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I've already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which I assume would be the best start in any case. I also got about halfway through The Silmarillion several years ago and am quite familiar with the legendarium as a whole, but for the sake of argument let's assume I'm starting from scratch.

What is the best order for a budding scholar of Middle-earth to read Tolkien's books? Or does it even matter once you've covered the core novels? Chronological order clearly isn't the most logical approach here, and even publication date isn't necessarily best.

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Silmarillion
  • The Children of Hurin
  • The History of Middle-earth
  • Unfinished Tales
  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Anything else

Note: After asking this question I found this excellent reference on Reddit. It covers even more material and in more detail than my original question or any answers here.

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migrated from literature.stackexchange.com Apr 26 '12 at 21:44

This question came from our site for literary enthusiasts and those passionate about the written word.

    
"Should" and "best" indicate opinion-based questions with primarily opinion-based answers. Please clarify whether you're looking for the most chronological, published order, or the order in which information is revealed (i.e. reading LoTR before the Hobbit is ill advised because LoTR assumes that the reader is familiar with the Ring's origin). –  Matt Jan 16 at 18:11
    
It is enough just to read them. Do not be overly concerned about finding 'a reading order' You would be ill advised to take Tolkien's Writings on Middle Earth so seriously that you worry about such things. Read for yourself. when YOU want, How YOU want, IF YOU WANT, & At YOUR own speed. –  Nathaniel Smith Apr 8 at 14:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

I believe publication order is the best way, you will experince the reading experience that helped to shape Middle Earth. Although Tolkien left many manuscripts that later became successful books, his central piece is LOTR. The Hobbit is a preamble and everything that follows are great efforts to close the circle of his creations in a consistent way.

I read the LOTR first, and got bored easily with The Hobbit, I loved The Silmarillion but I had to dig through The History of Middle-earth to find pearls that somehow were not included (like the Battle of Gondolin and the death of Glorfindel).

Follow what Tolkien wanted you to know, then discover what he didn't have time to publish and when you are done with that start learning that Middle Earth is the result of Tolkien's brilliance and many revisions and rewrites... and that Aragorn once was a Hobbit and Treebeard was evil :)

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I would recommend this order:

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings

    (stop here)

  • The Silmarillion

  • The Children of Húrin

    (stop here)

  • Unfinished Tales

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

    (stop here)

  • The History of Middle-earth

The Lord of the Rings presumes that you have read The Hobbit. (You may very well be able to get away without reading it, but there are clear back-references.)

The Silmarillion does not presume that you have read The Lord of the Rings, but would probably not be interesting to someone who is not already invested in Middle-earth. The Children of Húrin is a much more fleshed-out telling of a series of events from The Silmarillion, and requires an understanding of the First Age stories to appreciate.

The Unfinished Tales are exactly what it says on the tin. They contain some of Christopher Tolkien's notes about the source of the text, but are mostly readable as stories. Familiarity with The Silmarillion is essential here.

The Letters of Tolkien is a very interesting read, and could really be read almost anywhere in series. It is not, of course, a story.

You should not read The History of Middle-earth unless you are totally fanatic. It is not a series of stories, but an extended discussion of the writing of The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and some ancillary works. If you do read it, you will want to use two bookmarks, one for the primary text, and one for the copious footnotes that follow. Expect large chunks of any story you might get into reading to be removed, and replaced with a reference to The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, or an earlier volume of the series. Also, the last four books are only available in the original hardback.

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Shouldn't I read The Children of Hurin after Silmarilion after that the Hobit and LOTR? To me it makes sense to start from the begining? –  user13394 Mar 27 '13 at 12:59
1  
I really like this answer. The "stop here" points are great for identifying places where - if you've already gotten what you want from the books - you can just quit reading safe in the knowledge that you're not going miss anything that's important to you. I read Hobbit/Silm/LotR by the way, but I wouldn't recommend that to anyone! –  Darth Satan Mar 27 '13 at 23:41
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One hint for if you want to go on to the Silmarillion and Histories is if you read and really liked the Appendices in LOTR. If you skipped them, or were bored by them, you won't like the rest almost for sure. –  Oldcat Nov 2 '13 at 0:11

The Tolkien Society's recommendations can be found here:

The order is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, [The Adventures of Tom Bombadil if you wish to read the poems], The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (you can swap those two over if you want to read the longer Numenor tales before the whole history of The Silmarillion) and then the Histories.

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