It had been a while since I last read The Lord of the Rings—just about four and a half years, to be exact. Same with The Hobbit. And, to be honest, I couldn’t give a timeline on when I last read The Silmarillion; I just know it was sometime in high school. Since I’ve been rereading so many favorite books from my childhood over the past year and a half, it might be surprising that I saved this one for last. But, as the popular phrase goes, I wanted to save the best for last.
J. R. R. Tolkien is my favorite author. Far from being a cop-out fellow-fantasy-author answer, Tolkien is my favorite for a number of reasons. I’ve read a ton of his books, and though I have yet to read all of Tolkien’s literature, I’ve read enough to know that Tolkien and I share similarities in our writing process. I’ve picked up a few stylistic quirks in my prose from him. Beyond that, I find a lot of encouragement from Tolkien’s personal writing journey. Reading through The History of Middle-earth Series gave me a glimpse into the way Tolkien. His constant revisions of his stories and his stop-and-start way of writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are all very similar to my own writing journey with my fantasy series over the past decade or so.
Regarding Tolkien’s works, it’s hard to review these books not only because of their nostalgic value for me, but also because their style and narrative progression is not exactly congruent to modern storytelling techniques, in some ways. The Silmarillion reads like mythology, not a fantasy narrative; The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit come closer to modern conventions, but even they lack some driving narrative and dramatic setups and payoffs that the movies tend to emphasize. Reading Tolkien’s work is not for the faint of heart, but totally worth it, in my opinion. So with that, here are my thoughts from my most recent reread of the main “Tolkien Canon,” my shorthand for The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.
The Silmarillion: Rereading this book was a delight. Because I’ve read it before and have been immersed in the lore of Middle-earth for so long, it wasn’t as difficult a book to read as I expected. I love this book a lot, even though it is essentially is a collection of tragic myths. Most of the stories don’t have a happy ending, unless you consider The Lord of the Rings the true ending of the overall myth of Middle-earth. But I think there’s something underrated about tragedies in general that The Silmarillion does super well: characters face consequences for their sins and mistakes, good intentions can still be used for evil, and all of us, even the noblest of heroes, face suffering in this world because of the forces of Darkness. We need Light and good and a Savior. Man (and Elf-kind) are unable to resist the lies of the Enemy, personified first as Morgoth and later as Sauron. There are so many true and beautiful things about suffering, the fight against darkness, and hope in The Silmarillion, and I just appreciate it so much.
Do I believe every fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings should read The Silmarillion? Not necessarily. There are references in The Lord of the Rings that will have less meaning to you if you don’t, but I must admit it is a challenge to read unless you’re deep into nerdy or ancient literature like I aspire to be. I would also caution that the book doesn’t read like a cohesive narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all connected, but there’s not a central heroic figure tying the tales together and it reads like a history book at points. Some of the stories from The Silmarillion have been published as longer single narratives in recent years, and though I haven’t read all of them, those might be easier starting points before diving into this book. I’ll end with this: I do recommend The Silmarillion for those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and want to read more Tolkien. It’s a rewarding challenge of a read, and this certainly won’t be the last time I read through the book in my life.
The Hobbit: I’m fond of this book, though I don’t know that it would make it into my top ten reads. While it’s a charming adventure with some compelling themes to draw from it, it does lack some depth when contrasted against later Middle-earth tales. As I reread this book, it was easy for me to see how Tolkien’s writing style and humor have impacted my own writing. I see hints of Hobbit-tone in Whitman Court in particular. The characters are one of my favorite aspects of The Hobbit. Bilbo’s character growth is well done. Thorin is compelling and his fall both tragic yet redemptive. The Dwarves as a whole remind me of the Israelites in Exodus, grumbling quickly even after something’s gone right. The plot itself is also very satisfying, tying together all the adventures seemingly stitched together on their journey to the mountain into one climactic battle. It can be a bit sluggish a story at times, relying on summary rather than detailed scenes, but overall it’s a satisfying, classic adventure.
The Lord of the Rings: I don’t think any other story can beat this one for the top spot of my favorite fiction books of all time. It manages to merge both the fun adventure of The Hobbit with the seriousness and depth of The Silmarillion, with so many quoteable lines, characters to love and cheer for, and themes to ponder. Tolkien’s growth as a writer is also immediately apparent, as The Lord of the Rings is better written than The Hobbit. I think it works well as a sequel to The Hobbit too, even if the tone is darker. That first chapter manages to capture the same clever tone of The Hobbit while ushering us into the dark story of the Ring of Power.
I could ramble on and on about why I love this book, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few reasons. Let me talk about Frodo and Sam first. Back in undergrad, I wrote a paper on how Frodo and Sam are both the heroes of this epic, with Sam representing a more ancient heroic trope (a classic fairytale hero, if you will), and with Frodo representing a new type of hero (a modern, fallible hero). The question of who the hero of The Lord of the Rings truly is still fascinates me, particularly when looking at Frodo and his journey. Interestingly, what struck me this time was the idea that Frodo’s greatest error comes not when he claims the ring for himself at Mount Doom, but when he refuses Sam’s offer to share the load of the Ring’s burden with Sam in Mordor. I’m uncertain if I agree that Frodo’s decision was the correct one in that moment, though it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if Sam had helped carry the Ring through Mordor. The heroism of both Frodo and Sam has always been a fascinating topic for me, and this read-through was no exception.
On to another duality of heroes: I was struck by how both Gandalf and Aragorn represent Christ-figures at different points in the story. Gandalf’s resurrection and departure when his task (the war against Sauron) is completed were reminiscent of Jesus’s first coming, yet Aragorn seems to serve as an illustration of Jesus’s second coming as triumphant King, or at the very least a representation of the Kingdom of God established on Earth by Christ’s coming. The most profound chapter (one that the movies, unfortunately, cut) is the House of Healing chapter in The Return of the King, where Aragorn is depicted as the healing King and the only one who can heal the darkness Eowyn, Merry, and Faramir are gripped by. I love the Biblical parallels in this book and how they point me to truth. Like I said, best fiction book of all time, one that will be hard for any other book to beat. If you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings, I will recommend you do so. It is challenging in places, but so very, very worth it.
Beyond the parallels in The Lord of the Rings, across all of Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories, I noticed one overarching theme that resonated with me. In each of these books, there seems to be a very clear warning to us: we should not hold our creations as high or higher than God’s own creation. Feanor’s Silmarils become idols for him and his people, and ultimately bring their downfall. Lust for the Arkenstone causes noble Thorin to fall. The Rings of Power—though intentionally evil, unlike the other items mentioned—corrupt all they touch. Even the glory and splendor of the Elves isn’t eternal, fading away in the end. As a subcreator, it is a humbling reminder for me, too, not to hold my own stories and written work in too high esteem.
I’m very thankful for J. R. R. Tolkien and his stories. I find encouragement through his relatability with my own writing process and struggles, and I feel inspired by his epic works, filled with great characters and elegant themes of truth. I already want to go back and read through these books again.
Share your thoughts with me – have you read any of Tolkien’s work? What do you appreciate about his stories?
P. S. – This post concludes a nearly two-year journey across some of the books that impacted me most as a young reader, starting all the way back in the summer of 2020 when I reread C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia! I’ve also reread Madeliene L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter since then. I may do a couple more one-off posts in this same vein – I’ve been wanting to reread Jill Williamson’s Blood of Kings trilogy, one of my favorite series from high school. It would also be interesting to reread Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive leading up to the release of Book Five, which is supposed to conclude the first arc of the series, I believe. But we’ll see! I have plenty of other books I still need to read for the first time, ha!