III. A. Story External Questions

  1. What is the best order in which to read the books?

    This depends on each person's personal preferences. Unless you strongly dislike stories written for children, most recommend reading The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is certainly next (feel free to skip the Prologue if you find it dull, and after the main text try to read at least Appendix A.I.v, "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen").

    If you enjoy any part of the Appendices to LotR, there are things in Tolkien's other books that you are likely to enjoy as well. Most suggest reading The Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion, and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien next, in some order (perhaps that one). The Children of Hurin is the only complete novel about Middle-earth published after Tolkien's death (although it takes place long before the events of LotR, it probably isn't necessary to read Silm. first). The stories and essays in UT can be read in any order, so the "Third Age" material is a good starting point for those coming straight from LotR (the "First Age" stories are excellent, but are easier to follow after reading Silm.; the other parts of UT are mostly accessible to those who have read LotR and its appendices). Many people find the early parts of Silm. slow to read (like a history book or the Bible), but it is often a favorite among those who have read it. Letters contains insights into both Middle-earth and Tolkien as a person.

    For more details (and more books), try getting a personalized recommendation from the Custom Tolkien Book List, on the web at

  2. What books about Middle-earth are considered "canonical"?

    [I have written an essay on this topic, including general observations and my own approach. It is on the web at: http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/TolkParish.html.]

    As the term is used on the Tolkien newsgroups, a "canonical" text is one which is believed to provide authoritative information about Middle-earth. This concept is more subtle than it may appear at first glance, in part because most of Tolkien's mythology remained incomplete when he died. Books or even individual chapters or essays may be regarded as more or less "trustworthy" than others, and many people reject the idea that there is a single "true" Middle-earth entirely.

    Among those who accept the concept of "canon" to at least some degree, almost all agree that The Lord of the Rings is a canonical text and most assign equal or near equal weight to The Hobbit (the other books about Middle-earth published in Tolkien's lifetime are treated similarly). However, due to heavy and unmarked posthumous editing, The Silmarillion is considered by many not to be canonical (see question III.A.3 for details).

    People put various amounts of trust in the many drafts and essays in Unfinished Tales and the "History of Middle-earth" series. In cases where Tolkien's intent seems particularly stable and clear, some trust these sources almost as much as The Hobbit and LotR themselves. In practice, this means that most of the more trustworthy material is found in Unfinished Tales and in volumes X-XII of the HoMe series. Opinions on how much to trust The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien are mixed, but its contents are generally respected as long as they are not contradicted by other (more canonical) texts. The pictures in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull may also be considered somewhat canonical.

    It is important to note that many aspects of Middle-earth changed substantially over the course of Tolkien's life. Because of this, facts taken from the early versions of the mythology can be misleading or just plain wrong when used to draw conclusions about LotR or later versions of the mythology. This means that while the early versions can provide valuable hints about Tolkien's thoughts on an issue, they are rarely considered to provide definitive evidence for any position.

    The Custom Tolkien Book List (mentioned in question III.A.1) includes my own perspective on the "canonicity" of each section of each book in the list. While those are just one person's opinions, they are fairly typical. A static version of the list in publication order can be found on the web at

    That static list still contains a link to the customizable version.

  3. How does The Silmarillion as published differ from what Tolkien intended?

    This is a complicated question that is essentially unanswerable: despite his lifelong effort, Tolkien never came close to completing The Silmarillion. At Tolkien's request, after his death his son Christopher (with some help from Guy Kay) worked to "bring the work into publishable form"; Christopher discusses the difficulties involved in the book's Foreword. To understand why The Silmarillion took the form that it did (and why it is rarely considered "canonical", as mentioned in question III.A.2), it is worth exploring those editorial changes. The full story can be found in the "History of Middle-earth" books, particularly Morgoth's Ring and The War of the Jewels (volumes X-XI).

    The most basic editorial decision was which writings to include in the book at all. The "Quenta Silmarillion" is of course the central text, but Tolkien also wrote numerous associated stories and essays. Charles Noad explored this question as part of his essay "On the Construction of 'The Silmarillion'" (published in Tolkien's Legendarium; see question III.A.5), where he suggests an "outline for 'The Silmarillion' as Tolkien may have intended it". In addition to the texts in the published book, Noad includes expanded versions of four stories: "The Lay of Leithian" (possibly in poetic form), "Narn i Chin Hurin", "The Fall of Gondolin", and "Earendil the Wanderer" (which Tolkien never even fully sketched). He also includes five "Appendices": writings about Middle-earth and its inhabitants such as "Laws and Customs among the Eldar" and the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" (most of these were published in HoMe X-XI). Sadly, a book with this outline could never be made satisfying with just the texts that Tolkien left us.

