, against Tolkien's wishes, decided to split the book into three volumes. Which led into other issues such as how to title each volume.

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Not inherently, no. As it was written as a single volume.

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How is this diffferent from what other answers already stated? –  DVK Jan 14 at 3:19
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