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Yes, I know that Tolkien, the author, originally intended to release it as one single book. But for practical/various reasons, it was instead split up into three ones (confusingly consisting of two "books" each).

I've read many times that it's therefore "inaccurate" to call it a "trilogy", but why exactly is that? It literally is a trilogy of books, even if it has also been published as one single unit. What is so inaccurate about this?

Am I misunderstanding what a "trilogy" is? Is it not simply three very related books telling different parts of the same story?

I know that book two and three start off exactly after the previous book, like new chapters. Does that make it not a trilogy? Does a trilogy require that the books have some time in between each book or are more loosely connected or something?

I'm basically annoyed by the constant (according to my perception) talk about how this is "not a trilogy", when it to me very much looks like a trilogy.

What makes LOTR, consisting of three books in a series (except for the special combined editions), something other than a trilogy?

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  • 1
    Some people (including, it turns out, Tolkien himself) find it useful to define and apply terms like trilogy to certain texts. These definitions and applications cannot be said to be "accurate" or "inaccurate" in any metacontextual sense. That is, if I define "trilogy" as three books by the same author having some narrative continuity, and then I say, "Lord of the Rings is a trilogy", my statement is accurate in my context. It might not be accurate in another context, where trilogy has been defined differently. Those definitional discussions are like angels dancing on pinheads.
    – Juhasz
    Mar 28, 2022 at 16:58
  • 1
    Here's one such discussion. It might be interesting from a literary history, or pub trivia perspective: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/47419/…. But it doesn't tell us anything about the "true" nature of the work (as if there were such a thing).
    – Juhasz
    Mar 28, 2022 at 16:59
  • Could you please link/cite sources claiming that LotR is not a trilogy? It would be easier to address specific arguments that way.
    – bobble
    Mar 28, 2022 at 17:06
  • @bobble One notable source is Tolkien himself, as mentioned in Juhasz's link in the comment above yours. But actual quoted claims might belong more in answers than in the question, if explanations to support them are also in the same quotes.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 28, 2022 at 18:08
  • The OP mentions having read things. It would be helpful for them to say what they have read.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 30, 2022 at 10:06

5 Answers 5

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There are of course various arguments on both sides, either supporting or opposing the book being a trilogy. (In support: it was published as three separate volumes. In opposition: they aren't telling three different stories, and indeed the narrative is divided into six "books" as Spencer mentioned.) But you asked what people mean when they say that The Lord of the Rings is "not a trilogy" (spoken as a fact to correct people using the term "trilogy"), and the answer to that is that Tolkien did not consider it a trilogy.

Much has been written on this site about the concept of authorial intent, which is generally not given much weight in literary analysis, but which fans often put a lot of weight on, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres - to the extent that many Tolkien fans consider the "right" answer to whether anything in The Lord of the Rings was inspired by WW2 to be "no, because Tolkien said so" while dismissing any deeper analysis as "baseless speculation". Therefore, as Tolkien said explicitly that he did not consider The Lord of the Rings to be a trilogy, that's enough for many fans to take it as "Word of God" (a phrase commonly used among sci-fi and fantasy fans for authorial intent) and aggressively "correct" anyone who refers to it as a trilogy. (On Stack Exchange, a similar mentality causes some users to aggressively "correct" anyone who refers to the site as a forum, quoting the often seen adage "Stack Exchange is not a forum", without considering that in many ways it is a forum, a website where queries and responses can be posted, just not a typical discussion forum.)

Of course, we can still dig into why Tolkien didn't consider his work a trilogy. Let's look at what he actually said (hat-tip to this answer on another site for helping me find relevant quotes):

The (unavoidable) disadvantage of issuing in three parts has been shown in the 'shapelessness' that several readers have found, since that is true if one volume is supposed to stand alone. 'Trilogy', which is not really accurate, is partly to blame.

-- Letter 149

The book is not of course a 'trilogy'. That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost. There is no real division into 3, nor is any one part intelligible alone. The story was conceived and written as a whole and the only natural divisions are the 'books' I-VI (which originally had titles).

-- Letter 165

I have given some thought to the matter of sub-titles for the volumes, which you thought were desirable. But I do not find it easy, as the 'books', though they must be grouped in pairs, are not really paired; and the middle pair (III/IV) are not really related.

Would it not do if the 'book-titles' were used: e.g. The Lord of the Rings: Vol. I The Ring Sets out and The Ring Goes South; Vol. II The Treason of Isengard, and The Ring goes East; Vol. III The War of the Ring, and The End of the Third Age'?

If not, I can at the moment think of nothing better than: I The Shadow Grows II The Ring in the Shadow III The War of the Ring or The Return of the King.

-- Letter 136

As an analysis of the work, this makes sense: there is no particular unifying narrative within any one of the three volumes, although each of the six books does contain a mini-story within a larger interconnected plot.


TL;DR: there are two answers to your question of why people say The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy. Which one you prefer depends on whether you favour the authorial intent viewpoint or the literary analysis viewpoint:

  1. Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy. End of.
  2. The three volumes cannot be read and understood individually, but are part of a single narrative; nor is any one single volume among the three really a unified sub-narrative with its own "shape".
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If you adopt a certain point of view, it might be more accurate to describe LotR as a "Hexalogy" rather than a trilogy. The narrative is grouped into six "books" and the publisher put two of these books in each published volume.

