Reading Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The History of Middle-Earth Series

When J. R. R. Tolkien died in 1973, he left behind a lifetime of writing on the topic of his Middle-Earth legendarium. Thousands upon thousands of scraps of paper sat in boxes throughout his home, office, and elsewhere, and it fell to Tolkien's son, Christopher, his literary heir to determine precisely what to do with this treasure trove of world-building material. Christopher had helped edit The Lord of the Rings and drew several maps for his father's books. Christopher's solution, after many years of hedging and rethinking things, was The History of Middle-Earth, a twelve-volume set (plus separate index) that gathered together virtually everything of note his father had produced outside of the published texts. Later volumes outside the collection were added in the 2000s to supplement them and, in some cases, reorganise and make more accessible selected information from these volumes. Considered together, these volumes provide some of the best and most informed insight into the creative decisions of any author in history and provide a fascinating look into the origins of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (though they are often difficult and tedious to read).

The History of Middle-Earth

The Book of Lost Tales

The first volume in The History of Middle-Earth, as well as of the Book of Lost Tales sub-series, explores some of the earliest work Tolkien produced within his Middle-Earth mythos. It demonstrates the development of the overarching stories that later appeared in The Silmarillion, specifically the early years of the elves in Valinor (the Undying Lands), the rise of Melko (later Morgoroth), and the flight of the Noldoli (high elves) to Middle-Earth. The story features an Anglo-Saxon man named Eriol (later Ælfwine), who is writing down these stories for posterity. Even though there is some continuous narrative in this book, a lot of it becomes jumbled or contradicts earlier material, since Tolkien was actively revising his stories. As a warning, this book is sometimes difficult to read because it uses some very archaic language. Tolkien was, after all, an Anglo-Saxon historian and professional linguist.

The Book of Lost Tales

The Book of Lost Tales

The second half of The Book of Lost Tales, this volume focuses on the later Lost Tales, primarily those dealing with the humans and their interactions with the Noldoli. There are some interesting stories in this volume, include a nearly complete account of the Fall of Gondolin and a story about the Dwarven necklace called Nauglamír. Christopher Tolkien concludes this volume with a retrospective analysis of Eriol / Ælfwine and their role in the Book of Lost Tales. Like the earlier book, there is very difficult language used in this volume and a lot of material contradicts itself.

The Book of Lost Tales

The Lays of Beleriand

The most unique of the Middle-Earth history books, this volume explores a number of poems that Tolkien wrote that focus on the activities of the elves and humans in the First Age of Middle-Earth. The primary two poems are the Lay of the Children of Húrin and the Lay of Leithian, which tells the story of Beren and Lúthien, although there are fragments of other poems as well. Indeed, none of these poems have a proper ending and Tolkien eventually decided against including substantial epic poems within his works, although he used smaller poems in all of them.

The Lays of Beleriand

The Shaping of Middle-Earth

This volume lives up to its name in that it transitions readers from the archaic style of Tolkien's earlier writings to the somewhat more organized style of The Silmarillion. That being said, this is a real mess of a book. It is composed primarily of various fragments that show incremental steps in the process of converting early narratives and poems into prose. This culminates in the Sketch of the Mythology, which constitutes the first substantial draft of The Silmarillion. Helpfully, Christopher Tolkien includes the Annals of Valinor and the Annals of Beleriand, two chronological histories of the First Age that provide a good basis for understanding the later evolution of this period in Tolkien's writings.

The Shaping of Middle-Earth

The Lost Road and Other Writings

Quite different from the other works in The History of Middle-Earth series, this book collects some essays and places them alongside later drafts of material Tolkien created mostly in the 1930s, as he began transitioning to writing The Lord of the Rings. It includes an introductory essay discussing C. S. Lewis's relationship to Tolkien, a short story called 'The Lost Road into the West' that connects the First Age of Middle-Earth to contemporary England, and a dictionary exploring various elvish dialects and languages. In addition, there are several late drafts of material related to The Silmarillion including revised versions of the Annals of Valinor and Beleriand.

The Lost Road and Other Writings

The History of the Lord of the Rings

A total of three and a half books − volumes 6-9 − comprise the sub-series The History of the Lord of the Rings, which document the process of creating The Lord of the Rings for publication, as well as connecting the book with the larger Middle-Earth legendarium that J. R. R. Tolkien had begun designing during World War I.

The Return of the Shadow

The first volume covers the narrative found in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring (to Rivendell) and includes several alternative, extended, and completely removed parts of the story which are certain to interest anyone who has enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. Among other things, it discusses how Tolkien turned Bilbo Baggins' ring from The Hobbit into an all-powerful plot device, how the character of Aragorn was invented and changed throughout the writing process, and it looks at the geographical features found in the story.

The Return of the Shadow

Treason of Isengard

The second volume is much more direct in its focus on the narratives found in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers. It discusses Galadriel, Gondor, the Rohirrim, Ents, Saruman, and the mines of Moria. It also looks at the use of Runes in The Lord of the Rings and further explores the geography of Middle-Earth.

