– First things first …
Apart from asking myself this question to my own blog, this particular query crops up in every reader’s mind when beginning to tackle Tolkien’s works.
In order to understand and appreciate the author himself, the ideal starting point would obviously be any one of the popular Middle-earth books. Unfortunately, this might create another issue. I’ve seen countless posts on many dedicated forums that have asked this question many times – mostly, concerning the chronological way in which to read the books.
Strictly speaking, there is the possibility of compiling a sequential reading list – going through the entire narrative as it unfolds from beginning until the end. The “running order” of the stories of Middle-earth would occur as follows:
– ‘The Silmarillion
– The Children of Húrin
– The Hobbit
– The Lord of the Rings
However, (for the sake of keeping your mind sane), it would be wise to avoid this kind of order.
– ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – the essential introduction to Tolkien’s genius
The most commonly suggested starting point, and one I personally urge, would be ‘The Hobbit’. Being the easiest of all the other books, it provides for a great introduction to the world itself and the different races that inhabit it. Furthermore, you get acquainted with a few characters that find themselves within the other stories. After going through our first experience in Middle-earth, it’s time to “up the stakes” and dive into the richness of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – going deeper into the political and interpersonal issues of this fantasy world, it’s characters and journeys. It’s not an short and easy book to read (especially after having finished ‘The Hobbit’), however, once you get used to Tolkien’s style of writing, it is very easy to pick-up the rhythm of the story and proceed forward without any major issues.
I strongly suggest you go through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (and ‘The Hobbit’) a second or third time before tackling the mammoth task that comes next …
– ‘The Silmarillion’: a journey definitely worth taking …
Foolishly enough, as my first ever Tolkien reading experience I found myself buying a copy of ‘The Silmarillion’ and reading the opening lines of the first few pages. I felt overwhelmed by the archaic style and complexity of the writing employed. It felt impossible to keep track of all the characters, places and events – and half way through the book, I was wondering whether I’d be able to finish it. Still I plodded on …
Some six months (and loads of coffees) later, I was able to turn over the last page and close the book. Naturally, I lost track of 90% of the story, but at least I managed to understand the basic story-line and was satisfied at having completed it. Honestly, it felt like an achievement in itself at having read every one of the 448 pages in it.
So be you brave enough or not, dear reader, whether you decide to begin reading ‘The Silmarillion’ first or not, I must be quick to state that the first read will leave you confused and maybe not so keen on pursuing Tolkien; but don’t worry. Reading ‘The Silmarillion’ (or any other Tolkien book, for that matter), is like reading wine. It gets better and better with age – even more so if you re-read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ before deciding to tackle “the prequel” again.
As for myself, only later (after some 4 or 5 more readings) would I realize the beauty, sophistication and scope of the whole book within the Middle-earth legend. Once I had grasped the meanings, repercussions and overall narrative of the First Age, I was able to appreciate all the more the following books. After each reading, my admiration and interest in Tolkien’s writings increased exponentially
Although it was my first introduction to Middle-earth on page (for I had only seen ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy by then), I felt I had been “through the worst” and was able to tackle anything Tolkien.
So if you’re about to step into ‘The Silmarillion’, be prepared for a bit of confusion but don’t be afraid to use the tools provided in the book itself.
Each publication (no matter what shape, colour or size it is), will contain a map relevant to the story, an essential index of names (so you can keep track of who’s the father of who, etc) and a letter from Tolkien to Milton Waldman (at the beginning of the book).
Unless you’re really eager not to spoil yourself the outcomes of the stories (including ‘The Lord of the Rings’), I suggest you read this letter first. It is absolutely essential for anyone at that stage when they’re about to tackle ‘The Silmarillion’ to go through this very insightful and well-composed letter written by Tolkien. It provides a ‘very brief’ (considering the length of the three major novels – ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’, reaches almost 2000 pages), summary to all the events in Middle-earth, in a very clear and concise way. Again, the downside is that it subtly reveals the outcome of the story itself – up to you, but I strongly recommend you give it a quick read.
– ‘The Children of Húrin’: exploring the First Age even further …
Published as a stand-alone story in 2007, ‘The Children of Húrin’ deals specifically with the story-arc of Túrin Turambar and his exploits within Beleriand (the land West of Middle-earth). Anyone who has already read ‘The Silmarillion’ does not necessary need to go through this book since it essentially relates the same narrative- albeit in a much expanded form (after all, in ‘The Silmarillion’ it only occupies one chapter). If you’re really interested in further exploring this tragic hero’s story, it is strongly recommended that you go through the book itself. It is a beautiful read in itself.
– A note on appendices, maps and letters
As mentioned above, not only ‘The Silmarillion’, but all Middle-earth related books come with a series of maps, appendices, indexes and also forwards (and in the case of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ , a prologue). Most often written by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, they provide for a broader canvas to the story you are about to read. Unfortunately, many people tend to skip these “unnecessary” pages, preferring rather to dive straight into the story. Fair enough.
But for truly devoted fans who want to find out more about Middle-earth, they are simply a goldmine – a treasure trove as large as Thror’s was in Erebor. The wealth of information is indispensable to anyone who is looking for more history and explanations to particular aspects of the story. You can literally spend days, weeks (and even years) poring over all of the “extra” material provided in each of the books – and rest assured that you’ll constantly find something new every time you go through them (no matter how many times) … I still am!
– “The End of all Things”?
Once you’ve gone through all of the five books, you might ask: “Is that all?”; “Am I done here?” … not at all!
That’s just the beginning of course. There are a wealth of books that deal specifically on the creative processes undertaken by Tolkien to complete his works (mainly ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’). A work in 12 volumes, ‘The History of Middle-earth’ (complied by Christoper Tolkien, our favourite author’s son), provides a vast canvas of drafts, analysis and commentaries on the evolution of the tales of Middle-earth.
Of course then there are the stories in ‘Unfinished Tales’, a vast collection of the author’s own Letters, biographies and also Tolkien’s non-Middle-earth works … but that’s for another time!
(I apologize for another long post … won’t happen again, promise!)