Guide To Currently Available U.S. Editions
The FAQ-Guide to the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
The Gallery of Tolkien Book Covers
Other Works and Books by Tolkien
Selected Out of Print Editions
Sources and Influences
Guide to Audio Editions
British Editions of Tolkien
Hard-to-find British Tolkien Items
Other recommended Tolkien resources
Sorting out the DVDs

Which edition of the Lord of the Rings has the best text?
The Lord of the Rings -- A Reader's Companion  ISBN:  0618642676
This exquisite volume (not to be confused with the yet-to-published J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide) will be the delight of Tolkien enthusiasts who have longed for a detailed collection of annotations to accompany Tolkien's masterwork.  Compiled by noted Tolkien scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christna Scull (authors of J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and editors of Farmer Giles of Ham 50th Anniversary Edition), this hefty volume contains thousands of annotations for the entire text of The Lord of the Rings with page references that can be universally applied to the various editions.  In addition, there is a special section detailing the corrections made to the 2004 and 2005 editions.

This work also covers the history of the writing of LOTR and includes such asides as the omitted section of his famous letter to Milton Waldman which was abridged in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Letter #131) (the section was omitted merely due to it being a "bald resume" of The Lord of the Rings), his highly sought-after "Nomenclature" for translators, and commentary on book cover designs, maps, etc.  The cover of A Reader's Companion itself is in fact one of Tolkien's early cover designs for The Lord of the Rings.  The durable sewn binding will allow the book to withstand repeated handling.

For those who have found themselves intimidated by the massive, twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth series, or simply don't wish to go into such depth, A Reader's Companion may be the perfect introduction to Tolkien scholarship.

Click the thumbnail to see a larger image in a pop-up window.  Click a linked edition name or volume to purchase a book right now.    Terms used when referencing the maps.
NEW! Houghton Mifflin 50th Anniversary 1-volume trade paperback, 2005 -- very latest textual corrections    ISBN: 0618640150

New one-volume paperback version of the 50th Anniversary edition.  Similar to previous 1-volume paperback editions (regarding maps, etc.) but with the newest textual corrections that were done for the hardcover edition (see description below). 
NEW! Houghton Mifflin 50th Anniversary 3-volume trade paperback, 2005 -- new textual corrections
Boxed Set:  0618574999   |   FOTR:  0618574948   |  TTT:  0618574956   |   ROTK:  0618574972
This new young adult edition features a new interior design, the latest text (based on the 2004 hardcover 50th Anniversary Edition), and new cover art by John Jude Palencar.
Houghton Mifflin Deluxe 50th Anniversary 1-volume hardcover, 2004 -- Extensively corrected text   ISBN: 0618517650

Published on October 21, 2004 to commemorate the publishing of the U.S. edition of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, this could well be the most exquisite (and accurate) edition of The Lord of the Rings yet published.  The text has been exhaustively scrutinized and corrected by a team of scholars including Douglas A. Anderson, Wayne G. Hammond, and Christina Scull, with the oversight and continual consultation of Christopher Tolkien who approved nearly 400 corrections.  Many of the new features of this edition are aspects that Tolkien had desired when LOTR was first published but were never utilized.
  • Color plates featuring Tolkien's own illustrations of the leaves from the Book of Mazarbul (from "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum") are included for the first time ever in LOTR.
  • Red text in key places in two early chapters (Gandalf's monogram rune and the fire letters of the ring inscription)
  • Two new family trees of hobbits in Appendix C: Bolger of Budgeford, and Boffin of The Yale
  • The 'Ring and Eye' device on the cover
  • Two large format tipped-in foldout maps (general map in front of book; Gondor map in back)
  • Newly revised "Note on the Text" by Anderson and a "Note on the 50th Anniversary Edition" by Hammond & Scull
  • Soft grey leather cover
  • Two-color foil stamping ('Ring and Eye' device on front; Tolkien's signature on back; title, author and JRRT monogram on spine)
  • Gilded edges
  • "Flat Foot" design that prevents the book block from sagging over time when stored in an upright position
  • Ribbon placemarker
  • Sturdy, protective slipcase with inset panels
  • Title plate on front of slipcase; Tolkien's illustration of Orthanc on back of slipcase
Other added touches include the use of red ink for the fire-letters of the ring inscription and Gandalf's rune 'signature' which were also elminated at the time of publishing and have now been restored.  Careful observers will note a small iconic symbol on the title plate on the front of the slipcase which is the crown of Gondor symbol as it appeared in King Elessar's letter to Sam Gamgee from the excised Epilogue to LOTR.  The symbol that appears here is from the version of the letter that was reproduced in Hammond and Scull's J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, in the Appendix on Calligraphy.  The other two versions of the King's Letter are reproduced in Sauron Defeated (History of Middle-Earth Volume IX).