    Moving on to the texts that were actually included in The Silmarillion as published, there were three types of problems to overcome. In the worst cases, there were crucial gaps in the narrative where Tolkien had never written more than an outline of the story (or where the most recent version was hopelessly outdated). Much more frequently, Tolkien's years of revisions led to factual inconsistencies between stories written at various times (especially between writings before and after The Lord of the Rings). And finally, Tolkien's writings differed markedly in tone, ranging from vivid narratives to terse annals to philosophical essays. To assemble a single text, consistent in style and detail, from such a range of source material clearly required substantial editing.

    Despite that pessimistic assessment, the vast majority of the published Silmarillion is taken directly from Tolkien's work and seems to come quite close to what he intended, as far as it goes. (None of the "expanded" tales were ever completed, but what exists of them can be found for the most part in Unfinished Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, and the other "History of Middle-earth" books mentioned above.) Still, mild editing is not uncommon, and can be difficult to identify even by comparison to the source texts as published in HoMe. Thus, The Silmarillion is often not treated as a final authority in scholarly discussions of Middle-earth. (A classic example is its mistaken ancestry of Gil-galad, as discussed in question III.B.8.)

    The greatest concern, of course, comes from those few cases where large gaps had to be filled by the editors. This happened to some extent for "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin" and "Of the Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath", but the most substantial editorial "invention" came in the chapter "Of the Ruin of Doriath". The episode was of crucial importance and thus could not be left out or glossed over, but Tolkien had written almost no description of the event since 1930 (long before even The Hobbit was published) and the mythology had changed drastically since then. Moreover, Tolkien was never happy with some aspects of the story, in particular with the question of how the Dwarves could invade Doriath despite the Girdle of Melian. The published version was directly inspired by some of Tolkien's drafts of the tale (those which seemed easiest to reconcile with the rest of the story), but was essentially rewritten to be consistent with the rest of the book and to include a few ideas from Tolkien's later writings. That meant some major changes: for example, in Tolkien's own drafts, the Nauglamir did not exist before it was made to hold the Silmaril (out of raw gold from Nargothrond), and Thingol was not slain until the full Dwarvish army attacked.

    In his comments on "Of the Ruin of Doriath" (an appendix to "The Tale of Years" in The War of the Jewels), Christopher Tolkien concludes with the regret that "the undoubted difficulties could have been, and should have been, surmounted without so far overstepping the bounds of the editorial function." Elsewhere in that book, at the end of the section "The Wanderings of Hurin", he speaks of other omissions and alterations, and says,

    it seems to me now, many years later, to have been an excessive tampering with my father's actual thought and intention: thus raising the question, whether the attempt to make a 'unified' Silmarillion should have been embarked on.

    Whatever failings The Silmarillion as published may have, I think that most of its readers are grateful to have it, and would assure Christopher Tolkien that his work was worthwhile. He undertook a great task in bringing it to print, and despite his later misgivings I think most would agree that he did an excellent job.

  4. Which are "The Two Towers"?

    Tolkien was never very happy with the title. In Letters #140 and #143 he considers many interpretations of it, each with its own rationale, and even comments that it could be left ambiguous. It seems, however, that he eventually settled on one interpretation.

    The note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in three-volume editions of LotR states that

    The second part is called The Two Towers, since the events recounted in it are dominated by Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of Minas Morgul that guards the secret entrance to Mordor.

    According to Wayne Hammond's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, Tolkien submitted that note a month after his indecision in Letter #143. And a month later, Tolkien submitted an illustration for the dust-jacket of The Two Towers; as can be seen in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (plate [180]), that illustration shows Minas Morgul and Orthanc as well. It seems clear that this was Tolkien's final decision.

  5. Which books about Tolkien are good, and which aren't?

    A few disclaimers. First, this is a very subjective question, and what follows is largely a matter of individual opinion. This list was gleaned from discussions on the newsgroups and it reflects some level of consensus, but no verdict was unanimous. Second, this list is very incomplete, but there simply isn't space to list all of the excellent scholarship on Tolkien that has been produced. Unfortunately, this means that only books will be included, and I will focus on only the best known of those (and even then, I'm sure some are missing). My apologies to anyone who has been overlooked.

    With that being said, these are some of the best secondary works about Tolkien, in no particular order. I have included general descriptions for books whose titles do not make their content clear.

    • The Complete Guide to Middle-earth, by Robert Foster. A detailed and very trustworthy glossary of people, places, and things in The Hobbit, LotR, and The Silmarillion, including page references to the original texts.
    • [J.R.R.] Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. (The initials are not part of the title in the USA.)
    • The Annotated Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. Textual history and general comments (be sure to get the recent second edition).
    • J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. Pictures by Tolkien and accompanying discussion.
    • The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. Literary analysis and criticism.
    • Splintered Light and A Question of Time, by Verlyn Flieger. Literary analysis and criticism.
    • Tolkien's Legendarium, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter. Literary analysis and criticism related to the "History of Middle-earth" series (and Tolkien's other works). Some find parts of this book to be a good introduction to that series.
    • The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. Page by page annotation of LotR with comments of interest to everyone from second-time readers to seasoned experts. Contains material from some previously unpublished letters and essays by Tolkien, as well as summaries of textual history and general observations.

