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#ThereAndBackAgain – One year of reading Tolkien (almost) every day

Last summer I started a readalong of Tolkien’s main work with a group of readers from my reading community Litsy. I posted about the five original books we planned to read here: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, The Return of the King and The Silmarillion.

This was the original plan. Then things got a bit out of hand.

Rereading Tolkien’s Main Work

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

I’ve been a Tolkien’s fan since I was a kid, though at first, I was a fan because I was a devoted fantasy reader. I’ve met so many readers who fell in love with Tolkien and Middle-earth from the first time they read anything related to them. It wasn’t my case. My love for Tolkien crept on me over the years, as I slowly realised what he did with that secondary reality of his. I did enjoy his stories from the beginning, but it took me years to see what depth there is under the surface.

When last summer one of the readers on Litsy suggested to read Tolkien’s main work one chapter a day, it had been years since I last read anything Tolkien. In fact,I think it was since The Children of Húrin came out in 2007. That’s ten years previous. I read The Lord of the Rings last time when the films first came out at the very beginning of the 2000s.
It was time.
You would think I knew what I was getting into since I had already read all these books more than once. Right?

I didn’t.

I mean, I knew I loved these stories. I knew exactly what I was about to find in them. And still, it felt like a discovery. I found myself biting my nails at the end of chapters because I had to wait for the next day to read ‘what would come next’. My friends made fun of me because it sounded like I was reading Tolkien for the first time in my life.
I don’t know if it is because I’m older. Or If it is because I understand Tolkien’s world a lot better now and I can make connections once I wouldn’t. Maybe it’s because I know that part of XX century history Tolkien lived through much better. It probably is a bit of everything. But I seemed to discover a whole new meaning in what I was reading. To some extent, I was indeed reading Tolkien for the first time.
And the whole experience of reading along other readers was unique in its own right. There were tens and tens of us when we started The Hobbit on 18 July 2017. It was truly an adventure.

Hungry for More

Because I remember enjoying The Children of Húrin very much, I asked whether we would add it to the readalong. Someone else asked to add The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. At that point, the organiser of the #LotRChapterADay readalong said she wasn’t going to read any more books, but we were free to go on if we wanted.

Feanor - But the light is dead. Our gems are gone. Morgoth has them in his monstrous hold, my Silmarils - JRR Tolkien

We lost the bulk of readers on The Silmarillion. Unsurprisingly. Someone suggested why not read Beren and Luthien too and complete the cycle of the main stories? Only a handful of us did.
I didn’t know back then, but I think this decision was the gamechanger for me.
Tolkien never actually finished Beren and Luthien. In the book recently published, his son Christopher put together the available material in a more coherent way and added some commentary.
I adored it! Up to that point, I’d only read ‘finished’ stories (I mean, as ‘finished’ as Tolkien left them), but Beren and Luthien is different. It’s fragments of stories in various formats and stages of completion, belonging to different times. It’s notes, outlines, sketches of maps and synopsis. A very slow imposition of layer upon layer of story, draft after draft, peppered by Christopher’s light commentary. It was absolutely marvellous and inspiring to see Tolkien’s creating process practically happening under my very eyes.

So it was that when we finished Beren and Luthien I asked all sad, “So, is it over? Are we done? Finished? No more?”
One of the girls said, “I’m not quite ready to leave this world. If someone is going on, I am too.”
A group of four of us formed. I said I’d be happy to go on reading at least to July, so to mark one year of reading Tolkien every day, and that became our goal. We turned the readalong into #YearOfTolkien and went for the Unfinished Tales, where Christopher gathered the most refined materials from his father’s papers connected to The Lord of the Rings. Then we finished The Tales from the Perilous Realm, which Tom Bombabil is part of and which collects Tolkien’s shorter works.

At that point, we needed a new course of action. We consulted: are we going for The Book of Lost Tales?

