Most everyone knows that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but there are many more books, most of them published after Tolkien’s death, that tell us more about Middle-earth and Arda in general. This is a brief introduction to some of them for those who might not be familiar.
The Hobbit (1937)
This is the first book set in Middle-earth that was published, but it was not originally intended to be about Middle-earth at all. The Hobbit began as a series of stories that Tolkien told his children that were eventually written down and ultimately published. Tolkien slipped references to Middle-earth into the story and eventually it grew to be part of the overall mythos. Tolkien twice revised The Hobbit, once in 1951 and once in 1966. One of his most important changes was to significantly rewrite the Riddles in the Dark chapter to reflect the malevolent nature of the Ring that Tolkien envisioned after writing The Lord of the Rings. The the Third Edition resulting from the latter revision is the most widely used version of The Hobbit today.
The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)
Written after Tolkien’s publisher asked him for another story about hobbits, The Lord of the Rings is more fully integrated into Tolkien’s mythology than The Hobbit is. It lacks some of the more whimsical aspects of the earlier book and makes numerous references to the large backstory to the tale. Tolkien revised The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s to create the Second Edition which remains the most widely used version today. The (more or less) definitive version, however, is the 50th Anniversary Edition edited by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond. This edition most accurately reflects Tolkien’s wishes for The Lord of the Rings. While frequently called a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings is actually a single book divided into six parts (plus a Prologue and several appendices) and commonly published in three volumes. The volume split was a decision made by Tolkien’s publisher, not Tolkien himself.
The Silmarillion (1977)
The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s first book about Arda, though it was not published until four years after his death. To call it a single book is misleading, however. It is a collection of stories, of myths, that take place early in the timeline of Tolkien’s mythology, mostly in the First Age of the Sun. The published Silmarillion was edited and published by JRRT’s son Christopher Tolkien in 1997 from extensive notes left by his father. The nature of Christopher’s task, organizing decades worth of changing material into a coherent narrative, led to some editorial choices that means the Silmarillion does not always follow the elder Tolkien’s last wishes for his stories. Christopher Tolkien had to make a trade-off between giving an account of his father’s last, unorganized notes or telling a single consistent story. Fortunately for Tolkien fans, Christopher did both: the latter with The Silmarillion and the former with the books he published in subsequent decades.
Unfinished Tales (1980)
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth is the first of Christopher Tolkien’s compendiums of unfinished and largely unedited material that his father left after his death. It includes a wealth of information about the first three Ages of Arda. However, it is not by any stretch of imagination a novel and the writings found in it are somewhat unrelated and, as the title suggests, none are finished. It is still a fascinating read for the devoted fan.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981)
This book, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, is a collection of 354 letters that Tolkien wrote between 1914 and 1973. The first letter was written while Tolkien was at University before fighting in the First World War and the last just four days before Tolkien died. Letters shows Tolkien’s thoughts on a wide variety of issues, including his fictional creations. It is a treasure trove of information, but caution must be exercised when using the Letters as a source of knowledge about Arda since they were written over such a long period of time, during which Tolkien’s ideas changed.
The History of Middle-earth (1983-96)
This is not a single book but a series of 12 books edited by Christopher Tolkien that, like Unfinished Tales, give various drafts of Tolkien’s myths from their earliest conceptions in the 1910s to his final ideas about them in the 1970s. They do not discuss the evolution of The Hobbit, however; that subject is discussed in a separate book called The History of The Hobbit, edited by John Rateliff. The 12 books of The History of Middle-earth are:
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part One
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two
- The Lays of Beleriand
- The Shaping of Middle-earth
- The Lost Road and Other Writings
- The Return of the Shadow
- The Treason of Isengard
- The War of the Ring
- Sauron Defeated
- Morgoth’s Ring
- The War of the Jewels
- The Peoples of Middle-earth
Volumes VI-IX are The History of The Lord of the Rings, containing numerous drafts of Tolkien’s most famous works. The other volumes largely deal with the writings related to The Silmarillion, though some deal with the Second and Third Ages as well (especially The Lost Road and The Peoples of Middle-earth).