Maybe you’ve recently watched (or re-watched) The Lord of the Rings. Maybe you’ve recently stumbled upon one of the less considerably popular works of the author. Regardless of what it is, you’re here – and that that can only mean one thing. J.R.R. Tolkien got you under his wraps, and you want to give his literature a shot. Many people do that, it’s understandable. Tolkien is one of the most influential authors in history, and he was the man who had shaped up one of literature’s greatest series of all time. But pretty much everyone has the same question, “Where do I begin?”
Without even counting the extensive works developed for the world of Middle-Earth, there are plenty of books to pick from. For instance, imagine you’re trying to get into Star Wars or Doctor Who for the first time. There’s such a long history behind both of those titles, and there are so many things that have been created under their brands that it can take forever trying to catch up to everything. In this case, there is only one thing you can do: prioritize. Start with the basics, continue reading, and if you feel like you’ve had enough, you can stop there knowing that you’ve had a taste of what was most important.
In this article, we’ll break down a big chunk of the J.R.R. Tolkien books, and we’ll offer you an insight of where to start.
The Hobbit is the definite starting point. Despite the fact that the adaptation was turned into a trilogy, there is only one book – and it’s not lengthy, either. The book is in many ways a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, with many important elements being later tied into the storyline of the latter. It gives Bilbo a solid background, presents an intimidating appearance from Gollum, and it explains how exactly the “one ring to rule them all” ended up in Bilbo’s pocket.
All these considered, The Hobbit is also a fantastic standalone story. Written as a children’s book, it’s the very definition of a wonderful adventure – a hobbit, a wizard, a group of dwarves, a mountain full of gold, and the dragon sitting on top of it all.
The Lord of the Rings
When making the transition from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, take note of the change in tone. The Hobbit may have been written for children, but not the same can be said about the latter. It’s essentially one big story split in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It’s just like the movies. In fact, the films stayed as loyal to the source material as an adaptation could. One small word of warning, though – prepare yourself for entire pages of detailed landscape description, walking, and more landscape descriptions.
The three books are exactly what the movies were. They all begin when the movies do and also end at the same point. But, naturally, the books go into great details that couldn’t have been captured by the movies. The tale about a fellowship of humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves trying to hurl a ring into Mount Doom will always be charming, especially with a better outline around the story.
Most people already know about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but this is where most of the confusion comes from. Tolkien crafted a whole world around the two previously mentioned books. He invented Arda’s history, geography, culture, civilizations, and even went as far as to develop the famous Elvish language.
The Legendarium is a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien books which contains pretty much every work that’s an extension of the Middle-Earth universe.
The first one of these works is The Silmarillion, which is a collection of mythopoeic works published post-mortem by Tolkien’s son. The book provides detailed information regarding the universe of Ea, host of all the lands that the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place on. In a sense, it’s almost like reading a giant fantasy history book, so before diving into this reading, you might want to make sure that you’d actually like it. To do so, read first the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and if they prove to be your cup of tea, then The Silmarillion is your cup of tea.
If you’re still curious about the universe but would rather not go so in-depth with it, The Children of Hurin is a great alternative. Also finished, polished, and published by Tolkien’s son, it provides a new narrative with plenty of intriguing information about the universe that fosters Middle-Earth.
The History of Middle-Earth
If you want more, The History of Middle-Earth is a twelve-volume extensive collection, also part of Tolkien’s Legendarium. This series basically exhibits step-by-step Tolkien’s creation process, using presentations and manuscripts as its backbone.
The first two volumes, The Book of Lost Tales Part 1 and The Book of Lost Tales Part 2, present the writer’s first go at developing the mythology of his universe. It can be considered a prototype for The Silmarillion, with a lot of its content being later rewritten in other circumstances.
The Shaping of Middle-Earth and The Lost Road and Other Writings picked up the drafted ideas from the first two volumes, reshaping them considerably more maturely. Volume V, the one latter mentioned, contains a lot of linguistic information.
The following four volumes (The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring, and Sauron Defeated) are the ones that focus on the history of the writing and development of The Lord of the Rings. The rest of the volumes cover miscellaneous things, including the final outline of The Silmarillion and the writing process for the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien also wrote many short stories that are definitely worth giving a read too if you’re interested. He created several poems, some included titles being The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Bilbo’s Last Song, which is supposedly written by Bilbo himself on his journey to the Havens. There are also many children’s stories and academic writings, but I’d say that, for now, there is enough material to work with.