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Reading Tolkien beyond The Lord of the Rings

One of the most frequent questions I have received from readers of Green Books has to do with what to read by Tolkien after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And this is not really a straightforward question. What I find is usually meant by it is how should one approach The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and the twelve volume series on The History of Middle-earth. The truest answer is to read as much, or as little, as you like. But that hardly offers any guidance to what’s out there, so I’ll attempt to give some brief notes here, considering only Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings.

Tolkien wrote in what might be classified as three main styles. The first is the novelistic style, as is found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The second is more like a chronicle, a distant narration of events. And the third style is essay-like. Both the second and third styles are fairly represented in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings-- the chronicle style can be found in Appendices A and B, the "Annals of the Kings" (including the "Tale of Aragorn and Arwen") and the "Tale of Years;" the essay style is used in the other appendices (C, D and E) on calendars, writings, and languages.

The Silmarillion is mostly written in the chronicle mode. It begins with an elvish creation myth, the "Ainulindalë," and an account of the god-like Valar, the "Valaquenta". Both are written in an archaic, almost biblical style. The book becomes far more easily readable once you get to the "Quenta Silmarillion" proper, which is the major portion of the book. Two shorter works conclude the volume, the "Akallabêth," an account of the downfall of Númenor, and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age."

Unfinished Tales (actually the full title is Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth) is just what the title says, but it contains writings by Tolkien in all three styles. Unfortunately, most of these writings are unfinished. So the nearly one hundred pages of the novelistic Tale of the Children of Húrin, the "Narn i Hîn Húrin," is not quite complete, while the history of a Númenorean mariner and his wife, "Aldarion and Erendis," simply breaks off midstream. Other pieces, in both the chronicle and essay modes, were originally intended to be part of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, but were cut for reasons of length. These include Gandalf’s account of how he arranged Bilbo’s journey, "The Quest of Erebor," and materials on Celeborn and Galadriel, the Drúedain, the Palantiri, and the Istari (or wizards).

The History of Middle-earth is a twelve volume series edited by Christopher Tolkien, who basically took the rest of his father’s papers relating to Middle-earth and published them chronologically as to when the various items were written. Thus the first two volumes, comprising The Book of Lost Tales, were written just after World War I when Tolkien was in his twenties, while the final volume contains his last writings on Middle-earth before his death in 1973.

The History of Middle-earth is a grab-bag of miscellaneous and very different types of writings: long poems in rhyming couplets and in alliterative verse, prose narratives and chronologies, short poems and tales and essays, unfinished novels and the early drafts of what became The Lord of the Rings. There are many reworkings of various legends of the First Age of Middle-earth, some strikingly different from what is known from the published Silmarillion. No short listing here of the contents can do this series justice. In order, the twelve volumes of the History of Middle-earth series are as follows: I. The Book of Lost Tales, Part One. II. The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. III. The Lays of Beleriand. IV. The Shaping of Middle-earth. V. The Lost Road and Other Writings. VI. The Return of the Shadow. VII. The Treason of Isengard. VIII. The War of the Ring. IX. Sauron Defeated. X. Morgoth’s Ring. XI. The War of the Jewels. XII. The Peoples of Middle-earth.

To turn back to the question of what to read after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, this can be answered in part in relation to one’s personal reaction to Tolkien’s three styles. If you love the chronicles and essays in the Appendices, you have lots of real treats coming, but if you love only the novelistic storytelling in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is a more limited range of delights. Two shorter works should not be missed by anyone--- the "Epilogue" to The Lord of the Rings (in volume IX of the History of Middle-earth series), in which Sam answers various questions after having read the Red Book to his children. And in volume XII, there is a tantalizing single chapter of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien began (and unfortunately abandoned). It is set about a hundred years after the death of Aragorn, and concerns the emergence of secret orc-cults. The chapter is called "The New Shadow."

Next I’d say read The Silmarillion, bearing in mind that it is a kind of compendious chronology of elvish mythology and of the history of Elves and Men in the First Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. If the early parts of The Silmarillion are found to be difficult or offputting, I’d recommend jumping forward and reading two chapters by themselves: chapter XIX, which tells the story of Beren and Luthien, and chapter XXI, which tell the story of Túrin. These are two of the major stories of The Silmarillion, and are among the very best parts of the book. They should not be missed by lovers of Tolkien.

If you like the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings and have sampled (or even read) The Silmarillion, I’d say the next book to tackle is Unfinished Tales. It stands as a kind of sampler (though it doesn’t really overlap in contents) of just the type of writings you will find in The History of Middle-earth series. I feel it is important point to note that, for any level of interest, Unfinished Tales and the twelve volume series need not be read in the order of presentation or publication. Browse any of these books and read whatever interests you at any given time. What might seem uninteresting on first look, you might find utterly engrossing another time. And vice-versa.

Many volumes of the History of Middle-earth series contain variant forms of tales and legends found in The Silmarillion, but there are a number of different treats as well. Around 1936 Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis had a toss-up, whereby one would write a time-travel story, and the other would write a science fiction tale. C. S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, was his entry, while Tolkien never finished his fascinating story of time-travel, "The Lost Road," in which a father-and-son pair recall the downfall of Númenor. Some years later Tolkien tried again with a similar idea, now called "The Notion Club Papers," with the fictional Notion Club based on Tolkien and Lewis’s writers group, the Inklings. I find both of these fragments endlessly interesting. They appear in volumes V and IX.

In the right mood, the sub-series (volumes VI through VIII, along with part of volume IX which is published separately in paperback as The End of the Third Age) on the writing of The Lord of the Rings is a marvelous look at how Tolkien wrote the book. Can you believe that Frodo was once named Bingo Bolger-Baggins, or Strider was initially a hobbit named Trotter who wore wooden shoes? Yes, Tolkien changed these names for the better, but there are also a number of details in the drafts of The Lord of the Rings that do not conflict with the published version, and add to the appreciation of it.

And lastly, I’d recommend that you don’t neglect the collection The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Sure this is a collection of letters, not stories, but the great bulk of the letters were written to admirers of The Lord of the Rings and in the letters Tolkien gives many details about the peoples, legends and history of Middle-earth that are not otherwise available. Most of these letters are written in the style of essays, so again they almost seem like outtakes from the Appendices.

Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was a lifelong passion, sometimes reaching perfection as in The Lord of the Rings, while at other times never even achieving a published form in the author’s lifetime. That we have such posthumous publications as are found in the History of Middle-earth series is remarkable, and I encourage readers to sample them to see for themselves the various modes and expressions of Tolkien’s genius.

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