Question on Canon

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AlatarOfOromë 22/Dec/2006 at 10:17 PM
Savant of Isengard Points: 393 Posts: 10 Joined: 18/Dec/2006

Being relatively new here, I don’t know if this is the appropriate forum to ask the following question or not (if not, then let me know and I will repost in an appropriate forum).

What is generally considered Tolkien canon in these forums (I realize that in asking such a question, personal opinions on canon will conflict quite a bit)?  Is there an established or moderately established group of canonical works in the context of forum discussions?

I notice that people in these forums tend to validate discrepencies (say between HoME and Sil) by arguing that one represents a later period of Tolkien’s writings and is more authoritative.  What about repetition?  Does repeated information hold weight even if it is altered by a later period of writing.

I suppose this represents the dilemma for all post-humously published work.  The only work we are sure is authoritative is that published during Tolkien’s lifetime.

haha.  that went longer than I was expecting.

Dany 22/Dec/2006 at 11:05 PM
Defender of Imladris Points: 687 Posts: 1294 Joined: 15/Dec/2002
Well, I think that all depends on who you talk to. Certainly, anything written by Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Trilogy) would count as canon, without a doubt. As for the Sil and HoME, I think that’s a bit more opinionated. I, for one, don’t think that the HoME books should be considered as canon as the others I mentioned.
Magradhaid 23/Dec/2006 at 12:30 AM
Imp of Umbar Points: 7957 Posts: 8204 Joined: 13/Sep/2008
Well, the Hobbit is ’lesser’ canon to me, because it’s inconsistent, i.e. his idea of Elves. Chronology must be remembered here. As for the Silm., there are parts in it edited (or added and amalgamated) by CT and Guy Kay which are not consistent with JRRT’s later writings. HoME offers a lot of info, all "canon", but only within the timeframe it was written. Tevildo and Thû have some resemblance to Sauron (and are his predecessors), but some elements (like Beren being an Elf) cannot be considered canon with LotR, but only ’authoritive’ in the time that it was written, to be supplanted by later ideas.
geordie 23/Dec/2006 at 03:51 AM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
I don’t hold with the ’canon/non-canon’ argument. In my book, a canon is a body of work by one author [there are other definitions ] but this is the one I ascribe to Tolkien. So - as I see it, there is no ’canon’ - nor rigid set of rules which says [as you astutly point out] that the latest writings [chronologically] must be his latest, and final and definitive thoughts on any one area. That does’nt work; simply because [among other reasons] he did’nt have a crystal ball, and he did’nt know they were going to be his latest thoughts on any subject.

Ok, that’s a bit simple, and doesn’t take into account the immense amount of work which Christopher put into editing HoMe. Christopher put nothing of his own in to the books by the way; or at least, very little [for which he has been villified in the past] and then he did acknowledge his own fictional input - which acknowledgement has often been ignored by those who villify him. But the point is that Tolkien left all of his ’literary assets’ as he called them - that is, his unpublished typescripts and manuscripts - to Christopher in his will. Including his unpublished academic works, by the way.

Tolkien also wrote in his will of his wish for copyright in all of his works to remain in the family for as long as possible - thus scotching the ideas of some who consider that Tolkien wished Middle-earth to be free ’to others wielding paint and music and drama’ - and so, should be _free_ - that is gratis - to _all_ - by which they mean themselves, and the rest of the minority of the human population who have access to a PC and an internet line. Or those whose dads have such access. At any rate, these would-be revolutionaries seem to think that they should have it; all of it; for nothing. [note. This based on what I’ve seen and read on other sites and elsewhere. I don’t _think_ ther’s too much of that sort of thing here on the Plaza].

Anyway; a bit of a diversion there - here’s what Tolkien actually wrote in his will: he calls upon the Trustees of his estate:

’Upon Trust to allow my son Christopher full access to [his literary assets] in order that he may act as my Literary Executor with full power to publish edit alter rewrite or complete any work of mine which may be unpublished at my death or to destroy the whole or any part or parts of any such unpublished works as he in his absolute discretion may think fit and subject thereto.’

So - JRR gave Christopher full author’s rights over his unpublished material. Hands up who thinks this applies only to the Middle-earth stuff?

The fact is that ’Middle-earth and all that’ is only a part of the body of work which JRR Tolkien left behind. Granted, it’s the part we deal with mainly on this site [see the site’s name ] - but it’s important to also remember the non-Bilbo stuff. If we’re going to use words like ’canon’ then Alatar is correct - we’d better define what we mean by ’canon’. But as Dany says - ’canon’ on this site seems largely to be a point of view, and the loudest ones seem to get their own way. A lot of the time, anyway.