A note about the Leaves from the Book of Mazarbul:  While LOTR was being prepared for publication, Tolkien was frantically trying to finish the maps and a couple illustrations intended to be included in the book.  One was the Gate of Moria which has always been included, and the other was a set of three leaves from the 'Book of Mazarbul' which the Fellowship discovers in Moria in the chapter "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum".  Gandalf attempts to read the leaves but cannot make out everything because they are too badly damaged.  Tolkien carefully crafted facsimilies of what the leaves would look like by drawing the runes and Tengwar and then burning the edges of the pages and giving them the appearance of being smeared with dried blood.  Much to Tolkien's disappointment, the publisher decided not to include these due to cost considerations.  Yet he made several pleas to have them included.  In a letter to Rayner Unwin in April, 1953, he wrote, "As for the 'facsimilies' of the burned and torn pages of the Runic Book, originally planned to appear at the beginning of Book II Ch. V, I am retaining them for the present.  I think their disappearance is regretable; but in spite of what you have said, I think line-blocks are for this purpose impracticable.  A page each is required, or the things will be too illegible to be interesting."  In August, he wrote to Rayner Unwin, "What is the position about the reproduction of the burned pages of the 'Book of Mazarbul'?  The text as it stands is rather pointless without them."  He mentions them again in two subsequent letters but to no avail.  The leaves were eventually published in the 1977 Tolkien Calendar and reproduced in Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien along with a transliteration of the runes.  An analysis of the writing on the leaves can be found in Christopher Tolkien's The Treason of Isengard (History of LOTR Part 2), Appendix on Runes.  This 50th Anniversary Edition is the first time the leaves have appeared within the body of The Lord of the Rings itself, as Tolkien had wished.

Houghton Mifflin 1-volume, 2003 (1994 edition, corrected)
Hardcover:  ISBN 0618345841
Paperback:  ISBN 0618343997
The standard one-volume edition was re-covered with awe-inspiring movie tie-in art (the One Ring on Sauron's finger) and offers a few extras.  The maps have been restored to Christopher Tolkien's 1980 versions and printed on the inside of the covers (pbk) or dustjacket (hc).  (Plus the Steven Raw redrawings are still on the inside of the book.)  With the hardcover edition, you can remove the dust jacket while reading in order to have the maps conveniently laid out in front of you.  The paperback also features flaps on the covers in the manner of a hardcover dustjacket and a tipped in frontispiece.    This recovering replaced the one with Gandalf inside Bag-End.  The text is the corrected (missing line from ring inscription restored) 1994 text.  As one-volume editions go, this one is lighter and less bulky than the Collector's Edition or the Centenary Edition, and therefore more suitable for actual reading.  Also, if cost is a factor in choosing an edition, consider that the 1-volume paperback is the least expensive complete edition of LOTR available.
Houghton Mifflin 1-volume & Bookends Gift Set (2003)    ISBN: 0618401210

