The list below is sorted by publication date, which isn't a bad order in which to read the books, especially if you're determined to read everything. (Having said that, I'd suggest reading The Children of Hurin right before Unfinished Tales even if you stick with published order otherwise.) The sections listed within each book are not a comprehensive list, and I won't guarantee that they are in order (though they should be close). This list also includes information on how "canonical" each book and section is. If you would like a list sorted in an order tailored to your personal preferences, you can find the customization form at the bottom of the page.
Notes and definitions regarding "canonical" texts
Over the course of his life, Tolkien wrote many versions and drafts of his stories. When trying to understand the "final form" of his mythology (to the extent that such an idea has any meaning), some of those drafts are naturally better guides than others: the more trustworthy texts are said to be more "canonical". Below, I summarize my personal thoughts on what this term means, listing different classes of writings from most trustworthy to least. In general, only I-III will be convincing, and only I-IV are really admissible in a serious debate. Developmental material is sometimes cited when a particular passage or detail is not specifically superceded by other texts.
- Canonical ("true" canon): Tolkien's published writings, showing his vision in its final form.
- Adopted Canon: Finished work incorporated into the canonical body after it was written (often after some revision), while possibly leaving inconsistent loose ends. In most cases, these are trusted just as much as "true" canon.
- Final Intent: Works or information which, while not published in his lifetime, was Tolkien's unambiguous intent at the time of his death.
- Ambiguous Final Intent: Works or information for which Tolkien's intent at the time of his death was unclear (such as contradictory passages whose relative date is uncertain, or texts which while not specifically contradicted are old enough that Tolkien probably intended to rewrite them).
- Reconstructed: Tales assembled from Tolkien's collected writings by Christopher and his assistant(s).
- Developmental: Tolkien's early drafts of a story, largely superceded by later writings or abandoned completely.
Each of the books (and in some cases, sections) below will be accompanied by an emphasized label corresponding to the appropriate category above. Do be aware that different people have very different perspectives on these issues; many do not even think that the notion of "canon" in Tolkien is valid or useful. The categories above reflect my own perspective, which while not uncommon is far from universal. For further discussion of these issues, see my essay "Tolkien's Parish: The Canonical Middle-earth".
Tolkien's Books about Middle-earth in Published Order
Books in the "History of Middle-earth" series are labeled by series order: [HoMe N] is the Nth book in the series.
- The Hobbit: A wonderful story, and an important introduction to Middle-earth. Adopted Canon. Having said that, this book was explicitly written for children, so you may want to skip it entirely if you don't like such things.
- "On Fairy Stories", published in Tree and Leaf (Often most easily found as part of The Tolkien Reader (USA), which also contains "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", or The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Commonwealth), both of which also contain a number of Tolkien's writings not related to Middle-earth.): Technically, this essay has absolutely nothing to do with Middle-earth at all; those only looking for Tolkien's fiction can skip it entirely. It is a fascinating but (mostly) academic discussion of the form and purpose of fantasy, and those seeking storytelling should look elsewhere. However, in one section of it Tolkien makes numerous references to "elves" and the Art that they create: for example, "To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires." In the essay, he does not treat the elves as "real", but nevertheless it seems that his comments on elves here do apply to the elves of Middle-earth. Not Canonical at all, really, but if pressed I might call its insights into Elvish Art Ambiguous Final Intent.
- The Lord of the Rings
("LotR") (often published in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King):
Most find ths to be the best of Tolkien's writings about
Middle-earth. It captures all the beauty and excitement and sorrow
and glory of classic epic tales while casting them into a truly
original form, and describes its world of Middle-earth so vividly that
it seems almost real. The book manages to touch on substantial
questions of ethics and philosophy seamlessly within the narrative,
without discussing them directly or attempting to push some agenda.
True Canon: this is the only undisputedly canonical text.
