This is my own preferred order in which I read Tolkien’s plethora of Middle Earth related books. It also came to my attention that my reading order is very similar to the guys over at TolkienLibrary. So head over there for a more detailed explanation on why, what and when.
As for my list this is the order I most recommend you start, especially if you are new to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings:
- The Hobbit: Why not begin with where it all began.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit–hole, and that means comfort.”
The Hobbit is an easy and lighthearted fantasy story, which Tolkien wrote first, without having much back-story and historical details in mind
- The Lord of The Rings: The Lord of the Rings is the natural sequel of The Hobbit and completes this story. However in this book it is clear that Tolkien’s mind was already on the vast mythologies and history behind this tale and this shines through the complete book.
- The Silmarillion: An amazing journey to embark on. The Silmarillion is not a light read. Note that in contrast to most of the later stuff in this list, it is a complete narrative within the covers of one book. You don’t get confronted with a series of unfinished texts and commentary.
- Unfinished Tales: Unfinished Tales, as the title aptly suggests, is a collection of Tolkien’s expanded Middle-earth stories. These are mostly longer versions of tales from The Silmarillion, but there are plenty of revealing Lord of the Rings moments featuring old favorites Gandalf, Elrond, The Nazgul, Balrogs,… edited into a single volume by the authors son, Christopher Tolkien.
- The History of Middle Earth: The History of Middle-earth is one of the largest works of ‘literary archeology’. Undertaken by Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien. Christopher Tolkien edited the vast collection of manuscripts together with maps and illustrations and published most of his father’s Middle-earth writings as the 12-volume History of Middle-earth series. These books greatly expand on the original material published in The Silmarillion, and in many cases diverge from it.
Some more detail on what’s in The History of Middle-earth:
The Book of Lost Tales – Part 1 and Part 2: The Book of Lost Tales was Tolkien’s first go at creating his mythology. It is sort of a proto-Silmarillion; all of the tales are retold in other forms in the later works, but here Tolkien is a very young writer feeling his way.
The Lays of Beleriand – Part 3: “The Lay of Leithian” — the tale of Beren and Lúthien, in several variants, and “The Lay of the Children of Húrin”, told in rhyming couplets and alliterative verse, respectively. There are also the fragments of some additional alliterative poems.
The Shaping of Middle-earth – Part 4 and 5: The Lost Road and Other Writings: These two volumes comprise the early Silmarillion, a more mature version of what originated in The Book of Lost Tales. The first part of Volume 5, from which it takes its title, is a history of Númenor. Volume 5 also contains a significant amount of linguistic information.
The Return of the Shadow – Part 6, The Treason of Isengard – Part 7, The War of the Ring – Part 8 and Sauron Defeated – Part 9: These four volumes cover the history of the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Volume IX also includes “The Notion Club Papers”, which is another attempt to tell the tale of Númenor.
Morgoth’s Ring – Part 10, The War of the Jewels – Part 11: These two cover the later Silmarillion, that is, Tolkien’s work on it following the publication of The Lord of the Rings.
The Peoples of Middle-earth – Part 12: This final volume covers the writing of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings and also some other miscellaneous writings and unfinished tales.
- The Children of Hurin: If you skipped The history of Middle Earth and jumped right to The Children of Hurin then you are going to absolutely love this. Christopher Tolkien edited the manuscripts to form a consistent narrative, and published it in 2007 as an independent work. Hurin is my personal favorite character in the entire history of Middle-Earth.
- The Fall of Gondolin: The Fall of Gondolin is one of the stories in The Book of Lost Tales (not on my list) which formed the basis for a section in his later work, The Silmarillion. A stand-alone, book-length version of the story was published on 30 August 2018.It is an amazing story and such a pivotal event in the history of Middle-Earth.
- Beren and Luthien: The story of Beren and Luthien is my favourite story in the entire Middle-Earth, and what a way to end it all. Hailed as the best love story of all, The tale of Beren and Lúthien is told in several works by J. R. R. Tolkien (firstly the Silmarillion and then later in the Unfinished Tales and also the History of Middle-Earth). It is the story of the love and adventures of the mortal Man Beren and the immortal Elf-maiden Lúthien.