Review: George Allen & Unwin. A Remembrancer by Rayner Unwin

Ludlow : Merlin Unwin Books, 2021.
Publication date, UK: March 5th.
Pages: 304.
ISBN: 9781873674376

Summary: George Allen & Unwin as a publishing imprint reflected a cross-section of the intellectual achievement of the twentieth century. In his Remembrancer, former Chairman Rayner Unwin traces the vicissitudes of his own time with the company. It is a digressive and personal history, with reflections on the delights as well as the dangers of a style of publishing that is now fast vanishing. He particularly focusses on his memories of publishing famous authors including: JRR Tolkien, Thor Heyerdahl, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl. This frank and elegant publishing memoir covers the eventual take-over of the company. A Remembrancer brings to life this sequence of events which led to the winding up of a distinguished firm. [provided by publisher.]

In 1999, Rayner Unwin privately published this book to give away to former George Allen & Unwin employees and colleagues, amounting to fewer than a hundred copies; Merlin Unwin Books, an imprint by his son Merlin, has now reprinted it, after many years of fans clamouring for it.

These three hundred pages provide you with insights to a medium-sized publishing house in the United Kingdom that managed to bring together a very eclectic roster of authors and a wide range of topics, some of which provided bestselling titles, among them works by J.R.R. Tolkien, Thor Heyerdahl, and Roald Dahl.

Only one of them gets two chapters on his own, and that is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien. Rayner Unwin played an instrumental role in bringing Tolkien’s works to life, starting off with his reader’s report on The Hobbit, provided in 1936 at the age of ten, over asking his father whether to publish The Lord of the Rings – Stanley Unwin famously answered “If you believe it is a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds'” – to closely cooperating with Christopher Tolkien in providing the essential posthumous publications researchers and fans alike have come to appreciate.

However, this book goes well beyond the scope of this unique cooperation between publisher and author and provides insights on the publishing industry following World War II until the eventual demise of George Allen & Unwin at the beginning of the 1990s that are provided by one of the most respected publishers of his time. It is a memoir and in a sense an autobiography in nostalgia, as the takeover by HarperCollins mainly for all things Tolkien meant the end of George Allen & Unwin; only Allen & Unwin in Australia, thanks to a management buy-out in July 1990, remains active and has become one of the country’s leading independent publishers.

Nothing of the Tolkien-related material in A Remembrancer provides you with new insights as a researcher into the Legendarium, and a few minor quibbles should be noted. To give you an example, the case of Madlener’s Berggeist as the inspiration to Gandalf Rayner Unwin mentions has been investigated and put to rights (which did not keep the painting from being sold way overpriced thanks to the misunderstood Tolkien connection.) Their number is small, though, and they do at no point distract from the narrative. It is also important to keep in mind that misremembered details – in this case by Tolkien himself – are some of the the things that keep researchers in employment, and Rayner Unwin undoubtedly wrote down this particular anecdote to the best of his knowledge.

It is his voice, his personality, and his way of presenting a wealth of information, interspersed with hilarious anecdotes, that make this book not only readable but eminently interesting if you can envision yourself as part of a Venn diagram including – and this list is intentionally short, there are many other additional options – Tolkien, books, literature, publishing, or 20th century cultural history. The publication history of the single most successful novel of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings, would have been a page-turner in itself, but the realisation how many strokes of luck, coincidences, and surprising circumstances were needed to make such a book possible, and that in the end the close personal relationship between J.R.R. Tolkien and Rayner Unwin was necessary to make it all happen, makes A Remembrancer worth your while.

Marcel Aubron-Bülles

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert