Contributor: Rick McGimpsey
After the release of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books the reputation for Tolkien’s legendarium as the definite fantasy epic has grown steadily. Much of my generation that first saw the films back in the early 2000’s have now grown into college-age adults deeply in love with Tolkien’s world and who have gone beyond the films by reading the professor’s body of work. Such wonderful books include The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-Earth (12 vols.), The Children of Húrin, and many of his other short stories, essays, and writings that expand on his life, work, and influences.
It was not long after experiencing Middle-Earth for the first time that I sought to unearth his sources in Beowulf, Norse Sagas, old dead languages, the lost art of narrative poetry, and of course the closer to home writings of William Morris, George MacDonald, and C. S. Lewis (who was a personal friend of Tolkien).
All of these things began for me when I first saw Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring back in 2005 when I was 13 years old. That was a decade ago and as I have grown my debt toward the films for setting me on my journey has not been underappreciated despite some more matured misgivings about the films (especially with the recent Hobbit trilogy) that have developed since then.
At any rate, I am somewhat still surprised to meet people who say they have always wanted to see the films or read the books and never got around to it. The films are now over ten years old and the books have been around before my parents were even born. Realising there are members of this generation who haven’t seen them I propose here to write an ordering of how to watch the films and read the books for newcomers who have a desire to begin with the films afresh and go beyond.
This list is by no means designed for casual newcomers who only want to get the gist of the stories. That being the case all that needs be done is watch the theatrical editions of the trilogy and no more needs be asked of them. However, for those who have aspirations to delve deeper and join the legion of fans who are knowledgeable of Tolkien’s I hope this list will perform adequately. Although I am not inclined to believe that viewing a film adaptation before reading the book is a good thing I acknowledge fairly that most newcomers are not used to the sort of material that Tolkien wrote. Fantasy is typically straight-forward and well-explained nowadays whereas Tolkien has written in a more archaic style full of obscure words, deep descriptions of history, languages, geography, fauna, and flora; and lots of references to an ancient past forgotten by all save for a few. In an attempt to be fair-minded to an audience who probably is not used to that sort of thing this list will begin with the films which serve as an admirable (albeit imperfect) cliff-notes version of the History of the War of the Ring and the events that preceded and followed it.
For the casual readers and film-viewers who wish to be casual no longer this list is humbly dedicated.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition)
- J. R. R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth (Appendices disc 1)
- J. R. R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth (Appendices disc 3)
- J. R. R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-Earth (Appendices disc 5)
- The Hobbit (book)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (book)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (book)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (book)
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (can be found in various publications most notably The Tolkien Reader and Tales from the Perilous Realm)
- Bilbo’s Last Song (children’s picture book)
- The Silmarillion
- The Children of Húrin (an expansion of Of Túrin Turambar from The Silmarillion. If the reader chooses they may simply substitute that story with this book as they read The Silmarillion.)
- J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (written by Humphrey Carpenter this is the official and definitive biography of the professor.)
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
- Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien
- J. R. R. T.: A Film Portrait of J. R. R. Tolkien (hard-to-find 1996 documentary, but worth the watch)
- Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth (all of the material in here is fragmentary and incoherent in composition, but it is all still canonical stuff shedding much light on Tolkien’s body of work. Among other things there is a fantastic piece on the history of the Wizards contained.)
- The Book of Lost Tales Part I (here the reader may get a veritable birds-eye view of the earliest composition of Tolkien’s mythology. The stories in here are not canonical and they serve as only a look at the earliest drafts available of the Professor’s stories. There is at the back a wonderful appendix which sheds tons of light on the etymological roots of many Elvish words.)
- The Book of Lost Tales Part II
- The Lays of Beleriand
- The Shaping of Middle-Earth
- The Lost Road and Other Writings (it is advisable to accompany the reading of this book with C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy; especially the first one, Out of the Silent Planet.)
- The Return of the Shadow (this and books 26-28 on this list are all compilations of the earliest drafts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)
- The Treason of Isengard
- The War of the Ring
- Sauron Defeated
- Morgoth’s Ring (in here and in the next book we see early drafts of the Silmarillion before reaching its final form in 1977)
- The War of the Jewels
- The Peoples of Middle-Earth (a history of the early drafts of the Appendices featured at the end of The Return of the King.)
- The History of the Hobbit (this unlike the other “early drafts with commentary” books above was compiled and edited by John D. Rateliff rather than Christopher Tolkien who did so for the twelve volumes above.)
- The Hobbit 1968 radio dramatisation. (I loved this as a child and is probably the best dramatic adaptation of the book to date.)
- The Hobbit (1977 Rankin and Bass cartoon. Now that you have delved into Tolkien’s world take some time to see what other attempts have been made to adapt his mythos in dramatic media.)
- The Lord of the Rings (1978 Ralph Bakshi animated film. An unfinished and disappointing work.)
- The Return of the King (1979 Rankin and Bass cartoon. This cartoon is horrible but merits watching at least once if you want to say you have seen everything Tolkien related.)
- The Lord of the Rings 1981 radio dramatisation (There are two other radio versions available; one from the 50’s and the other from the 70’s, but this is the most well-known and easiest to access.)
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (The first part of Peter Jackson’s disappointing Hobbit trilogy. These films can be skipped if the viewer likes, but if you wish to see everything that Jackson has done with the Middle-Earth saga you may end with these.)
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
This list should be more than adequate for any fan who wishes to only become and expert at Tolkien’s imaginary world and nothing more. However, if they are like me and view Tolkien as a remarkable man who wished to revive a love of old stories, myths, and tales I recommend some additional readings that will allow the reader to look further to Tolkien’s influences.
There is of course a huge wealth of things going back millennia that Tolkien owes a tremendous debt and I have no intention of going to deep into that in this post. My recommendation as a start is to read narrative epic poetry. This is of course long poems telling grand epic tales. For those who wish to graduate from Tolkien to additional things I say start with Beowulf, The Elder Edda, The Kalevala, The Faerie Queene, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Roman de la Rose, Paradise Lost, and of course Arthurian legends, Greek mythologies, and stories from the Norse sagas. William Morris has written some of the best books about the Norse myths one can ever hope to find.
I hope this little travel guide to the world of Tolkien will be helpful to the reader. Enjoy your stay.