If you’ve never read Tolkien, you may be wondering where the ideal place is to start. Ironically, it’s not at the beginning.
Tolkien began working on the stories that would form the history and mythology of his Middle-earth while still a young man; he even worked on it sporadically as a soldier in the First World War. So those tales, eventually collected posthumously as The Silmarillion, are properly the beginning of the story of Middle-earth.
However, the first of the books to be published was The Hobbit, which is set in the Third Age of Tolkien’s world. (The Silmarillion, including the later portions which deal with Númenor, is mainly concerned with the First Age and Second Age, as well as the vast period before recorded history.)
If it’s your first time in Middle-earth, start with The Hobbit. If you like that, move on to the more adult sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Then, if you’re still keen, tackle The Silmarillion. If that puts you off with its Old Testament/Icelandic saga prose style (some find it dry; others, heroic), you can do one of two things. One, read SJ’s excellent overview of the main plots. Two, just read Children of Hurin — also published many years after Tolkien’s death, it’s far closer in style to The Lord of the Rings, and is set during the First Age. It gives you a taste of how gripping that history might have been had Tolkien been able to give it the same treatment he gave to his later stories.
If you’re still with me, and want more, let me roll out my preferred total-nerd Tolkien reading plan. This is how you can get the full story of Tolkien’s world, and if you follow this it will make every obscure reference and echo in The Lord of the Rings resonate in a way just reading it on its own can’t.
One caveat: Read all or most of this stuff on your own first, in whatever order you like. That makes it less maddening when you have to put down one book, pick up another, and then return to one or two others you were already working on.
What you will need:
- The Silmarillion
- The Hobbit
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Book of Lost Tales 2
- Unfinished Tales
- Children of Hurin
- Tales from the Perilous Realm
Got it? OK, good. Let’s get started.
Begin with The Silmarillion; read the “Ainulindalë” and “Valaquenta.” This is the creation story of Middle-earth. It can be tough slogging, because there are a lot of names (often multiples for each character; but that’s just how Tolkien rolls); but stick with it, because you need to see how Melkor starts screwing things up from the get-go.
Next read through rest of The Silmarillion until you come to the chapter called “Of Túrin Turambar.” Up until recently, I would have said switch over to the fuller version of this in Unfinished Tales (“The Tale of the Children of Húrin”). But now, you can read an even more complete and fleshed-out tale in the novel-length Children of Húrin, recently published under the eye of Christopher Tolkien, who has been an astonishing curator of his father’s literary legacy. In whatever form you read it, the story of Túrin will break your heart — it’s epic stuff.
Next, head back into The Silmarillion and read until you get to “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin.” Before reading that, pick up Unfinished Tales and read the more detailed account in “Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin.” Of course, this ends with his arrival; for the crucial story of what happens next you need to pick up the story again The Book of Lost Tales 2 and read “The Fall of Gondolin.”
I will admit it is simpler to just jump back into The Silmarillion for the story; among other things, the Book of Lost Tales version uses Tolkien’s earlier nomenclature, such as “Gnomes” for “Elves” and many character name changes, but this is still the most gripping version of the fall of Gondolin. The heroic sortie made by the Elves of the Stricken Anvil against the vanguard of orcs and Balrogs, and the doomed battle between Ecthelion and Gothmog, Lord of the Balrogs, in the city’s great fountain, make it worth it.
After that, pick up The Silmarillion and read on until the end of “Of the Voyage of Eärendel and the War of Wrath.”
So we come to the end of the First Age.
Tolkien didn’t concern himself nearly as much with the Second Age of Middle-earth, but for some interesting digressions, particularly about Númenor, read “The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor” in Unfinished Tales. It’s essentially a dynastic history, but it outlines the greatness of Númenor and its tortured corruption as its people lost faith in the Valar. (You can read the other Second Age stories in Unfinished Tales; but they are hardly as fleshed-out as the earlier and later stories.)
For the final fate of Númenor, go back to The Silmarillion and read the “Akallabêth.”
