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 with 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.
Gandalf tricks Bilbo Baggins into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils Thrór’s map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serves as the expedition’s “burglar”. The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo, indignant, joins despite himself.
The group travels into the wild, where Gandalf saves the company from trolls and leads them to Rivendell, where Elrond reveals more secrets from the map. When they attempt to cross the Misty Mountains they are caught by goblins and driven deep underground. Although Gandalf rescues them, Bilbo gets separated from the others as they flee the goblins.
Lost in the goblin tunnels, he stumbles across a mysterious ring and then encounters Gollum, who engages him in a game of riddles. As a reward for solving all riddles, Gollum will show him the path out of the tunnels, but if Bilbo fails, his life will be forfeit. With the help of the ring, which confers invisibility, Bilbo escapes and rejoins the dwarves, improving his reputation with them. The goblins and Wargs give chase, but the company is saved by eagles before resting in the house of Beorn.
The company enters the black forest of Mirkwood without Gandalf. In Mirkwood, Bilbo first saves the dwarves from giant spiders and then from the dungeons of the Wood-elves. Nearing the Lonely Mountain, the travelers are welcomed by the human inhabitants of Lake-town, who hope the dwarves will fulfill prophecies of Smaug’s demise.
The expedition travels to the Lonely Mountain and finds the secret door; Bilbo scouts the dragon’s lair, stealing a great cup and espying a gap in Smaug’s armor. The enraged dragon, deducing that Lake-town has aided the intruder, sets out to destroy the town. A thrush had overheard Bilbo’s report of Smaug’s vulnerability and reports it to Lake-town defender Bard. Bard’s arrow finds the hollow spot and slays the dragon.
When the dwarves take possession of the mountain, Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, an heirloom of Thorin’s family, and hides it away. The Wood-elves and Lake-men besiege the mountain and request compensation for their aid, reparations for Lake-town’s destruction, and settlement of old claims on the treasure. Thorin refuses and, having summoned his kin from the Iron Hills, reinforces his position. Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone to head off a war, but Thorin is only enraged at the betrayal. He banishes Bilbo, and the battle seems inevitable.
Gandalf reappears to warn all of an approaching army of goblins and Wargs. The dwarves, men, and elves band together, but only with the timely arrival of the eagles and Beorn do they win the climactic Battle of Five Armies. Thorin is fatally wounded and reconciles with Bilbo before he dies.
Bilbo accepts only a small portion of his share of the treasure, having no want or need for more, but still returns home a very wealthy hobbit roughly a year and a month after he first left.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is the natural sequel of The Hobbit and completes the story. However, it has many allusions to the greater world and 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.
The Fellowship of the Ring
The narrative follows on from The Hobbit, in which the hobbit Bilbo Baggins finds the Ring, which had been in the possession of the creature Gollum. The story begins in the Shire, where Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring from Bilbo, his cousin[c] and guardian.
Neither hobbit is aware of the Ring’s nature, but Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and an old friend of Bilbo, suspects it to be the Ring lost by Sauron, the Dark Lord, long ago. Seventeen years later, after Gandalf confirms this is true, he tells Frodo the history of the Ring and counsels him to take it away from the Shire.
Frodo sets out, accompanied by his gardener, servant, and friend, Samwise “Sam” Gamgee, and two cousins, Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck and Peregrin “Pippin” Took. They are nearly caught by the Nazgûl but shake off their pursuers by cutting through the Old Forest. There they are aided by Tom Bombadil, a strange and merry fellow who lives with his wife Goldberry in the forest.
The hobbits reach the town of Bree, where they encounter a Ranger named Strider, whom Gandalf had mentioned in a letter. Strider persuades the hobbits to take him on as their guide and protector. Together, they leave Bree after another close escape from the Nazgûl.
On the hill of Weathertop, they are again attacked by the Nazgûl, who wound Frodo with a cursed blade. Strider fights them off and leads the hobbits towards the Elven refuge of Rivendell. Frodo falls deathly ill from the wound. The Nazgûl nearly capture him at the Ford of Bruinen, but floodwaters summoned by Elrond, master of Rivendell, rise up and overwhelm them.
Frodo recovers in Rivendell under Elrond’s care. The Council of Elrond discusses the history of Sauron and the Ring. Strider is revealed to be Aragorn, Isildur’s heir. Gandalf reports that the chief wizard Saruman has betrayed them and is now working to become a power in his own right.
The Council decides that the Ring must be destroyed, but that can only be done by sending it to the fire of Mount Doom in Mordor, where it was forged. Frodo takes this task upon himself. Elrond, with the advice of Gandalf, chooses companions for him. The Company of the Ring are nine in number: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and the Man Boromir, son of Denethor, the Ruling Steward of the land of Gondor.
After a failed attempt to cross the Misty Mountains over the Redhorn Pass, the Company takes the perilous path through the Mines of Moria. They learn of the fate of Balin and his colony of Dwarves. After surviving an attack, they are pursued by Orcs and by a Balrog, an ancient fire demon. Gandalf faces the Balrog, and both of them fall into the abyss. The others escape and find refuge in the Elven forest of Lothlórien, where they are counseled by its rulers, Galadriel and Celeborn.
With boats and gifts from Galadriel, the Company travel down the River Anduin to the hill of Amon Hen. There, Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo, but Frodo puts it on and disappears. Frodo chooses to go alone to Mordor, but Sam guesses what he intends and goes with him.
The Two Towers
Orcs sent by Saruman and Sauron kill Boromir and capture Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas debate which pair of hobbits to follow. They decide to pursue the Orcs taking Merry and Pippin to Saruman. In the kingdom of Rohan, the Orcs are slain by a company of Rohirrim.
