[Author’s note: I expect this to be a ‘living’ post…one which I will update with additional information/thoughts as/when. It may ultimately serve as a spot for my Tolkien reviews as well. At publication time, it is still TBC but if I do not publish now I may never get ’round to it. Please comment or email me with suggestions/corrections. For ease, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion will also be referred to as TH, LotR, and TS (respectively) throughout this post. ]
It seems like every couple of days I come across a post somewhere on the Internet asking what the best reading order is for Tolkien’s books. Or perhaps there’s a request for advice on how to “get into” reading Tolkien. Perhaps someone wants to know what to read next after TH & LotR (etc.).
T’other day, I found a post which claimed that there simply isn’t any clear list on the Internet. This individual was looking for not only a complete listing of Tolkien’s books, but also concise information about each book’s chronological placement in a timeline.
I would be repeating the work of others if I simply made a complete listing of all Tolkien books. The reader would do well to visit the sites of those who have done it before and also done it better. They are also an excellent source if what you want to know is chronology of publication (rather than internal narrative chronology).
Here, I will focus on those books which I have personally read and have in my own Tolkien library. I will try to break them down into those associated with the Legendarium and some of those which do not. I will also indicate some sort of internal narrative chronology where appropriate.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the term for those unfamiliar. If you have never come across the term ‘Legendarium’, it is a term not entirely unique to Tolkien, but one which he used to describe the collected writings concerning Middle-earth and Arda (the world). In practice, it is generally ‘The Primary Tales’ and those tertiary works concerning ‘The Primary Tales’.
The Primary Tales
When most people think of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (if they know the name of the author at all), they usually think of one or two books: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If they are a bit more educated in Tolkien matters, they may also have heard of The Silmarillion. These three books make up what I refer to here as ‘The Primary Tales’. Really, this trio of books is all one needs to read if they want to have read all the ‘stories’ which take place in Tolkien’s fantasy setting. If you read nothing else from Tolkien ever in your life, read these three books. The following order is my recommended reading-order for someone who has never read The Silmarillion.
The Hobbit – This is it: the book that started it all, really. This children’s tale(*) is about Bilbo Baggins, a simple hobbit from a quiet countryside village in The Shire, whose simple and predictable life is thrown into disarray when a wizard and thirteen dwarves turn up on his doorstep one “awkward Wednesday” and ask him to go on an adventure to distant lands in order to reclaim long-lost treasure from a murderous dragon in a mountain far away.
(*)Although a ‘children’s tale’ by design (Tolkien wrote the story for his own young children), the tale deals with grown-up issues such as death, war, and betrayal. The book grows steadily darker as the tale progresses, leading to a climactic and not-quite-utterly disastrous battle in its final pages.
In terms of chronology, TH was published first. And although I do recommend reading it first if you’ve never read The Silmarillion, it does not take place first in terms of narrative chronology.
The Lord of the Rings – If you wanted more hobbits, you got ’em. Indeed, it was because the masses who fell in love with TH kept demanding more stories concerning hobbits that Tolkien was convinced by his publishers to take up his pen again and begin what he initially referred to as ‘The New Hobbit’ (a working title). Here, the readers are presented with another hobbit (ndeed, another Baggins, to be exact) going on an adventure which may well result in his untimely death. But this time there are two primary differences:
- this time he is not the lone hobbit; and
- this time his aim is to get rid of a treasure rather than to regain one.
It seems that one of the treasured items that Bilbo brought back from his adventures in the first book is actually a diabolically evil weapon belonging to one of the most powerful and evil beings ever in existence. Oh dear. What to do, what to do?
Be ready for a much longer, much more grown-up tale than you found in TH. Gone is much (but not all!) of the ‘childish’ charm of its predecessor. This tale is long, deep, action-packed, and thought-provoking. It is a journey-story, so get ready to take that journey along with the protagonists. Not content to merely gloss over the traveling in order to reach the action set-pieces, Tolkien takes his time to draw you in, describing everything in detail from the weather, to the flora and fauna, to the landscapes themselves.
In terms of chronology, both TH and LotR take place during the Third Age of Middle-earth (the culmination of events in the latter effectively ending the Third Age). LotR was published after TH but before The Silmarillion. However, it takes place after both of these books, narratively-speaking.
