J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic high fantasy The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular and influential book series of the 20th century. A few The Lord of the Rings facts you already know: Peter Jackson’s LOTR film trilogy is one of the most awarded and highest-grossing film series ever. The Lord of the Rings was originally published in three parts in 1954 and 1955. These less well-known The Lord of the Rings facts and answers to the most common questions about the full series has tidbits for even the most die-hard fans.
First Off: Who Was J.R.R. Tolkien?
Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He served in the British Army during World War I. His experiences in the trenches and his grief at his friends’ deaths later influenced aspects of his fiction. He studied at Oxford University, where he later became a Professor of English Language and Literature. He also studied philology, a branch of linguistics that analyzes the origins of languages.
If you’re a fan, like I am, this information probably isn’t new to you. After I’d read Tolkien’s books and watched Jackson’s movies, I wondered more about Tolkien’s possible literary influences. I first read many of the facts and theories I’ll mention in this article in David Colbert’s 2002 book The Magical Worlds of Lord of the Rings: The Amazing Myths, Legends and Facts Behind the Masterpiece. They are also found in various other sources.
Colbert’s book was so accessible, it was a great introduction to literary criticism and analysis when I was in middle school. As an adult, I think we’ll never know all of any author’s influences for sure, but Colbert’s interpretations of the ancient works Tolkien studied fascinated me.
Tolkien translated Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into modern English. Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew in many stories. Colbert speculated that this could have inspired Tolkien to make Frodo Baggins Bilbo’s much younger cousin.
I pored over Colbert’s book as a kid, with intriguing chapter titles, like “Why Do Elves Live So Long?” and “Was Gollum Ever Good?” It speculated on why Frodo was the protagonist and not a more typical epic hero, like Aragorn.
There’s always something new to learn when it comes to The Lord of the Rings facts: Tolkien’s possible influences, the books’ and movies’ critical reception, fan culture, and funny anecdotes from the movie cast.
Lord of the Rings Facts
How many copies of The Lord of the Rings have been sold?
According to several current, reliable sources, at least 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings books have been sold all around the world. A much higher number appears to be an April Fool’s joke from a fan site that’s sometimes taken seriously.
Tolkien created his languages first, then built mythologies around them.
Tolkien had been fascinated by languages — and trying to invent them — since he was a child. He’d created Quenya by 1917, 20 years before The Hobbit was published. Then he spent decades writing what would become The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
What’s the difference between Quenya and Sindarin, anyway?
Some people are experts in the grammar of Tolkien’s Elvish languages. I’m not; these are just the basics. Quenya was inspired by Finnish, which was then a rare language in England. Welsh influenced Sindarin.
Quenya is the more ancient, High Elven language used ceremonially and by the Elves in Valinor (the Undying Lands in the West). The Gray Elves, who live in Middle-earth, and some educated humans, like Aragorn, speak Sindarin.
How long did it take Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings?
Sources vary, but most agree that it took Tolkien about 12 years to write the series. Tolkien’s comprehensive legendarium was never finished.
Aragorn and Arwen’s romance wasn’t in the main narrative.
In the books, the short story “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” is in Appendix A, not the main books, and presented as an excerpt of a longer work. Most of their romance in the movie trilogy was adapted from the appendices.
Tolkien’s publisher thought The Lord of the Rings was too long to publish as one volume.
As Colbert’s book and many other sources mentioned, Tolkien originally wanted to publish The Lord of the Rings as one book. It was over 1,000 pages and about half a million words long, so, the publisher split it into three books.
Tolkien coined the word “tween.”
Before it acquired its more recent meaning of preteen, Tolkien used the word tween to refer to “a hobbit between the ages of 20 and 33.” Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are all in this age group, considered young adults — almost adolescents. Bilbo was a youthful 50 in The Hobbit. The Fellowship of the Ring famously opens with Bilbo’s 111th birthday party.
Tolkien originally wanted his follow-up to The Hobbit to be more like The Silmarillion than The Lord of the Rings.
After publishing The Hobbit, Tolkien gave his publisher an incomplete version of his legendarium, hoping it would be published next. The publisher rejected it as being too obscure and “too Celtic,” asking for a sequel instead — which became The Lord of the Rings.
In 1977, four years after Tolkien died, his son Christopher edited and published The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien’s history and mythology of Middle-earth, based on Tolkien’s unfinished legendarium and other notes.
The traveling LOTR movies exhibit visited only ONE location in the U.S. in 2004: Boston’s Museum of Science.
And I was there! Friends, family, and I saw props, costumes, and sets from the films and concept art of the Eye of Sauron. We photographed one another using the forced perspective tricks that made Gandalf look so much taller than Frodo. We watched clips of an actor taking a nap during the hours it took to apply his Orc makeup.
Christopher Lee originally wanted to play Gandalf, not Saruman.
