It’s difficult to imagine a world without The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling magnum opus popularized the fantasy genre, galvanized a counterculture movement, and snowballed into a global pop culture phenomenon. Peter Jackson’s early aughts film adaptations have only compounded the series’ enduring popularity, inviting new fans into Tolkien’s fantastical world by way of Academy Awards, timeless memes, and astounding filmmaking. Now, with Amazon’s Rings of Power debuting in September, a whole new generation of fans are bound to discover Middle-earth.
If you haven’t read the series, how I envy you! Newcomers are in for an unforgettable reading experience. You’ll always remember the first time you encountered these moving, masterfully imagined epics about the struggle between good and evil, the delicate balance of death and immortality, and the addictive danger of power. But The Lord of the Rings is just the tip of the iceberg; Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium encompasses thousands of years and dozens of other works, meaning that if you dive in, it may be quite a long time before you make it there and back again.
What’s the best path for reading your way through, you ask? It’s a simple question, but one bound to rile up Tolkien fans, who love and study the author’s works with serious devotion. I know because I’m one of them. Yes, dear reader, you caught me—I’ve been a Tolkienite since age eight, when I got my hands on The Hobbit and it changed my little brain forever. I grew up in Tolkien’s wide, wide world in the way that other members of my generation grew up in Narnia or Hogwarts; these books are an enduring part of my heart and identity, and they can be for you, too.
Below, I’ve charted a choose your own adventure course through the lore, with exit points for the casual reader and bonus material for the newly converted Tolkienite. Additionally, for anyone looking to do their homework before Rings of Power, I’ve flagged the books that will enrich your viewing of the new series. What kind of Tolkien reader will you be? Time to start reading and find out. (And once you’ve finished, check out our maps to Dune and The Wheel of Time next.)
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” With this immortal line, the journey through Middle-earth begins. We recommend starting your adventure with The Hobbit, Tolkien’s first published foray into Middle-earth, before moving onto The Lord of the Rings proper. The Hobbit is a rollicking good read, and a superb place to get your feet wet. This is the tale of Bilbo Baggins, a respectable, homebody hobbit (a race of short, furry-footed people who live in underground homes). When an itinerant wizard and a company of dwarves come knocking, Bilbo is swept into their expedition to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves intend to recapture their people’s vast treasure from the dangerous dragon Smaug. The treacherous journey awakens Bilbo’s thirst for adventure, places him in a host of thrillingly sticky situations, and sends him packing with a mysterious magical ring…
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings begins in earnest with The Fellowship of the Ring. When Bilbo Baggins suddenly disappears from his 111th birthday party, his beloved ring falls into the hands of his young heir, Frodo Baggins. The wizard Gandalf confirms that this is the One Ring, lost by the Dark Lord Sauron long ago, and urges Frodo to spirit it to the elven stronghold of Rivendell. In Rivendell, the Fellowship of the Ring assembles: nine walkers of different races, banded together on a quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mordor, thus saving the world from an ancient, cosmic evil. The perilous journey across mountains, forests, and rivers tests them, endangers them, and ultimately divides them.
The saga continues in The Two Towers, which sees the members of the Fellowship scattered to the winds. Following their capture by bloodthirsty orcs, Merry and Pippin disappear into foreboding Fangorn Forest, where they take up with sentient trees; meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli reconnect with a changed Gandalf, then come to the aid of Rohan’s struggling people. Frodo and Sam, en route to Mordor, form an uneasy alliance with the wretched creature Gollum, who guides them to their destination while plotting to steal the ring. As this installment ends, the shadow of Sauron grows across the lands, while armies everywhere steel themselves for a climactic battle.
The trilogy concludes thrillingly with The Return of the King. As Frodo falls dangerously under the sway of the ring’s dark magic during the hazardous journey through Mordor, Aragorn and his forces stage a last stand at the Black Gate of Mordor, and Frodo makes a seismic sacrifice to destroy the ring once and for all. Ultimately, Aragorn steps into his destiny as King of Gondor and peace reigns, but readers coming to the series from the films will be disarmed by the hobbits’ homecoming. Still in thrall to the evil Saruman, the Shire needs a champion, forcing the hobbits to mount a rebellion in the fateful Scouring of the Shire. Frodo, beleaguered by the physical and psychological toll of the ring, passes into the Undying Lands to find peace, and harmony settles over Middle-earth.
If you’re gearing up for Rings of Power, you’ll want to start your coursework at the back of The Return of the King with the appendices, where Tolkien provides a chronology of the Second and Third Ages. Rings of Power promises to dramatize the Second Age, which includes such memorable episodes as the rise and fall of Númenor, as well as The Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Per the terms of their deal with the Tolkien estate, Amazon only owns the on-screen rights to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the appendices, so pay close attention as you work your way through—you’re going to be seeing a lot of this action on the small screen.