The Silmarillion – Here we have the granddaddy of them all. Where did the Elves come from? Where did the Dwarves and the Hobbits and Men come from? What of dragons, orcs, trolls, and other creatures? Who created them, and why? What of the Great Enemies? What are their origins? Whence came the Master of that fabled weapon we learned so much about in The Lord of the Rings, and why did he create it? Who was his master and where is he now?
The Silmarillion is nothing like either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And that is why, perhaps, so many first-time readers are shocked by it and many struggle to read it. Professor Corey Olsen once described the experience very well. It resonated with me because it reflected my own experience. I will paraphrase: Olsen was initially turned off by The Silmarillion because it wasn’t like The Lord of the Rings. That was an unfair expectation he had forced upon The Silmarillion. Once he accepted TS for what it was rather than what it wasn’t, he loved it.
Rather than a straightforward end-to-end single story arc, TS is a collection of several tales linked together to create a more-or-less cohesive narrative. In form it is a mythology or collection of myths/tales, and it is written in a ‘high-style’, appropriate for the telling of myths. It includes the creation of the universe and a pantheon of ‘gods’. Here you won’t find a single hobbit. The events unfolding in TS took place thousands of years prior to the events of The Hobbit. Songs and poems, quests, love, life, death, betrayals, curses, spies, war…and almost nothing happy ever happens to anyone ever.
It is also worth bearing in mind that TS as-published was not published or even completed during the lifetime of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien worked on the book off-and-on from around the time of The Great War (1914) right up until he died in 1973. Work on the book tapered off during the years Tolkien wrote TH and LotR, but never entirely.
Tolkien had wished to publish TS and LotR together. But at the time, he couldn’t get a publisher who would take on the project. He named his son, Christopher, as his Literary Exuctor in his will and discussed with Christopher his desire that he [Christopher] should organise the book for publication. This was done, along with assistance from Guy Gavriel Kay, and the book was finally published in 1977, four years after the good Professor’s death.
The editorial process was long and labourious, and a few editorial decisions were required in order to make the book a more-or-less cohesive narrative. Some questioned these decisions and wondered how much of CJRT’s work had overtaken the work of his father. This led CJRT to publishing The History of Middle-earth (but more on that below).
Honourable Mention: The Hobbit [First Edition] – While it may be outside the realms of reason for almost everyone on the planet to get their hands on an actual first edition, it is no longer unreasonable for the average person to be able to read the first edition of The Hobbit. Harper Collins produced an ‘exact replica’ of the original book, and it could well be worth the effort to take a look at a copy. They can be purchased form any bookseller relatively cheaply (at the time of writing this, well under £20). There are significant differences to the story, primarily concerning the character Gollum. See, when Tolkien first wrote The Hobbit, Gollum was much more pleasant, and wished to offer the ring (not yet the Ring) as a prize for winning the riddle-game. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings, he came to realise that, due to the nature of the Ring (now capitalised), Gollum would never have done so. He would have been unable to do so. Tolkien therefore re-wrote portions of TH but most especially Chapter 5. When, in LotR, we hear of ‘the real story’ of Bilbo’s obtaining the Ring and ‘the lie’ Bilbo told the dwarves…this is the source of the ‘second version’. Not content to simply change the original story to suit his new book, Tolkien retconned like a master, making both the first and second editions of TH ‘canon’.
The Rest of the Legendarium
This section deals with books directly or perhaps tangentially related to The Primary Tales, but which are not one of the three primary books. These are not required reading. Almost nothing in this section is new material from the perspective of completely new stories. There are fuller versions of the tales found in TS, variants and early drafts of The Primary Tales, there are some rejected concepts, and there are a couple of standalone pieces.
The Great Tales
Often referred to as ‘The Great Tales’, there are three tales which for which Tolkien always intended/desired to write and publish full versions. They would be fully-fleshed tales sitting among a scattering of lesser tales only hinted at. He never managed to finish any of them completely to his satisfaction, leaving drafts and incomplete variations including both prose and verse versions of each. Each of the Great Tales takes place during the First Age of Middle-earth.