  • Book 1: The Shire to Rivendell
  • Book 2: The Fellowship travels from Rivendell to where it "breaks" near Amon Hen
  • Book 3: Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin (and eventually Gandalf) in Fangorn/ Rohan
  • Book 4: Sam, Frodo, and Gollum (and eventually Shelob)
  • Book 5: Minas Tirith, the Battle of the Pellenor Fields
  • Book 6: Sam and Frodo (and eventually Gollum) in Mordor, plus all the cleanup

But it's more complicated, because then you add the prologue and Appendices.

If you read some of Tolkien's letters while he was writing the Lord of the Rings, and some of Christopher Tolkien's commentary about the writing of LoTR in his History of Middle-earth series, you'll see the (eventually 6) "books" mentioned, but as you pointed out, the grouping into 3 volumes was at the insistence of the publisher.

3

Those who say that The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy always, in my experience, mean that it is a single work chopped up into three volumes. This is based on the argument that the meaning of trilogy is

a set of three works of art that are connected and can be seen either as a single work or as three individual works.

One can argue that is not what they should mean, but it is what they do.

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  • Can you provide anything that supports the fact that that is what people mean, or that it is not what they should mean?
    – Spagirl
    Mar 29, 2022 at 8:53
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In order to answer this question, it is necessary to answer to other questions:

  1. What does "trilogy" mean?
  2. Does Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings fit that definition?

Chris Baldick's Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (second edition, 2001) defines "trilogy" as

a group of three connected plays or novels. (…) There are several examples in modern prose fiction, including Samuel Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy (1950), Malone Meurt (Malone Dies, 1951), and L'Innombrable (The Unnamable, 1952).

"Connected" suggests a looser connection that a continuous narrative. An older example given by Baldick is Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, which were probably not written in the order suggested by their modern titles (Henry VI, Part 1 was probably written after Henry VI, Part 2). Baldick's examples include both plays and novels.

A Handbook to Literature by William Flit Thrall and Addison Hibbard (1936) defines "trilogy" as follows:

A literary composition, more usually a novel or a play, written in three parts, each of which is in itself a complete unit. Shakespeare's King Henry VI is an example. The trilogy is written against a large background which may be historical, philosophical, or social in its interests.

"Written in three parts" suggests more coherence than Baldick's definition. However, Shakespeare's Henry VI, was probably not planned in the order we read those plays today and there is no evidence that the original audience first saw these plays in the order suggested by their modern titles. It is definitely not a play in three parts.

J. A. Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (third edition, 1991) first gives a "definition" that does not suggest any connection based on context:

A group of three tragedies presented by individual authors at the drama festival in Athens in the 5th C. BC.

Aeschylus's Oresteia is the only example from that time that has survived (as Baldick also acknowledges). The three plays in this trilogy are connected because they all concern the house of Atreus and through common themes, especially revenge. Since no other examples have come down to us, it is not clear whether this type of continuity was a requirement for Athenian theatre trilogies.

Cuddon gives more recent examples: Shakespeare's Henry VI, Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein (about the decline of Albrecht von Wallenstein), Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (three plays that are normally not produced individually) and Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I'm Talking About Jerusalem (three plays which can stand on their own).

Cuddon then adds,

The term may also be applied to a group of three novels linked by a common theme and characters. A good modern example is Joyce Carey's Herself Surprised, To Be a Pilgrim and The Horse's Mouth (1941–4).

The Horse's Mouth was adapted into a film in 1958, independently of the two other novels.

The entry trilogie in the Dutch Algemeen letterkundig lexicon points out that the trilogy proper can be distinguished from the novel in three parts.

The above definitions indicate ambiguity in the term, since it can refer both to

  • a group of three works that can each stand on their own (Becket's "trilogy", Arnold Wesker, Joyce Carey), and
  • (perhaps less commonly) a longer work that presents a continuous story (Wallenstein, Mourning Becomes Electra).

However, none of the examples given above is actually a novel in three parts or volumes.

How does this apply to J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings? In "Note on the Text" to the 2004 edition, Douglas A. Anderson wrote,

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy, when it is in fact a single novel, consisting of six books plus appendices, sometimes published in three volumes.

It makes no sense to read The Two Towers without first reading The Fellowship of the Rings, or to read The Return of the King without reading the first two parts. This distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from the novel trilogies by Becket and Carey listed above. The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy in the sense that it is not a trilogy of three novels that can be read on their own.

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The Lord of the Rings can be considered one novel with three physical volumes or a trilogy containing three separate novels, each in their own physical volume.

Tolkien preferred to think of of it as one novel in three volumes instead of as trilogy of three novels. Many fans call LOTR a trilogy and many other fans correct them claiming it is not.

I tend to agree that LOTR is not a trilogy. Someone could always call LOTR "a trilogy or 3 volume novel", or "a novel or trilogy", etc. to express uncertainty.

However you return to LOTR the Tolkien Fandom Secret Police will not come to your home in the night and drag you off for punishment. So no big deal.

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