George R. R. Martin was born George Raymond Martin in 1948. According to Wikipedia, when he was 13 he adopted the additional name Richard upon his confirmation — though I prefer to suspect it was because he’d just read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whatever, let it be quietly said that A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot better than Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon teacher in Oxford where he’d hang out with a group of kindred spirits, who rather preciously called themselves the Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams J. A. W. Bennett, Owen Barfield, Neville Coghill, Richard Lancelyn Green and others. One cringes at the thought of what the conversation over a pint must have been like — as they apparently met in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen pints may not have been in question; it was probably amontillado.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was such a success that it was followed up by what on the face of it looks like a pretty non-commercial novel. Three volumes! Volumes 1 and 2 were first published in 1954, Volume 3 in 1955. My copies, the original George Allen and Unwin set, had suffered some water damage — just a general dampening resulting in a musty smell — no doubt as a result of being stored, like King Arthur’s Knights, for some time in a barn in deepest Somerset. A couple of years in the apparently book-friendly aridity of a New York apartment seem to have cured the problem.

The books were published before the dawn of the ISBN, though of course they have them now! There’s only a discursive copyright notice, but as you can read this was during the reign of the Berne Convention which was a bit less prescriptive than the Universal Copyright Convention when it comes to the © symbol. Included also is information about the printer, and this is required by copyright law in Britain, so that the printer may easily be sued for libel and obscenity along with publisher, author, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Thus we learn that the books were set in 10/11 Imprint at Jarrolds in Norwich.

The 11 point Imprint is serviceable without being beautiful — an altogether appropriate state for this job: typesetting should never draw attention to itself. And you can’t find much to criticize in the setting of the books. However I’d say the way this chapter title turnover was handled was an indication that the comp wasn’t paying much attention, though it’s probably more that Jarrolds’ house style didn’t rise to the level of caring overmuch about aesthetics. The comp has just keyed in the chapter title (nicely letterspaced it’s true) and when there was no more room in the measure, turned over to the next line, which to my eye makes COMPANY look a little lonely. (At least it wasn’t hyphenated CO-MPANY!)

A caring typesetter would have thought a) about aesthetics and b) about sense units, and would, I believe, have broken the line as I show in this chopped up copy.

To my eye this looks 100% better, although I did leave too little space between grey and company — I’m not as good at paste-up as I used to have to be. But of course stuff like this only triggers the most extreme typographical manias, and obviously had no effect on the sale!

Volume 2 has a quirky flaw which I’ve never encountered before. The middle two leaves of signature 8 have been missed in sewing and remain quite tightly held in the closed book but are easily removable as soon as you do anything as violent as turning the page. For this to have happened the sewing operative must have picked up the sig opening it at the wrong point rather than at the targeted center of the 32 page section. I suppose this must tell us something about the imposition scheme (folding pattern) as in order for the location of the center of the sig to be mistaken like this there would have to be no bolts at head or foot.

Eerily this loose 4-pager falls exactly at the middle of the entire 3-volume work — structurally not page count-wise. Each volume contains two books, and here you can see we are at the transition point from the first book of Volume 2 to the second, i.e. from the third of six to the fourth. I’m wondering whether I should take steps to ensure that this four-pager doesn’t fall out and get lost. All I can think to do is pass a thread down the spine hollow and bring it up in the middle of this fragment and knot it. Of course this loose pair of leaves has made it through more than half a century, so maybe I should just leave it alone, and trust to the good sense of my heirs and assigns.

For a novel this was a pretty lavish affair. There’s a tip-in 2-color map in the first volume, and in each of the three volumes, a folded map, also two-color, tipped to the front of the back fly leaf. The maps are folded and tipped in so that enthusiasts can read the book with the map open before them. The books are Medium Octavo, 5⅝” x 8¾” printed on a cream sheet with decent formation and reasonable opacity. They are bound in red cloth (not the red leather of the fictitious original by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of which this presents itself as a sort of translation) with a red top stain, but no headbands — always rarer in Britain than in America. The jackets are printed by letterpress in three colors (black, red and “gold”) on a grey stock. The books include a few special sorts, and feature extracts in Elvish and other “Middle Earth” tongues — all of course made up by the author and his Inkling friends. There is even a series of appendices at the end of volume three treating with straight face such things as the “history” of royal families, chronologies, family trees, calendars, and languages — all of them fictitious although treated here as if in an academic monograph. Don humor!

With all these complexities the books were priced at 25 shillings each when I bought them in 1966, so the whole thing would set you back £3.15.0. The first volume is in its fifteenth printing, whereas volumes two and three are in their eleventh printings. All a huge success — as well as a reminder that many people will read volume one without ever going on to two and three.

Later: Today’s Shelf Awareness brings us the news that Bradley Hall has issued a three-hour “metal” musical version of The Fellowship of the Ring. You can find links to the work at MentalFloss. It all starts with a plea to right holders to be gentle with this adaptation. Mr Hall works from the movie version, and swears he will not give the same treatment to The Two Towers and The Return of the King.