We’re not quite done with the Second Age, and there’s no clean way to get the whole story; but start with “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” and read until you get to the scene where Isildur arrives at the Gladden Fields; then read the fuller account of that in “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields” in Unfinished Tales. I would stop there and not go back to The Silmarillion; otherwise you’ll get too far into the narrative of what comes next.
So we come to the end of the Second Age.
For a bit on how the world was changing, read “Cirion and Eorl.”
Next, read The Hobbit. After reading all this weighty history and heroic legend, the tale of Bilbo Baggins may seem childish and almost inconsequential; but of course it holds the seed of the events that will shake Middle-earth. I’ve always loved the humour in The Hobbit; from Gandalf’s sharp remarks, to Bilbo’s fastidiousness, to Thorin and the dwarves’ short-tempered can-do attitude. There are no wasted characters in it, either, from the disturbing Gollum, to the friendly but dangerous Beorn, to the chief of all calamities, Smaug the dragon. And for a children’s book, it has a decidedly unromantic view of human (or Elvish or Dwarvish) nature; witness the near-disastrous distrust on the eve of the Battle of Five Armies.
Next, I like to read “The Quest for Erebor” in Unfinished Tales, even though it’s technically a section meant to come at the end of The Lord of the Rings; because Gandalf puts Bilbo’s whole adventure in context of the events that were unfolding in the wider world of Middle-earth. But if you are a strict stickler for chronology, leave it for the denouement of The Return of the King.
For added context, read “The Drúedain,” “The Istari,” and “The Palantiri” from Unfinished Tales.
Now you can dive into The Lord of the Rings. The whole journey to get here will pay off all along the way. When Aragorn shares the tale of Beren and Luthien, it will echo back to The Silmarillion; when Elrond asserts the hobbits would stand proudly among heroes of old like T’urin, you’ll appreciate what a huge compliment that is. Of course, not knowing all these things doesn’t spoil reading LOTR; but every reference meant something to Tolkien’s characters, and it adds many layers to the story. If you are a Tolkien nerd, there’s nothing better.
For me, once you get to the end of the Lord of the Rings, that’s where the story ends, when Sam declares, “Well, I’m back.” But it’s worth reading the appendices to get a glimpse of what happens later, from Gimli and Legolas’s journeys to Sam’s own trip to the Grey Havens.
And, just for extra whimsy, you can read “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” in Tales from the Perilous Realm, though it also appeared in The Tolkien Reader. It’s a fun collection of hobbit poetry, and personally I prefer Tolkien’s retro-engineered version of “The Man in the Moon” to the original nursery rhyme. Reading the poems doesn’t really add to the grand story of Middle-earth, but it does show a bit of the humour and sensibilities that saw Frodo, Sam and the other hobbits through their ordeal.
And that brings us to the end of the Third Age. (Well, if you read the appendices in the LOTR you’re already in the beginning of the Fourth Age.)
If there were any more tales beyond this in Tolkien’s imagination, we’ll never know; but if you read through this whole five-course fantasy meal, I think you’ll agree it’s still a great feast on its own.
UPDATE II: Come on, you know you want to read SJ’s thrilling summation of the War of Wrath in her newest instalment (yes, that’s two in one day) here.
UPDATE III: ProfMomEsq weighs in here. Any other Tolkien bloggers and Hobbit readers? Leave your comments so we all know where to find your posts as we read this summer.
UPDATE IV: Should you have trouble keeping track of all the characters and family connections between them, a phenomenal resource can be found at the Lord of the Rings Project. And when you get to reading LOTR, the same site there’s a timeline linked to a map so you can follow the where and when of the story (beware, spoliers, if you haven’t read it before!).
- Silly Marillion (quenya101.com)
- The Children of Húrin (part 9B)(for the Eve of the Feast of the Fall of Mordor): Túrin’s Crowded Bench (lanternhollowpress.com)
- “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien (zezee112.wordpress.com)
- Fantasy World Building. J.R.R. Tolkien (laneymcmann.com)