This specially produced gift set, packaged in a windowpane display box, includes a hardcover 1-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings with movie tie-in jacket art (a view of Rivendell) unique to this edition, and an exquisite set of bookends featuring Gandalf knocking on the door of Bag-End on one side, with Bilbo at the door on the other.
Houghton Mifflin 3-volume, HC, Alan Lee Illustrated, 2002 edition text
Boxed set:  0618260587   |   FOTR: 061826051X    |   TTT: 0618260595   |   ROTK: 0618260552
This classic (which has been available as a 1-volume edition since 1991) returns as a 3-volume, large format, hardcover set.  Illustrated with 50 (total) paintings by Alan Lee.  This edition also incorporates a few corrections to the text, not only restoring the line from the ring inscription that was missing in some of the editions printed in the mid-90s, but with a few other minor corrections (such as restoring the word "obviously" in The Shadow of Past which had been changed to "previously").  Volume 1 includes an updated Note On The Text by Douglas A. Anderson dated April, 2002.  These volumes were resized to match the trim size of the Alan Lee Illustrated Hobbit.  (The Ted Nasmith illustrated Silmarillion is also the same size, creating a unique set of illustrated editions with a uniform look and feel).  The paper used throughout this edition is bright, sturdy, clay-coated stock.  It also features Christopher Tolkien's 1980 maps printed in red and black as endpapers, rather than being printed in quadrants as in the one-volume edition.  A very elegant set for collectors, gift-givers, and anyone who wants a deluxe edition of The Lord of the Rings with the most up-to-date text.  Some readers have observed, however, a reduction in quality of the reproductions of the illustrations which might well be the case, since the plates are most likely scans of the first edition, rather than reshoots of the original artwork.

Despite the corrections that were implemented in this edition, two major errors have come to light. Firstly, in FOTR, the last sentence of the Council of Elrond: Sam sat down, blushing and muttering. 'A nice pickle we have landed ourselves in, Mr. Frodo!' he said, shaking his head. is missing completely. Secondly, in ROTK it appears that an older version of the Appendices may have been used, at least in the case of two specific pages: the Line of the Dwarves of Erebor at the end of Appendix A, and the Hobbit family trees in Appendix C (Estella Bolger is gone again).

Houghton Mifflin 3-volume trade paperback, 2003 (1994 edition, corrected)
Boxed Set:  0618346244   | FOTR: 0618346252   |   TTT: 0618346260   |   ROTK: 0618346279
A third new set of covers adorns the movie tie-in version of HM's 3-volume LOTR set.  The box offers a stunning view of Mordor, more reminiscent of a Ted Nasmith illustration than a scene from the film. The Fellowship of the Ring features Frodo; Legolas on The Two Towers; and of course Aragorn on The Return of the King.  The text in this printing is the same as that of the 2003 1-volume edition.
Houghton Mifflin 3-volume trade paperback (1994 edition) -- Alan Lee cover art (1999)
4-book boxed set: 0618002251   |   FOTR: 0618002227   |   TTT: 0618002235   |   ROTK: 0618002243   |   Hobbit: 0618002219
The 1999 printing with exquisite cover art by Alan Lee remains available. Fellowship of the Ring has Rivendell, The Two Towers has Orthanc (the same painting that was used on the cover for the HM hardcover edition of The History of Middle-Earth vol. 7, The Treason of Isengard), and The Return of the King has Minas Tirith. The box art is Lee's The Battle of the Pelennor Fields.  The boxed set includes The Hobbit.

The 1999 edition was entirely reset and the type is therefore clear and crisp--very easy on the eye. The paper is brighter than that used in previous editions. It has also been repaginated so that the page numbering continues from one volume to the next so that the set is numbered as if it were a single volume. Also, the pagination of the first volume doesn't match that of the 1987 edition. In that edition, the Prologue begins on page 10 and the book ends at page 423, whereas in the 1999 edition, the Prologue begins on page 1 and the book ends at page 398. Thus, the page number conversion tables in Robert Foster's Guide to Middle Earth cannot be easily applied to this new edition.

