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So you want to get serious about Tolkien?

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Screencap from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

One of the most common questions I get asked when discussing Tolkien, both online and in person, is “how do you know so much?” The short answer is that it’s much the same way as people know lots about any topic. I read a lot, I have a reasonably good memory, and I know where and how to look things up when my memory fails me. The longer answer, though, is that Tolkien fandom is a little different from most other fandoms due to the volume of academic works that have been produced about Tolkien’s secondary world (termed Arda), and the scholarly approach taken in many of Tolkien’s posthumously published books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are widely beloved classics, of course, but start to move beyond those and the situation can become confusing and overwhelming rather quickly.

Before going any further, I want to stress that despite this post being about “getting serious”, I feel strongly that the point of learning about Tolkien should still be to have fun. We all start down this path because we found enjoyment in one of Tolkien’s books. If you are content to read his finished works and not dig deeper, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Tolkien himself would say you had the right idea:

I now wish that no appendices had been promised! For I think their appearance in truncated and compressed form will satisfy nobody: certainly not me; clearly from the (appalling mass of) letters I receive not those people who like that kind of thing – astonishingly many; while those who enjoy the book as an ‘heroic romance’ only, and find 'unexplained vistas’ part of the literary effect, will neglect the appendices, very properly.

I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good – cert. not for me, who find that kind of thing only too fatally attractive. It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect that story has, when based on very elaborate and detailed workings of geography, chronology, and language, that so many should clamour for sheer 'information’, or 'lore’. But the demands such people make would again require a book, at least the size of Vol. I. (Letters, no. 160)

Or, to put it more simply, we can refer back to the famous Gandalf quote:

‘He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’ (FOTR, II 2)

There have, of course, been Tolkien fans ignoring this advice since day one. Indeed, once one has read some of the vast collection of “lore” writings that Tolkien left behind, including not only stories but various annals, linguistic notes, historical essays, and more, the suspicion arises that Tolkien may not have tried very hard to resist his fatal attraction to such things. This is not to say that either fannish approach – being happy with only the stories Tolkien managed to finish versus poring over every one of the man’s words that has ever been published – is inherently better or worse than the other. However, I have always personally sympathized with Christopher Tolkien’s statement of purpose in the introduction to Unfinished Tales, the first book he edited that turned away from producing completed narratives and instead presented a variety of incomplete works more or less as Tolkien had left them.

But whatever view may be taken of this question, for some, as for myself, there is a value greater than the mere uncovering of curious detail in learning that Vëantur the Númenórean brought his ship Entulessë, the “Return”, into the Grey Havens on the spring winds of the six hundredth year of the Second Age, that the tomb of Elendil the Tall was set by Isildur his son on the summit of the beacon-hill Halifirien, that the Black Rider whom the Hobbits saw in the foggy darkness on the far side of Buckleberry Ferry was Khamûl, chief of the Ringwraiths of Dol Goldur — or even that the childlessness of Tarannon twelfth King of Gondor (a fact recorded in an Appendix to The Lord of the Rings) was associated with the hitherto wholly mysterious cats of Queen Berúthiel.

If any of these things interest or excite you, but the prospect of reading through the vast amount of published Tolkien material seems daunting, then this page is for you.

There are several thoughtful lists on the web that will recommend a specific order in which to work your way through Tolkien’s bibliography, sometimes offering a degree of customizability. I respect these kinds of lists, though I think the process of studying Tolkien is an inherently personal journey and am somewhat skeptical of the usefulness of creating a single list. If I had to give a single recommendation, it would be to roughly follow the chronological order of publication of Tolkien’s major works (both those in his lifetime and the posthumous ones), because that order mostly correlates with the increasing complexity and denseness of the books. But generally speaking, I think reading whatever captures your interest at a given time is the best approach. Trying to force yourself through a book because you think you “should” read it might result in you discovering something you didn’t expect to enjoy, but it could also burn you out very quickly. My personal approach, which is all I can really speak to here, is to try to keep Tolkien studies from feeling like a job as much as possible.

With that in mind, please take the following notes on various Tolkien works less as rules or even guidelines for “the best” way to explore his invented mythology (or legendarium, to use Tolkien’s own word) and more just as some general advice and pointers on what to expect.

