Most famous as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien is celebrated as the father of the modern fantasy genre for creating a fictional world of unparalleled complexity and detail. So complex and detailed is that world, in fact, that it extends far beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to form what is known as Tolkien’s legendarium: a collection of writings on Middle-earth that form a mythology of Tolkien’s fantasy universe. Here, we explore a small selection of five writings from the legendarium that prove that, even if you have read and loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is still much more to be discovered…
1. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
Though the title poem of this collection was first published in the Oxford Magazine in 1934, Tom Bombadil is an important and enigmatic character within Tolkien’s legendarium who makes a memorable cameo appearance in the first book of The Lord of the Rings when he rescues Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry from Old Man Willow. When Frodo asks who Tom Bombadil is, he answers illeistically:
“Tom was here before the rivers and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. […] He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent.”
Tom Bombadil, then, does not correspond with any other group within Tolkien’s legendarium, as he predates them all. It is for this reason, however, that he is such an important figure within Tolkien’s mythology, and that debate over what he is supposed to symbolize continues to this day. To better understand this part of The Lord of the Rings, therefore, it might be advisable to read Tolkien’s poems on Tom Bombadil.
Unlike the other four works mentioned here, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is a poetry collection and was published in 1962. While Tolkien is far better known for his prose than his poetry, The Lord of the Rings is littered with verse and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil contains the poem “The Sea-Bell,” an accomplished and metrically complex poem that was praised by W.H. Auden, who thought it Tolkien’s best poetic work.
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2. The Silmarillion (1977)
Drawing on Norse and Greek mythology, as well as the Finnish Kalevala, The Silmarillion is a collection of myths chronicling the fantastical world of Arda across different ages. In writing this mythology, Tolkien frames The Silmarillion as having been “translated” from Bilbo Baggins’ translations from the Elvish, making The Silmarillion part of Tolkien’s found manuscript tradition.
The Silmarillion, however, was left unfinished by the time Tolkien died. After completing The Hobbit, Tolkien sent his publishers a draft of what would become The Silmarillion. His publishers, however, rejected this work on the basis that it was “too Celtic,” and so Tolkien instead wrote The Lord of the Rings.
Though The Silmarillion was unfinished, it is nonetheless a compendious collection of supremely ambitious scope. It is divided into five parts, the first of which (Ainulindalë) relates the creation story of Eä. Valaquenta, the second section, describes the Valar (from which the section takes its name) and Maiar. The third and central section is the largest in The Silmarillion, focusing on the events leading up to and during the First Age. Akallabêth, the fourth section, then proceeds to the Second Age, detailing the Downfall of Númenor. And the fifth and final section, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, outlines the events leading up to (as well as a short summary of the events depicted in) The Lord of the Rings.
As The Silmarillion was left unfinished, Christopher Tolkien (Tolkien’s son and literary executor) edited the work with the help of the Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay. However, certain parts of The Silmarillion existed in multiple versions (some of which were in conflict with each other), so this editing process involved selecting which ones to use and, in some cases, inventing new material to fill narrative gaps.
3. The Children of Húrin (2007)
As the title of the work would suggest, The Children of Húrin focuses on the fate of Húrin’s offspring, who have been cursed by Morgoth so that ill fate will befall them as long as they live. For his protection, Túrin (the son of Húrin) is sent by his mother, Morwen, to live in Doriath (an Elvish territory) for his own protection. Nonetheless, his cursed fate follows him even to Doriath (as per Morgoth’s curse). And during his absence, Morwen gives birth to another child, Niënor, thus perpetuating the curse further still and causing unforeseen suffering for the two siblings.
Set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien drew heavily on the legend of Kullervo, as told in The Kalevala, in constructing the tale of The Children of Húrin. He also took inspiration from the Volsunga Saga, suggesting that Tolkien sought to align his epic fantasy with heroic Norse mythology. But, as well as being a tale of heroism, it is also a tragic tale with Ancient Greek overtones that is heavily concerned with questions of morality, evil, fate, and free will – all of which were of great concern to Tolkien as a devout Catholic. Though it was left unfinished by Tolkien’s death in 1973, he began the tale in the 1910s. We might therefore infer that many of the themes explored in The Children of Húrin stayed with Tolkien throughout his life and informed many of his other works.
4. Beren and Lúthien (2017)
As is the case with many of the works included in Tolkien’s legendarium, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien exists in many different versions that were collected together in a 2017 volume edited by Christopher Tolkien. The earliest version of the story is The Tale of Tinúviel, written in 1917 (meaning that it is among Tolkien’s earliest tales of Middle-earth) and published in The Book of Lost Tales. It seems Tolkien had planned to rewrite this tale as an epic poem (called The Lay of Leithian), though this was never finished. Beren and Lúthien’s tale is also recounted by Aragorn (whose relationship with Arwen draws parallels with that of Beren and Lúthien) in The Lord of the Rings and included in one chapter of The Silmarillion.
Tolkien, however, believed the tale merited its own longer narrative, which is what Christopher Tolkien set out to do in the 2017 edition of Beren and Lúthien. This edition tracks the development of the tale across these various versions while also coalescing these versions into a cohesive, single tale.
Lúthien is the half-divine daughter of Thingol the Elf-king, whereas Beren is a mortal man. In order to win her hand in marriage, he cuts a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth Bauglir, losing his hand to a werewolf in the process. During this quest, Lúthien also rescues Beren from death after he is attacked by a wolf. But, as Beren is mortal, his death cannot be put off indefinitely, and so Lúthien renounces her immortality so that she will not have to live without him. It is therefore apt that, in a tale partly inspired by his love for his wife and so heavily concerned with mortality, Tolkien and his wife’s grave bears the names of Beren and Lúthien.
5. The Fall of Gondolin (2018)
Much like Beren and Lúthien, the story of The Fall of Gondolin is first related in The Silmarillion and was later published in The Book of Lost Tales before being published as a stand-alone edition in 2018. Yet Tolkien had first begun writing the story over one hundred years before this stand-alone edition was released, writing in military barracks in 1917 during the First World War. It is no coincidence, then, that conflict plays a pivotal role in the tale.
In the First Age, King Turgon founded the city of Gondolin, which remained hidden for hundreds of years. However, Maeglin, an elf and a lord of Gondolin, betrays the city to Morgoth, who promises to make him king of Gondolin and give him Idril (who was married to Tuor) as his wife if Maeglin tells him how to get to Gondolin. Maeglin agrees to Morgoth’s terms and returns to Gondolin.
On Midsummer, Morgoth and his armies attack the city. While Tuor and Idril lead many of the people of Gondolin out of the city via a subterranean escape route, Morgoth’s destruction is nearly complete, and many people of Gondolin perish. The Fall of Gondolin is not merely a fantasy epic, then, but a meditation on the horror and suffering of war.
Tolkien’s fantasy universe constitutes one of the great literary examples of worldbuilding of all time. And while The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are indubitably important in Tolkien’s mythology, they are nonetheless only part of it. Many of the works listed above are partial and unfinished, and some of the stories exist in multiple versions. Nonetheless, by viewing Tolkien’s better-known works within the wider context of the legendarium, we can better appreciate the full scope of Tolkien’s fantastic vision.