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The answer to the question In what order should Tolkien's writings on Middle-earth be read? suggests that you should read The Silmarillion and only then go on to read the three "great tales", which are The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien or The Fall of Gondolin.

But is it really important to read The Silmarillion before you read The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and/or The Fall of Gondolin? How much will I miss if I skip The Silmarillion?

I'm thinking both about plot elements that I will not understand because I don't have the necessary background, as well as things that I will fail to appreciate because I don't understand their full impact...

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    When you get down to it, it's not necessary to read any of them. Jul 4, 2021 at 20:37
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    Related.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Jul 4, 2021 at 21:23
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    @TheLethalCarrot Not really related. The book The Children of Hurin is mentioned only in passing, in one of the answers, and the issue I raised is not addressed or even mentioned. The other two books are not mentioned at all.
    – Wade
    Jul 4, 2021 at 21:47
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    Whether it's necessary depends on the goal. If you only need the broad story, of course you can skip them all and read maybe one to three wiki pages instead. Why bother with the books, unless you find Tolkien's works themselves worth your time reading? I had to read them in the order they were published, so I don't know whether the background history will bother you if you skip Silm. But you can always read only the background history in Silm., skip the three corresponding Chapters and read the separate books.
    – Eugene
    Jul 5, 2021 at 2:39
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    I've been tempted before, to ask the question, "Has anyone actually read the entire Silmarillion"? :) I mean, I like it, but there are a couple of chapters in the middle, where my eyes really glaze over. "Then Hurindorthingol, the great-great-great-grandson of Hurin, went to war with Finwemandorthin, the great-great-nephew of Fingol, who lived in the the neighboring hut, on the claims that he had stolen his pig, and therefore he called his entire clan of the great-great-great-grandchildren of Hurin, and Durin, and Balin, to go to war".
    – John C
    Jul 5, 2021 at 14:42

3 Answers 3

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I'll be the contrarian here: For Children of Húrin, which stands on its own as a (short) book, I suggest reading it before reading The Silmarillion.

Yes, of course there is a lot of context you would be missing. But I believe that it makes the book more magical and exciting to read - full of actual mystery, rather than being, well, a novelization of some piece of history that you already know. Having read The Silmarillion, you know who is going to go where, meet whom, do what, and die when. The book is still nice, but it's nowhere as near as engaging an experience as reading it without all that background.

Then when you read The Silmarillion you'll have some throwback to the stories you read in the book.

For the other two... @ibid is probably right.

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  • To support this, it's noteworthy that most people think you should read LotR before Silm, even though there are a lot of references in it that you won't understand unless you read Silm first. I imagine that in both cases, most people will enjoy reading the novel first, then the history...
    – Wade
    Jul 6, 2021 at 18:50
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    Hm. When I first read the Silmarillion, I found Túrin's chapter the most frustrating part – not sure if it's more about its sheer length or the actual tragedy that is his story. In context it of course makes sense, and reading more of the Narn i Chîn Húrin afterwards did certainly provide interesting extra information. But would I have made it through if I hadn't read the Silmarillion before? I don't know. Anyway +1 for a valid opinion. Jul 6, 2021 at 20:45
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    @Wade not sure that's a valid comparison though. In the LotR, the references are quite optional for grasping the story. The First Age is ancient history then, and everything you need to know about the Third is in the book itself. But the ongoings in the First age really don't make much sense without the present (or still-impactful-past) context. The Noldor's epic conflict has an overwhelming influence on all the three stories, but in each of them by itself the Silmaril must seem a very quaint McGuffin Ex Machina. Jul 6, 2021 at 20:57
  • @leftaroundabout Good point. I haven't actually read CoH yet :)
    – Wade
    Jul 6, 2021 at 21:05
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    I agree with this, to be honest the Children of hurin was my first tolkien book period and it worked rather nicely. I personally went: Children of hurin -> Silmarillion -> The hobbit -> LOTR -> unfinished tales -> fall of gondolin -> beren and luthien.
    – NinoM
    Aug 31, 2021 at 7:17
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It is not strictly necessary, but it is recommended

The Silmarillion gives you an overview of the First Age. The Great Tales are stories that happen in the First Age, and they correspond to chapters in The Silmarillion.

