Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is easily one of the most important and influential works of literature of the twentieth century, and arguably the greatest work of Christian fiction of the twentieth century. It meets all the criteria for a Great Book with flying colours: It discusses dozens of the Great Ideas, and it revels in the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is theologically, philosophically, and artistically profound.
My quick recommendation on how to read it: Read it through at least once on your own, and then read it out loud to each of your children at least once, preferably when they reach the age of seven or eight. They ought to reread it to themselves at least once in high school, once in college, and once more to their children. And note that the true depth of the work only surfaces when read together with others or discussed in reading groups.
Below are resources for reading and preparing for group discussions for Tolkien’s masterpiece.
Download the handouts I put together for my own Great Books club LOTR discussions.
Discover extra-textual resources for studying how LOTR is a Great Book.
Perfect for Reading Out-Loud
Though numerous editions abound, The edition of LOTR most useful for reading out-loud together with others is the hardcover edition illustrated by Alan Lee. The text is nice and big, perfect for sitting next to each other and sharing. Alan Lee is one of the more legendary Tolkien illustrators; the illustrations are rather impressionistic and sublime. This is the edition to pass on from generation to generation. This is the edition I use when reading to my children.
Tolkien originally intended LOTR to be a single volume, but his publisher insisted he break up the massive story into three volumes. If you’re looking for a single-volume, consider the edition that also includes illustrations from Tolkien himself, collected from his sketchbooks and letters. Tolkien was particularly obsessed with maps of Middle-Earth, as this edition will make evident enough.
2 Fantastic Audiobooks
With massive works, I always recommend listening along to a well-produced audiobook version as you read. One astonishing version of LOTR: Phil Dragash (Root & Twig) spent years on a full dramatization, adding Howard Shore’s score as a soundtrack. Considered fan-art, the whole thing can be listened to for free on SoundCloud. There are many great traditional readings of LOTR out there, but nothing quite compares to Andy Serkis, widely considered one of the greatest voice actors of our time (and the voice of Gollum in the LOTR films).
Book Club Resources
The Great Books should not only be read, but discussed. In fact, I’m convinced that the only way to unleash a Great Book’s potential is through discussing the book.
The Lord of Rings famously comes in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. I would suggest book clubs meet three times, about once a month, one meeting per volume. Below is a link to handouts I prepared for these three meetings. Handouts are useful for book club meetings particularly to place very specific questions before the club, as well as extended quotes worth meditating on.
Book: The Philosophy of Tolkien, by Peter Kreeft
Peter Kreeft is one of the more influential Christian philosophers and apologists of our time. He is also a huge Tolkien fan and has spent his lifetime diving deep into the philosophical themes of Tolkien’s world. His The Philosophy of Tolkien analyzes fifty philosophical concepts and themes found in Tolkien’s works. This volume also functions as an introduction to philosophy in general, utilizing LOTR as an apology against scientific materialism and for a world with a soaring meta narrative.
Lecture Series: “Christianity in Lord of the Rings”, by Peter Kreeft
In 2004, at the SES’s National Conference of Apologetics, Peter Kreeft delivered over five hours of material, divided into nine lectures (including 55 minutes of Q&A) on the subject of LOTR and Christianity. Kreeft has made all the lectures available for free on his website.
Also check out:
I’m looking into but do not have an opinion on yet (I don’t know if I’d recommend them):
- Joseph Pearce, Frodo’s Journey: Discover The Hidden Meaning Of The Lord Of The Rings. Pierce has written tons on the Inklings and is a recognized authority.
- Philip Ryken, The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in The Lord of the Rings. Ryken is current president at Wheaton College and author of numerous theological works. He’s also author of the interestingly titled Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Baker).
- Matthew Dominguez, Inklings on Philosophy and Worldview: Inspired by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a text written for High school teens.
- Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. A convert to Christianity, Caldecott was a well-known Chesterton and Tolkien scholar. With many other works with titles like Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education, this LOTR book looks promising.