I want to make it clear upfront because some people might be angry about my criteria. First: I’m talking about the books, not the movies; those are for later. Second: I’ll be discussing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion since all five of them are pretty deeply connected. If you have a problem with that, I don’t care. I do what I want.
It’s been a hot minute since I went back to Middle-Earth. Originally, I had planned to do so when I reviewed the Peter Jackson movies, or maybe the animated films. But before I could, a question popped up in my mind. One that I often asked myself.
Which one of these was the best?
Today, I aim to answer that question. Which of the Lord of the Rings books had the best story? Forget Tolkien’s excessive details and all the quirks that come along with it. Which one of these told the greatest fantasy story?
So, here they are. My personal picks for the best of Middle-Earth, from worst to best. And before you get mad at me, remember: I love every single one of these. Now, let’s go.
The Silmarillion: The Middle-Earth Bible
Hoo boy, I’m already making people mad, aren’t I?
Never in my life have I read a book so dense with information. Seriously, there is an unbelievable amount of stuff you need to keep track of in this book! From characters to places to items, you need to keep track of an unbelievable amount of stuff! And that’s before the actual stories actually start!
Granted, these stories are absolutely incredible! They flesh out the history of Middle-Earth in an incredibly interesting and engaging way! They do vary in quality, as all stories do. But overall, it’s pretty enjoyable and memorable.
Still, it is a bit much. There’s so much stuff to keep track of at all times, which can be pretty overwhelming. But if you’ve got the attention span (or the necessary number of stick note bookmarks), then you can manage it.
Fellowship of the Ring: A Wobbly But Solid Start
This feels like the only one that people won’t get angry at me for.
Fellowship has a lot of the franchise’s most iconic moments. The Council of Elrond, the Nazgul stabbing Frodo, Gandalf VS the Balrog, the Uruk Hai raid, the list goes on and on. It’s a great start to one of the most iconic fantasy stories of all time!
Unfortunately, this is the only book with scenes that you can actually skip. Tom Bombadill’s scene isn’t just miserable to read: it’s absolutely pointless! You can legit tear those pages out of your copy and read the story without them without losing a damn thing beyond a few pieces of paper!
The most basic rule of storytelling is that every scene should be necessary. This is the only one in the series that breaks that rule. Frankly, it only goes above The Silmarillion because of personal bias.
Nostalgia’s a strong thing. Sue me.
Return of the King: The Payoff
Okay. I just pissed some people off, didn’t I?
Return of the King is an undeniably fantastic story. But there are a few things I just don’t really care about. While Frodo and Sam’s long journey through Mordor definitely has some great moments, particularly when Sam finds a lone star in the darkness, I do think it’s a bit too long. I’m also not super hot on the Saruman confrontation at the very end; it just seems kind of tacked on, like Tolkien’s editor told him the book needed to be longer.
But god damn man, this is still a rock-solid story! It’s a fantastic finale that pays off all the other threads to decent or great effect! The Battle of Gondor, the Ring’s destruction, Smeagol’s death, there are so many spectacular moments in this book! This is definitely one of Tolkien’s best!
Though I personally think the next two are his absolute best.
The Hobbit: My Favorite Bedtime Story
No joke, if I ever have kids, this is what I’m reading them before bed. And if not my own kids, then my nieces and nephews. No, my siblings do not get a say in the matter.
The Hobbit is the most simple story of the lot. It only focuses on one character, so it doesn’t hop around nearly as much as the others do. It’s also the lightest in terms of tone, being more of a children’s fairy tale than a fantasy epic. It’s also the shortest by a significant sum.
And I love it!
So many scenes and lines from this book stick out in my mind, well above all the others! The trolls, riddles with Gollum, fighting off the spiders, Bilbo rescuing the dwarves from the elves, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug, Smaug’s death, the Battle of the Lonely Mountain, the list goes on! Every scene in this book is absolutely legendary, presenting some of the best fantasy writing of all time!
But I do think the next one just has an edge over it, however slim it may be.
Two Towers: The Forgotten Gem
Everyone tends to forget about this one, what with it being sandwiched between Fellowship and Return of the King. But guess what? This one is actually better.
Everything in this book just works so damn well! Every single plot thread is incredible! Frodo and Sam’s uneasy journey with Gollum towards Sheelob’s lair! The Battle of Helm’s Deep, the best battle in the entire series! Merry and Pippin persuading the Ents to fight! Saruman’s tyranny over Rohan! All of these threads are super interesting, with most of them tying together to form a beautiful little web of connecting plot threads!
It’s also worth noting how well this one bridges the story from Fellowship into Return of the King. It makes the whole trilogy feel truly seamless as if they were all written to be one book rather than three. And that all works thanks to Two Towers!
Seriously, I don’t know why people don’t talk about this one more often! Yes, Return of the King is phenomenal! But Two Towers is just as good, if not more so! I’ll take Helm’s Deep over Gondor any day of the week!
Though I won’t complain about having them both.
That’s it, folks. That’s how I personally rank the Lord of the Rings series. Or the books, at least; if we’re talking movies, that’s a whole different ranking. But again: that’s for another day.
Still, I kind of find it difficult to look at each one individually. With how tightly crafted the story is, it feels more like one long book spread across three novels, with two extra stories on the side in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion (yes, I know both of those came first).
Again, I want to make it clear: just because some of them are placed low doesn’t mean I don’t love them. No matter where these ended up, they’re still among my favorite books of all time. If I were to compare these to any other fantasy books, all five of these would place near the top!
Ah, who am I kidding? They’d all be in the top five.