J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was the focus of much public interest between 2001 and 2003 when films were released by New Zealand’s own Peter Jackson based on the three books that comprise The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King). A lesser resurgence in interest occurred between 2012 and 2014 when another trilogy by Jackson based on Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit, was released (as An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies). With the release of yet another Tolkien-themed series — this time a television series produced by Amazon Prime that will bridge the gap between Jackson’s two trilogies — it is time to go back and look at the original books that inspired this multimedia franchise.
The best starting place for anyone interested in immersing themself in the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is 1937’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Although later brought into the larger universe, The Hobbit began its life as a simple book that Tolkien wrote for his children. It tells the story of the halfling (hobbit), Bilbo Baggins, and how the wizard Gandalf persuaded him into going on an adventure to help thirteen dwarves steal treasure from a dragon. Along the way, they fought goblins and spiders, were helped and (later) captured by elves, were scammed by humans, and exchanged words with a dragon. The journey was perilous but rewarding, and Bilbo came out of the expedition with a chip on his shoulder and a lovely magical ring that he stole from a poor creature who dwelt in the depths of some mountains.
The next book to read is The Lord of the Rings, often organised in a trilogy composed of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The Lord of the Rings was conceived of as a direct sequel to The Hobbit, but Tolkien, a medieval historian and professor at Oxford University, got a tad ahead of himself and instead wrote a literary masterpiece. One thing going into The Lord of the Rings that you must know: you will not understand everything. Unlike The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings is a book deeply enmeshed within Tolkien’s Middle-Earth universe. The book discusses long-passed battles, ruins of ancient civilisations, earlier ages of the world, and forgotten secrets. But at its core, it is still a story about a hobbit and his adventure, just like the book before it.
The Lord of the Rings recounts the War of the Ring, which ended the Third Age of Middle-Earth. And it all begins with the magical ring that Bilbo Baggins found in The Hobbit. That ring is, in fact, the One Ring, which an evil god-like being named Sauron forged nearly 5,000 years earlier and that has the power to control evil beings such as orcs and goblins, trolls, fell beasts, and corrupted humans such as the undead Nazgûl and the Easterlings. Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, and his three friends set out with the One Ring to escape the Nazgûl and find refuge with the elves of Rivendell. There, Gandalf and a company composed of an elf, a dwarf, and two men join them on their mission to destroy the ring by throwing it into Mount Doom. Along the way, the company visits many important places in Middle-Earth including Lothlórien, Rohan, and Gondor. They also meet new allies and find that some of their old allies are less friendly than they had hoped.
For many readers, The Lord of the Rings is the last stop on their literary journey through Middle-Earth. It is an exciting book full of adventure and it is told in an somewhat older style than how fiction books are written today. That fact may bore some people, but others may find it exciting or a fond memory of earlier times. But Tolkien’s universe is much larger than just these two books and there are two different paths that readers may take to explore it.
The Easy Way
The easier path is to read just one more book: The Tale of the Children of Hurin. This is a story set in the First Age of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has done an excellent job consolidating numerous drafts that his father had written and turning them into a single coherent story. It must be warned, though, that this book is a tragedy in a very Greek way. Everything good that happens in the story ends up leading to more sadness. But Tolkien was an inspired author and this book really shows some of his range. Oh, it also has dragons, dwarves, elves, and heaps of scandal. It does not really connect to the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, though, so don’t expect Gandalf to suddenly show up.
There are two other small books that people following the easier path may also be interested in, although they are in no way necessary reading. The first is The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which is a collection of poems focussed on one of the characters from The Lord of the Rings. The second is Bilbo’s Last Song, which is an extended version of the poem that Bilbo recites at the end of The Lord of the Rings accompanied with beautiful illustrations. Hardcore fans may also be interested in The Road Goes Ever On and Poems and Songs of Middle-Earth, two audio collections of songs adapted from poems found throughout all of Tolkien’s works.
The Full Journey
For those who are a bit more adventurous in their reading, the hard path is also very rewarding. It begins with The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s long-format history of Middle-Earth. This book is divided into five parts parts including the stories of Creation, the mythology of Middle-Earth, the histories of the First Age and the Second Age, and a summary of the Third Age, which overlaps somewhat with events depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Reading The Silmarillion is challenging and often feels more like reading the Biblical book of Genesis rather than a fantasy book. But for those truly interested in the lore of Middle-Earth and fully understanding most of the references in The Lord of the Rings, this book cannot be ignored.
The Silmarillion, unlike the previous books discussed thus far, focuses on the history of the high elves—people like Galadriel and Elrond from The Lord of the Rings—and why the elves have mostly disappeared from Middle-Earth by the time of The Lord of the Rings. It explores cosmic battles between demigods, civil wars between elves, tales of tragedy and peril by mortal humans, and the apocalyptic end of the First Age. But it also tells the story of Númenor, a special island created for the humans who helped the elves in the First Age, and how the people of Númenor fell into evil and lost almost everything. It concludes with a recounting of the entire Third Age, specifically the role that the survivors of Númenor played in Gondor and Arnor, two kingdoms they created in the west of Middle-Earth. The events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings prove much more important because of the added context The Silmarillion provides.
Last but not least — and this is really designed only for the most die-hard fans — are the Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth. This basically constitutes Tolkien's ‘deleted scenes’. Some of the stories are simply alternative versions of stories that he has told elsewhere, but most are entirely new tales that take place in the time of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. This collection includes some very fun stories, such as ‘Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife’ and ‘Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan’. But of special interest to fans of The Lord of the Rings are two of the final entries in the book, ‘The Istari’ (the Wizards) and ‘The Palantíri’ (the seeing stones).
Together, these books constitute the entirety of the books that take place within the world of Middle-Earth. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote many other books outside the series and his son, Christopher Tolkien, also compiled his father's notes related to Middle-Earth in a twelve-book series entitled The History of Middle-Earth. But both of these are reading guides for another day.