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How to read Tolkien, in my experience
I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and It’s not the first time friends ask me about how to read Tolkien books. I even discussed this on Twitter because of some misconceptions people have about some of his book. To make things clear, I decided to write this with my opinion on the topic.
Do not pick a book at random
Tolkien has a long list of published books, some of them he published in life, but most of them were published postmortem, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.
There are some books that Tolkien worked for many years to get to a state he felt comfortable publishing. He was very meticulous about his work. To him, everything must be taken very seriously. If it was not for his friends and publisher pushing him to publish, there was a good chance these books would never be published.
If you pick a book at random just because
a Tolkien fan someone said it’s a
great book, there’s again a good chance you’re going to get disappointed. That
happens because many of these books were released for people who already know
previous works and are looking for all the details Tolkien had in mind when
I never read Tolkien, which one should I pick?
This is the most common question I get, and my answer is always the same: Pick up “The Hobbit”.
The Hobbit is not the best book, I certainly prefer The Lord of the Rings, but there are many advantages in starting with The Hobbit:
- It was the first book created and published by Tolkien. He went through the book from start to finish.
- The story is not dense, but still shows a lot of interesting things about middle earth and everything.
- The book has an OK-ish size (~300 pages), so you will not be afraid of start reading it.
I would even recommend people to pick The audiobook, narrated by Andy Serkis (the actor who played Gollum in the movies), you can listen to a quick preview of him reading the book on YouTube, and it’s an amazing experience.
When you finish reading The Hobbit, I would certainly recommend The Lord of the Rings. The book is amazing, but is much denser than The Hobbit, so you have to be prepared for it. As you already read The Hobbit, you will be familiarized with Tolkien’s [very descriptive] writing style, so things tend to be a bit easier on this side, and you can enjoy the world being built in your mind.
I already read The Hobbit and LotR! What’s next?
I would recommend The Silmarillion as the next one to pick. I just want to say a few things before just recommending it, because I think it’s important for you to know.
Here is when you start to understand how interesting Tolkien’s work really is as a whole. When writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was not just writing stories, he was using his world, already drafted for many years but never finished, to create stories.
Tolkien was a linguist and loved to create languages. The reason why these stories exist is to make these languages make sense, because it’s hard to create/study languages without tieing them to people and their culture. He also wanted to create a legendarium for England, in the same way Norse and Icelandic have theirs.
The Silmarillion is a collection of stories written by Tolkien to create this whole legendarium. His son Christopher did a Herculean work to get all the context from everything his father wrote, and organize it in a chronological order with a narrative that makes sense, but you still feel it was not created as a single piece. I usually compare this to The Bible (please forgive me if you’re religious, I’m not anymore), because it has a narrative, but you can feel this is a collection of texts.
Now that you get what The Silmarillion is, you can read it in many ways. The way I recommend is to start with books that came out of it. One of them is The Children of Húrin. It feels complete as a story by itself, and you can skip the story about Turin Turambar when you finish this and start reading The Silmarillion.
In summary, start with The Children of Húrin, just to read the complete story before reading The Silmarillion.
I want to read everything about the middle earth!
If you already read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion (along with the books that came from it and are a bit more complete: The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, etc.), you will now enter a territory where things were not finished by Tolkien himself, so it’s mostly his son publishing stuff and giving context.
A good example of that is Unfinished Tales which, as the name suggests, is a collection of interesting stories about middle earth that Tolkien started writing but did not finish. Christopher Tolkien collected all of these stories and gave context to everything that was not finished, considering everything his father wrote. If you want to know everything, this is the next step.
There’s also The History of the Middle Earth, which is the definitive book to read if you want to know everything. It’s a collection of books containing more than 5000 pages about everything Christopher Tolkien was able to collect about middle earth.
This one I was not able to finish yet, but I have the complete collection here 🙂
There is no more about middle earth to read, but I want more about Tolkien!
The first one to recommend here is his biography. It’s quite interesting to see how Tolkien was just a professor living an ordinary life in a small city of England and still was an amazing person.
Tolkien was a professor in Oxford and was very dedicated to languages, especially the old English. You can find many books and essays about his thoughts on languages and fairy tales. There’s one book called Tree and Leaf, containing a small story named Leaf by Niggle and also his essay On Fairy-Stories, which is quite interesting.
Other than Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien some other Fantasy stories, usually to read to his sons. I quite enjoy reading them and plan to read to my children as well.
- Roverandom: Is a story about a dog who have bitten the wizard’s trousers and was transformed into a toy. He needs to go through some adventures to return to normal. Tolkien wrote it as a compensation for his son, when he lost his small toy.
- Farmer Giles of Ham: Is a cool story about a farmer that needs to slay a dragon. It’s definitely fun. Tolkien, again, wrote this for his children.
There’s also the famous stories in Tolkien’s words. I read The Fall of Arthur, The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, The Story of Kullervo, and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. You will find the references to Tolkien’s stories in each one of these, but I would just recommend them if you’re really into Tolkien’s works and want to see the references and stories that inspired him.
There’s (of course) some other things to check if you’re reading the books (like the appendix! Don’t skip them!). When I read them (not listened to, at the time), I decided to read the books listening to the soundtracks from the movies, it was a great experience. 🙂
I also recommend you to check the The Lord of the Rings Project website. It tries to map everything from Tolkien’s works into a single place. You can see the path that characters took in the map, what is the family tree of almost everyone, etc. I really recommend it as reference material.
That’s it! Hope it’s helpful to people as much as it was fun to write this! 🙂