It's not hard to draw connections between the mythology of Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium and the events of the writer's real life. From Tolkien's difficult childhood as an orphan, to his enduring and epic love for his teenage sweetheart, to his formative years as a young man at Oxford and at war, Tolkien's life was nearly as dramatic as those of his Middle-earth heroes.
The below Tolkien books are must-reads for fans who want to understand the indelible influence his writing left on fantasy and storytelling as a whole, or for those curious about how his life may have influenced his writing. From some of his most famous works to biographies about the late author, these books will be precious to anyone who has been touched by Tolkien's imagination.
The Fellowship of the Ring
You've likely already read this fantasy classic, but now's the perfect time to re-read it in advance of the Tolkien release. Tolkien initially wrote The Lord of the Rings to be one epic novel, but it was ultimately published in three volumes. The first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, begins an unforgettable saga with an influence on the fantasy genre that can't be exaggerated. Fellowship follows hobbit Frodo and his friends Sam, Pippin, and Merry as they leave their bucolic home in the Shire on a quest to destroy the Ring, on the advice of Gandalf the Wizard.
Throughout the three books the hobbits and their companions face trials and triumphs they never could have imagined. The same could be said for Tolkien and the fellowships he was a part of throughout his life.
After his experiences in the war, which included influential relationships with friends who were ultimately killed in combat, Tolkien began a professorship at Oxford, his alma mater. There, he befriended fellow professor C.S. Lewis, and the pair joined an all-male literary group called The Inklings. During his years with this Oxford fellowship Tolkien developed the novel which would later become The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s friendships, both throughout war and throughout his time at Oxford, likely had a big impact on the fellowships presented in his writing. The author's friendships will probably feature significantly in the upcoming movie too, so now's the perfect time to re-read this classic and consider the role fellowship played in the author's own life.
Beren and Lúthien
Published as a standalone novel for the first time in 2017, Beren and Lúthien is a love story in Tolkien’s epic legendarium. Set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, it follows the romance between Beren, a mere mortal man, and the immortal elf-queen Lúthien.
This tale of two lovers from very different lives may have been inspired by Tolkien’s own romantic history. When Tolkien was a 16-year-old orphan he fell hard for a 19-year-old named Edith Bratt.
The priest who cared for young Tolkien disapproved of his ward dating a younger woman, and so Tolkien and Bratt were separated. But on the night of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote his long-lost love a letter proclaiming his feelings. Bratt left her fiancé for Tolkien, and the pair ultimately shared a long life together.
Today, the couple's tombstones are a clear indication of how their love influenced Tolkien’s writing: his tombstone reads “Beren,” hers “Lúthien.” Download Beren and Lúthien today and experience this testimony to their true love.
Tolkien and the Great War
In this fascinating biography, Tolkien biographer John Garth explores Tolkien’s traumatic experiences in war, particularly the deaths of two of Tolkien's close comrades. After graduating from Oxford, Tolkien enlisted at age 21, fully expecting to die in combat. However, he went on to survive the Battle of the Somme and other now-infamous points in World War I.
Through analyzing Tolkien’s wartime writing, Garth explores “how a writer turned academia into art, how deeply friendship supports and wounds us, and how the death and disillusionment that characterized World War I inspired Tolkien’s lush saga” (Detroit Free Press). Tolkien’s experiences in wartime are likely to be explored significantly in the upcoming biopic.
The Children of Húrin
This epic fantasy novel was revised but incomplete when Tolkien passed away in 1973. In 2007, it was published as a standalone novel for the first time thanks to editing by Tolkien’s son Christopher. The story is set in the First Age of Middle-earth and follows the hard life of the warrior Túrin, son of Húrin, who is cursed from birth by Morgoth—also known as Lord of the Dark—a malevolent spirit.
In Defending Middle-Earth, Tolkien scholar Patrick Curry explores the appeal of Tolkien’s writing, arguing that readers are devoted to the legendarium not just for its escapist value, but because it taps into a primal need we all have for myths, storytelling, and—to an extent—spirituality.
The late Ursula K. Le Guin herself called it “a most valuable and timely book,” and it’s hard to imagine a higher recommendation than that.
The Road to Middle-Earth
The Road to Middle-Earth is the ultimate read for Tolkien fans who want a comprehensive understanding of the legendarium before the biopic comes out this spring (or before the new TV series hits screens!).
In this fascinating work, Tolkien expert Tom Shippey reveals how Tolkien revolutionized the fantasy genre. He also explores some of the denser works in the legendarium, such as The Silmarillion, explaining their place in the greater mythology of Middle-earth. For anyone craving a greater understanding of Tolkien and his work, this novel is a perfect blend of scholarly analysis and accessible, fun insight.
The Art of Lord of the Rings
This incredible collection makes a perfect keepsake for Tolkien fans. Published on the sixtieth anniversary of Lord of the Rings, this book features sketches the author made while writing. Tolkien never intended much of his art for publication, and instead used drawing as a way to flesh out his ideas; however, this volume is a fascinating opportunity for readers to look back on Tolkien’s creative process and see the author's legendarium through his own eyes.
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