The Children of Húrin – Outside this standalone book, CoH may also be found most prominently as Chapter 21: Of Túrin Turambar in TS. It may also be found as Narn I Hîn Húrin in Unfinished Tales. The TS and UT are both written in prose. The tale may also be found in verse form in The History of Middle-earth.
The prose version included in this standalone book is, however, the fullest, and most detailed telling of the tale. Tolkien spent more time on this Great Tale than any other, and returned to it again and again. Due to the nature of the work being so fully written, Tolkien’s son, Christopher (CJRT), was able to edit together a ‘full narrative’ from start to finish, based on his father’s many drafts. Many prefer this version over that which is contained within TS (I certainly do), and it is often recommended as a substitute for that chapter altogether.
Beren & Lúthien – Not to be confused with the format of CoH. This standalone book contains all the disparate drafts and varying styles of the tale of B&L as already published elsewhere ( i.e., TS, HoMe, etc.) along with supplementary essay material from CJRT. It does not set itself out to be a single narrative from cover-to-cover. Rather, it is really extractions of the B&L elements from the likes of the HoMe series, presented in a single volume.
The Fall of Gondolin – As above with B&L.
The History of Middle-earth – This series is most commonly found as a set of 12 books (13 if you count the Index; also available in a set containing 3 hefty volumes). Somewhat in answer to critics who questioned whether or not CJRT had ‘invented’ a bit too much when it came to editing and compiling TS, here the entire process from start to finish is provided. HoMe contains all the draft material of both TS (v.I-V & X-XI) and LotR (v.VI-IX). The series chronicles the writing process for these books, showing how characters and story arcs changed and developed from their earliest forms through to publication.
The entire series is chronological. That is, Tolkien’s very earliest writings will be found in v.I, and the last writings prior to his death will be found in volume XII. Thus, vols. I-V cover the earliest drafts of TS; vols. VI-IX cover the entirety of LotR (during which time TS was largely shelved); vols. X-XI cover the ‘Later’ Silmarillion (that is, the re-worked TS material post-LotR); vol. XII is a bit of an odd duck. It covers material which didn’t slot in ‘nicely’ elsewhere (arguably), such as early drafts of the Prologue and Appendices from LotR and Akallabêth; essay material, such as on the development of the Elven languages; and an incomplete Second-Age tale.
Most notably, perhaps, is the unfinished The New Shadow. This tale was set in the post-LotR Fourth Age, and concerned itself with Aragorn’s son and what came next. Tolkien abandoned this as being essentially pointless very early on and there is not very much substance here.
The History of ‘The Hobbit’ – As above with HoMe, but concerning itself instead with the development of TH. Compiled and edited by John D. Rateliff. Note that there are multiple versions of this work available. The original, two-volume set (in either paperback or hardcover), a revised and expanded one-volume second-edition, and a one-volume “Brief” edition. This last contains all the various drafts of The Hobbit that the other editions contain, but it lacks quite a bit of Rateliff’s excellent supplementary essay material. For the sake of completeness, I recommend the one-volume edition expanded edition.
These items do not fit nicely into one of the above categories but are nevertheless connected to the Legendarium.
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth – This is its full and proper title. It is, however, usually referred to simply as Unfinished Tales (even on book covers). This book is a collection of tales/writings which give further information about many elements of the Legendarium which were not available in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Content spans the First, Second, and Third Ages. For example, there is an excellent piece about the Istari; another concerning (in great detail) the Isle of Númenor itself (and which contains the only map of Númenor); there is a piece concerning the Palantíri; there is also a wonderfully detailed description of Isildur’s death and the loss of the One Ring at Anduin. (etc.) I like to treat this volume like an extension of The Appendices contained in LotR (indeed, it is my understanding that some of the material contained in UT was originally intended for The Appendices, but Tolkien was already delayed publishing The Return of the King so that some of it had to be culled. I have seen many recommend reading UT after TS. This seems sensible to me.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – A collection of poems, not all of which have any bearing on the Legendarium. The most obvious link is Bombadil himself, who appears in two poems. There is also the ‘Troll Song’, which Sam sings in LotR. This title can also generally be found included in the collected works volume, “Tales from the Perilous Realm” (below).