The Hobbit cover

Tolkien’s original cover art for The Hobbit.

The Hobbit

Since this is Tolkien’s second most famous book and the major film adaptation of it wrapped up just a little more than a year ago, I assume that most people who have read this far are already familiar with this one. If you have only seen the films, then I do recommend giving the book a read, as it is a different experience in a number of ways. However, I have always tempered this suggestion with a note that The Hobbit is very much in touch with its identity as a children’s book and there is a degree of light-heartedness and contrivance that is unlike most of Tolkien’s other Middle-earth works. However, provided one is not too bothered by the tropes of children’s literature, it’s always nice to see “where it all began”, as this was Tolkien’s first published Middle-earth work. It’s also an all time classic of children’s literature that can be appreciated even if you never read another word of Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings

For those who are allergic to “kiddy stuff”, this is the most natural starting point for a discovery of Tolkien. It’s also a direct sequel to The Hobbit, however, and the early chapters are similar in tone to the second half of the earlier book, making it very easy to transition between the two. While the changes between the book and the movie are not quite as drastic as in the case of The Hobbit films, there are quite a few of them, and some that are rather significant. The most obvious differences are in pacing and tone, as The Lord of the Rings (while somewhat short by modern epic fantasy standards) places great emphasis on the rhythm and balance between moments of intensity and moments of quiet and/or levity. Of course, Tolkien does write some fantastic battle scenes, but they do not have as prominent a place in the book’s narrative as they do in the films. (The degree to which this was an inevitable element of adaptation versus a deliberate decision by the director and writers is a topic for another time.) The book also has time for a lot more history and lore, which will enhance the experience of reading many of Tolkien’s other books.

The LOTR Prologue and Appendices

I never recommend starting LOTR by reading the prologue. I barely made it through on my first read, and while I know some people who loved it right off the bat, it does present some spoilers for the attentive reader. Moreover, it is heavily preoccupied with technical worldbuilding and Tolkien’s conceit of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings being based on translations of the Hobbits’ own records. This can be interesting stuff, but it’s a lot to take in right off the bat. At the end of the book, the Appendices contain a treasure trove of lore, but some people like to take a break between reading the quite emotional conclusion of the main story and delving into the history.

The parts of the Appendices that get the most attention are Appendices A and B, which summarize the events of the three Ages preceding The Lord of the Rings and give a great deal of backstory (for instance, it’s the only reason we know anything about Helm’s Deep other than it being named “after a hero of old wars who had made his refuge there”). The dense nature of the histories, interspersed with emotionally resonant stories like the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, gives the reader something of a taste of what The Silmarillion is like. There are plenty of differences, but if you find the Appendices insufferable, then it might be a sign that The Silmarillion is not for you. And since the Appendices are conveniently included at the end of The Return of the King, knowing this in advance could save you a bit of cash at the bookstore.

The Silmarillion

The last of the “big three” is the one that throws a lot of people. What you have to keep in mind about The Silmarillion is that, even in published form, it’s not truly “finished” in the way we normally think. Tolkien was still working on his stories of the First Age during his last months, and with so many of his ideas left in draft form or even just notes, most of this edited version is written in highly condensed summary form. It’s also not even close to being a novel. The best comparison I can make is to single-volume summaries of an entire body of myth (which is basically what The Silmarillion is) such as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The book covers a vast span of time, beginning before the creation of the Universe, and zooms in and out between grand cosmic drama and intense personal struggles.

The Silmarillion is technically divided into five parts, but the third part is by far the longest and gives its name to the overall book. The first two parts, the “Ainulindalë” and “Valaquenta”, are primarily background information on the cosmology underpinning the rest of the book, describing the creation myth for Middle-earth as well as the god-like angelic beings who play a significant role in its early history. The end of the book includes the “Akallabêth”, a history of Númenor (Tolkien’s Atlantis analogue, essentially, and the predecessor civilization of Gondor) and its Downfall, as well as “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, which briefly summarizes the events of The Lord of the Rings as well as some material already found in the LOTR Appendices.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in The Silmarillion is that a lot of its slowest and densest chapters come in succession right at the beginning. You almost certainly will be flipping back and forth to check the family trees and the list of gods and angels in the “Valaquenta”. Some people find it useful to take notes, and there are also reader’s guides that can be followed. If the early chapters are overwhelming, then it is possible to skip ahead to meatier parts of the book, and either keep going from there or go back and catch up if you become more invested. The three “great tales” — found in the chapters “Of Beren and Lúthien”, “Of Túrin Turambar”, and “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin” — are probably the easiest to get into, and are only partially dependent on the broader context to be appreciated, though they’re still told in condensed form. There are moments of great emotion and beauty in The Silmarillion, but if the stylistic barriers are too much for you, there are other options available.