The stories are not entirely self-contained, and a lot of reference is made to other events of Beleriand, which you'll be familiar with if you have read The Silmarillion first. That said, Christopher Tolkien attempts to compensate for this with a long preface and an glossary/index in the back.

It should also be noted that of the three Great Tales books, only The Children of Húrin is even a proper narrative story. The other two books are out-of-universe studies about their stories' respective external histories, showcasing a few different versions of the text to see how it evolved over time (similar to The History of Middle-earth). And as such I'd say that those other two books are significantly more difficult to read than The Silmarillion.

The essay "A Rings-Reader's Bridge to the Children of Húrin" by Steuard Jenson may be of interest to you; it is designed for people who want to jump straight from The Lord of the Rings to The Children of Húrin.

And as a final note, this answer also applies to the two First Age stories inside Unfinished Tales, which are both just examples of Tolkien's Great Tales writings, and which reappear in those books.

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    @Wade - FWIW, while I would generally recommend Silm first, I think CoH is also a valid option, and being a traditional narrative it is an easier read. I would recommend reading both the link and Christopher's introduction though.
    – ibid
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:07
  • You convinced me. What about Unfinished Tales? Do you think it makes sense to read it before The Silm? + Do you think it should be read before or after Beren & Luthien and/or The Fall of Gondolin?
    – Wade
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:16
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    @Wade - I recommend people skip the first two tales of UT if they're planning to eventually read CoH and FoG. If you skip those and you've read the LotR appendices, then you can go directly to UT.
    – ibid
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:28
  • Unfortunately the Bridge link is dead . . .
    – m4r35n357
    Jul 18, 2023 at 8:39
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    @m4r35n357 - the website is back up
    – ibid
    Jul 24, 2023 at 15:41
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It depends on what you are looking for. If you just want to read a stand-alone story, you can read these as such. However, there's quite a bombardment of names and places, which may be confusing and overwhelming. If you want to know all the background and reasons leading up to the events in the stories, then you probably want to read The Silmarillion for context.

Specifically, you'll want to know a bit about... :

  • The big bad guy, Morgoth.
  • The Silmarils and the Doom of Mandos/Noldor.
  • The rough geography of Beleriand (meaning the map in The Silmarillion).
  • The Kingdoms of Doriath and Gondolin. Who founded them, where & why.
  • Thingol and Melian.
  • Finrod Felagund.
  • The short story about Eöl and Aredhel is kind of essential background for The Fall of Gondolin, but also to learn where Túrin's infamous sword came from.

That being said, those reading The Silmarillion looking for fiction similar to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings typically don't enjoy the book at all until they reach these stories. I remember disliking The Silmarillion during my first read until I got to the Beren & Luthien and Túrin stories. I would probably have been better off reading just those to begin with, then reading The Silmarillion later.

A good mind set for reading The Silmarillion is either that you want a history lesson about this fictional world, or that you like to read epic mythology similar to Norse or Greek mythology (the Poetic Edda, the Iliad etc).

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  • A lot of people talking about this seem to avoid the simple "history book" explanation, perhaps they haven't really read it themselves ;). FWIW my advice to anyone who wants to read the Silmarillion but can't get into it is to start from the "Of the Rings of Power" chapter and work backwards, chapter-wise.
    – m4r35n357
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:16
  • @m4r35n357 The question here was "But is it really important to read The Silmarillion before you read The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and/or The Fall of Gondolin?" The Rings of Power have nothing to do with that.
    – Amarth
    Jul 21, 2023 at 9:00
  • I was commenting on your answer, not answering the message myself. You mentioned the problems some people have reading the S, and I added a suggestion.
    – m4r35n357
    Jul 21, 2023 at 11:44

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