What to bring with you when you join Bilbo & Company: new in bookstores

The dragon Smaug circles the Lonely Mountain; illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien Followers of J.R.R. Tolkien know what "The Hobbit" is: It's a prelude. A delicious dish, but not the main course. The adventures are wonderful, but the story plays out on a much smaller canvas than "The Lord of the Rings" -- though you wouldn't know it from watching the first installment of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy. (That, by the way, is not a complaint: Jackson's version is amazing -- it's just not the same story).

If Jackson's movie has inspired you to take down your old thumbed copy of the tale and get reacquainted, several new books will also serve as sturdy companions as you join up with Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf the wizard on the journey to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug's hoard.

A few years ago, John D. Rateliff brought out an extraordinary edition of "The History of 'The Hobbit' " (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) -- which features "The Hobbit" along with two annotated volumes of early drafts in a beautiful slipcase. At a price of $95, it is well worth every penny -- I especially love Rateliff's discussions of the Necromancer (Sauron) and Bladorthin/Gandalf, who evolves from a little firework-wielding old man into "one of the five Istari, bearer of the Ring of Fire..."

A pleasurable, insightful collection that easily steals an hour (or six) if you're not careful.

More agreeable with the wallet might be  "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' " by Corey Olson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an English professor at Washington College in Maryland who provides a flowing, accessible presentation of the narrative that will please newcomers and old visitors to Middle-earth in equal measure.

For me, however, the real treat this Hobbity season is "The Art of 'The Hobbit' " edited by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Tolkien was a gifted amateur artist who expressed his mighty vision in paintings and sketches, and this book collects these images (some of these have never been seen before). He gives us, for instance, a quaint, bucolic portrait of life in the Shire in the painting of "Hobbiton-across-the-water"; he also creates detailed paintings of Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, and Smaug in his hall.

One of my favorites is this map of Mirkwood, which is a haunted, tainted place:

An imagined world that seems real: Tolkien's Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain.

Tolkien's efforts to bring this story into being took so many forms -- invented languages, paintings, maps, songs and poems. I appreciate how this collection of art demonstrates the lengths to which a great artist will go in order to give his world tangibility -- and heft -- in ours.