    A notable book whose status is ambiguous is The Atlas of Middle-earth, by Karen Wynn Fonstad. It is the best general Tolkien atlas available, covering the full history of Middle-earth, and in most cases Fonstad has done well in extrapolating detailed topographic maps from Tolkien's texts and rougher originals. However, there are a fair number of minor errors in her research, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell what level of justification exists for each of her maps' details.

    Finally, what follow are a few books that many Tolkien scholars avoid. All of them can be enjoyable to read when taken on their own, but they are not entirely trustworthy guides to Tolkien's Middle-earth and are generally ignored in scholarly debates. Because I am not comfortable speaking poorly of others' work without justification, I have provided links to further discussion for each of these titles.

  6. Is Middle-earth Medieval?

    Tolkien's works draw from quite a few periods of human history, and many aspects of Middle-earth distinctly resemble their real-world counterparts in the Middle Ages. However, there are substantial discrepancies in society and culture that indicate that other periods in history also made large contributions (as one example, in Letter #211 Tolkien compared several significant aspects of the society of Gondor to that of ancient Egypt). The relative influence of Medieval and other periods has been hotly contested in the past, though this has not been a major issue in recent years.

  7. Was Tolkien racist? Were his works?

    A full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this FAQ. Some people find what they consider to be clear indications of racist attitudes in Tolkien's works. It is certainly possible that they are right: racism is notoriously difficult to recognize accurately, and most people harbor at least some level of racial mistrust.

    On the other hand, most people who make such accusations seem to do so primarily to stir up controversy and inspire flame wars. In fact, much of the "evidence" presented to demonstrate Tolkien's racism is flawed, and there is reason to believe that Tolkien was less racist than many people of his day. For the sake of diffusing the issue a little, I will mention a few of those mistaken arguments.

    One occasional charge is that Tolkien was anti-semitic, presumably because he occasionally compared his Dwarves to Jews. Those comparisons seem to focus on history and language, however: in Letter #176 he says, "I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.....". And he seems to have had a very positive view of the Jewish people in general. For example, when discussing the origins of the name "Tolkien" in the final footnote to Letter #325, he says, "It is not Jewish in origin, though I should consider it an honour if it were." He made very similar comments in a draft of a letter (#30) to a publisher in Nazi Germany who asked about his race, and in Letter #29 he introduced that draft and told his publisher, "I should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine."

    Another seemingly prejudiced statement comes in Letter #210, where Tolkien describes the Orcs as "degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types". At first glance this looks blatantly racist, but the qualifier "to Europeans" casts it in a very different light: Tolkien explicitly recognized that different cultures have different standards of beauty, and that his impressions did not reflect any underlying superiority. Moreover, he made it clear that the Orcs were not in any sense actual "Mongol-types", but "degraded and repulsive versions" of humanoid stock. (Nevertheless, his comment certainly falls short of modern standards of sensitivity.)

    Many point to the "hierarchy" of the various groups of humans in the books as clear evidence of cultural elitism or racism, but they seem to forget that most of the Numenoreans (the "highest" humans) fell into deepest evil and were destroyed by God, while the Woses (the "Wild Men" of Druadan forest, who certainly would not represent "civilized" Europeans) were among the most wise and resistant to evil of all peoples (as well as having a complex culture and many skills other Men lacked), to take two of many examples.

    Finally, a few people have mistaken the symbolic conflict between "darkness" and "light" in the books for a conflict between "black" and "white", which they then interpret racially (which is already a stretch). They seem to overlook the ghastly white corpse-light of Minas Morgul, the White Hand of Saruman, and Isildur's black Stone of Erech, to name a few exceptions.

    As for specific claims that Tolkien linked skin color to good and evil, there are simply too many exceptions for that to hold up. Light skinned characters who did evil things include Saruman, Grima, Gollum, Boromir, Denethor, and the Numenoreans as mentioned above. And it is notable that Tolkien described Forlong's people of Gondor and even the men of Bree as "swarthy", the same term he used for example of the Southrons who were ambushed by Faramir (though to be fair, he may have imagined different degrees of "swarthiness" for those groups). For that matter, Sam's flash of empathy for the fallen Southron he saw during the ambush indicates that many of Sauron's soldiers were likely unwilling slaves, not evil at heart.

    In short, while there are racially "suspicious" elements to be found in Tolkien's writings if one hunts for them, closer examination typically reveals the attitude behind them to be benign. That doesn't mean that he was perfect, but it certainly doesn't seem that he should be condemned for intolerance.

  8. Are there electronic versions of Tolkien's books?

    At long last, authorized electronic editions of several of Tolkien's books are available: at this time, they include The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Children of Hurin. Links to purchase these editions can be found in the Tolkien section of the HarperCollins website:

    There are of course limitations on these texts. All of the formats currently available (there are quite a few) are protected by various types of "Digital Rights Management" software to limit printing and copying, so you should make sure your hardware is compatible before buying.

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