So when I set out to write this article, I realized that there are actually several ways to read all the J. R. R. Tolkien Books in order. You could read by release date, or by chronological order if you’re doing just the fantasy, Middle-Earth-related stories.
I also realized that there are quite a number of other works written by Tolkien or closely related, that I thought really were worth including, even though they’re not directly part of the Lord of the Rings saga, the Hobbit, or its prequels.
So I decided to do three things here.
Let’s dive in.
If you’re interested in just the chronological order of Tolkien’s books, here it is in brief:
Some of these were published posthumously by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, but contain stories set in the world of Middle-earth. Additionally, I obviously can’t include any texts that aren’t set in Middle-earth in this list, which is why I have the bonus section below.
But for now, let’s dig into each of these in turn.
The Silmarillion was actually published in 1977, after Tolkien’s death. But chronological it comes first.
If you’re a fan of the lore of Middle-earth, this is definitely the book for you. It reads a lot more like a history book than a novel, so if you’re looking for a light read, maybe skip over this one. But honestly, it’s a HUGE compendium of background stories that take place thousands of years before the main Lord of the Rings books.
It really gave me quite the respect for Tolkien and the world he created, because the amount of work that went into crafting this history is monstrous.
Beren and Luthien was published a lot more recently, much like The Children of Hurin and The Fall of Gondolin. But it’s one of Tolkien’s most important stories.
Now, this story takes place during the Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R Tolkien’s son, collected all of the many versions of Beren and Luthien that his father produced and placed them together so you could see the evolution of Tolkien’s thought process while constructing this story.
Also, if you didn’t know, Beren and Luthien is a love story between a mortal man and an Elf maiden. It’s a great, mythical kind of love story, but the best part is that Tolkien actually had the words Beren and Luthien inscribed on his and his wife’s headstones. Which is just the sweetest thing.
The Children of Hurin was the first of the three Silmarillion-era novels to be published in modern times. And honestly guys, get ready on this one, because it’s a doosy of a depressing story.
It’s about a man called Turin who has just one bit of bad luck after another, do to a curse that Morgoth (the dark lord at the time) placed on his family. And boy does it get dark.
This tale also takes place during the Silmarillion (but after Beren and Luthien), but it offers more story material than is contained in the Silmarillion, making it more complete.
Lastly in this sort of Silmarillion-era trilogy, we have the Fall of Gondolin. Gondolin was a huge Elf city that was super awesome. Think Rivendell combined with Minas Tirith, but like, 20 times cooler.
As you might be able to guess, Gondolin falls in the course of this story. It’s one of the more epic tales that Tolkien ever wrote, and it’s a shame that it never got the full novel treatment, because it would have been just as epic, if not more so, than the Lord of the Rings.
Like Beren and Luthien, this work contains several versions of the story, edited together, so we can see Tolkien’s progressive thought process behind the writing. And like the other two in this trilogy, these events takes place during the Silmarillion.
Unfinished Tales is best placed here, but doesn’t really have a chronological placement. It’s a collection of various tales, some of which are adapted or hinted at in the previous four volumes, but that nevertheless are essential reading for lore junkies.
It also contains some explanatory essays that I love, particularly about the wizards, and about Galadriel.
Okay, at this point you may or may not have read all of this background reading material. But my guess is that you’ve read, or at least know about the Hobbit. I read this during middle school, and it still remains one of my favorite books.
The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins being caught up in an adventure to find and slay a dragon to help 13 dwarves reclaim their home. It’s a great adventure, steeped in mythology, that really started Tolkien’s popularity as an author.
It’s also, by far, the best place to start reading Tolkien’s work.
Following the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s published asked him to write a sequel. The result was The Lord of the Rings, though it wasn’t released for nearly 20 years later. And at the time, since this was only 10 years following the end of World War II, there was a paper shortage, as so Tolkien’s publisher couldn’t publish the massive Lord of the Rings volume in one go. So Tolkien was forced to break it up. And the result was three volumes, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring.
Fellowship tells the story of Frodo Baggins, the heir of Bilbo Baggins, discovering that the ring he had inherited was really the One Ring, an ancient weapon of power belonging to the Dark Lord Sauron, and he wants it back. So Frodo has to leave his comfortable house with his closest friends, and they go on various adventures, meeting up with the likes of Aragorn, Gandalf, and others to form the titular Fellowship as they journey to destroy the ring.
