There are a few ways you could read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, and we are bringing you all of them in this article. We will tell you their differences, and it is up to you to decide in which order would you like to go through Middle-earth.
New Tolkien fans are usually puzzled by the complexity of the works and the best order in which to read the works. The most famous works take place late in the legendarium’s history, with hints to the backstory. The stories that comprise the background are relatively complex and have no obvious links to the most famous works. Furthermore, the stories-chapters-essays overlap each other or take place simultaneously, differing only in the extensiveness of the details.
Hardcore fans read the works more than once. For example one can read The Lord of the Rings first, then The Hobbit, and sometime later The Lord of the Rings again, in light of the backstory seen in The Hobbit.
There can be various approaches:
- Tolkien’s Middle-earth publication history
- Tolkien’s Middle-earth tough chronological order
- Tolkien’s Middle-earth exact chronological order
Tolkien’s Middle-earth publication history
This can be one of the most famous approaches.
People can start with The Hobbit, as an easy and lighthearted fantasy story, which Tolkien wrote first, without having much backstory and historical details in mind.
The Hobbit is J. R. R. Tolkien’s first book conceived as a fantasy novel for children and adults. It was first published on September 21, 1937. Although conceived as a novel for children, it has also gained popularity among adults. He called the story “There and Back Again” and follows the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his companions. As the story gained great popularity, the audience sought more, and the book The Lord of the Rings was released.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King)
The Lord of the Rings is the natural sequel to The Hobbit and completes the story. However, it has many allusions to the greater world and the ancient history of Arda.
The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy novel written by English academic and philologist J. R. R. Tolkien. The story began as a continuation of Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit, but has evolved into a much larger and more complex story. It was written in stages between 1937 and 1949, and much of it originated during World War II. Although it was planned to publish the novel in a single volume, it was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955 and was usually later published like that as well. Since its first publication, it has been reprinted many times and translated into many languages, becoming one of the most popular and influential works of 20th-century literature.
Published after Tolkien’s death, it provides the cosmogony and earlier stories of Arda. It can give the reader insight into the world they already know. The Silmarillion is a collection of stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. The collection was edited and published after his death. This work was done by his son Christopher R. Tolkien with the help of fiction writer Guy Gabriel Kay.
The book describes the events from the creation of the Arda to the events of the Lord of the Rings. The title of the book really only fits the middle section, Quenta Silmarillion. It is the story of three gems, Silmaril, made by Feänor, the most gifted of all elves.
Unfinished Tales / The Children of Húrin / Beren and Lúthien / The Fall of Gondolin
These books provide additional and extensive details about several aspects of the greater History of Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth chronological reading order
A less common approach is to read the saga in chronologically accurate order.
- The Silmarillion
The Silmarillion can be a complex and tedious reading for someone not already acquainted with Tolkien, however, it describes the beginnings of his world.
- The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin
These books give an extended version of the Great Tales of the Elder Days, featured as a part of the Silmarillion
- Unfinished Tales
Parts of this book give insight about Númenor, the Second Age (mentioned in the Silmarillion), and the early Third Age, with elements that will play their role in the Lord of the Rings.
- The Hobbit
Although directly unrelated to The Silmarillion, it is the next big story.
- The Lord of the Rings
The conclusion of the story of the Hobbit as well as things mentioned in the Silmarillion (like Sauron and the Line of Númenorean Kings).
Tolkien’s Middle-earth exact chronological order
Of the Beginning of Days
Of Aulë and Yavanna
Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor
Of Thingol and Melian
Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië
Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor
Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor
Of the Darkening of Valinor
Of the Flight of the Noldor
Of the Sindar
Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor
Of the Return of the Noldor
Of Beleriand and its Realms
Of the Noldor in Beleriand
Of the Coming of Men into the West
Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin
Of Beren and Lúthien Lay of Leithian
Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad
Of Túrin Turambar The Children of Húrin
Of the Ruin of Doriath
Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin
Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath
Akallabêth Aldarion and Erendis
Some people believe that publication order is the best way, you will experience the reading experience that helped to shape Middle-earth. Although Tolkien left many manuscripts that later became successful books, his central piece is The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a preamble and everything that follows are great efforts to close the circle of his creations in a consistent way.
Also, there is this recommendation and explanation from scifi.stackexchange user ‘Sean McMillan’. He recommends this order:
- The Hobbit
- The Lord of the Rings (stop here)
- The Silmarillion (stop here)
- The Children of Húrin
- Beren and Lúthien
- The Fall of Gondolin (stop here)
- Unfinished Tales
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (stop here)
- The History of Middle-earth
- The Annotated Hobbit (Douglas A. Anderson)
- The History of the Hobbit (John D. Rateliff)
The Lord of the Rings presumes that you have read The Hobbit. (You may very well be able to get away without reading it, but there are clear back-references.)
The Silmarillion does not presume that you have read The Lord of the Rings, but would probably not be interesting to someone who is not already invested in Middle-earth.
The Great Tales trilogy are stories from The Silmarillion in more detailed forms. They require an understanding of the First Age stories to appreciate. The Children of Húrin is a complete and detailed version of that story. Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin are collections of the varying versions of those tales, stitched together in a directly readable order. All three of these contain significant amounts of re-printed text from The Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth. These books are written to present that material in a smoother, more entertainment-oriented fashion, rather than the dryer and more academic tome of the other versions.
The Unfinished Tales are exactly what it says on the tin. They contain some of Christopher Tolkien’s notes about the source of the text but are mostly readable as stories. Familiarity with The Silmarillion is essential here.
The Letters of Tolkien is a very interesting read, and could really be read almost anywhere in the series. It is not, of course, a story.
He says you should not read The History of Middle-earth unless you are totally fanatic. It is not a series of stories, but an extended discussion of the writing of The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and some ancillary works. If you do read it, you will want to use two bookmarks, one for the primary text, and one for the copious footnotes that follow. Expect large chunks of any story you might get into reading to be removed, and replaced with a reference to The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, or an earlier volume of the series.
If you make it through The History of Middle-earth, you might as well read The History of the Hobbit. Christopher Tolkien basically skipped over The Hobbit in the main history. John D. Rateliff takes over as the chronicler, doing an excellent job of examining the evolution of The Hobbit, and how it tied into the emerging legendarium. It makes a lot of references to The History of Middle-earth, so familiarity with that is necessary. It does not go into detail on the 1965 revisions to the hobbit, so it’s recommended that you pair this with The Annotated Hobbit (Douglas A. Anderson) to get the full, blow-by-blow evolution of the text.
In the end, it all depends on what you would like. We have gotten in-depth in explaining various Middle-earth reading orders, and now you only need to choose which one will you use.