Monday, October 27, 2014

A Course of Tolkien

So the Tolkien bug bit me (again) last week, and now I’m halfway through listening to the audio book of The Silmarillion as I read along with it.  A pleasurable distraction, one whose 45 minutes every day I truly look forward to.  Anyway, it got me thinking.  This being my second time through The Silmarillion, and having read The Hobbit twice, The Lord of the Rings three times, The Children of Hurin once (but the audio CD of that is on deck), and with Little One ready to crack There and Back Again for the first time, I got to wondering (again) at the best order to read Tolkien’s works.

A most logical starting point would be to read them in the order Tolkien (and later on, his son Christopher) published them: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Hurin.  I agree.  The Hobbit can be read by children no younger than ten; The Lord of the Rings I think should wait until Middle School, ages eleven or twelve.  I was twelve when I read it, and it absolutely changed my life.  The latter two works are probably best left for high school or adulthood.

Okay.  You’ve read all four books, all 2,100 pages / one million words of them.  Here’s where the fun begins.

You pick up two reference books: Tolkien’s World from A to Z: The Complete Guide to Middle-earth by Robert Foster and The Complete Tolkien Companion by J. E. A. Tyler.  If you are a true Tolkien fanatic, you can spend hours thumbing through them.  I have, and still do every couple of months. 

Now you reread the books in the true chronological order Tolkien intended.  That is, The Silmarillion is read first, as it begins with the, er, Beginning, and goes right on through the First and Second Ages and the start of the Third.  Then, read The Children of Hurin to get some supplemental First Age Tolkienna fleshed out.  Follow that with informed readings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  All the while adding to your knowledge of Middle-earth with Foster’s and Tyler’s reference guides.  You need not have to worry about spoilers.  More important at this stage are backstories and seeing the characters and plotlines in the greater scheme of Tolkien’s history.

Congratulations.  You are now an official Tolkien expert.

But let’s go a little wild, shall we, and throw caution to the wind! 

The next step is to expand your knowledge of Tolkien’s world that did not necessarily make it into Tolkien’s books.  For starters, try Unfinished Tales.  It’s a thick paperback with several long chapters on various aspects of Middle-earth, divided by Age.  This is a good initial point to begin filling in those holes and answering those unanswerables.  It was in this book, for example, that an enormous riddle from my youth, which no amount of searching Foster and Tyler helped, was finally resolved: who were the other two Istari? Read Unfinished Tales.

And then, read Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume work The History of Middle-earth, culled from just about all of his father’s notes and writings.  I have perused two from the library, but would not be adverse to purchasing the volumes as I come across them (or buying them all at once should I have a financial windfall allowing for a semi-major discretionary purchase).

Two bonus books worth seeking out: The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad and The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  I own one and borrowed the other from a local library on more than one occasion; both are fascinating, informative reads.  Get them, read them, learn them.

You are now a Tolkien Scholar.

Final assignment: read through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Hurin again, though this time while listening to the audio book on headphones.  A slow, almost transcendent and enriching experience.  Once I complete Silmarillion in this fashion I intend to move straight on to Hurin.

I myself have not strictly followed this course, but I have stayed close enough to fully appreciate its soundness.  But as for Little One, whose starting the journey with Bilbo next month …

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