The Two Towers continues the adventures from Fellowship but at this point, the Fellowship has split into several distinct groups. Frodo and Sam are on their own, continuing to travel to Mount Doom, and the rest are in Rohan, where they get caught up in the local problems there due to Saruman the White, a wizard who has gone bad.
But you probably know this story.
The Two Towers was released the very same year as Fellowship, but later because of the paper shortage. But since Tolkien already had all three books completed, this didn’t have to wait long.
It’s great, and one of my favorites on this whole list. But none are quite as good as the next one on this list, which is 100% my favorite of the bunch.
Return of the King concludes the amazing story of the ring, and let me tell you. It is epic! I won’t spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read these or watched the movies, but you should definitely read the Lord of the Rings, just so you can get to this last novel. It’s my favorite, if you couldn’t tell.
And that ends the chronological order of the books. Tolkien did have plans for more stories after this, but he ended up abandoning his plans for that, which I’m actually kind of glad about. There’s a finality to Return of the King that makes a sequel unnecessary. And by the way, if you want to see more on the chronological order for Middle-earth-related stories, I’d check out this epic timeline.
Now if you’re not interested in the chronological order of these Middle-earth books, you might like going through them in release order, as follows:
This is probably how I would recommend most beginners start out. If you don’t count yourself among Tolkien fans just yet, start with the Hobbit.
But really, if you’re a fan of Tolkien, or perhaps you’ve already read every Tolkien book listed above, you should definitely check out some of these bonus options. They’re different, covering various miscellaneous texts, scholarly texts, and translations that Tolkien did, but they’re definitely important to his legacy. Here they are in brief:
The History of Middle Earth is a collection of several books edited by Christopher Tolkien that cover a lot of the miscellaneous texts, fragments, and notes that his father had on Middle Earth. It’s great if you want to learn more of Tolkien’s thought process, along with a few nuggets of lore that you don’t get in any of the other books.
It contains 12 volumes, though only the first five are easily accessible on Amazon.
Tolkien did several translations in his life, since he was actually a philologist and a professor at Oxford as his day job.
Among the most important is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is commonly used as the translation for this particular poem.
Tolkien also did some other translations, like one for Beowulf, but Sir Gawain is the main one that I wanted to mention here.
I didn’t know about this one until I started researching this article. But The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is a collection of two poems that Tolkien wrote in the epic tradition. It’s inspired by Norse Mythology, which Tolkien knew a lot about, and is even written in the same style as ancient Norse writings in the Poetic Edda.
This was an unfinished poem that Tolkien wrote about the legend of King Arthur, and was published long after his death. It imitates the style of Beowulf, but is clearly inspired by the Arthurian legends.
Okay, you guys, if you haven’t heard of Letters from Father Christmas, you really need to give it a look. You see, Tolkien actually wrote letters to his kids as if they came from Santa Clause himself, and it’s the most adorable thing in the world.
Naturally, being Tolkien, he ended up creating a whole world of the North Pole, complete with all the kind of worldbuilding you’d come to expect, with elves, polar bears, and goblins.
This is a collection of letters that Tolkien sent to various peoples, such as his family or his editor. They end up creating a kind of interesting Q and A, and chances are you’ll find the answers to a lot of your Tolkien-related questions here. For example, you’ve probably wondered why the eagles didn’t just fly the ring to Morder. Well, Tolkien addresses that in his letters.
Tales from the Perilous Realm is a collection of Tolkien’s short stories, and it’s the one I recommend most if you want to see some of Tolkien’s short fiction. It includes:
Of these, only “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” has any direct relation to Middle-earth, but the others are great stories in their own right.
Lastly, I thought I’d include a newer addition to the Tolkien mythos. The Nature of Middle-earth is kind of an extension of the History of Middle-earth series, written by Carl F. Hostetter, who is a leading Tolkien scholar.
This one is brand new, as of this writing, and it’s good to see that there’s still love to be had in the world of Middle-earth. We haven’t seen the end of these books yet.