As Peter Jackson said in a 2015 interview, Lee was a huge fan of the books, who reread them every year and memorized long passages. He’d met Tolkien and dreamed for many years of playing Gandalf. By the time he met Lee, Jackson was already considering Ian McKellen for Gandalf. Also, Gandalf’s role was bigger, with more falls and horseback riding.
In 1965, Ballantine’s official, mass-market paperback made the books more affordable to U.S. readers.
Why specify that the Ballantine edition was authorized (and therefore legal)? It wasn’t the first paperback edition published in the U.S. Months earlier, Ace Books had used a copyright law loophole to publish an unauthorized (pirated) version.
Fan works and even merchandise existed way before the movies.
I was in middle and high school when the LOTR movies were first released. I saw them in the movie theater with friends. Then, we saw LOTR action figures, games, posters, and standees for sale at the mall. But that wasn’t the beginning of merchandising LOTR — not by a long shot. As an undergrad in Boston in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, my mom often saw the slogan FRODO LIVES on buttons and bumper stickers.
Artists also released works directly inspired by Tolkien. Leonard Nimoy recorded a song called “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” in 1967. The song and its music video can be found online. The references to Gollum, Mordor, and Sauron in Led Zeppelin’s 1969 song “Ramble On” have always baffled me, but their enthusiasm for the books was obvious. In 2000, bluegrass band Nickel Creek released the song “In the House of Tom Bombadil.”
Frodo was a 1960s counterculture icon.
This BBC article offers several reasons LOTR was considered counterculture in the 1960s — beyond Gandalf and the hobbits’ love of pipe-weed. Éowyn is a badass who fears a “cage” and kills the Witch-king of Angmar, whom “no living man” can defeat. Many feminists loved her.
The horrors of war and of Saruman’s industrialization resonated with readers who protested the Vietnam War and pollution. People frequently exaggerate Tolkien’s distrust of technology. Still, some fans admired him for riding a bike, instead of owning a car, and for praising the joys of rest and the outdoors.
In the 1960s, the Beatles wanted to make — and star in — their own movie musical adaptation of LOTR.
This anecdote is in Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary series, The Beatles: Get Back. The BBC article I linked earlier breaks it down: Paul as Frodo? John as Gollum? I’ve been a fan of both the Beatles and Tolkien for over 20 years, but I still don’t understand how that would have worked. Would it have been a silly caper, like the Beatles’ movie Help!? Or a psychedelic cartoon, like Yellow Submarine? Sadly, we’ll likely never know.
Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood scene in Macbeth inspired the Ents.
As a student, Tolkien was so disappointed by human armies disguising themselves as trees in Macbeth, he eventually created Ents: trees who could form an army if necessary.
Liv Tyler’s elf ears melted — not during filming, though!
In this hilarious clip from Stephen Colbert’s talk show, Liv Tyler tells him she kept a pair of her prosthetic elf ears after playing Arwen. After she left them on her car dashboard on a hot day, they melted!
Stephen Colbert famously has encyclopedic knowledge of the books, stumping even the cast and crew of the LOTR movies at trivia. He made a cameo in the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Some early critics of the books were harsh.
In this excerpt from The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook, he quotes Edmund Wilson, who called the books “juvenile trash” in 1956. Philip Toynbee wrote that “today those books have passed into a merciful oblivion.” Whether you love or hate LOTR, it’s ironic in retrospect to read this criticism from 1961.
Some early movie reviewers didn’t get it, either.
This 2001 review called the One Ring a MacGuffin, but I think its significance makes it the opposite of a MacGuffin. Other early reviews complainted The Fellowship of the Ring didn’t have much of an ending. Some viewers expected a typical trilogy for the time: a hit movie with two sequels, instead of one story in three installments.
Some initial reviewers loved the films.
At the opposite extreme, the author of this 2001 The Guardian review loved the first movie, viewing the changes as necessary improvements.
Controversies over representation aren’t new.
There was Gimli’s line “Nobody tosses a dwarf” in the first movie. This was controversial because it was a new joke about an activity that’s extremely dangerous and ableist to Little People in the real world.
Tolkien consistently condemned Hitler and Nazism. However, he also admitted his dwarves drew on ancient caricatures of Jewish people.
In the books, the hobbits are described as having darker skin than their portrayals in the films.
Tolkien always denied any affinity for controversial composer Richard Wagner.
This fascinating BBC article explores Tolkien’s many possible influences. He always rejected the theory that Wagner’s Ring Cycle influenced him: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” Wagner was one of Hitler’s favorite composers — and still a favorite of white nationalists today — and Tolkien despised Hitler.
Ian Holm acted in two different LOTR adaptations!
He played Frodo in a BBC radio dramatization, 20 years before playing Bilbo in the movies.
Eight of the nine cast members who portrayed the Fellowship of the Ring got matching tattoos.
John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) was the only Fellowship member who didn’t get one, but his stunt double, Brett Beattie, did. Rhys-Davies joked that of course he asked his stunt double to do anything dangerous on his behalf.