The Children of Húrin

The only one of the great tales to have been published as a stand-alone book, this is sometimes described as an “expanded version” of the Silmarillion chapter “Of Túrin Turambar”, about one of the great “heroes” of the First Age, but its actually the full version that came first, and reading it is a vastly different experience than reading the summary. With the length of a novel to work with, Tolkien is able to draw the characters of the tale in far greater detail, and the themes of the story take on a far greater resonance. Unfortunately, this is also one of the thematically heaviest and most depressing parts of the entire First Age mythos. However, it is invaluable in giving a ground-level view of the world of The Silmarillion and utilizing the benefits of a longer literary form. Still, at the end of the day, tragic stories full of death and suffering are not satisfying to everyone, but there is still plenty more to read.

Unfinished Tales

This is the first book on this list that can be read in any order you like without really losing anything from the experience. UT is divided into four parts, each with several chapters, but the chapters are all more or less stand-alone. Whatever part of the book that is relevant to something you’re already interested in, or that just catches your eye, is as good a place to start as any other. I’ll describe the book in the order its presented, though. The first part covers the First Age, including fuller versions of the stories Túrin and Tuor from The Silmarillion. However, the Túrin chapter was the main source for the stand-alone version of The Children of Húrin, so if you’ve already read that book there’s nothing new here, and the Tuor chapter was unfortunately abandoned relatively early in the story, though what’s there is still really good. The Fall of Gondolin is one of the crucial stories of the First Age, but the only compete version was written in the 1910s, when Tolkien’s conception of his emerging mythology was very different then it later became. The version in UT is the only other substantial prose version of the tale.

Part two, covering the Second Age, is primarily about the history and people of Númenor. Most of what we know about the lost island, especially concerning its long history before the period of its Downfall, comes from UT. There are two essays giving background information as well as “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife”, a mostly complete novella that is our best glimpse into the Númenórean culture at its peak. It’s also a great story in and of itself, heavy on the psychological drama and with richly drawn characters. It is very unlike Tolkien’s famous stories but a deserving part of the legendarium in its own right. Part two also includes “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn”, which is the most fragmentary chapter of the book, but contains a wealth of information not just about the titular characters but about Middle-earth in general during the poorly-recorded Second Age.

Part three covers the Third Age, as you may have guessed. The first two chapters, “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields” and “Cirion and Eorl” provide a first-hand glimpse at some important events from the histories of Gondor and (in the latter case) Rohan. “Gladden Fields” provides one of our best views of Isildur as a character rather than a distant, legendary figure, while “Cirion and Eorl” is generally a broader historical essay, but does include some great moments for the title characters towards the end. The rest of this part is more directly relevant to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “The Quest of Erebor” presents Gandalf’s version of how things went down in The Hobbit, while “The Hunt for the Ring” and “The Battles of the Fords of Isen” provide detailed accounts of how the titular events happened from the perspective of the people involved in them (Ringwraiths and Rohirrim, respectively), rather than from the perspective of the main characters of LOTR who were unaware of all the details of what was occurring around them as those events were unfolding.

While the history of Gondor and the other Númenórean realms is fairly well documented, fans of Rohan should really enjoy Unfinished Tales, since “Cirion and Eorl” and “The Battles of the Fords of Isen” elaborate significantly on the history of the Mark compared to the relatively brief account given in Appendix A of LOTRUT concludes with three non-narrative essays giving background information on the Drúedain (aka the Púkel-men from Return of the King), the Istari (Wizards), and the Palantíri. These can be a little harder to get into but they do include some interesting anecdotes that add more depth to the overall story, in addition to providing further Lore information. Again, UT is a great anthology in part because you can jump into any part, at any time, and not have to worry about the order you’re reading in. However, if you haven’t read at least one of the big three books yet, it won’t necessarily mean much to you.

