Millions have read and most have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. His earlier book, The Hobbit, has received similar attention. Far fewer people, however, have ever ventured beyond these classics. Is it because of a lack of interest? Perhaps.
I suggest that it is two things: like ancient sailors afraid to sail through the Pillars of Hercules to the great Atlantic beyond, readers of Tolkien who wish to continue may be daunted by the sheer quantity of books to read. Tangentially, an aspiring Tolkien-reader may just be unsure where to start. Where to start, and where to go from there, is what I’ll try to help with.
It’s up to every reader to decide how deep into Tolkien’s work they’d like to dive. The major division is this: Books set in or around Middle-Earth and those that aren’t. In this article, I’ll only focus on the first kind.
Within Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, there are also two categories: one I’ll call the story-focused books, and the other the academic books. I’ll explain the difference as we go.
These books are solely focused on the stories that take place in (and around) Middle-Earth, not so much the history of how Tolkien wrote them.
The way I order these is only recommended, but I do think it will help any reader better understand what is going on in the more complex book later on.
This little book is simply a beautifully illustrated poem. It records the final words of Bilbo Baggins, a song, as he sails to the West. It serves as a short but sweet conclusion to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
2. Appendix A-D
Found at the end of most versions of Return of the King, the appendices are at your fingertips, though you may have been unaware they existed!
Appendix A is “The Annals of the Kings and Rulers,” which gives brief chronicles of the kings of men (and dwarves). It also tells of what happens to Aragorn and Arwen after the LOTR!
Appendix B is perhaps the most helpful of all of them. Known as “The Tale of Years,” it is the timeline for all of Middle-Earth! I recommend keeping it close by as you continue your reading.
Appendix C is a group of hobbit family trees, an invaluable resource if you want to keep your hobbits straight. Appendix D is a helpful explanation of how the Shire calender works, with some history thrown in as a bonus.
If you care to know more about the cheery and magical character the LOTR movies forgot, this is an excellent and wonderfully illustrated book to serve that need… Maybe. Tom Bombadil will likely be just as confusing after you read this collection of poems, but I guarantee you will have fun reading it.
Tolkien considered this work, though unfinished, as his magnum opus. In his mind, The Lord of the Rings is simply a sequel to the great conflicts over the Silmarils, precious jewels eagerly sought by the evil Morgoth.
This story, as well as the two to follow in my list, are extracted and expanded from The Silmarillion. This one recounts the tragedy of Túrin and his sister Niënor as they flee the evil designs of Morgoth. It is reminiscent of Oedipus Rex and is just as stirring!
The story of the man Beren and his Elven bride Lúthien, great-grandparents of Elrond, who strike a blow against Morgoth so he can prove his worthiness to her father, Thingol.
The story of the man Tuor and his elven bride Idril, grandparents of Elrond from his father’s side, and Tuor and Idril must try to protect and then escape from the hidden city of Gondolin, the final stronghold against Morgoth.
8. The Nature of Middle-Earth (Releasing Sept. 2021)
Not yet released, this book is said to include Tolkien’s latest unpublished writings on Middle-Earth. I know what I’ll be reading in September!
The title speaks volumes. These are the bits of pieces of story that still get to see the light of day though Tolkien never finished them. Their great potential inspires us to imagine what would happen if they were completed!
These books are more histories of how Tolkien created his fantastic world rather than what he created.
1. Appendix E & F
These appendices, the rest of the ones following the Return of the King, focus on language. The first, Appendix E, gives a detailed explanation of pronunciation (and typography) of Tolkien’s languages. Appendix F gives the history of the languages of Middle-Earth and how they developed over time.
This volume recounts the history of the writing of The Hobbit and is edited by Tolkien expert John D. Rateliff. If you’re wondering why it’s separate from number 3, that’s because Tolkien didn’t originally intend The Hobbit to be set in Middle-Earth!
This is a 12-book series containing countless of Tolkien’s early stories, drafts, and manuscripts. Tolkien’s son Christopher is the editor and pieces together all of Tolkien’s work and explains how his father created Middle-Earth. It gives us a fascinating picture of how Middle-Earth grew older and more complex as Tolkien aged. The creation of a world is a lengthy process—one that he never finished.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part One
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two
- The Lays of Beleriand
- The Shaping of Middle-Earth
- The Lost Road and Other Writings
- The Return of the Shadow
- The Treason of Isengard
- The War of the Ring
- Sauron Defeated
- Morgoth’s Ring
- The War of the Jewels
- The Peoples of Middle-Earth
This book contains several essays on Tolkien’s love (or vice, rather!) of creating invented languages, even from an early age. All of Middle-Earth, it turns out, was simply a way for Tolkien to give his ingenious languages people to speak them and a places for them to be spoken.
Well, are you up for the challenge? There’s no pressure to read all of them, or any of them, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try!