Deciding how to tackle The Lord of the Rings books can be a bit confusing when you realize how much there is to Tolkien’s world. But do you have to read The Lord of the Rings books in order?
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King should be read in that order as they are not strictly a trilogy.
Rather Tolkien intended it to be a single story, but the publishers divided it into three parts.
The other books about Middle Earth, including ones not completed by Tolkien but by his son Christopher, can be read in chronological order or order of publication.
About The Lord Of The Rings & Middle Earth Books
The Lord of the Rings and other books about Middle Earth have had a profound impact on the genre of the fantasy novel.
The works by J.R.R. Tolkien are beloved by millions and have been a huge influence on many fantasy authors ever since their publication.
The depth, complexity, and expanse of the worlds that Tolkien created are what draw readers in and keep them exploring the characters, plots, and kingdoms of Middle Earth.
There are languages, timelines, and races that would keep a reader busy for years by delving into them in depth.
Such is the reach of these books that they have spawned board games, video games, movies, television series, music, stage, and audio adaptations.
Some people will read the books for the sheer enjoyment of an excellent story very well told while others will study them with all the intensity of a Ph.D. student.
These are the people who appreciated that Tolkien wasn’t just spinning a good yarn.
Instead, he created entire worlds, races, cultures, and histories. But it was his love of language from an early age and his work as a philologist that formed the true heart of Middle Earth.
He had learned several languages at school including Middle English and Old English.
The world of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth was made to provide a setting for the languages rather than the other way around.
The Lord Of The Rings Books In Order
The Lord of the Rings books and those of the Middle Earth world can be read in chronological order or in the order in which they were published.
These are not in the same order and there are a couple of reasons for that.
The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth and the History of Middle Earth were edited and published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher several years after the author’s death.
The Children of Hurin was published in 2007. Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin were published in 2018 and 2018 respectively. All were written by J.R.R. Tolkien but edited by Christopher Tolkien.
For the purposes of this article, the books will be presented in the order in which they were published.
The reasoning for this is that The Silmarillion is quite a tricky read and if someone were to be introduced to the books in this way they may very well give up.
On the other hand, The Hobbit is a wonderful book for anyone over the age of nine and is a captivating read that makes you want to move on to the next books.
The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who is happy to live out his life in the Shire without any kind of disturbance to his peaceful life.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Gandalf the wizard and a group of dwarves means that his life is going to be far from peaceful.
Enlisted against his better judgment as a burglar to help the dwarves retake their home, the Lonely Mountain, from the dragon Smaug Bilbo is tasked with recovering the Arkenstone.
This great jewel is the ‘heart of the mountain’ and sacred to the race of Dwarves as it was found in the roots of the Lonely Mountain. However, it sits somewhere in the pile of treasure that Smaug now sleeps upon.
Despite his reservations, Bilbo’s love for his own home convinces him to help the company of Dwarves retake theirs.
Although an initially reluctant participant he later proves to be both brave and loyal risking his life to save his friends.
This perilous journey and quest serve to awaken Bilbo’s desire for adventure and eventually leads him to his fateful encounter with a magical ring.
- A wonderful introduction to the world of Middle Earth
- This leaves the reader wanting to know more about the places and characters that the group encounters on their journey
The Fellowship of the Ring is the beginning of the tale of the One Ring found by Bilbo in a cave inhabited by the creature Gollum.
Having left the Shire to find another adventure, Bilbo’s precious Ring is now in his nephew Frodo’s hands.
Instructed by Gandalf the wizard, Frodo takes the Ring out of the Shire accompanied by his friend Samwise.
On the way, they pick up two more hobbits, Merry and Pippin who inadvertently fall into the quest with them.
It’s now that they encounter the Black Riders, servants of Sauron, the Dark Lord who is searching for the Ring of Power.
Reaching the arranged meeting point they realize that Gandalf is not there but attract the attention of a Ranger from the north known as Strider.
He leads the hobbits to Rivendell where the Elven lord Elrond summons a council to decide the fate of the Ring.
Soon they are joined by Gandalf, an elf called Legolas, a dwarf called Gimli, and a man called Boromir. They discover that Strider is actually named Aragorn.
This company of nine is the Fellowship of the Ring and is charged with taking the Ring to the fires of Mordor to destroy it.
The journey will take them through the territory of the enemy and put them in grave danger.
- Overly descriptive paragraphs of every scene the characters come upon can be tiresome
The Two Towers sees the Fellowship divided and saddened although Frodo and Samwise are unaware that Boromir fell at the hands of the Orcs trying to defend Merry and Pippin.
The two friends are journeying to Mordor to destroy the Ring but are being followed by the creature Gollum. He agrees to show them a secret way to Mordor.
Merry and Pippin are now in the hands of the Orcs who believe that one of them has the Ring of Power.