The History of Middle-earth

After the success of Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien decided to double down on the more scholarly and anthological approach, particularly as seen in “Galadriel and Celeborn”, where there wasn’t a single, mostly finalized text to present. Even if you liked UTThe History of Middle-earth presents a very different experience. It is, essentially, a scholarly study of the elder Tolkien’s writing process, presented in the form of his drafts interspersed with even more editorial commentary than before, with some chapters having more commentary than original text. Also, it spans 12 volumes. I absolutely do not recommend jumping into HoMe until you’re already fairly deep into Tolkien lore, but if you’ve come this far and are still hungry for more, it can be a very rewarding experience. You do have to approach this series more as something you study than just stories to take in, however.

The ordering of the volumes of HoMe generally follows the order in which Tolkien wrote the various works presented within. However, because reading 12 very dense volumes back-to-back can be a daunting prospect, I’m not going to describe them in precisely that same order. This is an order that works for me, but as with UT, I recommend that you read whatever seems most interesting to you at any given time. If you really want to read them all in order though, more power to you; you are a braver reader than I was.

The Book of Lost Tales (volumes I and II)

Before there was The Silmarillion, there was The Book of Lost Tales. In some ways, BoLT is like a first draft, as most of the stories presented here are recognizable as the predecessors of various parts of The Silmarillion, although most of the names are different. On the other hand, Tolkien had different intentions with the Lost Tales, working at creating an “English mythology” with direct historical and geographical connections to the British Isles. Also, unlike any other part of the textual history of The Silmarillion, the Lost Tales were largely finished, though never published. However, Tolkien eventually decided to abandon many of the core concepts of The Book of Lost Tales and turned what was left into The Silmarillion, which continued through many revisions but was never completed.

The Lost Tales are written in a very archaic style that can make them particularly challenging to get into, and the somewhat similar but just different enough to be confusing names can also present difficulty. There’s also a lot of weird concepts, like an early version of the character who would become Sauron who is a demonic talking cat here. If you are interested in following the evolution of Tolkien’s ideas in chronological order, then it makes sense to start here, but if you’re looking for material that has more direct relevance to what you’ve already read, then I would recommend coming back to these volumes later.

The Lays of Beleriand (volume III)

After abandoning The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien spent several years working on his Middle-earth stories primarily in verse form. There are several references to these epic poems in the published Silmarillion, including a substantial quotation found in the chapter “Of Beren and Lúthien”, describing Finrod’s struggle with Sauron. If you enjoyed this or Tolkien’s other poetry (especially longer samples like Bilbo’s song of Eärendil in The Fellowship of the Ring), there’s a good chance you’ll appreciate this volume. Even if you’re not a huge poetry fan, it’s a worthwhile look at a prominent element of Tolkien’s creative process, but it’s not essential to read it in order.

The Later Silmarillion (volumes X and XI)

These two volumes (Morgoth’s Ring and The War of the Jewels) include Tolkien’s work on the First Age legends after returning to them following the completion of The Lord of the Rings. They are possibly the two most important volumes of the entire HoMe series, but they are so jam-packed with information that they can be hard to get through. Both volumes include detailed annals of the First Age and extensive draft writings that formed much of the basis of the published version of The Silmarillion. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has read that book, but several of these sections go into considerably more detail. “Laws and Customs among the Eldar”, for example (found in Morgoth’s Ring), elaborates not only on the nature of Elvish society but also on the metaphysics of death and the soul in Arda. Not exactly light reading, but if you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you’ll find it absolutely fascinating.

Morgoth’s Ring also includes the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”, a philosophical dialogue between the Elven king Finrod and Andreth, a mortal wise-woman. The Athrabeth sort of captures both sides of the Later Silmarillion, and in some ways HoMe as a whole. On the one hand, it is very heavy on the philosophical and religious ideas (including Finrod predicting the Incarnation of Christ), but it is also a remarkable and touching story about two characters trying to find their way in a world that neither they, nor us the reader, entirely understands. I honestly think it has some of Tolkien’s most memorable character writing in all of his First Age works. Getting this far through Tolkien’s bibliography takes a major investment of time and the Athrabeth demands as much intellectual engagement as any of his writing, but the rewards it offers are much more than simply knowing additional factoids about Middle-earth.

