The Best (And Worst) Reference Books For Tolkien

There are so many books that propose to be authoritative and essential to studying Tolkien and/or Middle-earth that I thought it might be helpful for me to put together a list of recommended books. This list is focused specifically on reference books: encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, guides, companions, etc.I have already addressed biographies in a separate post.

In a way, this will help readers interested in digging deeper to avoid texts that may have inaccuracies or fabrications.

I have split my list into books that I recommend and books that I do not recommend. There are, of course, many more reference works that I have not commented on. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I welcome feedback and additions in the comments!

Many thanks to Dimitra Fimi, Andrew Higgins, Jeremy Edmonds, James Tauber, Shaun Gunner, and Nelson Goering for sharing their thoughts with me as I compiled this list (any inaccuracies that persist, however, are my own)!

One final thing: I try to make as much public content as possible. So please, while you are here, look around the site at the resources and the archives. If you like what you see, come back often, and maybe even consider visiting the Support page.


Tolkien’s World from A to Z: The Complete Guide to Middle-earth by Robert Foster

A strong candidate for the most useful reference book for Middle-earth. It offers simple definitions like a dictionary, and also has citation of where to find important passages (unlike the Tyler book below, which lacks the references).

The Lord of The Rings: A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull

This is a very informative and helpful volume with a lot contextual information about The Lord of the Rings. It also includes some previously unpublished primary material.

2006 Mythopoeic Award Winner for Inklings Studies

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (second edition) by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond

This is an excellent resource and is essential for scholars. If you only want a casual introduction, however, this is not the book for you because of its heavy price tag. Please note that the newer edition has three volumes instead of two.

2007 Mythopoeic Award Winner for Inklings Studies

The Atlas of Middle-earth (Revised Edition) by Karen Wynn Fonstad

There are two books that propose to be atlases of Tolkien’s world (see the Strachey book below). This is the more popular of the two, and I must admit that I use it more often simply because it has maps for the first and second ages. It isn’t perfect, but it is certainly helpful.

The Annotated Hobbit (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Douglas A. Anderson

This functions very similarly to the Hammond and Scull book above, but focuses in on The Hobbit with a lot of extra-textual information and context.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine

Although it’s original intent as a catalogue for the exhibition it accompanied does limit it’s scope (compared to other reference works) it is a very useful piece for knowing more about Tolkien and about artifacts in his life. Personally, I view it as more of a biography (which is why it is listed in my post about biographies), but I have caved to pressure to put it here as well. There is great production value in this book!.

J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael D.C. Drout

This one is more of a specialist text, and the price reflects that. It is not essential to understanding Tolkien’s work, but it has a lot of entries that help to contextualize the work and explain different facets of it.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull

This text, along with The Art of the Lord of the Rings and The Art of The Hobbit (also by Hammond and Scull) are seminal works for looking at Tolkien’s achievements and development as an artist. Again, there is a very high production value on these books! (Not to be confused with other texts with similar titles but different editors.)

The Complete Tolkien Companion by J.E.A. Tyler

This newer edition incorporates material from Unfinished Tales and parts of History of Middle-earth, so don’t confuse it with the earlier editions with slightly different titles. A useful text but, as noted above, it lacks the references which would make it more useful.

An Introduction to Elvish by Jim Allan

This is the best guide to elvish currently available. It is dated and there had been a lot of new material published since, but it is still a useful guide to methodology. There is ongoing work on Tolkien’s languages by the Elven Linguistic Fellowship. (See free resources below for more.)

Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey

This is a decent atlas, although it does have some problems with scaling. As I said above, this book is more specific than the Fonstad atlas so I end up not using it as much. (This one is a bit older so it is hard to find in as usable a condition, but the maps are all on a single page, so the part you want is never buried in the binding.)

Tolkien’s Library by Oronzo Cilli

This book is an attempt to catalogue the books that Tolkien owned, read, or referenced. A couple of people have made qualms about parts of the text, but overall it remains a helpful guide.

Flora and Fauna of Middle-earth by Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd

I have put this as the last recommended text because, in some ways, it is not strictly a reference work. At times, the authors speculate what plants could be the inspiration for or equivalent of those found in Middle-earth. This isn’t quite the intent of a stereotypical reference book, but it is an interesting resource nonetheless.

Not Recommended

The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth by Ruth S. Noel

An early attempt to make sense of Tolkien’s languages that has not aged well.

David Day Texts

David Day is frequently disparaged in discussions about Tolkien reference books. I will just mention two concerns: First, there are errors and spaces where Day seems to suggest that something is of Tolkien’s invention when it is in fact his own. Second, the various books with his name often seem to repackage the same information in different ways. (Day has claimed that the various reprints are the fault of his publisher.) Unfortunately, these reprints never seem to incorporate corrections to errors pointed out in previous editions.

