Discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s Personal Book Cover Designs for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

The Fellowship Of The Ring Book Cover by JRR Tolkien_1-480

In some rare cas­es, adap­ta­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions of a lit­er­ary work can sur­pass the source. Despite hun­dreds of valiant efforts on the part of fans, film­mak­ers, game/toy design­ers, and radio pro­duc­ers, this has nev­er been true of the ful­ly-real­ized fan­ta­sy world in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hob­bit and The Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy. (not that it’s ever been anyone’s intent). As we not­ed in a post last week, Tolkien’s fic­tion­al world is so intri­cate, its sources so vast and var­ied, that Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor,” has made it his entire life’s work to open that world up to stu­dents and curi­ous read­ers, most recent­ly with his eight-part lec­ture series on The Hob­bit.

The Two Towers Book Cover by JRR Tolkien_1-480

One might also add illus­tra­tors to the list of Tolkien inter­preters above who have—in the almost eighty years since The Hobbit’s pub­li­ca­tion and six­ty years since the first appear­ance of The Lord of the Rings trilogy—done their best to visu­al­ize Tolkien’s world. But per­haps no one did so bet­ter than the mas­ter him­self. Long known as a visu­al artist as well as a lit­er­ary one, Tolkien left behind over 100 illus­tra­tions for The Hob­bit, one of which adorns 2011’s Harper­Collins 75th anniver­sary edi­tion of the book. He also cre­at­ed these orig­i­nal cov­er designs for each book in The Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy.

The Return Of The King Book Cover by JRR Tolkien_1-480


In the long and com­plex pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ry of Tolkien’s most famous of works, it’s unclear if these designs ever made it onto books pub­lished dur­ing his life­time, but the sig­il in the cen­ter of The Fel­low­ship of the Ring design (left), with its omi­nous eye of Sauron sur­round­ed by elvish runes and topped by the one ring, did grace the ele­gant, min­i­mal­ist cov­ers of the first edi­tion of the tril­o­gy. Tolkien’s art­work received a thor­ough treat­ment in a 1995 mono­graph J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illus­tra­tor, which cov­ers over 60 years of Tolkien’s life as an artist, and the mag­ic of flickr brings us this com­pendi­um of Tolkien illus­tra­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Lis­ten to J.R.R. Tolkien Read Poems from The Fel­low­ship of the Ring, in Elvish and Eng­lish (1952)

The Art of the Book Cov­er Explained at TED

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent “Loli­ta” Book Cov­ers

Jack Kerouac’s Hand-Drawn Cov­er for On the Road

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Johan Barstad says:


    Thank you for inter­est­ing arti­cle. Just thought I’d make it known to you that the Dan­ish Queen Mar­grethe 2. in 1977 illus­trat­ed a dan­ish edi­tion of Lord of the Rings under the pseu­do­nym of Ingahild Grath­mer. The dan­ish queen is known for her work in arts.

    Kind regards
    Johan Barstad

  • Jem Hammond says:

    Um, I don’t usu­al­ly both­er with being a Tolkien geek, but.…. the “sig­il” design is not “topped” by the One Ring. The One is the plain band sur­round­ing the Eye. The jew­elled ring being drawn towards it through the flames is one of the oth­er, sub­ject rings — which makes the whole design even more mean­ing­ful.

  • joanne turano says:

    Hel­lo thank you I’m enjoy­ing your mes­sages, peace joanne

  • joanne turano says:

    I’ve been a Tolkien fan a since I was a tying girl, I’m not such a young girl any longer.I am enjoy­ing learn­ing more about the books and about the man who wrote them.What a incred­i­ble, fas­ci­nat­ing man! Thank you for shar­ing your knowl­edge about JRR Tolkien and the incred­i­ble books he wrote, peace joanne

  • joanne turano says:

    Well, sor­ry been a fan since I was a young girl..

  • Andrew Lundy says:

    Jem is cor­rect. From the ini­tial cov­er design it looks like the One Ring is sur­round­ed by the three Elven rings. The red­dish one on top is like­ly Narya, the Ring of Fire wield­ed by Gan­dalf.

  • mir Reza says:

    orginal cov­er ?????

  • Mark O'Neill says:

    As a trib­ute to Tolkien, they should reis­sue the books with these exact cov­er designs.

  • Bob Smith says:


  • Johannes Cuparius says:

    More famous is the series Tolkien paint­ed which appeared on the 1970s ver­sion’s cov­ers: Hob­biton-Across-the-Water, Fan­gorn For­est, & Barad-Dur.

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