Another highlight from Morgoth’s Ring is “Myths Transformed”, in which Tolkien questioned many of the long-established mythological elements in his work (including the origins of the sun and moon and the world being made round long after its creation) and instead tried to establish a level of greater scientific plausibility. Some of the older ideas are recast as human myths, on the grounds that Elven loremasters learning from the Powers who shaped the world would know things like the fact that the moon is not a magical flower being carried across the sky. Tolkien never fully re-wrote the stories of The Silmarillion to reflect these vastly changed ideas, though he seemed to intend to. One point of contention within Tolkien fandom is the extent to which the ideas from “Myths Transformed” should be considered authoritative, given that they were late ideas that Tolkien never dismissed, but on the other hand, were never fully incorporated into his mythology either, much less published in his lifetime.

There are other parts of the Later Silmarillion that can create similar confusion. For example, the chapter “The Wanderings of Húrin” in The War of the Jewels presents a radically different course of events for the later life of Húrin, following his release from Angband, than is found in the published Silmarillion. The text of the chapter is quite substantial, though unfinished, but the changes from earlier versions would have entailed significant changes to other parts of the story that Tolkien did not complete. Christopher himself expressed doubt over the scale of editorial alterations he made to paper over these inconsistencies when preparing the published Silmarillion, and many fans prefer the versions found in HoMe and rely on them not just for fanfiction or headcanon, but refer to them in Lore debates as well. This is not necessarily an illegitimate approach, as the published Silmarillion and HoMe were trying to do two different things, but it requires debaters to be clear about what sources they are relying on. To be clear, though, there is great writing in these chapters, and they’re definitely worth reading on their own and not just to get “the other side of the story”.

The Peoples of Middle-earth (volume XII)

The final volume of the series (though not the last in this list) includes a number of disparate works. The largest section of the book covers the evolution of the Prologue and Appendices to The Lord of the Rings (the history of the main text was covered in earlier volumes). The primarily philological essays “Of Dwarves and Men” and “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” include a ton of history as well, and fit in a similar mold with the Later Silmarillion. The most famous revelation here is the parentage of Gil-galad, presented differently than in the published Silmarillion, and now adopted as the “true” version by most of the fandom, both since it was Tolkien’s last known idea and because it explains the apparent oddities in the succession of the High Kingship of the Noldor.

Perhaps the most valuable part of The Peoples of Middle-earth comes at the end, however, in the section confusingly titled “Unfinished Tales”, though it has nothing to do with the earlier book. The title is perhaps more accurate here, as both tales were abandoned very early on, but they are true gems. The first is “The New Shadow”, famous as Tolkien’s abandoned sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien concluded that it would have to be a very different sort of story from LOTR and not one he was interested in writing, but it’s valuable as one of our very few glimpses of the Fourth Age. The other is “Tal-Elmar”, an originally unrelated story that Tolkien eventually decided should be set in the territory of Gondor before its settlement by the Númenóreans in the Second Age. The theme here is colonialism and Tolkien paints a picture quite unflattering to a group from whom so many of his protagonists come. It really shows the lie of the idea that Tolkien wrote strictly in black and white, and challenges us to think more critically about many other works in the legendarium, especially regarding how reliable their narrators might (not) have been.

The Ships of the Faithful

“The Ships of the Faithful” by Ted Nasmith. Used with permission.

The Númenor stuff (volume V and most of volume IX)

Unlike the other headings here, these volumes are not actually called “the Númenor stuff” (obviously), but the common thread holding together the stories “The Lost Road” (lending its title to volume V) and “The Notion Club Papers” (taking up most of volume IX, Sauron Defeated) is that they are essentially time travel stories that introduced the concept of Númenor, which would ultimately hold such an important position in the legendarium. These stories are sort of the odd ones out in HoMe, as they are largely set in modern England and include themes (mysticism and reincarnation across generations) not frequently found elsewhere in Tolkien’s work. This is in part because the Númenor idea was not originally intended to be part of the legendarium at all.

