J.R.R. Tolkien has proven to be one of the most influential writers of the last century. His crowning achievement, the book series “The Lord of the Rings,” has come to influence the very genre of fantasy. It seems inescapable for a successful work of literary fantasy to not bear some resemblance to the epic Tolkien novels.
Fans of famous works like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" have even come to notice the similarities, particularly in character themes. The 1954 trilogy has also played a role in recent pop-culture works of fantasy like the highly anticipated conclusion to the TV series, "Game of Thrones." Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" was made into three celebrated movies directed by Peter Jackson. The films won a total of 475 awards, making the series the most decorated in the cinematic history.
Tolkien receives a lot of recognition, but people still struggle to grasp the expanse of the universe that is Middle Earth. "The Lord of the Rings" is jam-packed with lore and history, especially in the books (versus the movies). Every song and poem is an allusion to the past when heroes of grandeur fought evil demons and gods. What I find marvelous about this universe is that Tolkien's world was created first.
The stories and tales came after the lore, cultures, languages, and social conventions of each race had already been decided. The breadth of history breathes life into the world that Tolkien has created--he was an absolute genius.
Want to read more of Tolkien's work, but don't know where to start? You've probably heard of "The Hobbit," since the book was turned into a three-part movie series released between 2012 and 2014.
Perhaps you have seen "The Silmaillion" or "The Children of Hurin" on a coffee table in your relative's house. How can you expect to smoothly integrate into the universe that Tolkien has laid out? I'll give you your itinerary. If you truly want to grasp the span of Middle Earth, I recommend you progress accordingly through J.R.R. Tolkein's novels.
1. "The Hobbit"
This book was originally written as a children's book, so its language is accessible and easy to consume. I would compare its reading level to that of "Harry Potter." This is the tale that acts as the prequel for the events of "The Lord of the Rings" since it features the main character, Bilbo Baggins' discovery of the One Ring. He later passes it on to Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings."
Aside from that, "The Hobbit" is a great stand-alone book that delves into the lore and geography of Middle Earth as Bilbo and his company travel east in search of treasure. There are dwarves, elves, orcs, and goblins--not to mention a dragon to top it all! This is as quintessential--in terms of high-fantasy tales--as you're going to get, folks.
1.5. Watch the Movies
This step is rather optional, but I find that it is a lot easier to read through a long and dense book for the first time if you've seen the movie(s). Luckily, "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies are quite enjoyable, so it's a win-win.
2. "The Lord of the Rings"
This is the beef of the tale with which you are likely familiar. It follows Frodo, a hobbit, as he and his friends set out to try to destroy an evil ring that the enemy seeks. The reason this trilogy comes second on the list is less because of chronology, but more because of its dense language. Every page is full of events and terms and it flows more like a textbook than a story.
Thus, it is more difficult to digest if this is your first encounter with Middle Earth. However, it is within "The Lord of the Rings" where you first glimpse the lore and tales of the past through songs and poems. It is a good ice-breaker for you if you want to expand your knowledge of Middle Earth. It's perfectly acceptable to stop here.
3. "The Silmarillion"
If you've made it this far in your itinerary, it is safe to say that you are serious about learning the ins and outs of Tolkien's universe. Feel free to imagine this book as the Bible of Middle Earth. "The Silmarillion" documents the creation of the Tolkien universe, how each race came to be and how one god became selfish and attempted to take over the world.
There are also little vignettes that expand upon certain events that contributed to the creation of Middle Earth. This book is a chore to read. If you finish it and wish to read on, I will be thoroughly impressed.
4. "The Children of Hurin" and/or "Beren and Luthien"
Congratulations! If you made it this far, you are probably an invested Middle-Earth fanatic. For that, you've earned my utmost respect. This is the last mandatory stop of your itinerary. These two books explore some of the celebrated stories in the lore of "The Lord of the Rings." References to these two volumes can be found in almost all of Tolkien's works, especially "Beren and Luthien." "The Children of Hurin" is a tragedy, and "Beren and Luthien" is an epic love story, so take your pick.
5. Supplemental Works
There are some holes in the lore that Tolkien has created. A lot of those holes are patched in works that exist as supplementary texts. These include:
"The History of Middle Earth"
"The Unfinished Tales"
"Bilbo's Last Song"
"The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien"
"The Adventures of Tom Bombadil"
"The Road Goes Ever On"
These supplemental texts have been lightly touched by even the most devoted Tolkien fans. In fact, the top 3% of self-proclaimed Tolkien lovers haven't ever even touched these books.
The journey of a Tolkien fan can prove to be long and arduous. Some of the chapters can drag on and some of the references can breeze right over your head. But there are no words for the joy that this universe can bring you. There is a beautiful sense of escapism that you can derive from J.R.R. Tolkien's expansive world. So, go out and enjoy this wonderful work of magic. I will be eagerly waiting to discuss the One Ring, Bilbo Baggins, or whatever Middle-Earth topic interests you. Happy reading (and watching)!