However, the two hobbits manage to escape into Fangorn Forest, where they meet giant tree herders called Ents.
Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are tracking the Orcs who took Merry and Pippin.
On their search, they encounter Gandalf who has returned as a white wizard. They ride to Edoras to enlist the help of King Theoden in the fight against Sauron and Saruman.
However, with the help of Grima Wormtongue, King Theoden is under a spell. Revived from his condition, Theoden learns that his son is dead and decides to take the people of Edoras to their fortress, the Hornburg.
Here they will face Sauron’s army who with Gandalf’s help are defeated and flee. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf ride to Saruman’s fortress Isengard and the tower of Orthanc.
Here they find the Palantir, a seeing stone that Pippin picks up. Sauron now thinks that Pippin has the One Ring so Gandalf takes him to Minas Tirith where they await the upcoming war.
- An action-packed story following on from the Fellowship of the Ring
- The Ents are a little tedious
The story of the Lord of the Rings concludes with the Return of the King. At this point, Frodo is increasingly under the malevolent influence of the One Ring as he nears Mordor.
Meanwhile, Gandalf has taken Pippin to Minas Tirith where the hobbit pledges to serve the Steward of Gondor, and Boromir’s father, Denethor as payment for Boromir’s sacrifice. The armies of Sauron besiege the city and breach its gates.
Aragorn takes the Path of the Dead to enlist the help of the Dead Men of Dunharrow. Agreeing to help in return for release from their oath they overcome the Corsairs attacking the south of Gondor.
On the battlefield, Theoden is struck down by the Lord of the Nazgul but together Gondor and Rohan prevail.
Frodo and Sam reach the slopes of Mount Doom only to encounter Gollum once again but after a struggle, he falls into the fire still clutching the Ring which is destroyed.
Sauron is defeated and his armies flee. Aragorn is crowned King and marries Arwen.
The hobbits return to the Shire only to find it overrun with men directed by Sharkey, who they discover is Saruman. Grima Wormtongue kills Saruman and is himself slain by hobbits.
Still bearing the scars of battle Frodo eventually sails to the Grey Havens with Gandalf and Bilbo in order to find peace.
- Rounds up the stories of all the major characters in the books
- The battles scenes are not depicted as well as some other aspects of the story
Tom Bombadil is a character encountered by Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. But the book The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is actually a collection of sixteen poems, three of which appear in The Lord of the Rings.
One of the poems, The Sea Bell, also called Frodo’s Dreme, was considered by W.H. Auden to be Tolkien’s finest poem.
It tells the story of a journey to a strange land beyond the sea and is very melancholic, written in the style of old Irish tales with Christian overtones.
The book also contains some information on the background of Middle Earth that is not found anywhere else such as the names of the seven rivers of Gondor.
Some added fictional background to the poems and links some of them to Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener.
Inspiration for the character Tom Bombadil is credited to a Dutch toy that was owned by one of Tolkien’s children.
The importance and origin of his role in The Lord of the Rings is disputed with most adaptations of the books omitting his character completely.
- The book features some background information on Middle Earth not otherwise available
- The character is an enigma and his role in the Lord of the Rings books is not clear
The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s legendarium or collection of legends for the world of Arda of which Middle Earth is a part.
Its origins go back to 1914 when Tolkien began his mythopoeic writings comprising poems, story sketches, and drawings of maps.
He drew inspiration from Greek mythology, Celtic tales, the Finnish epic Kalevala, and the Bible.
The Silmarillion covers the Second Age and the Third Age which is when the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set.
The work was authored by J.R.R. Tolkien but compiled and edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, and published after his father’s death.
It comprises five disparate works which required a lot of work on Christopher Tolkien’s part as well as some inventions to fill gaps.
The story follows the creation of the world, the beings that inhabit it, and the conflicts that arise between them.
Many people find the Silmarillion too complex and inharmonious to follow. There is no single quest or core group of characters around which to hold the reader’s interest.
- Gives a ground-up backstory to the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings
- Most people find the book too disorienting to follow
The Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth are a collection of essays and stories by J.R.R. Tolkien which were edited and published by his son after his death.
A lot of the stories are also recounted in The Silmarillion although in less detail.
Also within this book is a summary of The Lord of the Rings which is told from a more objective perspective.
This book is not as heavily edited as the Silmarillion which needed a lot of intervention by Christopher Tolkien.
It is more or less as his father wrote it with the exception of some names that were changed as he had a habit of giving characters more than one title.
At this point, Christopher had not finished the study of his father’s archives.
However, the Unfinished Tales Of Numenor and Middle Earth provided previously unknown details about characters and events such as the origin of Gandalf and other wizards or Istari.
It also told of the death of Isildur and the loss of the Ring of Power in the Gladden Fields as well as the founding of Rohan.
