In J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling The Lord of the Rings saga, the Dark Lord Sauron has returned to Middle-earth to hunt down the all-powerful One Ring, which would give him dominion over the land. The ring, however, now rests in the hands of a lowly hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who, alongside his trusty fellowship, must travel to the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it.
When Fellowship of the Ring—the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy—hit shelves in 1954, there wasn’t much to compare it to. In the sprawling blend of high fantasy and real-world mythology, Tolkien transported readers to a wonderous, fictional land complete with its own languages, civilizations, and conflicts. More than 65 years later, The Lord of the Rings still stands as a cultural touchstone, inspiring new generations of authors, filmmakers, and other creative minds in the fantasy genre. But the roots of the books are far humbler than their success would suggest. Here are a few things even Middle-earth superfans might not know.
1. Tolkien originally pitched The Silmarillion as his follow-up to The Hobbit.
Tolkien’s first published foray into Middle-earth, The Hobbit, was a huge success when it came out in 1937, earning acclaim and hitting surprising sales numbers for publisher George Allen & Unwin. Naturally, the publisher wanted Tolkien to produce a follow-up story in his fantastical world, preferably with more hobbits at the center of the action.
What they got, though, was a pitch for what would eventually become The Silmarillion, a dense prequel of sorts detailing the genesis of Middle-earth and its mélange of cultures. Hobbits themselves were to play virtually no role in the grandiose cosmic ballet. His publisher rejected the idea, and instead, Tolkien proceeded with the more straightforward sequel, The Lord of the Rings. In the end, The Silmarillion wouldn’t see the light of day until four years after Tolkien’s passing.
2. The Lord of the Rings wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy.
Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings in late 1937 at the age of 45, and it would be 12 years before his novel was finally completed (and a few more years after that until publication). Although it was envisioned as a one-off work, the sheer size of Tolkien’s book—more than 1000 pages and around 500,000 words—coupled with a post-war paper shortage in the UK forced his publisher to split the tome into three separate volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It certainly wasn't the simple sequel to a children’s book that the publisher originally had in mind.
3. The book almost centered on the adventures of Bingo Baggins.
When Tolkien actually set out to write The Lord of the Rings, he didn’t quite know where to take the story. “I cannot think of anything more to say about hobbits,” Tolkien wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in October 1937. But knowing that more hobbits was exactly what people wanted, he pressed on. Originally he was going to focus on young Bingo Baggins, the son of The Hobbit protagonist Bilbo Baggins, and some vague idea to “make return of ring a motive.” Soon, Bingo became Frodo, and Tolkien added a hobbit named Trotter (who later evolved into Aragorn).
Earlier drafts also left out Samwise Gamgee completely, but they did include a hobbit named Odo, who would mostly turn into Pippin. There was even a point very early on when Tolkien toyed with the idea of making Bilbo the main character yet again—or have him revealed to be Trotter in disguise.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien’s son drew the book’s maps of Middle-earth.
For Tolkien, art was key to bringing the fictional land of Middle-earth to life. He produced several paintings and illustrations for both The Hobbit—including the cover of the first edition—and The Lord of the Rings. But perhaps more important than the paintings of lush hillsides and foreboding dragon lairs were the maps drawn by Tolkien’s son, Christopher.
Beginning his work more than a decade before the books were ever published, these maps helped give a real sense of geography to the Shire, Mordor, and the other iconic locales, and a handful made their way into the first editions of all The Lord of the Rings volumes. Christopher would later go on to provide more maps for The Silmarillion when it was published in 1977 and redrew his originals for inclusion in 1980’s Unfinished Tales.
5. The first U.S. paperback version of The Lord of the Rings was pirated.
In 1965, The Lord of the Rings came out in the U.S. in paperback form, courtesy of sci-fi publisher Ace Books—and it did so without the authorization of Tolkien himself. Ace editor Donald A. Wollheim claimed that the works weren’t copyrighted in the United States, leaving them unprotected and ripe for publication. Selling for 75 cents each, the Ace version of The Lord of the Rings was a success, leading Tolkien to return to his books to make enough revisions to qualify them for copyright protection in the U.S.
Tolkien called upon his fans to boycott the Ace versions in favor of the newly updated, and official, paperbacks from Ballantine Books—though they cost around 20 cents more. Ace later agreed to stop printing the books and pay Tolkien a royalty for every copy sold. The combined sales totals of the Ace and Ballantine versions of The Lord of the Rings reached 250,000 in just 10 months.
6. The cover artist for the Ballantine prints never even read the books.
Ballantine was in a hurry to get both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings paperbacks into stores, so the publisher turned to painter Barbara Remington—who had already done art for other Ballantine titles and knew what the publisher was looking for—to provide the cover art. The only problem was that Remington didn’t have time to actually read any of Tolkien’s books.
“I didn’t know what they were about,” she said in an interview years later. “I tried finding people that had read them, but the books were not readily available in the states, and so I had sketchy information at best.” The result was a somewhat surreal take on fantasy motifs, complete with jagged mountain ranges, hordes of undulating dragons, and a cacophony of colors that have no place in bucolic locales like the Shire.
Despite that, the imagery was a hit with fans, and the three covers Remington created for The Lord of the Rings books (which were later combined into one lavish piece) have since been featured on countless posters and other prints.
However, Tolkien did have a few notes for the artist, mostly concerning her Hobbit cover, which featured a peculiar lion that never appears in the book. “He requested that Ballantine remove the lions from the cover, so they painted them over for later books,” Remington said. “The earliest books were released with the lion covers.” Those lion copies would eventually carve out a spot as collector's items.
7. Tolkien briefly started work on a proper Lord of the Rings sequel.
While there's a lot of material out there that details the history of Middle-earth, Tolkien never published a true sequel to Lord of the Rings. But the author did get to work on one—he even gave it a tentative title: The New Shadow.
According to the author, it was to take place a century after Aragorn’s death and would have involved a Sauron-worshipping cult spreading evil through the land. Tolkien only wrote two scenes before giving up, later writing, “I could have written a ’thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.”