Tolkien’s books about Arda

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 (his legendarium).  This is a brief introduction to his Arda-related works, not a comprehensive bibliography, as he had many other published works as well.

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 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 was fully integrated into Tolkien’s mythology much earlier in the history of its writing.  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 Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.  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), commonly published in three volumes (entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King).  The decision to publish in three volumes was made by Tolkien’s publisher, not Tolkien himself.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)

Presented as a collection of Hobbit poetry and including a few explanatory notes, this minor work is notable mainly for its glimpse of in-universe folklore. Only two of the poems are really about Bombadil, but they shed some light on his place within Middle-earth. All of the poems can also be found in the anthology collections entitled The Tolkien Reader and Tales from the Perilous Realm.

The Road Goes Ever On (1967)

A song cycle, with music by Donald Swann and lyrics taken from Tolkien’s poems, mostly ones found in The Lord of the Rings. Also includes an introduction (effectively liner notes) with background material on the songs and settings. Later editions added “Bilbo’s Last Song”, which has also been published as a stand-alone hardcover with illustrations by Pauline Baynes.

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 somewhat misleading though.  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 Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977 from extensive notes left by his father, and with the assistance of fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay.  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 correspond to the chronologically latest writing by the elder Tolkien on any given subject. 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. There is a Second Edition of The Silmarillion which is usually what is found in bookshops these days, but the differences between it and the first edition are minimal.

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, as the writings found in it are for the most part unrelated and, as the title suggests, none are fully complete.  It is still a fascinating read for the devoted fan.

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.  Unlike UT, these drafts are much more fragmentary and the editorial comments by Christopher take up much more space. The series is effectively a scholarly study of the elder Tolkien’s writing process throughout his life, covering the evolution of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, although not The Hobbit. The 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth are:

  1. The Book of Lost Tales, Part One
  2. The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two
  3. The Lays of Beleriand
  4. The Shaping of Middle-earth
  5. The Lost Road and Other Writings
  6. The Return of the Shadow
  7. The Treason of Isengard
  8. The War of the Ring
  9. Sauron Defeated
  10. Morgoth’s Ring
  11. The War of the Jewels
  12. The Peoples of Middle-earth

Volumes I-V cover the earliest origins of The Silmarillion, originally as the substantially different “Book of Lost Tales”, and tracing its evolution through Tolkien’s verse works and historical summaries and essays, up until the time of the publication of The Hobbit. Volume V also covers the earliest version of the Númenor myth, found in the originally-unrelated time travel story “The Lost Road”, which was written in a challenge with C.S. Lewis.

Volumes VI-IX are The History of The Lord of the Rings, covering the evolution of the six books of the story proper, although not the Appendices. The beginning of Volume IX concludes this section (including the finished but unpublished epilogue to LOTR), but most of the volume consists of the unfinished novel “The Notion Club Papers” about a fictionalized version of Tolkien’s own writing group The Inklings, while also similar Númenórean material and time travel themes as in “The Lost Road”. (Note: the first section of Volume IX is sometimes published separately as The End of the Third Age.)

Volumes X and XI are collectively known as The Later Silmarillion and cover the evolution of the First Age works from the time Tolkien returned to them shortly after finishing The Lord of the Rings until his death. Much of this material is familiar from the published Silmarillion, though some early stories were never rewritten, and some expansions and proposed revisions from this late phase were not included by Christopher in the published version. Volume XII covers the evolution of the Appendices to LOTR as well as some late story fragments by Tolkien, including the abortive sequel to LOTR, “The New Shadow”.

The Children of Húrin (2007)

The only one of the “great tales” from The Silmarillion that was close enough to being finished to be presented as a stand-alone work, the story of Túrin Turambar finally appeared as such thirty years later, with illustrations by Alan Lee. Most of this version was previously published in Unfinished Tales, though it is here cleaned up and includes substantial new notes from Christopher Tolkien. Can be read without having read The Silmarillion first, though it benefits from the full context.

The History of The Hobbit (2007)

Long-delayed but finally finished by John D. Rateliff after the original editor passed away, this two-volume work (the two volumes are titled Mr. Baggins and Return to Bag-End, respectively) covers the originally semi-separate origins and evolution of Tolkien’s first published novel. Like The History of Middle-earth it includes substantial passages from drafts and revisions. Published with Christopher Tolkien’s blessing.


