Sunday, 17 March 2019

SF&F Questions: What works are part of the Middle-earth canon?

There are few words that strike fear deeper into the hearts of long-established fantasy fans and critics when someone starts asking about “the Middle-earth canon” and “what books are canon?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is long, complex and confusing.


What is a Canon?

In this sense, a canon is the definitive “official” version of what happened in a particular story, world or narrative created by an author. In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play. Fanfiction is clearly non-canon and the films represent a separate canon, as they are an adaptation of the book canon rather than a formal addition to it.

The definition of canon can also change. For example, when George Lucas created the film Star Wars in 1977 and then its sequels, he held that only the films were canon and nothing else was: the spin-off novels and comic books written by third parties were not canon and he would not be bound by their events and in most cases did not read them. However, by the late 1980s he had come to believe a single Star Wars canon was more desirable and he hired people to ensure consistency and continuity between all officially-authorised Star Wars products, including novels, video games and comic books. This scheme became known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” with the idea being that if someone just wanted to watch the films that was fine, but if they wanted to delve deeper into the setting, they could find a huge amount of official, canonical material, information and new stories. When Lucas wrote the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy in 1999-2005, he used planets, races, terms, concepts and characters created in prior Expanded Universe work in the films. However, when Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Disney decided that maintaining the Expanded Universe and keeping it coherent with the new films they were planning was impossible, and they declared that none of the material outside of the films and the animated series were canon (to the fury of many fans).

The definition can also be argued. Frank Herbert published his hugely popular Dune series of science fiction novels between 1965 and 1986 before dying unexpectedly. He left behind a very small number of notes and outlines for a possible continuation of the series, leading to his son co-writing and publishing an enormous number of additional books in the setting. The canonical status of these latter books has been hotly debated, especially since it became clear that the depth and detail of Frank Herbert’s notes had been grossly exaggerated.


Tolkien’s Works

In most cases determining which works are canon and which are not is relatively easy, especially if the author is still alive to simply answer questions on this topic. In the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is of course sadly impossible, as he passed away in 1973. The complexities of the determining the Tolkien canon are considerably complicated by the fact that Tolkien only published two major (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and two minor (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On) Middle-earth works whilst he was alive. After his death, his third son and literary executor Christopher sifted through his files to arrange the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series (1983-96). However, the publication of the latter series, which effectively presented some 5,000 Tolkien manuscript pages written over fifty-six years, meant that readers could make their own decisions over Christopher’s choices in assembling The Silmarillion and in some cases found them wanting, particularly regarding those papers and notes which came to light only after The Silmarillion’s publication, which in some cases Christopher acknowledged would have resulted in changes to the book if he’d known about them beforehand.

For this reason, a simple determination of the Middle-earth canon is extremely difficult and debatable. This is further complicated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own willingness to adjust even published books to reflect later decisions. Most famously, he rewrote the chapter in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins confronts Gollum and finds the One Ring from its original, light-hearted style and tone to better reflect the darker and more sinister atmosphere of Lord of the Rings, and this appeared in a second edition of the book published in 1951. Certainly, some of the changes to The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien was considering in the closing years of his life would have resulted in inconsistencies and incompatibilities with the published Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, suggesting that he may have produced third editions of both novels with revisions to take account of these developments. Thus, the reliance on a “fixed text” that canon usually relies on is absent in the matter of Middle-earth.

This has led to a controversial status for The Silmarillion as published. We know J.R.R. Tolkien was planning extensive, sweeping changes to the book at the time of his death, but these changes were not fully conceptualised or outlined. In the editing of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien therefore defaulted to the incomplete version of the story his father had developed from c. 1930 to the publication of Lord of the Rings, incorporating some elements from later on but also having to go right back to the original Book of Lost Tales idea (developed by Tolkien from 1917 to c. 1924) since that is the only place where he sketched out the end of the story in any kind of detail, despite the major differences in tone and style to his later writings. The result, it has been complained is a hodgepodge of drafts, ideas and stories and certainly does not reflect J.R.R. Tolkien’s plans for the book at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien’s point, well-taken, is that it was impossible to create a book compatible with his father’s intentions in 1973, so he defaulted to the most completed and “best-case” narrative he could develop. The debate will no doubt rage on eternally.


So, what is the Middle-earth canon?

Returning to the original question, the Middle-earth canon can be broken down into the following groups:


Primary Canon
These are books published and revised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lifetime. Despite Tolkien’s willingness to revise and issue new versions of the texts, we can nonetheless declare these as primary canon.
  • The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937, revised 1951)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, revised 1965)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
  • The Road Goes Ever On (1967, with Donald Swann)
It should be noted that although The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a poetry collection) and The Road Goes Ever On (a musical score inspired by Middle-earth) both contain canonical new information, they are relatively minor works.


