J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories weren’t cranked out to satisfy an audience demand, and writing them wasn’t even Tolkien’s day job: writing the legends of Arda was effectively a hobby of Tolkien’s, a way to exercise the skills of his professional work in a recreational manner he could share with his immediate family and his friends in the Inklings.
Since Tolkien prepared far more material than he ever actually published, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were enriched by numerous references to a mythology only half-glimpsed by the reader, which plays a major role in creating the impression of a world with a rich past. Sure, it’s entirely possible to fake that sort of thing, but having the structure of those myths worked out both makes it easier to make those allusions seem like they relate to an actual story rather than being made up on the spot and can also help inspire aspects of the present story.
Still, a side effect of this is that after Tolkien died, he left behind a ton of unpublished material, a sizable chunk of which has been released since. First, Christopher Tolkien (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay) produced The Silmarillion, as close a reconstruction of Tolkien’s intended narrative of the backstory of Middle-Earth as could be reached. Much later, three books were produced focusing on the three Great Tales – the stories of the First Age which Tolkien thought had the most scope for being fleshed out into full-length narratives that could be read in their own right; these were The Children of Húrin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.
Of those who engage with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth texts at all, many have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A pretty decent number have tackled The Silmarillion and bounced off it hard; for those who enjoyed it, the three First Age books I’d say are also worth a look. For those who want more Tolkien material set in Middle-Earth, however, there’s an even denser, drier inner circle of material than the already a bit dry and dense Silmarillion-tier stuff: that is the raw texts offered up with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. Few indeed are those who have undertaken the journey into those realms; I, myself, have wandered into the border region and then written it off as not for me. Here’s what I picked up on my excursion…
Despite the title, a chunk of the material here doesn’t really represent actual stories so much as essays and worldbuilding notes. A Description of the Island of Númenor, for instance, is mostly what it says on the tin, but it’s mercifully brief and the geographical details are interwoven with sociological points which set the stage for the next story.