Bilbo’s Last Song – A song, sung by Bilbo at the Grey Havens, before his departure across the sea. This was written after LotR, and so never appears there. [Caveat: so far in the list, this is the only volume I do not own and have not read.]
Here we have a selection of works of varying types. There’s generally something for everyone. We have fiction unrelated to the Legendarium; non-fiction such as biographies; poetry; and essays, studies, and lectures given by Tolkien at various times in his life. All of these offer fascinating looks at not only the types of work Tolkien was capable of, but also those which interested and influenced him, or simply what he thought about certain subjects or ideas at a given ‘snapshot point of time’ in his life.
There are plenty of other Tolkien bio out there, but I am unfamiliar with most of them at this point and so cannot personally recommend one way or the other. For a better look at Tolkien bios, I recommend visiting Luke Shelton, who produced a fairly comprehensive list ahead of the release of the Tolkien biopic. The list outlines books to read as well as ones to avoid.
Of the Tolkien bio works I’m familiar with, Humphrey Carpenter is probably the most well-known. He worked closely with the Tolkien Estate following Tolkien’s death and produced two excellent biographical resources:
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien – Not strictly a biography, this is a collection of many (but certainly not all) of the letters written by J.R.R. Tolkien to friends, family, his publishers, fans, and others throughout his lifetime. An excellent resource for a window into the mind of the author on any number of subjects, from War to family, to love and friendship, and of course his writings. Includes many letters highlighting the frustrations and successes of the publication process.
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography – Probably still the definitive biography on the author. Carpenter’s biography goes straight back to Tolkien’s birth in South Africa and covers everything from his early childhood, the death of his parents, his school life, his war service, and his professional career (as both an academic and an author).
John Garth has also produced a couple of excellent biographical works on Tolkien:
Tolkien and the Great War – Concerning Tolkien’s time during WWI.
Tolkien at Exeter – Concerning Tolkien’s time at Exeter College
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth – You could do a hell of a lot worse for a piece of biographical writing than the book published to accompany the exhibit of the same name which was held in the Bodelian Library in Oxford and The Morgan library in New York City. The exhibition showcased much of the Good Professor’s hand-written notes and drafts, his art, his letters, and his property (e.g., his writing desk and chair). The accompanying hefty book is not only beautifully presented, but is crammed absolutely full of photos and information about the exhibition pieces and serves as a sort of mini-bio in its own right.
On Fairy-Stories – In my opinion, if you read one piece of non-fiction written by Tolkien, make it OFS. Fascinating as the biographical works are, for my money I was far more interested in his philosophy concerning fairy-tales. Here, we learn about Tolkien’s ideas of ‘sub-creation’ and the importance of the fairy-story and myth, as well as his very vocal opinion that fairy-stories are not just for children. You can find this essay in a few different places. Tree and Leaf, which is contains both the essay itself as well as the short story, Leaf by Niggle (see Other Fiction) is one such source. The Monsters and the Critics (below) is another. Most recently, it was published as a stand-alone book which contains fascinating new essay material from renowned Tolkien Scholar, Verlyn Flieger.
The Monsters and the Critics – Tolkien’s seminal essay on Beowulf. This description is merely a placeholder. I first read TMatC when I was younger and before I’d actually read Beowulf. I feel I didn’t appreciate it as much since I didn’t know the source material. I would like to re-visit this post after I’ve re-read the essay, now that I have read Beowulf a couple of times. For more information on Beowulf I highly recommend the blogs of Tom Hillman and Richard Rohlin.
A Secret Vice – I have not yet read this essay, and I would prefer not to personally speculate on its quality. However, in place of any such speculation, I offer the following commentary from Reddit user /r/RoccondilRinon, who recommended its inclusion here:
A Secret Vice, published as a stand-alone book a few years ago, is an absolute must for readers curious about the languages Tolkien created. If you’re content to just let the Elvish and Orkish just be so much gobbledygook, you’ll want to miss it, but some readers will devour it.https://www.reddit.com/r/tolkienfans/comments/ca8zq3/how_do_i_get_into_lord_of_the_rings/et7ztnb/
Beowulf – Tolkien was something of a Beowulf enthusiast, as evidenced by his devotion of an entire essay (see above) to the subject. Contained within this volume are the notes/commentary about Beowulf which became the basis of the aforementioned essay. This commentary follows a translation of Beowulf that Tolkien himself wrote in the 1920s but which he never published.