The Note On The Text by Douglas A. Anderson was revised and updated in which it is stated that this edition contains a number of corrections (supervised by CJRT) even beyond those corrections made in 1987 and that the Ballantine editions were only brought into conformity at that time. For all this, however, this edition contains a glaring misprint on page 49 in the "Shadow of the Past": The first of the two lines ("One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them") of the translation of the ring inscription is completely missing. Only the line, "One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them" is printed, which may be somewhat confusing to a first-time reader since the sentence that follows is "It is only two lines of a verse long known in Elven-lore:"  Another error occurs in the Synopsis preceding The Two Towers: In the first sentence is the phrase, ". . . the ring possessed by Frodo and the Hobbit was in fact the one ring . . . " the word 'and' being, of course, extraneous.  These errors originated with the 1994 HarperCollins British editions and the ring inscription error even propagated to the Ballantine mass market paperback edition when it was reprinted in the fall of 2001 with move tie-in cover art (though this has since been corrected as well).

The maps have been redrawn by a Mr. Stephen Raw. The general map is sectioned, and the Gondor map spans two pages. These maps, although not CJRT's, are drawn with great clarity and seem to be precise, faithful renderings (see comments on Ballantine's redrawn maps below).

This offers a well-presented set, more durable than mass market paperbacks, but at a significantly lower cost than hardcovers.  About as nice as you can get in a softcover edition.  Boxed set is available with or without The Hobbit (The Alan Lee set includes The Hobbit, the move tie-in set does not).

Houghton Mifflin 3-volume hardcover, 1987 edition
Alan Lee cover art (1987)
Boxed set:  0395489326   |   FOTR:  0395489318   |   TTT:  0395489334   |   ROTK:  039548930X

Move tie-in covers (2001)

Boxed set:  0618153977   |   FOTR:  0618153985   |   TTT:  0618153993   |   ROTK:  0618154000
This edition, in three volumes, was issued in 1987 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the The Hobbit.  The dust jackets feature art by Alan Lee, with additional design by Rita Marshall. The jacket design is a cream or pale yellow (the actual hue varies depending on the printing), with a border of runes in carved stone. The three Alan Lee paintings form a triptych.  The box features the complete painting wrapped around the three sides. The illustration is a Nazgul on its winged mount flying toward Gondor. The full cloth covers are brown with Tolkien's Eye of Sauron device stamped in red and gold, and gold-stamped letters on the spine.  In 2001, a set with movie tie-in dust jackets was made available.  The cloth covers of these are black instead of brown.

Each book includes a folded map tipped into the back. The maps fold out to a size much larger than the books themselves. They measure 15" by 18" when unfolded and are printed in black and red. The first two volumes feature the general map, while the third has, of course, the Gondor map.  The general map is Christopher Tolkien's revised map of 1980.

This edition includes a Note On The Text, by Houghton Mifflin's Douglas A. Anderson, that briefly discusses the printing history of The Lord of the Rings and attempts made at incorporating corrections. This note includes several interesting footnotes, one of which lists one set of Tolkien's suggestions for titles for the six individual 'books' as named in the Marquette University manuscript (which is different than those listed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). The footnotes are mentioned here because Houghton Mifflin's 1999 trade paperback edition features a revised Note On The Text, but the footnotes have been deleted.

This edition is a good choice for durability, quality, and well-presented maps, yet combines those aspects with reading convenience (3 separate volumes) and a reasonable price for hardcover books, making it possibly the best value.  My personal favorite.