Year of Tolkien - 17 books by Tolkien read in one year - the challenge of my small reading group of Tolkien enthusiasts

The History of Middle-earth

The Book of Lost Tales contains the oldest version of the stories in The Silmarillion which Tolkien wrote right after WWI and covers material written all through the 1920s. These are the stories Tolkien referred to as ‘the Silmarillion’, which he fruitlessly tried to get published after The Hobbit. Christopher provides notes and commentary, but in a very unobtrusive way, leaving his father’s writings to speak mostly for themselves. Although the stories we know are recognisable, they are very different in language, structure, use of characters. So many things are missing. To me, it was like a revelation. I saw the eager need of a young man to tell stories that made sense of his reality, but which were a lot rougher than the ‘finished’ stories so familiar to me. I could also see the end result. The refined, layered end result packed full of meaning that I had already read. It was a journey of its own.
I’m a writer myself, and I discovered that much of my own creating process is very similar to Tolkien’s. Maybe that’s why I got completely hooked by this reading.

Galadriel - The sound of her footseps was like a stream falling gently downhill over cool sones in a quiet night - JRR Tolkien

The Book of Lost Tales may be considered a standalone work if one wants. It’s the complete first draft of The Silmarillion as it stood when Tolkien first envisioned it. But it’s also the first two books in the History of Middle-earth, where Christopher Tolkien has gathered most of his father’s writings on and about Middle-earth. When we finished the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, we started reading The Lay of Beleriand (which experience for me would require a entire post) and just kept going.
We are now aiming to read all of the 12 books making up The History of Middle-earth, with a plan to end sometimes next spring.
I don’t think I’d ever attempted to read this work if it hadn’t been for the group, but I’m so happy I did. It is a unique possibility to look into the mind of a phenomenal worlds creator, which I appreciate both as reader and writer.

One year of reading #Tolkien every day. The enriching experience of a communal read of a fantastic author #amreding #fantasy Click To Tweet

The Harmonious Creator

Reading Tolkien over many years, I slowly realised that his stories are different from any other I’ve read. The Lord of the Rings is arguably the archetype of modern fantasy. It contains all of the most common fantasy tropes. Still, I often have a hard time considering it fantasy.
I think I understand now what’s so different about it. On the one hand, it’s the goal, which was less commercial than novels tend to be today, though Tolkien was always very aware of a possible audience. On the other hand, it’s the way it was created.

Frodo - I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me - JRR Tolkien

What writers normally do when they write a story – especially when then it gets published – is keeping adding to the initial events. Stories move linearly, they begin, and they go on. What it’s already been written doesn’t change, it rather becomes the base on which everything else rests.
Tolkien way of creating was different. His creation process lasted years. Decades. In fact, his entire life. He never ceased working at the Silmarillion, building ever over what he had already written. Adding layers. Adding meanings. Not linearly, but globally. Once the story laid down, he kept revising it. He improved events and connections between events. He introduced new characters and stories to connect existing ones. Always with the entire picture in mind. When something new entered the story, he readjusted everything that came before and after the new addition, so that in the end it felt like the new element had always been part of the story. So all the parts of the Silmarillion grew together, creating that peculiar harmony, that feeling that everything is connected to everything else that I haven’t quite found with the same degree in any other author.

The funny thing is that part of this was probably accidental. It grieved Tolkien very much that The Silmarillion never got published during his life. He tried many times, but no publisher ever felt it was suitable for an audience. So, because it was never published, Tolkien kept working at it in his personal, harmonious way, to his death. Had The Silmarillion been published, Tolkien’s harmonious process would have been stopped or at least altered, and the result might have been very different in the end.

While Tolkien was lobbing to get The Silmarillion published, the publisher actually wanted more of what had already proved successful. In short, they wanted more Hobbits. I have only recently discovered that originally The Hobbit was a standalone story that didn’t tide into the Silmarillion. It wasn’t connected to Middle-earth at all – at least not in a meaningful way – which may explain why Tolkien was so reluctant to write more about it. He said in his letters that he had nothing more to say about Hobbits and besides, what he wanted to write were more epic stories.
Now, before we moan about publisher’s shortsightedness, let’s consider this. The publisher wanted more Hobbits. Tolkien wanted to make his publisher happy, but he also wanted to write about Middle-earth and its epic adventures. He finally mixed these different needs together. Without the publisher’s ‘shortsightedness’, The Lord of the Rings might have never been written.

