We have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank for inspiring characters like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, and for Sean Bean's meme-worthy moments as Boromir. As is fairly obvious with Middle Earth, books aren't just words on a page but stories that can make a real impact, and for some, owning a second-hand copy of their favorite series just isn't enough. Getting the chance to own copies closest to the source, like first editions, becomes a quest of its own.
Rare Tolkien Books Worth Hunting Down
Of the many English authors whose names have withstood the test of time, Tolkien is one of the best known with modern audiences, perhaps only surpassed in notoriety by the Bard himself. Well-known for completely redefining the fantasy genre with his original novels in the interwar and post-war period of the 20th century, Tolkien's books and subsequent films have continued captivating audiences decades after they were first released. Peter Jackson's take on bringing Tolkien's stories to life on the big screen in the early 2000s reinvigorated the fandom, turning Tolkien into something widely collectible.
Thus, if you're a fan of Middle Earth and its cast of characters, then the apex of collectibles are those which point straight to the source: the books themselves. During Tolkien's lifetime, only five books detailing various characters' exploits across Middle Earth were published, and first editions of these books are incredibly valuable.
The Hobbit was the book which started it all. Published in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin, it came equipped with a colorful dust jacket outlining a series of mountains in blue and green hues. This scene was drawn by Tolkien himself, as was the telltale dragon that covers the spine. Originally printed in hardcover, there were only 1,500 copies printed in the first edition.
A first edition, first impression of The Hobbit is by far one of the most valuable fantasy texts out there. The second impression of the first edition (indicated by a line on the back of the title page and including new color illustrations) and subsequent impressions are valuable in their own right, but this limited run of 1,500 books is the cream of the crop.
In fact, a signed presentation first edition copy sold at a Sotheby's auction for $180,105. While not every first edition you find is going to be worth that steep price, it should be worth tens of thousands at least.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings was a non-narrative sequel to Tolkien's breakout book, The Hobbit. This trilogy took place sixty years after the events in The Hobbit, and detailed an entirely new, earth shattering adventure. Broken down into three separate books over the course of two years, thanks in large part to Peter Jackson's film trilogy, this series is the most popular of Tolkien's books today.
As is the case for The Hobbit, the first edition of each book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is worth the most amount of money at market, thanks to the limited number of copies out there. In fact, all of the copies of the three first editions amount to only 13,250 copies worldwide. Specifically, each book had the following number of first edition copies published:
- The Fellowship of the Ring - 3,000 copies
- The Two Towers - 3,250 copies
- The Return of the King - 7,000 copies
First editions of these books were published by George Allen & Unwin in 1954 (for the first two) and 1955, and should bear the appropriate copyright dates. Additionally, copies of the series with their pale cream dust jackets (bearing the eye of Sauron in the center) are likely to sell for more because they're considered fully intact.
Generally, these first editions can sell for thousands of dollars (based on condition, impression number, provenance, and so on) at auction. This first edition set recently sold for $39,368.22. In comparison, a first edition but not first impression set from 1957 (which was recently stolen) was estimated to be worth about $2,000.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is an interesting collection of poems detailing different folklore and fanciful happenings within Middle Earth. Although it's definitely a lesser known work, it was published during Tolkien's lifetime, meaning that first edition copies can hold greater value than some might expect.
The first edition was published by Tolkien's longtime publisher, George Allen & Unwin, in 1962 in a brightly colored hardback. Interestingly, this cover art is another departure from Tolkien's previously saturated hues and transitioned into something more whimsical. While these books aren't considered incredible finds, they can range in prices between $200-$2,000 depending on their condition. For instance, Biblio's inventory of these books shows just how variable the prices can be.
The Silmarillion is a compilation text that interweaves the mythology and histories exploring Middle Earth throughout the ages which Tolkien had been writing alongside his already published works. Unlike his first five books, The Silmarillion was published posthumously after being edited by Tolkien's own son, Christopher, in 1977.
First editions of this book aren't nearly as valuable as Tolkien's more popular works, usually being valued in the mid-hundreds to low-thousands. For instance, a copy of the UK first edition as published by George Allen & Unwin in a hardcover with a dust jacket, is listed for a little over $400 at Biblio.com.
The History of Middle Earth
Following The Silmarillion in posthumous Tolkien texts is the 1980s-1990s series, The History of Middle-earth, which was a series of twelve books detailing stories Tolkien had written about this fictitious land. The books were published between 1989 and 1996 in multi-colored hardbacks with dust jackets by George Allen & Unwin.
Individually, these books aren't worth as much as they are in a complete set, so you want to try to find a whole 12-volume collection, which includes each of these texts:
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (1984)
- The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
- The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
- The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
- The Return of the Shadow (1988)
- The Treason of Isengard (1989)
- The War of the Ring (1990)
- Sauron Defeated (1992)
- Morgoth's Ring (1993)
- The War of the Jewels (1994)
- The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
Generally, this set is only sought after by serious Tolkien collectors, and newer editions already cost in the hundreds and low thousands. Yet, fine quality first edition sets are worth around $5,000, give or take. For example, the Manhattan Rare Book Company currently offers such a set for $6,500.
You Shall Not Pass... on These Books
When it comes to these special copies of Tolkien's various works, it's best to listen to Gandalf the Grey's own advice about not moving past them. So, if you find yourself browsing through a used bookstore, take a minute to check the publication information on a few hardcover copies of The Hobbit and see what treasure you can uncover.