The earlier story, “The Lost Road”, was written in a challenge with C.S. Lewis, wherein Tolkien was to write a time travel story and Lewis a space travel story (Lewis ended up writing the Space Trilogy as a result, starring a fictionalized version of Tolkien). Tolkien’s incomplete story followed a series of father-son pairs as they were reincarnated throughout history, beginning in modern England and working its way backward through northern European history until it reaches Atlantis, or Númenor. The idea of the Straight Road and the Changing of the World, which are significant in the Akallabêth and LOTR, are developed here. It’s a very mystical, melancholy story, but unfortunately never got beyond outlines and a handful of chapters.

Several years later, while working on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned to these themes and ideas with “The Notion Club Papers”, this time starring a fictionalized version of his writing group, the Inklings, focusing on a 20th century Oxford professor named Alwin, who has lucid dreams of Númenor, especially of its destruction. The mystical themes are carried over as well, and Alwin is implied to be a descendant (and possibly reincarnation) of Elendil, while also sharing traits with the human mariner Ælfwine from The Book of Lost Tales. Not coincidentally, all three names mean “elf-friend” in different languages. While Tolkien’s later stories did not, of course, reach forward into modern times again, much of the information about the Númenórean language (Adûnaic) as well as one of the more detailed accounts of the Downfall come from the “Papers”.

The Shaping of Middle-earth (volume IV)

This is a rather dense and technical volume, even by HoMe standards. Shaping consists largely of prose pieces Tolkien wrote to provide context for readers of the Lays (epic poems; see above). The “Sketch of the Mythology” provides the basic model for the compressed narrative summary that the published Silmarillion was presented in. An expanded version, the “Quenta Noldorinwa” (”tale of the Noldor”) is technically the only complete version of The Silmarillion that Tolkien finished, though it is only a fraction of the length of the published version. The “Quenta” is effectively a transitional form between the ideas found in The Book of Lost Tales and the more developed legendarium myths that Tolkien would work on for much of his later life. This volume also includes early versions of First Age annals and the geographical essay “Ambarkanta”, accompanied by the only world maps Tolkien ever drew, showing his early (pre-LOTR) geography for Arda.

The History of The Lord of the Rings (volumes VI-VIII and part of volume IX)

These three and (less than) a half volumes chronicle the evolution of The Lord of the Rings from the first chapter Tolkien submitted to his publisher in 1938 in response to a request for a sequel to The Hobbit, to the finished version in 1949 and its ultimate publication in 1954-55 (though, as noted above, the history of the Prologue and Appendices are covered in volume XII). I confess that these volumes have never been as interesting to me as the Silmarillion-related ones since we actually have Tolkien’s own published (more or less) complete version of LOTR. However, there’s plenty of insight to be gained from following Tolkien’s creative process, especially watching the evolution of the work as it grew further away from the style of The Hobbit. Notable examples include the Black Rider originally being Gandalf in a case of comedic mistaken identity, and Strider being “Trotter”, a Hobbit with wooden feet. Volume IX, Sauron Defeated, also includes the epilogue to LOTR, featuring Sam and his daughter Eleanor discussing the state of Middle-earth in the early Fourth Age, which Tolkien finished but decided not to include in order to preserve the impact of the closing line: “Well, I’m back”. If you consider the Appendices to be an important part of LOTR, then the epilogue alone might make at least this volume worth the purchase.

The History of The Hobbit

The two volumes of this work are not actually part of The History of Middle-earth, as Christopher Tolkien decided to limit that project to the evolution of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the RingsHoTH was eventually edited and completed by John D. Rateliff, and published with Christopher’s blessing. It presents extensive drafts of the book together with commentary, generally following the model of The History of The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff’s work quickly became well known for demonstrating the extent to which Tolkien deliberately connected The Hobbit to The Silmarillion beginning in very early drafts of the story, as opposed to the previously widespread idea that Tolkien had initially intended The Hobbit to be wholly separate despite recycling a few names.

Shorter works

If you’ve made it through the entirety of The History of Middle-earth series, or even just this far into this current essay, you deserve a breather. Tolkien published a handful of significantly shorter works relating to Middle-earth during his lifetime, all of which are worth checking out at one point or another.