As epic as The Lord of the Rings may feel, the series spans just a fraction of Middle-earth’s history. In The Silmarillion, his mythopoetic masterpiece, Tolkien takes us back to the dawn of time, unspooling legends like the creation of the universe, the awakening of the elves, and the rise of Middle-earth’s greatest villains. For fans of the Peter Jackson films, a shred of this material will seem familiar, as Galadriel’s Fellowship of the Ring prologue recounts some of these stories (like the forging of the Rings of Power). Dense with lore and lusciously imagined, The Silmarillion isn’t for the faint of heart, but it rewards devoted study, shading in the millennia of history behind the core legendarium of Middle-earth. Amazon’s deal with the Tolkien estate doesn’t encompass the rights to The Silmarillion, so Rings of Power won’t tread here, but it’s still well worth your time, as your enjoyment of Second Age stories will no doubt be enriched by their First Age context.
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. If you’re confident you’ve been brought up to speed on Middle-earth by now, feel free to exit through the gift shop. If you’re hooked on Tolkien and eager to keep exploring, come sit by me. Unfinished Tales consists of stories and essays Tolkien failed to complete in his lifetime, stitched together in a more coherent form by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary executor. Some of these stories recount events from The Silmarillion, while others expand our knowledge of Middle-earth with additional context, like a deep dive into the origins of wizards or a more detailed narrative of how Isildur lost the One Ring. Unfinished Tales will prove to be another valuable resource for students of Rings of Power, as “A Description of the Island of Númenor” will come in handy when the show sets up shop in that fateful location.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The first of three standalone “great tales” set in Middle-earth’s First Age, The Children of Húrin is—you guessed it—another unfinished manuscript salvaged by Christopher Tolkien. Long before the One Ring was forged, a great warrior named Húrin dared to defy Morgoth, the Lucifer-esque fallen god who terrorized Middle Earth in its early millennia (and later trained a fearsome lieutenant in Sauron). As punishment for his defiance, Húrin was immobilized on a mountaintop, where he paid the ultimate price: day in and day out, Morgoth forced him to watch the evils visited upon his children, culminating in their death and disappearance, as well as some downright Oedipal tragedy. The Children of Húrin is heavy, by Tolkien’s standards, but like other auxiliary tales, it rounds out The Silmarillion with lush additional detail.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkien, you ol’ softie. The second of the great tales is the tragic romance of Beren, a mortal man, and Lúthien, an immortal elf maiden. In order to win Lúthien’s hand in marriage from her disapproving father, Beren set to the monumental task of robbing Morgoth of a Silmaril (three prized jewels of the elves, containing divine light). Together the couple achieved the task, but Beren died immediately after, inspiring such grief in Lúthien that she too laid down and died. In the halls of the gods, Lúthien shared an elegiac song with the god of death. Moved by her lamentation, he restored the couple to life, on the condition that they would both die a mortal death. This romantic fable is a foundational myth of The Silmarillion, as well as a deliberate mirroring of the romance between Aragorn and Arwen—herself a descendent of Lúthien, who, like her ancestor, would marry a mortal man, choosing “both the sweet and the bitter.” If you read only one of the great tales, make it this one.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In the third and final volume of the great tales, Tolkien sets his sights on Gondolin, a secret elven utopia betrayed and destroyed during the First Age. When Gondolin’s location was betrayed to Morgoth, the vengeful god sent an army of orcs, balrogs, and dragons to siege the city. Gondolin’s epic fall calls to mind the sack of Troy, and makes for riveting reading. Survivors of the disaster would become ancestors of both Elrond and Aragorn. The Fall of Gondolin isn’t required reading, but for Tolkien fans who particularly love his elvish lore, it’s a slam dunk.
The History of Middle-earth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
After Unfinished Tales was published to great critical and commercial interest, Christopher Tolkien kept exploring his father’s archive. He anthologized his findings into The History of Middle-earth, a downright massive twelve-volume series containing Tolkien’s vast droves of auxiliary lore, from stories to poems to song cycles. Some of these volumes expand The Lord of the Rings, while others expand The Silmarillion. None are earth-shattering, but for the Tolkien completionist, they’re a welcome journey back into Middle-earth, and an opportunity to consider familiar events from a fresh perspective.
The Fall of Númenor: And Other Tales From the Second Age
The Tolkien machine keeps on trucking with this new volume of Second Age tales, due out in November. Is it any coincidence that this book should hit shelves right as Amazon brings this era of Middle-earth to the small screen? Surely it’s not, but there’s no such thing as too much Tolkien. The author famously described the Second Age as “a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told,” but clearly, there was more story than first met the eye. Stitched into one comprehensive volume by editor Brian Sibley, along with new illustrations by frequent Tolkien flyer Alan Lee, this book will be an invaluable resource for fans eager to dig deep on Rings of Power.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
If you’ve made it this far and you still can’t get enough Tolkien, add Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth to your coffee table rotation. This hefty tome explores the visual dimensions of Tolkien’s oeuvre: illustrations, maps, letters, and manuscripts, all of it paired with essays tracing the mythological influences behind Tolkien’s monumental creative endeavors. It’s an excellent supplement to the books you know and love, as well as a sumptuous collector’s item any Tolkien fan would cherish.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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