 

Several other works by and about Tolkien are significant for shedding light on his legendarium. A non-comprehensive list of those could include:

On Fairy-Stories (1939)

Originally a speech given by Tolkien as part of the Andrew Lang lecture series at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, this essay describes Tolkien’s ideas about what we now call fantasy writing, especially his concept of sub-creation and the other religious and philosophical concepts that underpinned his writing. Often published alongside the allegorical story Leaf by Niggle as Tree and Leaf. This combined version can be found in several collections, including The Tolkien Reader and Tales from the Perilous Realm.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977)

The original, authorized biography by Humphrey Carpenter, and still one of the best books on the subject, despite the advances in Tolkien scholarship that have been made since the Seventies. The best book to start with if you are casually interested in learning more about Tolkien’s life and work, or are only beginning such studies.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981)

Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, newer editions also include an index compiled by Hammond & Scull. This collection includes 354 letters written between 1914, when Tolkien was an undergraduate, and 1973, the final letter from four days before his death. These letters shed light on Tolkien’s views of a variety of subjects, including his fictional works, and how those views changed over the decades. There are several known, extant letters not included in this collection, some of which (including the famous “Munby letter”) are owned by collectors and have never been made available to the general public.

The Annotated Hobbit (1988)

Edited by Douglas A. Anderson, who also produced a “revised and expanded” second edition in 2002. Includes the full text of The Hobbit (as well as illustrations in the second edition) and extensive marginal notes from Anderson. Also includes several poems and texts not easily found elsewhere, especially prior to the publication of The History of The Hobbit.

Tolkien and the Great War (2003)

A Mythopoeic Award-winning biography by John Garth, focusing on Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War (in which all but one of his close friends were killed) and the lasting impact that left on his life and work. Drawing on substantial new scholarship, Garth’s book is distinguished from the mass of other Tolkien biographies published in recent decades by actually bringing something meaningful and fresh to the table.

The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion (2005)

Originally intended to be an annotated edition of The Lord of the Rings before it became far too large to be published as such, this book was written by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull while they were editing the 50th Anniversary Edition of LOTR. The main body of the book is effectively annotations, each entry preceded by a page number and brief quotation from the main book. It also includes several unpublished or hard-to-find texts, including Tolkien’s own Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings and a portion of his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman that had been excluded from the version published in the Letters as letter 131.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006)

Perhaps Hammond & Scull’s magnum opus, this two-volume work is to Carpenter’s Biography as The History of Middle-earth is to the published Silmarillion. The first volume, the Chronology, is a highly detailed (frequently day-by-day) summary of Tolkien’s entire life. The second volume, the Reader’s Guide, is an alphabetical listing of essays, biographies, and discussions about topics relating to all aspects of Tolkien’s life and work. Reading this is a very different experience from reading a typical biography and it is not recommended as a place to begin studying Tolkien, but its extraordinary detail and depth are an excellent complement to other biographies for those who wish to learn as much as possible about the author.


 

Beyond the written word, there are several works of visual art by Tolkien that are of interest to some readers. Perhaps most famous is the poster map of Middle-earth by Pauline Baynes, created in partnership with Tolkien and published in 1970. This map includes several place names not found in any writing published during Tolkien’s lifetime. There are also three volumes of Tolkien’s own artwork, edited and with commentary by Hammond & Scull, much of which was previously unpublished. These are J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (1995), The Art of The Hobbit (2011), and The Art of The Lord of the Rings (2015).

Many readers are interested in the multitude of reference works about Tolkien, though most such books do not bear mentioning here. Robert Foster’s The Complete Guide to Middle-earth (a revision of Foster’s earlier Guide to Middle-earth) is probably the best published encyclopedia on Tolkien’s secondary world. Christopher Tolkien referred to it at several points in the books he edited, though not always agreeing with. There are two prominent books of maps of Middle-earth: The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad (1981, second edition 1991) and Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey (1981). Neither is perfect but both are for the most part solid references. For a guide to more serious Tolkien studies, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment edited by Michael D. C. Drout (2006) is an impressive work, despite Drout’s own reservations about the project. Finally, for a far more comprehensive look at Tolkien’s bibliography than is presented here, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography by Wayne G. Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson (1993) remains the definitive reference.

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2 Responses to Tolkien’s books about Arda

  1. teensywriter says:

    I have no idea whether or not you still check this site, as you seem to have stated multiple times that it was just an archive now, but I just wanted to let you know how great these posts are! As someone who adores Tolkien’s writings with all their heart, this site is really helpful and interesting to learn from, especially because so many of the books can get confusing if you’re not great at remembering so much information.
    Anyways, thanks again!

    • Thank you very much for your kind words! It always means a lot to hear when people get something out of my writing. 🙂 I do still get e-mail notifications of comments here even though I don’t update the site anymore. If you liked this essay, you might be interested in the companion piece to it that I posted on my new blog (link below) which goes into more detail about the contents of each book. I temporarily got back into Tolkien lore in a big way last year so the essays on that blog tend to be much longer and more in-depth than most of the ones here.

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