I don’t think of ’canon’. It’s not a word I use. I think only of Tolkien’s writings, and of their relationship to each other. For his academic works are reflected in his fictional writings, and vice versa.

Back to Christopher, and what Tolkien’s friend Bill Cater called Christopher’s ’filial duty’. There he was, at the time of Tolkien’s death, with a mass of material. He was living on a farm in Oxfordshire at the time, and on the farm was a barn. His father’s papers were taken to the barn; and just about filled it!

Which of the papers do we think he published first? What was the name of the first Tolkien book to be published posthumously? No, not The Silmarillion. It was Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo in 1975, two years before Silm. Does this tell us something of CT’s intentions and priorities? He first published an edition of three works which had been in his father’s heart, and on his mind, for _decades_. Tolkien had felt a lot of guilt about these writings; he had’nt felt able to publish the works, because he could’nt decide on an introduction, and finalise the notes. Christopher, himself a teacher at Oxford, and joint editor of a series of Chaucer editions, would have seemed eminently suitable to alter, rewrite or add to his father’s edition, but he did’nt, for reasons given in the preface. It was his father’s work; not his, and he kept his own input to compiling an introduction from his father’s notes. This shows humility, in my opinion.

And this combined spirit of what he knew his father wanted [that is, the pub. of the Middle-English poems] and his feeling that it’s all his dad’s works, not his own, spills over into his attitude to the rest of Tolkien’s literary assets. And he’s no niggard - he does’nt hoard the info. [another accusation of the ill-informed villifiers over the years]. Christopher has allowed trusted scholars - ones who know what they’re doing - to edit others of his father’s works [with his gentle overseeing, of course. ] Alan Bliss edited Finn and Hengest: The Fragmant and the Episode, in 1983. Two years earlier, one of Tolkien’s students, Joan Turville-Petre, edited Tolkien’s ’The Old English Exodus’. So, before, during and around the time of Silm; and UT, and Letters, we have the other strand of Christopher’s duty: the academic writings. Oh; nearly forgot - Mr. Bliss, Tolkien’s story for children, was also published at this time; in 1982.

Then we go on to the HoMe where, in his editing, CT uses his own academic skills - those he shows in his own edition of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise [1960] ; and The Battle of the Goths and Huns [1956] and his introduction to Gabriel Turville-Petre’s ’Hervarar Saga Ok Heidreks’ [also 1956] - in which he examines diverse texts and their relationships to each other, and provides notes based on his own study of these texts over many years. This is CT’s contribution. And when we remember the provisions of Tolkien’s will, I for one am glad he didn’t opt for destruction of all or any of the material, which would have been his right. But this would never have been something he’d be capable of, in my [informed] opinion.

After HoMe, CT has not been idle. He was and is supervising the publication of his father’s writings on his invented languages [more than just Elvish!] by a group of linguists in America; Carl Hostetter and his colleagues, who publish in Vinyar Tengwar. And then there are the editions of Tolkien’s smaller works - Roverandom; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, by such illuminaries as Verlyn Flieger, and ’the old firm’ of Hammond and Scull. Not to mention the 50th ann.ed of LotR by H&S; and their LotR Reader’s Companion, and JRRT: Companion and Guide. [all their own work, but CT had sight of it through all of its stages, I gather]. And let’s not forget the books to come next year - The History of Mr Baggins, and The Children of Hurin, which must have kept Christopher ’as busy and as happy as anyone can be, while his part of the story goes on’. [that’s a quote from LotR; a coconut to anyone who can tell me who’s saying it to whom. ]

So - long post; very rambling. Congrats. to any who got this far.

To sum up - I don’t think there is a ’canon’ for us to argue about. For me, there is only the body of Tolkien’s writings, dating in time from when Edward VII was on the throne, till Tolkien’s death in 1973. Some works were published by JRR himself; the majority by his son and literary executor, who, for all intents and purposes, can be taken as writing with the authority of Tolkien himself; but with a lot of humility, too. That’s what I think; and for those who only read the top and bottom bits of long posts, to see _why_ I feel that way - you’ll just have to read the rest of it, or ignore it, as you please.
Captain Bingo 23/Dec/2006 at 04:57 AM
Messenger of Minas Tirith Points: 1573 Posts: 957 Joined: 31/Jan/2006
Congrats to geordie for another insightful post.