Treason of Isengard

The War of the Ring

Resuming immediately after the previous story, volume three focuses on the battle between Rohan and Saruman before moving to focus on the story of the One Ring, including Frodo, Sam, and Golum. A significant third portion of this book delves into the lore of Gondor and an abandoned section of The Lord of the Rings.

The War of the Ring

Sauron Defeated, the End of the Third Age

The final volume is truly two different books, with only the first half considered part of The History of the Lord of the Rings. It begins by wrapping up the epilogues found in the novel, including Frodo and Sam in Mordor, the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom, and the various journeys home taken by all the various parties. A number of essays written by the Notion Club, an Oxford-based academic group, are then included that discuss the lore of the lost city of Atlantis. This volume then concludes with various stories written by Tolkien and subsequently abandoned that focus on the Second Age of Middle-Earth, when the Numenorians lived on the Atlantis-like island of Númenor.

Sauron Defeated, the End of the Third Age

The Later Silmarillion

Like the previous four books in the series, volumes 10-11 comprise The Later Silmarillion, an examination of later works that were used in completing the narrative that became The Silmarillion after J. R. R. Tolkien's death. Most of the material in these texts date to the 1950s and 1960s, so are significantly later than the memorabilia found in the first five volumes of The History of Middle-Earth series. These volumes also reflect changes prompted by the publication of The Lord of the Rings.

Morgoth's Ring

The first book includes many important notes and several essays not found elsewhere including a chronology of the creation of Arda (Earth) to the end of the First Age, a summary of customs of the elves, a sorrowful tale of an immortal elf and mortal woman not found elsewhere in Tolkien's works, a parallel to the Christian concept of Original Sin within the context of Middle-Earth, and a crude explanation for where orcs come from.

Morgoth's Ring

The War of the Jewels

The second book includes an expanded look at the Children of Húrin narrative, an analysis of how Christopher Tolkien and author Guy Gavriel Kay constructed Chapter 22 of The Silmarillion for publication using Tolkien's notes, the origins of the Ents and Eagles, and several other short notes about various aspects of elf lore.

The War of the Jewels

The Peoples of Middle-Earth

Perhaps the most interesting volume in this entire series of twelve books, The Peoples of Middle-Earth is really the leftovers from all the other books in the series. It begins by returning to the Second and Third Ages of Middle-Earth and exploring early drafts of the prologue, appendices, family trees, and calendar in The Lord of the Rings. This is followed by a collection of writings produced late in Tolkien's life, with most focused on issues Tolkien had with his languages but also including the brief beginning to a new Fourth Age book, a story of Middle-Earth in the Second Age from the perspective of the Wild Men, and essays on wizards, Glorfindel of Gondolin, and Círdan the Shipwright.

The Peoples of Middle-Earth

Other Historical Collections

Beren and Lúthien

This book is the second in a trio that begins with The Children of Húrin, but it follows a very different format. Rather than acting as one continuous narrative, several versions are provided of the story of Beren and Lúthien and their long fight against the forces of Morgoth, as portrayed in The Silmarillion. J. R. R. Tolkien spent years refining this story that was both key to his overarching narrative and also, he believed, reflected his own relationship to his wife. It collects most of the published editions of the stories found in The Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales, and also includes previously unpublished editions. If you have read all of The History of Middle-Earth books, you will not find much new here, but it is helpfully collected together with some new commentary and a few new insights that many Tolkien fans will appreciate. If you want to skip The History of Middle-Earth series, then this may be a good insight without overwhelming you. 

Beren and Lúthien

The Fall of Gondolin

Purportedly the last edited collection Christopher Tolkien plans to release of his father's writings, this book follows the style of Beren and Lúthien and recounts the fall of the Elvish city of Gondolin near the end of the First Age of Middle-Earth, as depicted in The Silmarillion. As with its predecessor, The Fall of Gondolin gathers together multiple versions of the story of Tuor and his adventures in Gondolin, leading to the hidden city's destruction by the forces of Morgoth. It is a good and accessible case study for anyone who has read The Silmarillion and wants to know more but is intimidated by the sheer breadth and depth of The History of Middle-Earth series.

The Fall of Gondolin

The History of the Hobbit

This text, originally published as two volumes, examines the early drafts and notes left by Tolkien regarding The Hobbit, which was not originally designed to be a part of the Middle-Earth legendarium. It was only after The Lord of the Rings was written that Tolkien went back to adapt his earlier children's book for the mythos. As Christopher Tolkien was compiling the notes and ephemera for The History of Middle-Earth series, he outsourced the editing of this book to Taum Santoski, who was connected with Tolkien's collection at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Santoski died in 1991 and John D. Rateliff took over as editor. This book includes several sketches, maps, and other illustrations composed by Tolkien when he was writing The Hobbit. It also includes detailed deleted scenes and explores how Tolkien revised his book to better align with The Lord of the Rings and the Middle-Earth legendarium.

The History of the Hobbit

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

This compilation of letters written by Tolkien throughout his life is really the deep dive of Tolkien history, although it is a fascinating journey in itself. Humphrey Carpenter spent years reading and organising Tolkien's personal and business letters to create this look into the mindset of the author as he developed, wrote, and revised his Middle-Earth books. It is certainly a dense read but is vital for anybody interested in the man behind the legendarium.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

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