Today marks a special occasion: it's now been 30 years since Alan Lee's illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings first appeared. It proved so popular when it first appeared, that according to the documentary J.R.R. Tolkien: A Video Portrait, it sold out within minutes of hitting the bookshelves.
Often called 'the centenary edition' (due mostly to when it came out, though there are other Tolkien books that feature the centenary emblem published around this time, so 'centenary edition' isn't limited to The Lord of the Rings in this sense) it has been a favourite among Tolkien fans since it first appeared. Also, to movie-goers, many of his illustrations may look familiar; as he was a conceptual artist (along with John Howe) for the Peter Jackson films.
The original edition is an over-sized hardback, featuring a total of 50 illustrations. Since 1991, it has been published a few times in various formats. All editions illustrated by Lee contain the same images. I'll list all the ones by HarperCollins (taking other publishers into account would be a lengthy process). Not their ISBNs, just the various editions:
- The original 1991 single-volume hardback (oversized)
- A slipcased collector's edition of the single-volume edition, signed and numbered (oversized)
- The 1992 three-volume hardback boxed set (oversized)
- A slipcased collector's edition of the three-volume edition, signed and numbered (oversized)
- The 1996 three-volume paperback boxed set (oversized) (note: there has never been a single-volume illustrated edition in paperback. Likely because it would fall apart by the time you get to the middle; but still!)
- the 2002 three-volume hardback boxed set (oversized)
- the 2008 three-volume paperback boxed set (The Hobbit is also included in the box, bringing it to 4 books in total. I say three to identify that The Lord of the Rings is presented in three volumes) (regular Tolkien paperback size)
- the 2014 single-volume slipcased edition (in celebration of the 60th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, and sometimes referred to as '60th Anniversary Edition') (oversized)
- the 2020 three-volume hardback boxed set (The Hobbit is also included in the box, bringing it to 4 books in total. I say three to identify that The Lord of the Rings is presented in three volumes) (regular Tolkien hardback size)
Any and all of those are highly recommended, depending on your tastes. Special mention goes to the two most recent editions: the 2014 single-volume slipcased edition, and the 2020 boxed set. Not only because that they are currently in print; though they are quite well-designed and lovely, and most definitely readable. (You'd need to read any single-volume illustrated edition at a table or desk, though!)
I can recommend any Alan Lee illustrated edition above without hesitation. He has also illustrated other Tolkien books, such as The Hobbit, Unfinished Tales (with Ted Nasmith and John Howe), The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin and Tales From the Perilous Realm. Outside of Tolkien, his notable work includes Faeries, Black Ships Before Troy, and The Wanderings of Odysseus. He has also illustrated the Folio Society's edition of The Wanderer (which is likely sold out by now, as it was a limited edition when it was published.) If Alan is finished illustrating Tolkien, then he has given us 30 years of amazing artwork, presented wonderfully in various editions by HarperCollins.