All in all, I think we tolkienites are quite lucky readers!

So, today my group and I celebrate one year of reading Tolkien every day and planning to read on, who knows where to?

Bilbo - It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door - JRR Tolkien


JRR TOLKIEN - Discovering Middle-earth - My musings about my favourite author and his creations

#YearOfTolkien - What I learned from one year of reading Tolkien every day. The enriching experience of a communal read of a fantastic author
#YearOfTolkien - One year of Reading Tolkien (almost) Every Day - What I learned from one year of reading Tolkien every day. The enriching experience of a communal read of a fantastic author
#ThereAndBackAgain - What I learned from one year of reading Tolkien every day. The enriching experience of a communal read of a fantastic author


  • Sue Bursztynski
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 11:16

    That’s a great post! I binged on the HOME books some time ago, including the Silmarilliom, but I have to admit, the only ones I have read and reread are The Hobbit and LOTR. I finally downloaded the ebook of LOTR recently and have begun another reread. I have several different editions of The Hobbit, with different illustrators plus an annotated edition. A wonderful universe! You’re right, it is far more than fantasy. It is something nobody else has ever matched.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 20, 2018 at 09:39

      I’m so jealous! I do have a few different edition both of LotR and The Hobbit, but only one is really nice. I hope to be able to buy some collection-worthy edition… sometimes in the future.

      When last year I reread LorT with the group and I came to the end, my immediate thought w3as: I’m reading it again right away!
      I didnt’ because we went on reading lots of oher things, and I’m happy I did. But I do have in mind to read it again soon. My little group of traveller discussed the possibility to reread it once we’ll finish History of Middle Earth.

      It isn’t easy to explain why Tolkien is such a unique author and might even not be a fantasy author. Maybe one say I’ll try 🙂

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 13:47

    I think Tolkein was a truly influential, game-changing author. He had that rare ability to transport the reader to a completely different reality with its own cultures, languages, and so on. That takes extraordinary talent, but he had it.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 20, 2018 at 09:41

      I totally agree.
      He treated his world and his stories the same way he treaded true history and cultures he studied as an academic. That may be one of the big differences with most other authors.

  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 19:20

    Wonderful post, Sarah. I have to admit that although Tolkien is my favourite writer, I have yet to read everything he created. However, it wasn’t The Hobbit or LOTR or anything Middle Earth that sparked my interest. I encountered Tolkien in his essay, Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics. It was his writing as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language & Literature that got me exploring – and eventually reading LOTR…in one weekend. I’m one of those that see Middle-earth as the lost world of ancient English mythology –

    I’ve re-read LOTR numerous times and always find something new. I’ve also read some non-Middle Earth writings like ‘Tree and Leaf’ and ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’ and I’m always learning something new about writing.

    I’m so glad that I found Tolkien, and that he created so much.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 20, 2018 at 09:45

      Oh, I loved “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”! I read it years ago and I loved it. That is the book where I start to understnad how he worked as a storyteller and how his being a storyteller was besically the same thing as his being a scholar.

      Thanks for the link. I’m going over and read it 🙂

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted July 21, 2018 at 03:39

    Hi Sarah – gosh that was/is some undertaking – how great you have friends locally who enjoy reading as much as you do … and you can collaborate with them. What a great post … cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted July 27, 2018 at 09:50

      Well, I both have a Tolkien group in Verona (but we don’t really read a lot together) and a readers’ group online (where I have my little enclave of Tolkien friends).
      And honestly, I’m having lots of fun! 🙂

  • Laila
    Posted July 5, 2020 at 21:14

    I read “The Hobbit” 5 times already and it seemed new to me all the time. It’s amazing to know that you have Tolkien group in Verona. Hopefully we will form a new group of friends in a few days. Thanks and carry on!

    • Post Author
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 22:39

      Thanks so much for stopping by.
      Really The Hobbit is a book that can be read many many times and always there will be something new to discover.

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