Welcome to Fan Service, a guide to engaging with gargantuan, lore-heavy franchises. In each volume, we’ll recommend a watch/read order to approach the given series with and dissect our argument for it. Today: Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories.
“Frodo lives.” I have a hazy memory of the phrase — maybe it was on an old pin, maybe one of my parents mentioned it — but it entered my life some time close to the first “Lord of the Rings” movie. It was hard for my kid brain to believe that the fantasy epic was ever an underground thing. Having fallen asleep both in a packed theater during “Fellowship of the Ring” and while my mom read the Tom Bombadil chapters aloud to me before bed, my younger self was convinced that I was the only person in the world who didn’t get the whole Middle-earth thing.
Of course, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies were among many early ’00s big-hitters that helped what was once deemed “nerd culture” completely eclipse everything else in the mainstream. The “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films came as what you could call the end of a decades-long process: The books percolated through pop-culture, inspiring and influencing close to every depiction of orcs, elves and what-have-you that followed. Bits and threads were scattered and weaved through 10-cent novels, role-playing games and ’80s kid-fantasy films. Like Bilbo, the ideas of Middle-earth went there and came back again, emerging on the silver screen owing as much to the source material as to the countless derivations, rip-offs and homages that preceded the films.
It’s fine that the movies aren’t super strict adaptations, but their cultural impact has had a curious effect on how people think of the books. For instance, many moviegoers might not know that “The Hobbit” was written before “The Lord of the Rings,” or that the former is way more of a children’s story on-the-page than the three movie adaptations would suggest. Without criticizing Jackson’s movies, it’s fair to say they’ve muddied the waters a bit.
If you want to read the books and immerse yourself deeply in the world that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien created, you’ll need to understand some things about the man, his family and about their shared vision of what fantasy literature should be. In this edition of Fan Service, the provided reading order has more to do with what happened to popular culture and the lore of Middle-earth after the books came out than it does with the stories within. Let’s go.
From Whimsy To World-Building
The Tolkien Society says that devising an order for Tolkien’s books is “almost impossible to be prescriptive about” — and while that’s true, it doesn’t stop them from trying. As we’ll get into, an in-fiction chronological order wouldn’t be a great way to ease oneself into the world Tolkien created, nor would reading the books in the order he wrote them (which doesn’t even match up with the order they were published in).
Similarly, a full completionist order would only be of real interest to someone who’s already a hardcore Tolkien fan looking to do a re-read or to fill in any gaps in their Middle-earth knowledge. Introducing someone to the books calls for a simplified list.
Here’s what order to read the books in:
- The Hobbit (1937)
- The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)
- The Two Towers (1954)
- The Return of the King (1955)
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
- The Silmarillion (1977)
- The Children of Húrin (2007)
- Any other Middle-earth stories attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien
The list starts with “The Hobbit” since it was published first and because its completion necessitated changes in the world Tolkien initially devised. Finishing “The Lord of The Rings” led to further changes which were eventually rolled into “The Silmarillion,” even though that book is largely concerned with events that precede “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” — and it was drafted before both novels were written. The decades-long development of “The Silmarillion” had some to do with the commercial viability of the text, but it’s also plainly more difficult to read without being introduced to many of its concepts by the far more digestible novels that were published before it. Let’s put it this way: You’ll know if you have the stomach for the heavy-duty world-building at work in “The Silmarillion” if you’re still hungry for more after finishing up the earlier books on the list.
Professor First, Author Second?
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The opening line to Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” begins simple enough, but it took the man years of developing languages and lore that would later be bound to Middle-earth, all while performing his duties as a professor at Oxford, in order to write it.
You might say this is a perfect encapsulation of how potent Tolkien’s world-building practice was — after having devoted himself to creating Middle-earth for some time already, his newer ideas for smaller, more focused stories could all be supported and informed by the myths, legends, languages and peoples he had already invested in.