Because the tone of The Lord of the Rings changes substantially over the course of the first ten chapters or so, I generally suggest that people try to finish all of Book I (the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring) before giving up. If you aren't interested by that point, then I'll admit that Tolkien probably isn't right for you (not yet, anyway). As an additional piece of advice, it's probably best to skip the Prologue entirely the first time you read the book, although if you haven't read The Hobbit it would be worth reading Section 4: "Of the Finding of the Ring" (it, like the rest of LotR, contains spoilers for the earlier book). Be warned that the book begins in a somewhat childish tone similar to that of The Hobbit; it's definitely worth sticking it out until it goes away by the end of Book I.
- The Appendices and Prologue of The Lord of the Rings:
Listed separately because they are a rather different experience than
the main body of LotR. The different types of writing in the various
appendices give a reasonably good sampling of what can be found in
Tolkien's other books about Middle-earth.
True Canon, as they are part of LotR.
Sections in the database
- App. A.I-II: Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan
- App. A.I.v: The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen
- App. A.III: Durin's Folk
- App. B: The Tale of Years
- App. C: Family Trees
- App. D: Calendars
- App. E: Writing and Spelling
- App. F: Languages, Peoples, and "Translation"
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
(Often most easily found as part of The Tolkien
Reader (USA) or Tales from the Perilous
Realm (Commonwealth), which both also contain quite a few of
Tolkien's writings not related to Middle-earth.):
A collection of poems, supposedly traditional Hobbit verses from the
Red Book, together with a preface relating their history in the
Shire. Many of these poems existed before The
Lord of the Rings was written and were only later revised and
brought into the mythology (indeed, the first poem about Bombadil was
part of the inspiration for his character in LotR rather than the
Adopted Canon, but be warned that it is very light in tone and has relatively
little "factual" content about Middle-earth. (In particular, the
poems themselves are only "trustworthy" to the extent that they were
written by hobbits as detailed in the preface.)
Sections in the database
- Preface: True Canon
- Bombadil Poems (1-2): Adopted Canon
- Other Poems (3-16): Adopted Canon
- The Road Goes Ever On (music by Donald Swann): A collection of poems and songs from Tolkien's writings set to music. Almost all of the poetry is all available in other books (primarily The Lord of the Rings), and the music is mostly Swann's work without substantial input from Tolkien himself (Tolkien did approve of the music, however, and he suggested the theme for the Namarie). However, Tolkien contributed substantially to the book, providing direct translations of the songs in Elvish languages and even some "story-internal" historical notes. The second edition of this book (1978) incorporated the short poem "Bilbo's Last Song", which is now also available as a small book illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Mixed: Swann's music is not canonical, but Tolkien's contributionss should probably be treated as True Canon.
- "Guide to Names in The Lord of the Rings" (First published in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Recent reprints of that book omit the Guide, but it is now available as part of The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull.): A document that Tolkien wrote to assist those translating The Lord of the Rings into other languages. It explains the source or meaning of many of the names in the book, and includes a few pieces of non-linguistic information about Middle-earth as well. True Canon.
- The Silmarillion:
Tolkien's lifework, edited and published posthumously by his son
Christopher. Somewhat biblical in style at the beginning (perhaps in
part because Tolkien never had the chance to rewrite it in more
narrative form), it contains the entire history of Middle-earth from
its creation to the end of the Third Age. This is the last book about
Middle-earth to have a single, coherent storyline, which makes it
essential for a good understanding of the First Age.
Reconstructed, and therefore not really canonical,
because of the changes made so the story would be coherent.
Although most of the events described in The Silmarillion took place thousands of years before the time of The Lord of the Rings, it is almost certainly best to read LotR first, for several reasons. First, LotR is written as a novel, while much of of The Silmarillion reads like a history book. Second, many readers enjoy the glimpses of Middle-earth's history that are mentioned in LotR because they are just glimpses; it's probably good to experience that at least once before you fill in all those gaps. Finally, the last section of The Silmarillion actually includes a plot summary of LotR filled with spoilers.Sections in the database
- The Quenta Silmarillion in general: Reasonably canonical
- Ainulindale: Quite canonical
- Valaquenta: Fairly canonical
- QS Ch. 2: Of Aule and Yavanna: Fairly canonical
- QS Ch. 14: Of Beleriand and its Realms: Fairly canonical
- QS Ch. 19: Of Beren and Luthien: Reasonably canonical
- QS Ch. 21: Of Turin Turambar: Reasonably canonical
- QS Ch. 22: Of the Ruin of Doriath: Invented during editing based on old, conflicting notes
- QS Ch. 23: Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin: Reconstructed from very early texts
- Akallabeth: Final Intent
- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age: Final Intent
- Genealogies: Mostly canonical (Gil-galad's parentage is wrong)
- Appendix: Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names: Quite canonical (I think)
- Tolkien: The Authorized Biography (by Humphrey Carpenter): As might be expected, this book does not deal directly with Middle-earth. However, it contains a great deal of information on Tolkien himself, which can in turn shed light on Middle-earth (and give more insight into the textual history in HoMe). Not Canonical.
- Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien and J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (the latter edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull): I have not actually seen the first of these, which I believe is very much what the title proclaims it to be: a collection of Tolkien's drawings. The second is also a collection of his pictures, but with a fair bit of commentary about the drawings' history and style. Many, but not all, of the pictures are related to Middle-earth. No clear canon level: of the Middle-earth pictures, some may be final intent while others are ambiguous or developmental.
- Unfinished Tales:
A collection of stories and histories in various stages of completion
that Tolkien never chose to publish while he lived. Many of these are
extremely good, and make me wish that Tolkien had managed to bring
them to a final form. In addition to the enjoyable stories themselves,
this book provides a wealth of information and many tantalizing hints
about Middle-earth and its history, both within the tales and in a
number of fascinating essays.
Final Intent and Ambiguous Final Intent, which are generally easy to distinguish
based on Christopher's notes.
While the first part of this book deals with the First Age and almost requires you to have read The Silmarillion, much of the rest of it (especially the Third Age stories) can be read immediately after The Lord of the Rings. (The independent nature of these stories and essays makes it easy to read them in any order.) Unlike The Silmarillion, it is also a good introduction to the style of the "History of Middle-earth" books, with Tolkien's writing thoroughly annotated by his son Christopher. (It's easy to skip the annotations if you aren't interested.) Note that the story "Narn I Hin Hurin" has been largely superseded by the book The Children of Hurin, though some textual notes in UT remain significant.Sections in the database
- Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin: Final Intent
- Narn I Hin Hurin: Final Intent
- A Description of the Island of Numenor: Final Intent
- Aldarion and Erendis: Final Intent
- The Line of Elros: Kings of Numenor: Final Intent
- The History of Galadriel and Celeborn: Ambiguous Final Intent
- The Elessar (end of Hist. of G & C): Ambiguous Final Intent
- Hist. of G & C: Appendices: Final Intent
- Hist of G & C App. D: The Port of Lond Daer: Final Intent
- The Disaster of the Gladden Fields: Final Intent
- Cirion and Eorl: Final Intent
- The Quest of Erebor: Final Intent
- The Hunt for the Ring: Final Intent
- The Battles of the Fords of Isen: Final Intent
- The Druedain: Final Intent
- The Istari: Final Intent
- The Palantiri: Final Intent
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Humphrey Carpenter): While this is not technically a book by Tolkien about Middle-earth, a great many of the letters that it contains discuss various Middle-earth related issues. Their topics include Tolkien's comments and speculation while writing his stories, the publication process, details about Middle-earth not covered in the other books, and speculation on the deeper issues raised by the tales. (There are also quite a few letters that deal primarily with Tolkien's personal life and beliefs, which are interesting in their own right.) Developmental to Final Intent, depending on when each letter was written and your own preference.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Parts I-II
These books contain Tolkien's earliest writings about Middle-earth
and its history, and they include some incredibly vivid and beautiful
stories and scenes. The tales themselves are told in the context of a
framing story about an early English sailor who stumbles upon Tol
Eressea. Be warned that it can be quite difficult to follow these
tales, as they differ substantially in detail and in general from the
corresponding stories in The Silmarillion
and The Lord of the Rings and they are
often not in finished form. Only Christopher Tolkien's commentary on
the stories assmues knowledge of The
Silmarillion; for the stories themselves, having read that book
can make this one at once more and less confusing.