My feeling is the same. Ultimately, though, I feel all such arguments over what constitutes ’canon’ to be ultimately pointless. I tend to lump in the postumous publications with the stuff Tolkien published during his lifetime. Both JRRT & CT constitute ’Tolkien’ for me.

Too many arguments over which version of a story is ’canonical’ seem to be based on the fallacy (as geordie points out) that there is a ’correct’ version of the stories that Tolkien was struggling throughout his life to set down, & that we only have to look at the latest version to discover what that ’correct’ version was. The truth, unfortunately for some, is that that wasn’t how Tolkien worked. The ’latest’ version of the Sil - in the ’Myths Transformed’ section of HoM-e would (as CT pointed out) have been a disastrous dead end if Tolkien had followed it, & CT took the right decision in the ’77 Silmarillion to stick with the earlier version(s) of the story. In short, I think Tolkien’s latest version of the story was a mistake on his part.

Yet, I wouldn’t reject those latest variants out of hand - they are some of Tolkien’s best & most interesting work - they simply won’t fit, & if Tolkien had been able to continue with them & publish them as ’The Silmarillion’ the result would actually have been poorer than the ’77 Sil CT gave us.

On another forum (of which I used to be a member) there has, for a good few years, been a ’Revised Silmarillion Project’ running. The idea is to sift all the versions of the stories, from Lost Tales through to Tolkien’s latest writings, & construct a ’definitive’ Silmarillion. The project has always seemed to me pointless. One cannot put together such a ’definitive’ Sil without major loss, & to attempt to integrate The Fall of Gondolin from LT with Of Tour & His Coming To Gondolin from UT is a valuless excercise. As Garth has pointed out FoG had its origin in Tolkien’s experiences of the Somme (’seen through enchanted eyes&rsquo, while OT&HCG is a much later work, in a different style, & as far as one can gather, with a different purpose & intent on Tolkien’s part.

Arguments about ’canon’ can be very interesting. They can also be intensely irritating. What we have to keep constantly in mind is that the creation of the Legendarium was a process that continued throughout the course of Tolkien’s long life, & changed with him. I found perhaps the most interesting comment in the whole 12 volumes of HoM-e to be CT’s in the Introduction to the final volume, where he states that what he has produced is, in effect, a ’literary biography’ of his father.

And this is the problem with any attempt to produce a ’canon’ - we are dealing with the creation of a man - a man who lived, learned, changed through many experiences over many years. The work contains inconsistencies because a man also contains many inconsistencies.

My feeling is that because Tolkien achieved in so great a way what he set out to achieve - the inner consistency of reality in his Secondary World - too many readers take the world as being ’real’ & demand indisputable ’facts’ about it, & hence will argue till they’re blue in the face about what the actual ’facts’ were. Middle-earth changed & evolved throughout Tolkien’s long life, & I suspect that if he had lived another 20 years, & devoted every waking moment to finishing The Sil we wouldn’t have a completed Silmarillion - we’d just have much, much more of the same: variants, competing texts, new branches to the Tree. After all, Tolkien wasn’t averse to altering even his published works to fit them in with his later thoughts & new developments in the story.

Which is the ’canonical’ Hobbit - the First Ed., with the ’nice’ Gollum, or the Revised Ed., with the nasty one? Yet Tolkien stated his unhappiness with the style of both, & his wish at one point to re-write the whole thing in the more ’adult’ style of LotR.

For me, what’s important is the effect of the story on the reader - Does the story work - does it move me, involve me, sweep me along & leave me satisfied at the end?
AlatarOfOromë 23/Dec/2006 at 08:21 AM
Savant of Isengard Points: 393 Posts: 10 Joined: 18/Dec/2006

Thanks to all who posted, especially geordie and Captain Bingo.

You actually summed up what I wanted to say, but I felt as a newcomer, I’d be blasted by declaring that it may be a fallacy to assume Tolkien’s last writings are the ones we should give the most weight to.  It’s just that I feel many posters on these forums operate with that assumption.

I appreciate and agree with the sentiment that there is no ’canon’ (there are even inconsistencies between The Hobbit and LoTR [both published in his lifetime]).

There will never be a definitive answer to Tolkien’s "authoritative" works or Tom Bombadil’s race or the existence of Balrog wings.  Perhaps that’s as it should be.  Keeps things interesting.

