Wednesday’s Heroes: Rayner Unwin



You had to wonder whether he got his name in the manuscript somehow. J.R.R. Tolkien, already partial to names like “Undómiel,” “Celeborn” and “Éowyn,” would surely have found cause to pay tribute to Rayner Unwin in such an encoded way: He owed the man not one, but two great debts for his career.

“All I remember about the start of The Hobbit,” the Oxford don Tolkien wrote to W.H. Auden, “is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children’s enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at that time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published.”

That letter was written in 1955, two years after The Lord of the Rings was published by Unwin’s father’s firm. George Allen & Unwin was a small press by most standards, specializing in philosophical works by Bertrand Russell and other thinkers, but in 1937 it had rolled the dice on The Hobbit largely on 10-year-old Rayner Unwin’s erudite endorsement.

By the time Tolkien got the Trilogy out, it was not a trilogy but a thick, hard knot of a book, unpublishable at a cover price less than $44 in today’s U.S. terms. Talking the don into a three-parter was Rayner’s job. (Tolkien liked the idea of six books.) In terms of story, as critic Anthony Lane puts it, Tolkien was indeed “inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry.” But for his part, the young Unwin was enhancing that formula by spreading the epic across multiple books. Without three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, we wouldn’t have (for better or worse) fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, three volumes of R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing, or four volumes of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.

(I’m not certain, but given the text of some of Tolkien’s letters to Unwin [.pdf only], the publishing executive may have contributed to the individual trilogy titles too. Some of Tolkien’s suggested titles — “I The Shadow Grows II The Ring in the Shadow III The War of the Ring” — are pretty abysmal.)

Rayner Unwin didn’t become head of George Allen & Unwin until his father Stanley’s death in 1968. Tolkien remembered his debt, and returned small favors when he could: In 1969, he helped Rayner’s daughter complete a school report. Unwin proved a good overseer, but the firm’s size, and consultant efforts to expand it, proved its downfall. Like most publishers with weak market placement but valuable print assets, Allen & Unwin was bought out in a process Rayner called “messy, depressing, and, at times, outrageous for those at the receiving end.”

In his own writing life, Unwin too was a fan of adventure, of the real-world kind. A Winter Away From Home examines the icebound season Willem Barentsz spent in the Arctic in the 16th century. If John Ronald Reuel Tolkien didn’t write Rayner Unwin into his epic, he nonetheless thought of his publisher and adviser in epic terms. “I am singularly fortunate in having such a friend,” he wrote in a 1967 letter. “I feel, if I may say so, that our relations are like that of Rohan and Gondor, and (as you know) for my part the oath of Eorl will never be broken, and I shall continue to rely on and be grateful for the wisdom and courtesy of Minas Tirith. Thank you very much indeed.”

And because of Unwin, Tolkien had epic adventures: “… I was very deeply moved by my brief meeting with the Queen, & our few words together,” he wrote to Unwin in 1972, the year before his death. “Quite unlike anything that I had expected.”

Wishbone Ash — Warrior
Cream — Tales of Brave Ulysses

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Heroes: Rayner Unwin

  1. Josh says:

    This is really cool, but I have a nitpick: Is it more accurate to say Unwin and Tolkien get credit for mainstreaming the serialification of fantasy novels? Because I see my copies of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy next to Tolkien on my shelf, and those were published the decade before.

    • Jefferson Robbins says:

      I think “mainstreaming” is fair. I don’t know much about Gormenghast, to my shame, but it certainly doesn’t have the footprint of Rings in terms of mass-market fantasy formula and marketing. I’d love to know what was in Unwin’s head at the time, because in retrospect, he took such a gamble. Did he have Gormenghast in mind? When he split it up, was he thinking “This book is too long” or “This franchise has legs!”? Did he see all three books (including Return of the King, which is about as accessible as The Book of Mormon) as kids’ adventure stories?

      • Josh says:

        Oh, I haven’t read it either—it’s just sitting on my shelf. #SHAME #SELF-SHAME

        Yeah, it definitely doesn’t have the same footprint. Agreed about knowing what he was thinking—although I’m sure “And we can sell three times as many books!” must’ve played into it at some point.

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