Additionally, this volume contains Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, which is a ‘fictional history’ or ‘biography’ of Tolkien’s own invention concerning the hero Beowulf.
Finally, there are two ‘lays’ or ‘songs’ concerning Beowulf’s adventures. These songs were written by Tolkien and, according to CJRT, sung by Tolkien to Christopher when he was a child.
Tales from the Perilous Realm
The next four of entries of ‘Other Fiction’ (‘Smith’, ‘Giles’, ‘Rover’, and ‘Leaf’) are all short stories and commonly sold under the collected title of Tales from the Perilous Realm. This collection also generally includes The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (see above). That being said, they are all also available as individual titles, or sometimes in different collections (e.g., see Tree and Leaf). They are all what you might consider ‘classic fairy-tales’ (with the possible exception of ‘Leaf’).
Smith of Wootton Major – First published in 1967 (i.e., prior to the Author’s death), SoWM concerns the small village of Wootton Major and the close encounters with faerie that certain residents of the village experience. The forest outside of the village acts as a ‘boundary’ between our world and the realm of faerie, and any number of things could happen to an individual who strays within. Newer editions of this title include some wonderful essay material by Verlyn Flieger and the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes (whose art Tolkien greatly admired and approved of).
Farmer Giles of Ham – A giant and a dragon stumble upon the village of Ham and a local farmer finds himself suddenly thrust into the limelight and the role of town hero.
Roverandom – A heartwarming tale written by J.R.R. Tolkien for his son, Michael, when the boy lost a favourite toy whilst on a day out to the beach during a family holiday. The story involves a small toy dog who gets on the bad side of a wizard and finds himself going on adventures as far distant as the Moon and the bottom of the ocean.
Leaf by Niggle – Some have called this Tolkien’s only overtly allegorical piece of fiction. It concerns an artist called Niggle who finds himself so focused on the minutia of the painting of his tree that the whole piece cannot possibly be finished before his death. It’s philosophical and emotional, and makes one consider mortality and their fellow man in ways few short stories can. Tolkien himself recognised the allegorical elements (e.g., his attention to detail on writing LotR and TS delaying their publication (and in the case of TS preventing its publication entirely until after the author’s death) and claims that, unlike essentially everything else he ever worked on, the story came to him ‘complete’ in a dream. He wrote it down immediately upon waking and it had relatively little revision thereafter.
Letters from Father Christmas – Moving back out of the Perilous Realm collection, this is a collection of beautifully hand-drawn and written letters from Tolkien (‘Father Christmas’) to his children throughout their childhoods. The calligraphy and art alone make this collection worth picking up. But they also offer poignant insight into certain times and aspects of Tolkien’s life, such as when Father Christmas had to mention that he hoped children would not mind if they received fewer presents or presents different from those they may have asked or hoped for (it was War time; money and supplies were tight).
Sigurd and Gudrun – TBC
The Story of Kullervo – TBC
The Fall of Arthur – TBC
Other Recommended Works
These works don’t necessarily fit into one of the above categories, but are nevertheless still highly recommended. If you have come across something that you think deserves to be added here, please do get in touch.
The Atlas of Middle-earth – If you want a single geographical and topographical source for anything and everything to do with the First Age through the Third Age, get this book. Karen Wyn Fonstad’s Atlas is the de-facto Bible when it comes to mapping out Tolkien’s legendarium in geographical terms. It is not without slight errors. But the pros far outweigh the cons, and it is an invaluable resource. Unless you’re specifically after collectible editions, be sure to get the ‘revised’ edition, which was updated after the publication of HoMe.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ – Professor Corey Olsen has become renowned for his podcast series (‘The Silmarillion Seminar’, ‘Exploring ‘The Lord of the Rings’, etc.) and as the founder of Signum University. But back when ‘The Tolkien Professor’ was quite as well-known as he is now, Professor Olsen did a podcast series which went by the same title as this book. Olsen took the idea of that podcast series, in which he goes into the published edition of TH chapter-by-chapter and explores its themes, ideas, and meaning. This is a wonderful edition to anyone’s Tolkien library, and is best read side-by-side with TH.