Developmental, as most of these stories were entirely rewritten, replaced, or just
plain dropped in later versions of the mythology. However, note for
example that the tale "The Fall of Gondolin" in Part II is the only
full description of that crucial event that Tolkien ever wrote.
Sections in the database
- I and II: Appendices on Names: Developmental
- II: The Tale of Tinuviel: Developmental
- II: Turambar and the Foaloke: Developmental
- II: The Fall of Gondolin: Developmental
- The Lays of Beleriand (HoMe III): The existing fragments of Tolkien's poetic versions of the stories in The Silmarillion, which can be beautiful and powerful in some places and wearying in others. Those reading this book before The Book of Lost Tales should be prepared for substantial confusion at first: most of these poems were written when the mythology was very different than the version in The Silmarillion, and both the poems and the commentary may be difficult to understand without being familiar with both of those books. Developmental, but some parts nevertheless constitute Tolkien's latest or most fully developed work on their topics and might thus be considered Ambiguous Final Intent
- The Shaping of Middle-earth
The earliest development of Middle-earth as a world in its own
right. In addition to the earliest sketches of what would become the
Silmarillion, this book contains some of Tolkien's earliest maps of
Arda, including his only hints at extrapolation beyond the area shown
on the usual maps of LotR (make sure you find a copy that includes
them! Some paperback editions leave them out).
Sections in the database
- The Earliest Silmarillion: Developmental
- The Quenta: Developmental
- The First 'Silmarillion' Map: Developmental
- The Ambarkanta: Developmental
- The Earliest Annals of Valinor and Beleriand: Developmental
- Appendices: Translations into Old English: Developmental
- The Lost Road
This book contains a very broad range of content: the earliest
versions of the tale of the Fall of Numenor (including early work on a
"time travel" story based on that theme), the state of the mythology
at the time that LotR was begun, and the Etymologies which are of
great value to those interested in the Elvish languages.
Sections in the database
- The Lost Road: Developmental
- The Later Annals of Valinor and Beleriand: Developmental
- The Lhammas: Developmental
- Quenta Silmarillion: Developmental
- Etymologies: Developmental
- The Second 'Silmarillion' Map: Developmental
- The History of The Lord of the Rings (HoMe VI-IX) (usually published in four volumes: The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring, and either the first third of Sauron Defeated (listed elsewhere) or the separate volume The End of the Third Age): These books track the development of LotR through many drafts from its origins to its final form. Watch as Trotter the hobbit turns into Strider the human, as an adventure to replenish the dwindling Baggins fortune turns into a quest to save the world, and as dozens of story elements seem to come as even more of a surprise to their author than they do to us. Some of Christopher Tolkien's notes indicate places where the published text seems to have deviated unintentionally from the final drafts. The final book includes the unpublished Epilogue to LotR. (Note that this is also mentioned separately under Sauron Defeated.) Developmental (the classic examples of that class, in fact), although the Epilogue at the end might conceivably be rated as Ambiguous Final Intent. Additionally, Christopher's notes on errors in the published texts should probably carry as much weight as the published versions.
- Sauron Defeated
The first third of this book is "The End of the Third Age", the
conclusion of "The History of The Lord of the
Rings" subseries, including the unpublished epilogue to LotR.
(Note that this is also mentioned under the entry for that subseries
as a whole.) The final two thirds consists of early writings related
to Numenor. "The Notion Club Papers" is an abandoned but
substantial draft of a fascinating "dream-based time-travel" story
connecting members of a discussion group in the present day (based
loosely on the Inklings, a group including Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and
others) to their ancestors in Numenor. "The Drowning of
Anadûnê" is more or less a retelling of the Downfall of
Numenor from the perspective of humans many years later when they had
forgotten the nature of the Elves and the details of their history.
It's an amazingly different perspective (some of which survived into
the "Akallabeth" in the published Simlarillion.
