It would have been the late JRR Tolkien’s 120th birthday today, and with the film of The Hobbit on the horizon, the great man has been on our mind a bit of late. So much so, in fact, that we dug out our battered old copy of The Lord of the Rings and started thumbing through it again over the holiday season. It’s one of about a gazillion different editions of Tolkien’s books that have been published around the world since The Hobbit first appeared in 1937 — so to celebrate its author’s birthday, we’ve put together a gallery of some of the most beautiful and/or weird cover artwork that’s adorned Tolkien’s work over the years. (Many of these come from the exhaustive gallery of covers here and/or from the Tolkien Library, both excellent resources for Tolkien completists.)
This is Tolkien trainspotters’ holy grail — a genuine first edition of The Hobbit (Or There and Back Again) dating way back to 1937. The dust jacket artwork is Tolkien’s own, and was used on subsequent reprintings — if you can find one of these original copies, it’ll set you back a cool $30,000 or so.
This was a special edition of The Hobbit printed in 1942 for the Children’s Book Club at legendary London bookshop Foyle’s. Tolkien apparently hated the new artwork, and griped that “surely the paper wasted on that hideous dust-cover could have been better used.”
A 1965 Dutch edition of the trilogy. For whatever reason, Dutch was the first language into which The Lord of the Rings was translated, and these early editions came complete with artwork that falls somewhere between Where the Wild Things Are and the Bayeux Tapestry. It was created by artist Cor Blok, who was a professor of Dutch art history, and who went on to create a long series of illustrations inspired by Tolkien’s books (you can see many of them here). The author was so impressed by Blok’s paintings that he bought a couple of them.
These are Polish editions dating from 1981. Quite what the bizarre pencil sketch artwork has to do with the books is anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty awesome regardless.
Poland seems to have a fondness for wacky artwork — as any sharp-eyed student of art history (or Fleet Foxes fan) will notice, this edition of the trilogy uses excerpts from various Hieronymus Bosch paintings on its covers.
The second edition of The Lord of the Rings in Japanese, from 1966. Yours for 950 yen (about $12.50) back in the day — presumably, it’ll set you back substantially more than that now.
Russian! We’re not quite sure when this edition was published — the first Russian translation was done in 1976, although the dates on this seem to be in 1987 or 1988 — but whatever the case, the artwork is gloriously strange. If you’re interested in seeing more, you can find it here — someone at a blog called English Russia (tagline: “Only in Russia!”) has gone to the trouble of scanning the entire book, which comes with plenty more idiosyncratic illustrations by one M Belomilinsky, the artist responsible for the cover.
This seems to be the default artwork for Finnish editions — the same painting has been used on successive reprints of the book, although this is the earliest-looking we can find.
This is an early Hebrew edition of The Hobbit, and while the cover’s certainly interesting enough in itself, the story of how The Hobbit came to be translated into Hebrew for this edition is more interesting still — it was done by Israeli airline pilots held as prisoners of war after they were shot down over Egypt in the late 1960s. There’s more on the fascinating story here.
More Hebrew editions. These ones are more recent, but apparently use the same storied translation.
Stocks of lurid green ink in Germany ran low after this 1981 printing — a design that was retained for most of the 1980s, for reasons beknownst only to the German publishing industry.
A Czech edition of The Hobbit, which was first translated into both Czech and Slovak in 1973. Despite the linguistic similarities between the two languages, apparently the translators for each language approached the task of rendering the work in their respective languages very differently — students of linguistics may well find this study of the differences rather interesting.
A couple of decidedly classy-looking Thai editions.
A few decidedly less classy-looking editions, published by the dubiously-named Quality Paperback Book Club in 1995 — although the strange abstract designs on the cover are kinda cool in their own way, fans have apparently been less than enthused at the quality of the books themselves.
Fifty-five years after its publication, The Lord of the Rings is still being translated into new languages — it’s currently available in 38 languages, and counting. This is an Arabic translation from 2007 (apologies for the URL plastered across it, which is apparently for a Saudi book discussion forum, but it was the only image we could find and thanks to reader Camille Tovee for kindly retouching it for us!)