The Road Goes Ever On: Tolkien’s Publishing Journey

All editing services are 15% off in January!

J.R.R. Tolkien was born January 3, 1892. I know I’ve envied his abilities as a writer—perhaps you have, too. So to encourage you, I wanted to share some facts of his published works and show you a timeline.

But first! A Happy New Year card from his mother, featuring a baby Tolkien:


“Taken by our own vines!” Someone write me a novel about Mabel Tolkien.

Doesn’t her handwriting look like Tolkien’s? Fantastic. Anyway:

The Hobbit

Published in September, 1937, nine years after Tolkien scribbled out the idea: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit was an immediate success.

Farmer Giles of Ham and The Simarillion

Written the same year The Hobbit was published, Farmer Giles of Ham wouldn’t be published for another twelve years.

The Silmarillion interested Tolkien’s publisher, Stanley Unwin, but he ultimately rejected, wanting more hobbit literature. The Silmarillion would be edited and published by Christopher Tolkien (Ronald’s son) in 1977, three years after Tolkien died and forty years after The Hobbit was published.

The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King

Tolkien began writing a sequel for The Hobbit in 1939. Over the next ten years, the story evolved, becoming darker and written for an older audience. The Lord of the Rings was written in six parts and published as three books over two years, from July 1954 to October 1955. Tolkien wanted the books to be published in one volume (it would have been over 1,500 pages) and wanted to call the final book “The War of the Ring,” thinking “The Return of the King” gave away too much. He also thought that The Silmarillion needed to be published first, but the publisher did not agree. (Honestly, I agree with the publisher—The Silmarillion works better as an appendix-sequel than a prologue-prequel.)

Tolkien did write more than what is offered here (see The Tolkien Society, below), but these are the only book-length works of prose fiction published during his life. Here’s a timeline giving Tolkien’s ages for reference:

  • Age 36—Tolkien writes down an idea: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
  • Age 41—Tolkien starts telling his children bedtime stories about hobbits. Then he starts writing the story down.
  • Age 44—Tolkien finishes The Hobbit.
  • Age 45—Stanley Unwin publishes The Hobbit; Tolkien writes Farmer Giles of Ham and works on The Silmarillion
  • Age 47—Tolkien begins writing a sequel to The Hobbit which, in development with The Silmarillion, would become The Lord of the Rings.
  • Age 55—Tolkien finishes writing The Lord of the Rings and sends the manuscript to his publisher’s son Rayner Unwin, who had recommended The Hobbit for publication when he was a child.
  • Age 57—Stanley Unwin publishes Farmer Giles of Ham; Tolkien finishes editing The Lord of the Rings.
  • Age 62—Rayner Unwin, now working at his father’s firm, publishes The Lord of the Rings.

Not only did Tolkien take years to write books, but the publication of these books took years also. Remember that traditional publishing takes time. Don’t get discouraged by the wait—keep writing! The more you write, and the more people in the business you get to know, the better your chances of getting published by a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers are always looking for the best stories. Writing good stories and having good relationships with other writers and readers will get the attention of publishers—if not now, then eventually. Keep writing, reading, and connecting.


  • 3-Minute J.R.R. Tolkien by Gary Raymond
  • “Books by J.R.R. Tolkien” list from The Tolkien Society

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