Sections in the database
- The End of the Third Age
- The Epilogue (of LotR): Ambiguous Final Intent
- The Notion Club Papers
- The Drowning of Anadune
- Lowdham's Report on the Adunaic Language
- Morgoth's Ring and The War of the Jewels
(HoMe X-XI) ("The Later Silmarillion"):
These books contain Tolkien's latest work on the Silmarillion,
including the texts from which the published version was primarily
compiled. They also include a number of fascinating essays, showing
entirely new directions that Tolkien was considering taking the
mythology and shedding light on many details of Middle-earth and its
history. Despite this, the books would be very hard to follow on
their own: reading The Silmarillion first
is all but essential.
Final Intent and Ambiguous Final Intent: these books, along with
Unfinished Tales, are the source of
almost all of our most canonical information about the First Age.
Sections in the database
- X: Ainulindale: (Ambiguous) Final Intent
- X: The Annals of Aman: (Ambiguous) Final Intent
- X,XI: The Later Quenta Silmarillion: Final Intent
- X: Laws and Customs among the Eldar: (Ambiguous) Final Intent
- X: Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth: Final Intent
- X: Myths Transformed: Ambiguous Final Intent
- X: Appendix: Synnopsis of the Texts: (Developmental)
- X: Index: Star-names: Final Intent
- XI: The Grey Annals: (Ambiguous) Final Intent
- XI: The Wanderings of Hurin: Final Intent
- XI: Aelfwine and Dirhaval: Ambiguous Final Intent
- XI: Of the Ents and the Eagles: Final Intent
- XI: The Tale of Years (and note on "The Ruin of Doriath"): Ambiguous Final Intent
- XI: Quendi and Eldar: Final Intent
- The Peoples of Middle-earth
This book is divided into three main parts. The first is a history
of the writing of the Appendices and Prologue of The Lord of the Rings. The second is a
collection of significant essays written late in Tolkien's life. The
final section contains the abandoned beginnings of two stories, one
about a man in Second Age Middle-earth who meets the returning
Numenorians and the other a sequel to LotR itself.
Developmental and Final Intent.
Sections in the database
- General History of the Prologue and Appendices to LotR: Developmental
- [Writing of] The Appendix on Languages: Developmental
- The History of the Akallabeth: Developmental
- [Writing of] The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen: Developmental
- [Writing of App.A:] Durin's Folk: Developmental
- Of Dwarves and Men: Final Intent
- The Shibboleth of Feanor: Final Intent
- The Problem of Ros: Ambiguous Final Intent (largely rejected)
- Last Writings: Ambiguous Final Intent
- Dangweth Pengolodh: Final Intent
- Of Lembas: Final Intent
- The New Shadow: Developmental
- Tal-Elmar: Developmental
- "Osanwe-kenta: `Enquiry into the Communication of Thought'" (Published in the Tolkien linguistics journal Vinyar Tengwar #39 (July 1998), available in "The Collected Vinyar Tengwar Vol. 4" Elvish Linguistic Fellowship website): A truly remarkable essay (associated with "Quendi and Eldar" in The War of the Jewels), discussing the "telepathy" possessed by all "incarnates" in Middle-earth, ways in which the Ainur could become "bound" to their physical forms, and the moral decisions of Manwe regarding Melkor. (This issue of Vinyar Tengwar also contains a passage omitted from App. D of "Quendi and Eldar" as published, of primarily linguistic interest.) Final Intent.
- The Children of Hurin:
A central tale from the First Age of Middle-earth, long before the
era of The Lord of the Rings, it tells
the tragedy of the family of a human hero cursed by Morgoth, the first
Dark Lord. The book is based primarily on the "Narn I Hin Hurin"
published in Unfinished Tales, but
Christopher Tolkien has filled the gaps in that version with portions
of other writings by his father to produce the only complete narrative
story about Middle-earth published after Tolkien's death.
One aim of this book was to provide a glimpse of the First Age accessible to those who have read The Lord of the Rings but not The Silmarillion. It is too soon to say how well it fills that role: the story does stand on its own, but some readers may feel lost among the unfamiliar names and background. The book's introduction provides some very helpful context (though it is a bit long: if you get bogged down, go ahead and start the main text), and there is a list of names in the back of the book for reference if you find yourself confused.