Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.
Although Tolkien is largely known for his works on Middle-Earth, he also wrote a number of other poems and stories, some of which laid the foundation for his Middle-Earth writings. Below you will find a brief introduction to some of his lesser-known works.
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell
Tolkien first translated the Old English poem Beowulf in the 1920s. It was posthumously edited and published by his son Christopher in 2014. The story tells of a great hero who fights the monster Grendel and a dragon, who is awakened by the theft of a cup. The poem inspired parts of The Hobbit.
The Fall of Arthur
This unfinished alliterative poem was published posthumously in 2013. It is based on the tales of King Arthur and deals with his final days.
Farmer Giles of Ham
This comedic story focuses on the titular Farmer Giles, who manages to outwit a dragon and become wealthy as a result. It is known for Tolkien’s philological jokes.
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun
This poem is written in the style of the Breton lay, narrative poems that treat topics of chivalry and love.
Leaf by Niggle
This short story follows the artist Niggle as he attempts to paint his masterpiece in a society that does not seem to value his artistry, but always makes other demands upon his time. Eventually, Niggle has to leave his work to go on a trip, but he ultimately finds fulfillment. Some read the story as an allegory of purgatory and heaven, while others believe Niggle represents Tolkien himself and his view of the creative process.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
Published posthumously in 2009, this volume contains two alliterative poems by Tolkien based on the Norse legends of Sigurd, as well as related texts and commentary by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who compiled and edited the work.
Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
Humphrey Carpenter presents a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters that shed light on his professional life, his creative inspiration and philosophy, his Catholic faith, and his thoughts on World War II, among other matters.
Letters from Father Christmas
Letters from Father Christmas is a whimsical collection that highlights the extraordinary magic of Tolkien’s imagination. The stories, written for Tolkien’s children and supposedly from Father Christmas himself, begin as comical accounts of the North Polar Bear almost ruining Christmas each year through his accidents. Over time, however, the stories become darker. Goblins burrow into Father Christmas’ workshop seeking presents, then ultimately meet the elves and the gnomes in battle. Tolkien’s skill at worldbuilding and his talent for telling an engrossing tale are evident even in the shortest epistles. The collection includes images of the decorated envelopes and letters (complete with North Pole stamp), as well as the pictures included by Father Christmas.
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
This is Tolkien’s influential 1936 lecture arguing that Beowulf should be read as literature rather than simply mined for historical information about Anglo-Saxon culture. Did you read Beowulf in school? Tolkien is probably the reason you learned it as a poem full of monsters and heroic deeds, one worth studying as art.
Published in 1982, this picture book follows the titular Mr. Bliss as he takes a ride in his first motor car. His adventures are supposedly based on Tolkien’s own terrible driving.
“On Fairy Stories”
Originally written for presentation at the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture and later published in 1947, this essay describes J. R. R. Tolkien’s views on what makes a fairy tale distinct from other literary forms and explains his artistic philosophy, arguing that fairy tales are unique in their ability to offer readers the consolation and joy of the happy ending–an effect he calls “eucatastophe”.
As punishment for offending a wizard, the young dog Rover finds himself turned into a toy. His quest to regain his former shape and return to the boy who loves him will take him to the moon and under the sea, but when he finds the wizard at last, it may be too late.
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages
This volume presents Tolkien’s 1931 lecture on constructed languages and the relation of mythology to language, along with editorial additions explaining some of the contemporary linguistic theory that informed Tolkien’s work on languages.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo
Tolkien’s translation of three Middle English poems by an anonymous poet. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” follows a knight of King Arthur’s court as he sets out on a journey to meet the challenge of a mysterious knight. “Pearl” is an elegy for the death of a child. And “Sir Orfeo” follows a king as he tries to rescue his wife from Fairy.
Smith of Wooton Major
This tale is not related to Middle-Earth, but reveals some of Tolkien’s thoughts about the nature of the land of Fairy. It tells the story of a blacksmith’s son who swallows a star, which allows him to roam Fairy unharmed, until the day comes when he must pass the star onto another.
The Story of Kullervo
This is Tolkien’s prose version of the Finnish hero Kullervo, who appears in the Kalavela. Kullervo was a model for Tolkien’s character Túrin Turambar.
6 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Tolkien’s Non-Middle-Earth Books”
Oh, the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun… It’s so weird and I love it. Not more than Roverandom, but it’s up there.
I love that you love it! I don’t know many people who have read The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun!
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I love letters to father christmas!! Also, curious about his other letters (for different reasons obviously)
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Haha, wouldn’t it be interesting if he’d written to his publisher in the guise of Father Christmas? I can see it now: “Well, this prospective author seems a bit odd, but the book is really good….”
I have not read much of Tolkien’s fiction writing outside of Middle-Earth but I would really like to read Leaf by Niggle and am kind of annoyed that it isn’t included in any of the Tolkien related books I already own, haha.
Oh no! Clearly publishers need to start including Leaf by Niggle in more books! 😀
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