Every year on the Twenty-fifth of March the Tolkien Society holds a Tolkien Read Day. This is the day that marks the climactic moment in Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If you know enough to argue the vagaries of converting the Gondorion calendar or the Shire Reckoning into modern Gregorian calendars then you know enough about this already. The focus for this year for the Tolkien Society is “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction”. Although, this is a very interesting topic for many students and fans of Tolkien’s work, I think it lacks appeal to the general reader. You can get too focused on the minutia of the true devotee’s passion and miss a chance to spread something you love to other readers, young and old alike.
My own journey through Middle Earth started when I was five and my dad started reading me The Hobbit. He really had no idea what he was starting. I’ve spread my love of these books to friends and family over the years. They’ve given me an appreciation for Tolkien’s work as well as many of the things that inspired him. Now it’s my turn to share with all of you the great experience of the depths of Tolkiana but I’m going to break it down for each type of reader.
For those of you who loved the books since the start of the fourth age and now want to pass along your passion to the hobbit girls and elflings in your life as well as those of you who have just refused to grow up, there are some great options. The best is a small beautifully illustrated book of Bilbo’s Last Song. It is a separate work and fairly spoiler free. You may also be interested in the books based on stories that Tolkien wrote for his children. Roverandom and Mr. Bliss are delightful stories that a creative father used to amuse and comfort his children and Tolkien’s collected Letters from Father Christmas are a great seasonal treat. If your children are interested in more of the author himself, there is the Tolkien volume of the classic Who Was… series. In my opinion, however, nothing can beat just sitting down and reading The Hobbit. It’s a great read for later elementary or middle school readers and also a great story for parents to read to (or with) their kids. Not much of a reading family? Take the unabridged audio on your next car trip. It’s fun, exciting and completely lacking in content that will make you grab at the volume knob.
The movies, while they have their detractors, were good. You’re the person who went to see them because of the hype, but never read the books. The best suggestion for you is to read the books. Yeah, you think you know what happens, and you do have a good amount of general plot, but there is so much more you missed. There are iconic scenes, wonderful characters, and exposition you’ve never even heard of (unless it’s from hearing one of the true believers complaining). Many people, who’ve read the books, read them again and enjoy them just the same as the first time so please give them a try. If however you’re one of those headstrong trailblazers who won’t walk the same path twice there are hundreds of imitators. Many fall utterly short, but there are a few standouts. For younger readers there are the works of Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. Older readers may appreciate Terry Brooks Shannara series, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar Saga novels, Juliet Marillier’s Seven Waters trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series.
Tolkien fans are quick to discriminate between what they consider themselves to be and fans of The Lord of the Rings. Liking The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King is not fan boy or fan girl territory, not anymore. Neither is enjoying more of Tolkien’s writing. In the last several years the Tolkien Estate has released many of the Professor’s previously unavailable or unpublished works. It began with The Silmarillion in 1977. This is the history of Bilbo, Gandalf and Aragorn’s world. It’s almost like a Middle Earth Iliad/Bible, and it reads like it. The stories are great, but the language and phraseology can put some readers off. If you like it, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth will please you as well. The same can be said for The Children of Hurin and the forthcoming Beren and Luthien, although I have found The Children of Hurin to be easier to read than some of the others. Conversely, you could look at the professor’s more scholarly works like his attempts at interpreting King Arthur and the Nibelung with The Fall of Arthur and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. There are a few other titles like these that are more obscure, but this should keep you happy for a while.
This isn’t for the people who memorized the Cirth runes or have a grammatically correct tattoo in Tengwar. It’s for the people who were in the last category and want to make the jump into true fandom. There are two camps here, the purists and the omnivores. For the purists we start with Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle Earth. For visually oriented fans this is a must. It has maps, paths, climatology and floor plans. It’s mostly conjecture, but well researched conjecture. Then we have the art books like Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien’s World which feature great artists’ rendition of scenes from Tolkien’s work, or better still The Art of the Lord of the Rings, which features Tolkien’s own drawings and water colors.
For the less discerning, or the more voracious, there are countless encyclopedias and guides, like J.E.A. Tyler’s Tolkien Companion, or books that interpret Tolkien and his works through any number of disciplines like politics with The Hobbit Party.
The must read for everybody here is The History of Middle Earth series. This is a twelve volume set of notes, back story, commentary and alternative takes on the stories you’ve come to love so far. These are not for the faint of heart; they are interesting, but the narrative repeats and is broken up.
This is the post doc of the Tolkien realm. These books are for people who hit fandom and come out the other side truly intellectually curious. You want to know where these books came from, who was the author and where are the roots of Middle Earth. The Story of Kulervo is the most recent item on the list and a work of Tolkien himself, but it is a fragment of a greater work, The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Much of Tolkien’s early inspiration came from here. Tolkien also did his own translation of Beowulf and wrote a commentary, The Monster and his Critics. Both are interesting and enlightening but the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is interesting as well. The Prose and Poetic Eddas are fascinating and full of names you will recognize, from Thorin to Gandalf. For more on Tolkien the man you can see any of the wonderful biographies, but I especially recommend Tolkien and the Great War. The Inklings can give you a wonderful look into the friendship and collaboration of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others.
Tolkien wrote, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The same is true for delving into Tolkien’s writing. You may just nip round the corner or you may start a journey that lasts a lifetime.