- Fills in details in the Middle Earth history not previously mentioned
- The book was published before all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s archives were completely studied
The title of this book is a little misleading. It is not a history of Middle Earth from an in-universe perspective but rather a history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative process.
The history is made up of a series of twelve volumes that contain much of Tolkien’s legendarium.
Some of the material had already been published in the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales Of Numenor and Middle Earth while other parts were new material.
The books include fine detail about the evolution of Tolkien’s ideas for The Lord of the Rings and other works.
The first five volumes document the history of the Silmarillion and the following four relate to the development of The Lord of the Rings.
Volume nine discusses the story of Numenor while ten and eleven focus on material for the Silmarillion after the publication of The Lord of the Rings.
Finally, book twelve documents assorted writings from later in the author’s life as well as the development of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings
- Fills in a lot of the detail of the creation of The Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion
- Does not include anything about The Hobbit
Tolkien began The Children of Hurin in the late 1910s, revised it several times but never completed it.
His son Christopher edited the work into a consistent narrative, and it was published in 2007.
The tale is set in the First Age of Middle Earth and is one of its great tales. It tells the story of Hurin, a great warrior who is captured by Morgoth, originally named Melkor, the most powerful of the Valar who turns to darkness.
He is demanding to know the whereabouts of the hidden city of Gondolin, the mightiest of the Elven homes.
Refusing to reveal the city’s location, Hurin has to endure the cursing of his children Turin and Nienor by Morgoth.
Following their lives which are at once cursed but also a consequence of them failing to heed wise counsel they end up in the most tragic of circumstances.
As a result, both take their own lives. Hurin is finally released by Morgoth and travels to the grave of his children. There he finds his wife, Morwen who dies in his arms.
The Children of Hurin takes place thousands of years before the Lord of the Rings. An incomplete version was included in The Silmarillion.
- An interesting, if sad, tale from the First Age
- Some readers find the prose stilted
The second of the three great tales of the First Age of Middle Earth, Beren and Luthien is a love story that many readers of The Lord of the Rings will find familiar.
Luthien is an elf maiden and Beren is a mortal man, evoking a comparison with Arwen and Aragorn.
In fact, the story of Beren and Luthien is told to Frodo by Aragorn. It was also told in The Silmarillion and was considered by Tolkien to be the ‘kernel of the mythology’.
Beren falls in love with Luthien when he sees her dancing in the forest, but she runs away. In their next encounter, she looks at him and reciprocates his love.
But their relationship is forbidden, and her father, Thingol is determined to not consent to their marriage.
So he sets Beren an impossible task, to retrieve one of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown. He achieves this mission but at the cost of his hand and they marry.
But their story is far from over and having succumbed to battle wounds Beren dies in Luthien’s arms who then dies of grief.
She enters the Halls of Mandos and sings of the sufferings of Elves and men. She is offered the chance to live as a mortal with Beren, now revived and she accepts.
- The parallel between this tale and Arwen and Aragorn is poignant
- The mixture of poems and stories can be heavy reading
The last of the three great tales of the First Age is The Fall of Gondolin, the greatest of Elven homes hidden by mountains and sought by Morgoth.
Its location was betrayed by Maeglin, a dark character tormented by unrequited love and a desire for power.
Despite being valiant in battle and successful in forging metals, his desire for Idril, his first cousin, caused him to betray his people.
Morgoth promised him the kingship of Gondolin and the hand of Idril if he helped him.
When the siege of Gondolin began, the city was surrounded by the armies of Morgoth including Orcs, wolves, Balrogs, and dragons.
During the battle, Maeglin attempts to assassinate Idril’s son Earendil but is thwarted by his father and thrown from the walls of the city to his death.
Idril and her husband take as many Gondolindrim as they can through a secret passage to try and escape the siege.
However they are ambushed by Orcs and Glorfindel, one of the mightiest of Elves fights the Orc’s Balrog and both fall off the mountain into the abyss.
- Fills in details of this story not included in the Silmarillion
- A very detailed story which itself was used as a reference for the Silmarillion so may be a heavy read for some
The order that you read The Lord of the Rings in is completely down to personal preference and there is no right or wrong way to approach the books.
For a Tolkien purist, the chronological order of the stories will always be the right way.
However, many people find the published order much easier to follow as The Hobbit is a gentler introduction to Tolkien’s world than The Silmarillion.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Order Should I Read The Lord Of The Rings In?
The Lord of the Rings and other books about Middle Earth can be read in the order in which they were published or in the chronology of the stories.
Which Lord Of The Rings Book Should I Read First?
Many people start with The Hobbit, although this is not necessary, and you can read The Fellowship of the Ring as an introduction to the books.
Can You Read The Lord Of The Rings Without Reading The Hobbit?
It is possible to read The Lord of the Rings without first reading The Hobbit, although some aspects of the story make more sense if you read The Hobbit first.
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