Printed and re-printed more than 150 million times, existing in thirty-eight translations of foreign languages, spawning a variety of scholarship, prompting viral graffiti (Frodo lives!), having a museum, providing the impetus for multiple films, adaptations, and a host of derivative literature (for better and worse), and having millions of millions of fans around the world, its fair to say The Lord of the Rings has made its mark in the world of literature. A watershed event, the novel put epic fantasy on the map half a century ago and remains the seminal influence on the genre.
But the book had different beginnings. Tolkien’s finished manuscript languished in a drawer for about a decade. Epic fantasy’s lack of presence in the market the major decision point, no editor was willing to take the risk of publishing such a massive tome at a time when fantasy was thought dead in the aftermath of the pulp era. Giving in to publisher request, Tolkien eventually conceded to the book being broken into sections, paving the way for The Lord of the Rings to be released as most readers are familiar today: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Perhaps surprising, the books were not an immediate success. A word-of-mouth movement in the UK, however, combined with the sales and distribution of non-copyrighted versions in the US, set the book squarely on the road to success, a facet pushed over the brink by the overwhelming popularity of Peter Jackson’s films at the turn of the millennium.