It is best to avoid all David Day books.

Free Resources

Every fledgling scholar or fan wanting to dig deeper knows the importance of free resources, so here are some credible online resources to help you expand your knowledge pool:

Mythlore: this is the peer-reviewed journal of the Mythopoeic society. The journal is Open Access and is available online.

Journal of Tolkien Research: This is another Open Access Online journal that is peer-reviewed by very reputable Tolkien scholars. This website, created by Emil Johansson, has a lot of very useful resources like family trees, maps, and calendars This is the homepage for the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, and it is the source for the most up-to-date information about Tolkien’s languages. Of particular note is this essay by Hostetter.

The Tolkien Art Index: Scholar Erik Mueller-Harder has compiled a useful index of every piece of art by Tolkien.

LR Citations: Another helpful tool by Erik Mueller-Harder that lets you cross-reference different settings and editions of The Lord of the Rings.

Ardalambion: This is an online guide to Tolkien’s invented languages.

Digital Tolkien: James Tauber has many useful projects in the work. The most complete is a catalogue of textual variants in print copies of The Silmarillion.

Tolkien Gateway: This is a fan-run online encyclopedia. It has good entries for many topics about Tolkien and his work.

As I said at the beginning, this is not an exhaustive list. I only had a couple of hours to spend pulling it all together. I welcome and encourage feedback in the comments! I will occasionally update this list to reflect new developments!

5 Books for Tolkien Fans Wanting to Read Scholarship

Most of my work is either attempting to help scholars understand the fan community, or helping fans who want to dig in to scholarship a bit more.

To further this endeavor, I decided to put together a short list of books that I would recommend to Tolkien fans who wanted to get a glimpse into Tolkien scholarship. Since I wanted it to be a fairly good overview of the available scholarship, I started with some caveats:

  • only one book by any author
  • written in a way that a non-academic audience could find it engaging
  • had to be affordable (around 30 USD or less)

There are of course many areas of research not represented here, and maybe I will compile more lists in the future. Here are my resulting suggestions, such as they are:

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey was a prominent scholar scholar in Tolkien studies for a generation, and his second book demonstrates why. A deep dive into Tolkien’s influences and inspirations, as well as an examination of Tolkien’s context makes this a valuable book for its insights and influence.

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger

This is an excellent book of textual analysis, and I include John D. Cofield’s in-depth Amazon review below, with permission.

Verlyn Flieger first published this book in the early 1980s, only a few years after the publication of The Silmarillion. It was the first important study of Tolkien’s great story, and this Revised Edition, published twenty years later, has additional value because the longer time period allows deeper perspective.

Many of the essays in this work deal with Flieger’s analysis of the influence on Tolkien of his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. Barfield had developed a linguistic theory of the fragmentation (or splintering) of meaning, which caused Tolkien to rethink many of his own ideas on philology. Flieger demonstrates that Tolkien used Barfield’s concept throughout his writings, but most especially in the stories and tales which became The Silmarillion. Flieger’s masterly retelling and analyses of many of those tales, especially those dealing with Feanor’s creation of the Silmarils, their theft by Morgoth after his destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor, and the ensuing rebellion of the Noldor breathe fresh life into words that I have dearly loved ever since first reading them in 1977.

Splintered Light, like the rest of Flieger’s work, is a highly scholarly but accessible and fascinating work. All lovers of the worlds created by J.R.R. Tolkien owe it to themselves to read and savor Flieger’s fascinating analyses.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

For fans who are interested in biography, I have a whole post about good options for reading! This is one of my favorites, though. Garth has the skill and depth to develop meaningful and insightful story lines much more than an over-arching biography. I find it a gripp9ing read, and it’s accuracy is top-notch!

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays edited by Jason Fisher

This collection is very helpful in tracing some likely literary influences on Tolkien. I provide John D. Cofield’s insightful Amazon review below, with permission.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a man of decided likes and dislikes, and among his strongest aversions were those who read his works and picked them apart trying to identify every possible source for his literary creations. Since anyone who has read Tolkien’s letters is well aware of this aversion, it seems odd to think that some of the best known and most highly regarded Tolkien scholars would contribute to a book of essays titled “Tolkien and the Study of His Sources.” Yet, as Tom Shippey himself makes clear in one of those essays, studying Tolkien’s sources allows us to better understand his cultural background, the professional background against which he worked, and his immersion in the “Cauldron of Story,” the wide-ranging reading which dominated his life. Jason Fisher, who is the editor of as well as a contributor to this collection, warns that ignoring a writer’s context is to risk stripping his work of connections vital to understanding him and his world. As an appreciative reader of the essays in this collection, I would add that they provide scholarly but quite lively and entertaining insights into Tolkien’s “leaf-mould of the mind,” the rich literary background from which sprang Middle-earth.

