What Order Should You Read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books In?

order of Tolkien's books

Introduction

As I’ve been reading Christopher Tolkien’s new releases of his father’s work over the past couple years, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the notion that the books are really for Tolkien fans and not so much for Tolkien newcomers.  Most recently, I wondered if The Fall of Gondolin would make sense to anyone who hadn’t read The Silmarillion or perhaps even The Children of Húrin.  And that led me to wonder how I would recommend newcomers to approach Tolkien’s work.

I know some people like to read authors’ works in chronological order, but that may not be the best approach with Tolkien.  Instead, I recommend mostly following publication order, which I explain below.

Star Divider

Major Books set in Middle-Earth

Hobbit Facsimile

1. The Hobbit

You could start with The Lord of the Rings and then go back to The Hobbit, and things would still make sense, but I recommend starting with The Hobbit because the events do take place right before The Lord of the Rings (ok, a few decades before) and provide some context for what certain things, characters, events. etc. are.  Just keep in mind that the writing style is very different from The Lord of the Rings, and you may find you like one book more than the other for this reason.

2. The Lord of the Rings

This is Tolkien’s major work and probably the reason someone is trying to read his books at all. So read it next!

3. The Silmarillion

If you want to go deeper into the lore of Middle-earth, you have to read The Silmarillion. Some of the stories are referenced in The Lord of the Rings, and reading more about them will help you understand the history of Middle-earth as a whole. It provides some context on who Sauron is, for instance, and where he came from. (And it’s a good story on its own. Just keep in mind that, once again, the writing style is going to be different from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.)

The Great Tales of Middle-earth

These three books are all elaborations of stories that are told in The Silmarillion, so read them next. The Children of Húrin is arguably the most approachable, since it’s a full narrative, while Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin take a different approach: Christopher Tolkien shares different drafts his father had of the stories and doesn’t try to pin down a streamlined “official” story.  However, in terms of chronology, you probably want to read Beren and Lúthien first here.

4. Beren and Lúthien
5. The Children of Húrin
6. The Fall of Gondolin

The History of Middle-earth

7. The 12-volume History of Middle-earth series edited by Christopher Tolkien

If you’re really into Tolkien at this point, consider reading this collection of various drafts of stories related to Middle-earth. As Wikipedia describes it: “It is not a ‘history of Middle-earth’ in the sense of being a chronicle of events in Middle-earth written from an in-universe perspective; it is instead an out-of-universe history of Tolkien’s creative process.”

You can also check out this very detailed timeline at the Lord of the Rings Wiki.  Or this general advice for reading Tolkien that Krysta and I previously shared in a guest post at Chasm of Books.

Tolkien’s Other Works

If you like Tolkien, at this point you may also want to read some of his works not set in Middle-earth.  The list is actually fairly extensive, encompassing children’s stories, translations of Old/Middle English texts, re-imaginings of medieval stories, nonfiction scholarly work, etc.  The order here you read this books doesn’t really matter; what’s most important is what interests you.  For a very complete bibliography, check out the Tolkien Library’s website.  However, here are some of my personal suggestions:

Children’s Stories

Fiction

Nonfiction

Translations

What order do you recommend reading Tolkien’s books in?

12 thoughts on “What Order Should You Read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books In?

  1. Eustacia says:

    I started with LOTR and then moved on to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. I agree that chronologically, it makes sense to read The Hobbit first, but I would probably recommend LOTR first for older readers. It’s kinda like Narnia for me – you could start with The Magician’s Nephew, but I would always recommend The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrode first.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I read The Hobbit first and didn’t really love it and had to be convinced that LotR had a different writing style before I moved on, so I definitely think some readers would do better reading LotR first.

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  2. jen_bookworm says:

    I’ve only read The Lord of the Rings (over and over again) and I’ve read The Hobbit once. I usually reread The Lord Of the Rings but it’s was a while until this year. I’ve kept the third one for November/December reading. I do want to read some of the other books too

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  3. k8neville says:

    I would add Unfinished Tales to this list. I love so many of the stories in them, unfinished though they are, especially Aldarion and Erendis, and all five stories of the Third Age. The History of Galadriel and Celeborn is interesting, but it’s the least finished and shows how much he was struggling with how to fit these two LOTR characters into the history of the First Age.

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  4. Beth Gould says:

    I’ll second Unfinished Tales. You could even read it before reading The Silmarillion. Some of the content overlaps with other books, though. Narn i Hin Hurin was later published (with some additions) in The Children of Hurin.

    The History of Middle-earth can be interesting if you want to know more about a particular subject, story, or character. Here’s a subject guide to the series:
    http://lintamande.tumblr.com/homeguide

    I think I’ve read about half the series, and I’d like to read a few more.

    I’m hoping to read _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo_ before the end of the year. I’m really curious, since I’ve read Sir Gawain in a different translation before but never read Tolkien’s.

    I’ve read The Hobbit twice, LotR 3 times and The Silmarillion 4 times.

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