Secondary Canon
These are books consisting of material written by J.R.R. Tolkien but not published until after his death, usually edited by his son Christopher. This is material which is coherent and readable as stand-alone works, but some readers may raise concerns based on information from other sources:

  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980)

Tertiary Canon 
This is material which was written and created by Tolkien, but was not completed by him or brought to a satisfactory state where it can be reconciled with either primary or secondary canon. However, in isolated moments this material may be argued to be canonical where it does not conflict with established material.
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume I: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume II: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (1984)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VI: The Shadow of the Past (1988)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VIII: The War of the Ring (1990)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IX: Sauron Defeated (1992)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring (1993)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: The War of the Jewels (1994)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

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6 comments:

Jeff Hawboldt said...

I always saw The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales as the 'finalized' version of Middle-earth. The History of Middle-arth some portions can be an "Unfinished Tales Part 2" is more or less earlier drafts or versions of existing material.

For instance, I wouldn't consider Trotter to be canon, though Aragorn clearly is.

Wastrel said...

I think the problem here is that you haven't defined what "canon" is - saying the "canon" is what is "official" is really just rephrasing the question (what does "official" mean, defined in a way not dependent upon the concept of canonicity?). And while that's often a nitpick, I think it's a big problem in this case, because I'm not sure there's a definition of 'canon' that would make the concept relevant, and the question answerable, as regards Tolkien.

Personally, I think the only really workable definition is that the canon is what must be regarded as 'true', on the basis of older works, when reading a new work, in order to fully understand the new work as its author intended.

But the key thing there is that that makes canonicity relative, not absolute. The Star Wars EU is non-canon for the new films... but it's canon if you pick up an old EU novel. Each Harry Potter film is non-canonical relative to the books, but it's canonical relative to the other films. The first season of the new Amazon Middle-Earth series will be canonical relative to the second season, but it's non-canonical fan-fiction relative to "The Hobbit". And what of the existing texts it chooses to treat as canonical if anything, we don't yet know.

In many cases, a megacorporation has chosen to use its economic and legal authority to define an absolute "canon" (or more than one) that new authors must abide by. But in most cases there is no such elephant in the room - unless there's shared authorship, either explicitly or, in the case of author-tolerated fanfiction, implicitly, the concept of an absolute canon that new works must abide by is no longer meaningful (the sole author is not bound by any such rules).

Also, it can be a mistake to judge canonicity work-by-work - often certain parts of a work, or even just individual sentences, may be canon or non-canon independently of the rest of the work. To pick an example, the new Veronica Mars series is apparently going to treat the novels as "99% canon" - but, for instance, specific physical descriptions of characters or places not seen in the original seasons but described in the novels may not be treated as canon for the new season, even though the general facts about the plots and character development of those books will be canon.

In the case of Tolkien, Tolkien's not around to make any new works, or to define his preferences. His own works do not represent a single continuity, but a mythology, complete with multiple incompatible versions of things. Individual works treat other works as canon, but there is no single coherent canon.

Also, bear in mind that canonicity can be ambiguous - while a new text may confirm or rely on some canon facts from elsewhere, and may rule out the canonicity of other facts, there may be a whole load of facts that may or may not be 'true' relative to the new text. Sometimes even the author's own opinion on canonicity may change. In some cases, for example, Tolkien wrote one thing, assuming another thing from another work was true, only to later decide that the other thing was not in fact true - that is, he treated the fact from the other work as canon when he wrote the new work, but later treated it as non-canon.


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On the information side, it's worth pointing out that there is other material Tolkien left not mentioned here. In particular, a lot of what is known about the languages of Middle-Earth comes from papers published posthumously in journals like Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalambion; some of the key bits ended up in the History of Middle-Earth, but not everything. A great deal more continues to be withheld by the estate.

Benge said...

>In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play.

This seems contentious to me. Significant parts of the Potter fandom do not agree that works outside of the original 7 books are canon, just like tons of people don't agree with the revisions made by Lucas to the original movies, or even the existence of the prequels/sequels.

I would argue that all of these things are their own canon. IE every release version is its own canon once it is consumed/experienced by an audience.

Pat Sammons said...

Great stuff!

Adam Whitehead said...

"This seems contentious to me. Significant parts of the Potter fandom do not agree that works outside of the original 7 books are canon, just like tons of people don't agree with the revisions made by Lucas to the original movies, or even the existence of the prequels/sequels."

You're talking about fanon there, which is where each fan decides what they themselves believe to be correct and what not. For example, many Forgotten Realms roleplaying groups have completely ignored everything that happened to the Realms in 4th and 5th editions (when the setting was effectively destroyed and turned into a semi-post-apocalyptic setting) and continued playing in a non-nuked version of the setting. Although a widespread and popular choice, it nevertheless remains unofficial.

Similarly with Rowling: the stuff outside the original 7 books is official and canon. If an individual fan decides to disregard it because it's awful, fair enough, but that's fanon, not canon.

Wastrel said...

But again, that's begging the question. You say it's "official and canon", and maybe Rowling says so too, but others disagree. As you've not defined "official and canon", there's no way to tell who's right.

You could define "official and canon" to be "whatever the author says is 'official and canon'", and that would resolve the Rowling case. But it renders the Tolkien case meaningless, since Tolkien's not around to say anything is 'official and canon', nor to my knowledge did he do so when alive...