There are eleven essays in this collection, including three by Shippey, Fisher, and E.L. Risden explaining source criticism as it applies to Tolkien. As an historian myself I found three essays dealing with Mesopotamian and Biblical history, the Byzantine Empire compared to Gondor and Arnor, and on the Rohirrim as possible Anglo-Saxons to be especially interesting. Similarly, I share with Tolkien an appreciation for the fiction of H.Rider Haggard and John Buchan, and so I enjoyed two essays focused on those authors. And I was intrigued by the insights of other essays on Caxton, the myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, and on some of Tolkien’s lesser known writings.

This collection includes contributions from some of the best known Tolkien scholars. The essays are well written and insightful. Each is accompanied by extensive notes and bibliographies. It belongs in the collection of every dedicated lover of Middle-earth

Tolkien and Alterity edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor

A much-needed addition to the Tolkien discussion, the scholarship in this edited volume brings together voices discussing how Tolkien’s work intersects with topics of race and queer studies. The book offers essays on ideas of women and the feminine, the queer, language of familiarity and alterity, and identity more generally. I highly recommend it for Tolkien fans who would like to be able to consume more modern scholarship.

So this is my very short list. Do you agree or disagree? What other books would you recommend (keeping in mind the three caveats)?

The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography

I have seen several news stories along the lines of “books to read before seeing Tolkien” around the internet recently. While I applaud news outlets for encouraging reading tied to movies, several of these posts, though certainly not all, recommend reading Tolkien’s fantasy works instead of reading works about Tolkien. In my experience, biographical material is far more interesting to read before a biopic, so I have compiled a list of recommended (and not recommended) readings that appeal more to that aspect. Enjoy!


J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Put simply, this book is regarded as the essential Tolkien biography by many scholars and fans.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter

This book focuses more specifically on the group that came together to share readings and community in Oxford that included Tolkien and Lewis.

Winner of the 1982 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer

This is another well-respected and informative book looking at the creative group in Oxford!

I believe this is somehow related to her other text The Company They Keep, but as I have not read it I can provide no commentary. (Winner of the 2008 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies.)

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

This excellent book looks at Tolkien’s war experience during World War I and how his friendships and experience could have shaped his life and literature.

Winner of the 2004 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez

This is an even closer portrait of the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, as the title implies.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter

This is an invaluable resource for readers who want a little insight into Tolkien’s exchanges with friends, family, publishers, and fans.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan

Even though this is a collection of essays rather than a book-length investigation, it is absolutely worth mentioning because it is perhaps the best resource available discussing the way that Tolkien worked with and supported women in his life.

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History by Dimitra Fimi

While not a biography, per se, this volume contains an insightful cultural history of Tolkien which is helpful when trying to understand how Tolkien’s views and opinions compared to the culture in which he lived.

Winner of the 2010 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Boxed Set

I added this after Jason Fisher and others pointed out that the Chronology is a fantastic insight into Tolkien’s biography.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine

Released in conjunction with the recent (2018) Tolkien exhibition in Oxford, this serves as both the catalogue for that exhibition and a remarkable text full of insight into the life of Tolkien.

Have Not Read

For each of these, I welcome comments from other readers!

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams

Winner of the 2017 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

  A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

Not Recommended

The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth by Daniel Grotta

Grotta has been exposed for, shall we say, taking liberties?

J.R.R. Tolkien (Just the Facts Biographies or Learner Biographies) by David R. Collins

Not well circulated, this book is intended as an introduction to the author for children. Unfortunately it suffers from two faults: it contextualizes the author using the movies, and at times it seems to take facts from Grotta.

Honorable Mentions

I have not included these in the list because I did not think them either bibliographic enough, or far-ranging enough in their bibliographic content. However, I wanted to mention some other works of great scholarship that touch on bibliography:

The several volumes produced by Hammond and Scull about Tolkien’s artistic output!

Shippey’s first and second books on Tolkien have less biography, but demonstrate overlap between biography and his creative output (credit to commenters for convincing me to add this).

Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver et al.

Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour by Phil Mathison

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead

There are several works by authors like Richard Purtill, Joseph Pearce, or Bradley Birzer which focus specifically on the religious aspects of Tolkien’s life and elevate it above all others. I have not included such works in this list, but a couple are worth hunting down if these are of interest to you.

What other books would you recommend for biographical information? Do you agree or disagree with anything on this list? Let me know!