Merry and Pippin escape into Fangorn Forest, where they are befriended by Treebeard, the oldest of the tree-like Ents. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas track the hobbits to Fangorn. There they unexpectedly meet Gandalf.
Gandalf explains that he slew the Balrog. Darkness took him, but he was sent back to Middle-earth to complete his mission. He is clothed in white and is now Gandalf the White, for he has taken Saruman’s place as the chief of the wizards. Gandalf assures his friends that Merry and Pippin are safe.
Together they ride to Edoras, the capital of Rohan. Gandalf frees Théoden, King of Rohan, from the influence of Saruman’s spy Gríma Wormtongue. Théoden musters his fighting strength and rides with his men to the ancient fortress of Helm’s Deep, while Gandalf departs to seek help from Treebeard.
Meanwhile, the Ents, roused by Merry and Pippin from their peaceful ways, attack Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold, and trap the wizard in the tower of Orthanc. Gandalf convinces Treebeard to send an army of Huorns to Théoden’s aid.
Gandalf brings an army of Rohirrim to Helm’s Deep, and they defeat the Orcs, who flee into the forest of Huorns, never to be seen again. Gandalf offers Saruman a chance to turn away from evil. When Saruman refuses to listen, Gandalf strips him of his rank and most of his powers.
After Saruman crawls back to his prison, Wormtongue drops a sphere to try to kill Gandalf. Pippin picks it up. It is revealed to be a palantír, a seeing-stone that Saruman used to speak with Sauron and through which Saruman was ensnared. Pippin is seen by Sauron. Gandalf rides for Minas Tirith, the chief city of Gondor, taking Pippin with him.
Frodo and Sam capture Gollum, who has followed them from Moria. They force him to guide them to Mordor. They find that the Black Gate of Mordor is too well guarded, so instead, they travel to a secret way Gollum knows.
On the way, they encounter Faramir, who, unlike his brother Boromir, resists the temptation to seize the Ring. Gollum – who is torn between his loyalty to Frodo and his desire for the Ring – betrays Frodo by leading him to the great spider Shelob in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol.
Frodo falls to Shelob’s sting. But with the help of Galadriel’s gifts, Sam fights off the spider. Believing Frodo to be dead, Sam takes the Ring to continue the quest alone. Orcs find Frodo; Sam overhears them and learns that Frodo is still alive.
The Return of the King
Sauron sends a great army against Gondor. Gandalf arrives at Minas Tirith to warn Denethor of the attack, while Théoden musters the Rohirrim to ride to Gondor’s aid. Minas Tirith is besieged. Denethor is deceived by Sauron and falls into despair. He burns himself alive on a pyre, nearly taking his son Faramir with him.
Aragorn, accompanied by Legolas, Gimli and the Rangers of the North, takes the Paths of the Dead to recruit the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who are bound by a curse which denies them rest until they fulfill their ancient forsworn oath to fight for the King of Gondor.
Following Aragorn, the Army of the Dead strikes terror into the Corsairs of Umbar invading southern Gondor. Aragorn defeats the Corsairs and uses their ships to transport the men of southern Gondor up the Anduin, reaching Minas Tirith just in time to turn the tide of battle. Théoden’s niece Éowyn, who joined the army in disguise, slays the Lord of the Nazgûl with help from Merry. Together, Gondor and Rohan defeat Sauron’s army in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, though at great cost. Théoden is killed, and Éowyn and Merry are wounded.
Meanwhile, Sam rescues Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. They set out across Mordor. Aragorn leads an army of men from Gondor and Rohan to march on the Black Gate to distract Sauron from his true danger. His army is vastly outnumbered by the great might of Sauron. Frodo and Sam reach the edge of the Cracks of Doom, but Frodo cannot resist the Ring any longer. He claims it for himself and puts it on his finger.
Gollum suddenly reappears. He struggles with Frodo and bites off Frodo’s finger with the Ring still on it. Celebrating wildly, Gollum loses his footing and falls into the fire, taking the Ring with him. When the Ring is destroyed, Sauron loses his power forever. All he created collapses, the Nazgûl perish, and his armies are thrown into such disarray that Aragorn’s forces emerge victorious.
Aragorn is crowned King of Arnor and Gondor, and weds Arwen, daughter of Elrond. The four hobbits make their way back to the Shire, only to find that it has been taken over by men directed by one “Sharkey” (whom they later discover to be Saruman). The hobbits raise a rebellion and liberate the Shire, though 19 hobbits are killed and 30 wounded. Frodo stops the hobbits from killing the wizard after Saruman attempts to stab Frodo, but Gríma turns on Saruman and kills him in front of Bag End, Frodo’s home. He is slain in turn by hobbit archers, and the War of the Ring comes to its true end on Frodo’s very doorstep.
Merry and Pippin are celebrated as heroes. Sam marries Rosie Cotton and uses his gifts from Galadriel to help heal the Shire. But Frodo is still wounded in body and spirit, having borne the Ring for so long. A few years later, in the company of Bilbo and Gandalf, Frodo sails from the Grey Havens west over the Sea to the Undying Lands to find peace.
In the appendices, Sam gives his daughter Elanor the Red Book of Westmarch, which contains the story of Bilbo’s adventures and the War of the Ring as witnessed by the hobbits. Sam is then said to have crossed west over the Sea himself, the last of the Ring-bearers.
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.
After the first dark lord Morgoth destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor that contained the Light of Valinor, it continues to live only in jewels. Morgoth soon got hold of these gems and thus began a heroic battle for their return. At the very end, these jewels are lost in fire and sea while one shines in the sky like a star.
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
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 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 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.