A Tolkien Reading Order
The question of Tolkienian reading order has popped up in a couple of places recently. It’s a basic question, but a fair enough one too – fifteen years after the last Jackson Rings film came out, there is now an entire generation who know the story from that source, rather than the original. And, well, The Fall of Gondolin has come out since I offered my opinion on The History of Middle-earth series – my earlier advice to read Book of Lost Tales Volume II is now redundant.
My opinion, as far as the Middle-earth texts go:
- The Hobbit. – I myself read The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, but while it is perfectly do-able, I think it’s a mistake. Reading The Hobbit first will give much more insight into certain aspects of Rings (such as the grief at the tomb of Balin), plus it’s less likely to lead to treating The Hobbit as something it is not. This is not a grand epic – it’s a whimsical adventure with some darkness towards the end. And, pragmatically, The Hobbit is short.
- The Lord of the Rings. – Goes without saying, really.
- The Silmarillion. – Not a light read, of course, but thoroughly rewarding. Note that in contrast to most of the later stuff in this list, it is a coherent narrative within the covers of one book. You don’t get confronted with a series of unfinished texts and commentary. The 1977 Silmarillion was, however, assembled out of such texts by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay after J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, so if you care about strict “canon”, you’re going to want to nitpick after reading the other stuff. I don’t – it’s a bloody mythology, and in any case Pengolodh was Biased.
- The Children of Húrin. – Another coherent posthumous work, assembled by Christopher in 2007. If you have read The Silmarillion first, you will know what happens already, but I don’t think spoilers are a real concern here – the major point of Children is that it is a book-long expansion of a single Silmarillion chapter, making it the most complete of the Great Tales of the First Age.
- Unfinished Tales. – The most accessible of what is to come, this is a 1980 compilation of unfinished texts and commentary. I would advise skipping its First Age section, however – Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin is featured again in The Fall of Gondolin (it’s basically half that book), and if you have read The Children of Húrin, you’ll find that story repeated here in the Narn i Chîn Húrin section (the Narn was one of the texts used to assemble the later book). For Second and Third Age material, Unfinished Tales is pretty neat though – including some great world-building essays and background material.
- Beren and Lúthien. – A collection of unfinished texts and commentary, focused unsurprisingly on the Beren and Lúthien story. Whereas Unfinished Tales is broad, this one is narrow, and probably less user-friendly, in that a fair amount of this volume is verse (specifically heroic rhyming couplets).
- The Fall of Gondolin. – The third and last of the Great Tales, this is another focused study. Half the book is already featured in Unfinished Tales, and the other half is featured in The Book of Lost Tales Volume II, but its major selling point is its accessibility: this is the Gondolin story within the covers of one book. See here for my more detailed review.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. – If you have come this far, you’ll likely have at least a passing interest in the man behind the myth, Death of the Author or no. Letter 210 – Tolkien’s commentary on a proposed film adaption – is priceless. While strictly outside the scope of this post, I can also recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien.
- The History of Middle-earth Volumes 10-12 [Morgoth’s Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth]. – My summary here. The indispensable part of The History of Middle-earth series (Volume 2 may be redundant now, but these aren’t).
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. – A forgotten part of the ‘canon’ (it was published in Tolkien’s own lifetime, so there), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is a short and completely optional read. It’s (mostly) whimsical poetry, very much in the tradition of Lord Dunsany, and is ostensibly a collection of hobbit folk traditions in verse form. Just be warned of one infamous scene.
- The Road Goes Ever On. – Even shorter and more forgotten than #10, this is really another completely optional read. It is ranked as high as it is purely because it requires so little reader investment. On the other hand, it is another neat little addition to the list of Middle-earth works that appeared in Tolkien’s own lifetime – with sheet music by Donald Swann – and reaffirms the ‘traditional’ backstory of Galadriel. See here for more information about it.
- The History of the Hobbit (2 volumes). – John Rateliff takes on Christopher’s traditional role as commentator, looking at the drafts and development of The Hobbit. The major selling point of this one is that it contains the (now-legendary) original chapter of Riddles in the Dark – the version that Tolkien re-wrote to better reflect the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.
- The History of Middle-earth Volumes 1-9. – The optional volumes of the series. See my comments here.
Tolkien produced non-Middle-earth material too, of course: Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, Mr Bliss, and Roverandom. And the various posthumous bits and pieces, though they have a bad habit of being overpriced…
Addendum: Here is a look at that non-Middle-earth stuff.