Tolkien was actually building backwards from the world that surrounded him. Middle-earth is supposed to be our Earth a long time ago, and Tolkien started drafting his grand mythopoeic origin story of our world over two decades before “The Hobbit” was published. The tale of Bilbo Baggins started as a children’s story with little-to-no connections back to his established lore, but in finishing the story for publication Tolkien brought the story into the fold of his “dominant construction,” Middle-earth. Before making that canonical link and publishing “The Hobbit,” Tolkien essentially spent years making what would have amounted to little more than a curious passion pursuit of a humble Oxford professor had his publisher contacts rejected his manuscripts.
The secret sauce to Tolkien’s fiction, both in its literary and commercial appeals, is the depth and detail of the world he created. Getting to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” required that huge investment of time and energy on Tolkien’s part, but a reader doesn’t need to wade through all of that material to get the full impact. If you’ve ever been dissuaded from dipping a toe into Tolkien’s work because you thought you’d be expected to learn Elvish or know the entire history of the world before popping in on the residents of The Shire, worry not. Tolkien’s authorial genius and generosity are on full display in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” — it’s the later, posthumously published texts that prove to be a little harder to engage with.
Like Father, Like Son
If you only wanted to read one non-Middle-earth thing written by J.R.R. Tolkien to understand the man, you could read “The Father Christmas Letters.” Every year at Christmas time, Tolkien would write a letter to his young children in character as Santa Claus. He must have poured hours into the letters, each a combination of carefully crafted storytelling, extraordinary penmanship and colorful illustration. Seriously, take a peek at them — they demonstrate the same creativity and whimsy Tolkien brought to “The Hobbit” and “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” The letters also serve as an important example of the strong bonds of the Tolkien family.
Thousands of pages of Tolkien’s work have been published posthumously under the care of his family, most notably by his third son, Christopher. When J.R.R. passed away in 1973, Christopher Tolkien took on the task of editing a finished version of “The Silmarillion.” Despite having a number of manuscripts to source from, including one that his father was working on at the time of his death, there was no way for Christopher to merely splice together a definitive version of the text. Huge canonical contradictions presented themselves at every turn, largely because of the fact that the whole canon of Middle-earth changed as a result of finishing “The Lord of the Rings”:
It was inevitable that “The Lord of the Rings” must alter “The Silmarillion,” because having once been — as I have said — an enclosed myth, with a beginning and an end — it now has the vast extension. And in “The Lord of the Rings” there are major figures who come out of the Elder Days, out of the primeval world of “The Silmarillion”; chief among
So a great deal of writing back would have to be done. But my father being who he was, this writing back would never be a simple thing because he — when Galadriel enters out of “The Lord of the Rings” into the world of the Elves in Valinor new stories begin. Right up to the end of his life Galadriel’s position in the Elder Days was still being developed.
— Christopher Tolkien, “J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien“
While many fans were excited to receive a finished version of “The Silmarillion” in 1977, they did not spare it from criticism. Setting the differences in style from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” aside, readers accused Christopher Tolkien of having invented too much of the book from whole cloth — a subject that’s grown increasingly complex after more and more of J.R.R.’s own work has been published posthumously over the years with increasingly distant editorial intervention.
The effect of Christopher’s editorial decisions are a thorny issue on the basis of constructing a sensible canon alone, but they’re also demonstrative of issues that plague any fandom of significant size. With “The Silmarillion,” Christopher faced the formidable task of presenting a version of his own father’s unfinished work that both respected the source material and felt complete. If he had tried to release something like the 12-volume “History of Middle-earth” in the seventies, he would’ve been skewered every which way by fans of his father’s work and by a literary community that at the time was far less interested in legitimizing serious study of Tolkien’s work.
In short, Christopher Tolkien was stuck picking between a number of unpleasant choices. He could present a version of “The Silmarillion” he personally deemed printable but that would never live up to expectations set by fans; hide the contents of his father’s brilliant-yet-incomplete manuscripts from the world indefinitely; or release their unedited contents to an audience that, at the time, would be largely uninterested in wading through it all.
Christopher Tolkien made a tough choice that nonetheless resulted in more of his father’s brilliant work reaching the public eye. Fans are certainly allowed their opinions about the editorial impact on the posthumous works, but someone was inevitably going to call those shots — and it might as well be someone raised by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.
So What About The Movies, Games And So On?
