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Approaching J.R.R. Tolkien

One of the most common questions I encounter from readers approaching J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings is “Where do I start?” The list of books “written by” J.R.R. Tolkien can be overwhelming and confusing.

Most readers are familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but locate the Tolkien section at your local bookstore and you’ll likely find a dozen or more title staring back at you. What’s more, many of those will proclaim themselves as “prequels” to The Lord of the Rings.

Ironically, Tolkien only published four books on Middle-earth (his fictional world) during his lifetime - The Hobbit and the three-volume Lord of the Rings series.

The two major posthumous publications are The Silmarillion and the recently published The Children of Hurin. So where should you start? With the “prequels”? The Lord of the Rings? The Hobbit?

Here are my simple ordering suggestions for reading Tolkien’s works:

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings (three volumes)
  • The Silmarillion
  • The Children of Hurin

While the events chronicled in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may occur thousands of years after many of the tales in The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, these tales stand on their own, without the background necessary for the latter two pieces.

The time to tackle The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin is after reading The Lord of the Rings, and reaching an understanding of the basic heroic structure of Tolkien’s created world.

While browsing Tolkien’s books, you may also come across a number of other titles not listed above - for example The Book of Lost Tales, The Return of the Shadow, Morgoth’s Ring (and many others).

These books are collections of Tolkien’s unfinished and abandoned writings on Middle-earth, generally of interest only to those who have read his core writings and are interested in the development and writing process of Tolkien’s “mythology”. They are fascinating snapshots of the creative process at work, but would likely be confusing and nearly unreadable to someone unfamiliar with his earlier works.

For more in-depth information on J.R.R. Tolkien's life and writings, visit the author's website at http://www.tolkien-online.com

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