Houghton Mifflin 1-volume HC, 1991 Illustrated Centenary edition    ISBN: 0395595118

The one-volume anniversary edition issued for the Centenary of Tolkien's birth (1892-1992) is illustrated with 50 paintings by Alan Lee. The front of the dust jacket features the painting for "The Black Gate is Closed," and the back is the picture for "The Road to Isengard." The dust jacket design has gold bands at the top and bottom edge with runes. The cover of the book is full cloth, brown, and features Tolkien's monogram stamped in gold with gold-stamped lettering on the spine. The book includes a red ribbon book-mark. The maps are in the back of the book. The Gondor map spans two pages, and the general map is sectioned. This map is CJRT's revised map of 1980.  Collectors tend to buy this one mainly for the illustrations.  A bit bulky to use for casual reading, although it is now available again in a 3-volume hardcover edition.
Easton Press, 5-volume set, Hardcover (includes The Hobbit and The Silmarillion)

The Tolkien Classics Collection produced by Easton Press of Norwalk Connecticut includes collector quality, leather bound, guilded-edged editions of The Hobbit, Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, Return of The King, and The Silmarillion.  These beautiful heirloom editions include the beloved original artwork by Tolkien himself as appeared in the very first editions.  Frontispieces in each book are by the acclaimed illustrator Michael Hague.  Folding maps printed in black and red are included in each book.  They unfold to a 19" x 16" size and, unlike with other editions, can be removed from the book.  Bound in thick, premium-quality genuine leather stamped with an intricate design and bound over thick, sturdy binder boards.  Hubbed spines accented with precious 22kt gold.  Page ends gilded with a tarnish-free finish that also seals out moisture.  Pages printed on the finest acid-neutral paper and Smyth-sewn for exceptional strength, not glued like ordinary books.  End sheets are an elegant moiré fabric with a matching satin ribbon page-marker.  The collection can be ordered directly from Easton Press.  It's costly at $275, but well-suited for the collector of extremely high-quality literary editions.  Covers are unostentatious but elegant.  Enables one to shelve their Tolkien alongside their Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway.
Ballantine/Del Rey 3-volume paperback, 2002
4 book boxed set (includes The Hobbit): 0345340426   |  FOTR: 0345339703   |  TTT: 0345339711   |  ROTK: 0345339738
Ballantine/Del Rey reissued their paperbacks with a second set of movie tie-in covers.  The type was reset in 1999 and the pagination is different than pre-1999 editions. For example, in all Ballantine editions, the Prologue begins on page 19, but the FOTR ends at page 526 in older editions, and in this edition it ends at page 479.  The missing line from the ring inscription in "The Shadow of the Past" has been restored with the 129th printing of The Fellowship of the Ring.  Note that this correction did not occur with the change of cover art, but sometime during the printing of the second set of movie tie-in covers.  Therefore the impression of FOTR with the second picture (Frodo being held by Faramir's men rather than the one of Frodo holding Sting) does not necessarily contain the corrected text.  Some of the books with this cover are the 128th printing and some are the 129th printing.  It is therefore important to actually check the book before buying if this is a matter of concern.  (See photo of 2001 and 2002 movie tie-in covers for comparison.)

All the maps in volumes one and two were redrawn by Shelly Shapiro. They are poor renderings, some details having been omitted, apparently spread out for the sake of clarity, but the general map is all but useless since much of it is tucked deep into the binding, with too much white space at the margins. The "Part of the Shire" map has been replaced with a small inset called "The Shire" which shows almost nothing. It has exactly 9 place names and 3 water body names. The Map of Númenor is no longer included as it was in the 1999 edition, and the Shapiro maps are in all three books (the 1999 ROTK had the original maps).

Houghton Mifflin 1-volume deluxe hardcover, 1974 Collector's Edition, (1987 text)    ISBN: 0395193958

Bound in red leatherette with a matching slipcase with gold, green, and blue foil stamping on the spine and front cover.  This edition features a large format fold-out map (but only the general map--the Gondor map is not included), and is printed on high quality paper with a two-color text setting.   The text of the currently available printing is based on the 1987 revision.  This is one of the most beautiful editions although one of the bulkiest and heaviest as well.  Good for displaying open on a book stand.  It also complements the style and presentation of the Collector's Edition of The Hobbit (see The Hobbit page of this Guide).   Very deluxe--many collectors like this one for its beauty.  Its bulk and weight, however, make it somewhat cumbersome to use for casual reading.
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