You’re probably not going to see a film adaptation of “The Silmarillion” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Christopher Tolkien has his own concerns about how people have meddled with his father’s work; he hates the Peter Jackson movies:
“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
— Christopher Tolkien for Le Monde, via Birth.Movies.Death.
No offense to fans of the movies, but the three-part “Hobbit” adaptation sort of proved Christopher right. It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that they didn’t live up to the highs of Jackson’s earlier “Lord of the Rings” adaptations, and they certainly played it pretty loose in terms of sticking to canon (Hi Tauriel, nice to meet you for the first time ever).
This well-researched article by Robin Parrish at ScreenRant explains the motives behind the expansion of “The Hobbit” to three movies — “because money,” essentially — and why we’re not likely to see a feature film adaptation of “The Silmarillion” any time soon — “also because money,” basically. There was a legal battle between the Tolkien estate and Warner Brothers that ended not-too-long-ago, and unless Christopher changes his mind about the movie adaptations he’s not likely to work out another movie deal.
Things could change when Christopher passes away or cedes control of the estate to another family member, but consider this also: from the cosmic origin story to the grand swathes of Middle-earth history it contains, “The Silmarillion” is so expansive that it would be far harder to make a movie from than either “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings.” (The cool thing about books is that expanding the scope of something costs next to nothing — they’re just words on a page. Movies don’t have that luxury.) That wouldn’t necessarily stop a studio from trying (If I had to do it, I’d take one or more prominent tales from the book, jettison the rest and hold on to the title for brand recognition) but it’s another hurdle nonetheless.
On the other hand, video games based on Middle-earth are right up Warner Brothers’ alley. 2014’s “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” received rave reviews, won Game of the Year awards and surely made a pretty profit for Warner’s game division — hence the new sequel, “Middle-earth: Shadow of War.” Now, there are probably few people (especially with the last name “Tolkien”) who expect game tie-ins to adhere to the tone and canonical rigor demonstrated in the original books, but that hasn’t stopped the games’ creators from trying to place the stories at a sensible point in the timeline of Middle-earth. Both games are set between “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” and, as they’re Warner products, they draw heavily on the aesthetics of Peter Jackson’s films. Someone who’s well-acquainted with the films should feel right at home…
… Except there’s one especially egregious choice that’s attracted some attention and criticism ahead of the “Shadow of War” release. For the uninitiated, there’s this character named Shelob who appears in the “Lord of the Rings” — I’ll say she’s a big, evil spider and leave it at that. See if you can figure out who Shelob is in this trailer for “Shadow of War”:
If you said “the giant spider,” you’d only be half-right. Shelob is also, for some reason, depicted as a humanoid woman in a black cocktail dress.
Now, if you have to ask “why,” I’ll point you in the direction of “Bloodrayne” or any cringe-worthy game like it. Big-budget games objectify female characters all too often — see “because money” crossed with “unsubtle misogyny” — but in the case of a game set in Middle-earth, you’d think the creators would settle for a scantily-clad Elf or something. Instead, they’ve gone and sexed-up a giant man-eating spider. A representative for the game’s team has provided their canonical justification for how Shelob can take the form of a humanoid woman… for whatever that’s worth.
Whatever you personally think of decisions to increase the action or sex-appeal of Middle-earth, they do seem pretty set against J.R.R. Tolkien’s intentions. If you’re holding out hope for more big adaptations or additions to Middle-earth lore, you’re essentially waiting for the day that the interests of large media corporations and the Tolkien estate align — “because money again,” in other words.
So, barring any well-hidden manuscripts or seismic changes in the relationship between the Tolkien estate and enterprising film studios, the lore of Middle-earth is somewhat settled.
Even if the flow of stories set in Middle-earth comes to a complete halt, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” will continue to influence fantasy and pop-culture for decades to come. Fans in the ’60s saw the hobbits as hippies and wondered what was so good about the Longbottom Leaf the characters loaded their pipes with — in the ’00s, readers and moviegoers alike responded to the conflict between good and evil Tolkien depicted through the eyes of a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. Future generations will undoubtedly find new correspondences between Tolkien’s works and the world they live in. Frodo lived, lives now and will outlive us.