Alcarináro 23/Dec/2006 at 08:24 AM
Banned Points: 14162 Posts: 14178 Joined: 24/Sep/2003
or the existence of Balrog wings
I beg to differ. Oh, how I beg to differ.
Jinniver Thynne 23/Dec/2006 at 08:28 AM
Messenger of Minas Tirith Points: 994 Posts: 424 Joined: 28/Jan/2006
If you want to be The Ultimate Tolkien Canon Pedant (TM) then I would say that the only text you count would be Lord of the Rings, seeing as The Hobbit’s style does not fit with the rest of his work on Middle-earth and The Sil was not published by him in his lifetime. Oh, and it would have to be the version of Lord of the Rings approved by Tolkien, certainly not the revised text issued for the 50th anniversary.

But who wants to be like that?!

I count as canon all of Tolkien’s work, whether edited by CT or not. I do not count as canon fan fiction as it does not have its ultimate source in Tolkien’s own mind.

So much of the more obscure work is so useful - for example Tolkien’s Osanwe-Kenta, found in the journal Vinyar Tengwar is a revelation when thinking about why Rings and Palantiri may have been made, how they might have worked, and how Sauron might have gained control over so many peoples.

But Tolkien’s work is his life work and as such it fluctuates and changes, leading to discrepancies and confusion when chasing ’the truth’ or that other Nessie-esque beastie, ’the facts’. The water gets further muddied when we throw in The Letters and Tolkien’s on-the-spot answers to personal questions and we have to ask whether he intended such replies for public consumption. So we must also bear in mind that when everything is canon, there are some questions we won’t ever sort out a definitive answer to. I’ve had many a heated debate over this or that point about Tolkien’s work that has been ’proved’ with "Ah! But it says in the Letters..." and you can always bat back that point with something else from Letters. So we have to accept that sometimes there is no answer.
AlatarOfOromë 23/Dec/2006 at 02:48 PM
Savant of Isengard Points: 393 Posts: 10 Joined: 18/Dec/2006

Elenhir, without discussing the issue at length here (as i’m sure has already been done many times), what is your stand on the issue of Balrog wings?

(personally, I am VERY pro-Balrog wings, but I recognized that other people are adamantly against them.  hence my comment about the impossibility of finding a definitive answer)

Alcarináro 23/Dec/2006 at 02:59 PM
Banned Points: 14162 Posts: 14178 Joined: 24/Sep/2003
Ooh, a Pro-Wingist. That’s a rarity around these parts. I haven’t had a good argument with a Pro-Wingist since early 2005. I happen to be the prime Anti-Wingist on the Plaza, and I consider the issue solved, though not resolved between all parties.
elvenpath 23/Dec/2006 at 03:15 PM
Torturer of Mordor Points: 2310 Posts: 2270 Joined: 28/Apr/2004

Alatar, you might want to check the old threads before getting into a debate with Elenhir. The wings/no wings Balrog was one of his favorite subjects


halfir 23/Dec/2006 at 03:57 PM
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I concur with the excellent posts of geordie and Captain Bingo. While some of the later written texts do significantly illuminate our understanding of LOTR ,they cannot necessarilly be taken to be the fons et origo of those published works, particularly where they conflict. As to The Silmarillion -I stand very much in CT’s corner.

As Christina Scull so sagely remarked in her essay in Tolkien’s Legendarium (edt. Flieger and Hostetter):

’Practically speaking, of course, none of the Matter of Middle-earth ws ’finished’ but continued to evolve, and was open to second thoughts , while Tolkien lived.’

And CT offers a cautionary view on the later unublished writings in his introduction to UT:

The problems that confront one given the responsibility  for the writings of a dead authro are hard to resolve. Some persons in this position may elect to make no material whatsoever available for publication, save perhaps  for work that was in a  virually finished at the time of the author’s death. In the case of the unpublished writings of J.R.R.Tolkien this might seem  at first sight the proer course, since he himslef, particulalrly critical and exacting of his own work, would not have dreamt of allowing even the most complete narratives in this book to appear without much further refinement.’

I used to follow a much more rigid ’canonical’ approach to Tolkien’s writings, but found that such an approach was far too limiting. Now, while I still give primacy to the published LOTR, my approach accommodates everything the Master wrote, particulalrly as such writrngs ( for example The Homecoming of Beorhnoth )throw particular light on aspects of LOTR and The Silmarillion.

I think one needs to adopt the Victorian legal fiction of  the view of the ’man on the Clapham Omnibus’ - who represented a common-sensical approach in legal cases- in approaching the posthumoulsy published works of Tolkien.

Yet Tolkien stated his unhappiness with the style of both, & his wish at one point to re-write the whole thing in the more ’adult’ style of LotR.

Captain Bingo: John Rateliff’s book on The Hobbit which is destined for publication next year should deal in detail with this, and those chapters that Tolkien did rewrite in that ’darker’ style.