  • Tree and Leaf, consisting of the essay “On Fairy-Stories”, essentially Tolkien’s manifesto regarding his intentions in writing fantasy, and “Leaf by Niggle”, an allegorical short story on the same topic, focusing on the religious and philosophical ideas underpinning his fiction.
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a collection of poems presented as Hobbit folklore, though only two of them deal directly with Bombadil. This volume’s primary interest to the “serious” Tolkien reader is the brief Preface, which contains a surprising amount of information.
  • The Road Goes Ever On, a song cycle consisting of Tolkien’s poems with music by composer Donald Swann (get the version that comes with the audio CD if you can). Like Bombadil, largely notable for Tolkien’s commentary, or in this case, liner notes.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

There’s really no good place to include this in a list, because it’s main usefulness (in my opinion) is as a reference to consult whenever a specific question or point of confusion arises in your mind. Modern editions have an excellent index that makes it very easy to find Tolkien’s thoughts on a great number of topics, though unfortunately only a fraction of his known letters were collected for this volume. Some people like to read this cover-to-cover, which does have the benefit of depicting Tolkien’s evolving thinking quite clearly, but the letters cover such a broad range of topics that it can be very slow going. If you do try to read them all at once, consider doing so in parallel with the authorized Biography of Tolkien, written by Humphrey Carpenter, who also edited the Letters.

Annotated editions

I wouldn’t recommend starting with an annotated version, but should you find yourself in the mood to re-read The Hobbit, you may be interested in the The Annotated Hobbit, which offers a lot of insight into the book while only minimally disrupting the flow of the story. Unfortunately, due to sheer size, an annotated edition of The Lord of the Rings was not possible, but The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion collects what are effectively annotations into a stand-alone volume, along with several other interesting texts, including Tolkien’s Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings (also known as the Guide to Names).

Periodicals

Despite the great number of Tolkien books that have been published over the years, there is even more of his writing that didn’t fit. Some of this extra material has been published in various Tolkien periodicals. The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, working with special access granted by Christopher Tolkien, publishes two journals focusing on linguistic matters and sometimes containing previously unpublished texts by Tolkien himself. Two of the more famous pieces they have made available, both in Vinyar Tengwar, are “Ósanwe-kenta”, describing the nature of Elvish telepathy that was briefly glimpsed in The Lord of the Rings (ROTK, VI 6), and “The Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor”, an unfinished etymological essay that ended up containing a considerable amount of historical and geographical information as well (as Tolkien’s etymological essays were wont to do). The annual peer-reviewed journal Tolkien Studies also publishes previously unseen material. Subscribing to periodicals can be an expensive proposition, however, and it is perfectly possible to hold informed conversations about Tolkien, even at a high level, based solely on the books. But you will occasionally see the periodicals brought out as sources.

Other works of potential interest

Congratulations! At this point, you’ve read just about all there is to read of Tolkien’s own writing about Middle-earth and Arda (or at least, you’ve read about them). This leaves two major categories that you can branch off into if you are interested: Tolkien’s writings that are not about Arda, and other people’s writing that is. Unfortunately, both of these are topics for another time. There is a whole world of reference books and scholarship about Tolkien out there; if you are really curious, I highlighted a few notable ones on this page. If you’re more curious about Tolkien’s other works, then you have a couple options, ranging from stories that he wrote for his children (such as Roverandom, which is especially adorable, and The Father Christmas Letters) to his serious academic work (including the influential Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and English and Welsh), and quite a bit else besides.

This is way too much

Yes. Yes it is.

Seriously though, there is no need to start off with the intention of reading every single work on this or any other list of Tolkien’s works, much less to read them in a specific order. Read as much as you’re interested in. Feel free to go back and re-read stuff that you particularly enjoyed. Have fun. If your idea of fun, like mine, includes learning as much as you can about the ins and outs of Tolkien’s mythology, then I hope that this essay was of some usefulness in helping you figure out what to read next. Tolkien’s secondary world is so rich and detailed, I think it likely that most fans of his major books will find something to enjoy amidst his deep cuts. Whether you’re new to the literary world of Middle-earth, returning after an absence, or if you’ve been doing it for years, Tolkien’s works are endlessly discoverable.

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

Happy reading!