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It is remarkably difficult to speak of what is "true" in the context of J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium, or what texts should be considered canon. Quite a few readers do not believe that any clear canon exists at all. Others argue that a legendarium for its very nature does not need any kind of canon.
There are various reasons for the canon problem:
- Tolkien worked on Middle-earth over the course of decades, making substantial changes. Readers may remember, for example, the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with regard to Gandalf and the Elves. Moreover, toward the end of his life the focus of his writing shifted from pure story telling to more philosophical concerns, which led to a considerable shift in tone and content.
- Tolkien's writing is laden with details and hints, which can be contradictory, especially in the posthumously published work. Such information should not take precedence over more explicit statements elsewhere, but it can help to flesh out our understanding of Middle-earth (even if it does at times add confusion). In general, the revised versions of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are considered canon, but with The Silmarillion and other posthumous texts the matter is more complex.
- To add to the confusion, in some cases, Tolkien intentionally left some gaps in his works. In Letter 144 he provided both an explanation and an example of this, writing that "even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)." Giving an incomplete picture in this way can be frustrating, but it also makes the invented world feel more natural.
- "I am doubtful myself about the undertaking. Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. Also many of the older legends are purely 'mythological', and nearly all are grim and tragic: a long account of the disasters that destroyed the beauty of the Ancient World, from the darkening of Valinor to the Downfall of Númenor and the flight of Elendil."
- ― The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257
As only The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and The Road Goes Ever On were published during Tolkien's lifetime, only those works should be considered "true" canon with respect to Tolkien's publication history. Tolkien himself considered the published works as "fixed" and tried not to introduce new concepts that would contradict or alter them, while elements he left unpublished, he continued to experiment on.
But The Hobbit was revised twice, and The Lord of The Rings once. There is no general consistency across all of these books, although the most agreement between sources may be found with the second (1950) edition of The Hobbit, the first (1954-5) edition of The Lord of The Rings, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On.
Christopher Tolkien compiled an approximation of what his father might have produced when The Silmarillion was published. However, he warned readers not to look for consistency between this book and those published by his father. Throughout his commentaries in The History of Middle-earth, Christopher has pointed out many discrepancies between his final editorial selections and alterations and what he later believed would have been his father's true intentions.
Furthermore, the chapters in the published Silmarillion about the ruin of Doriath and the fall of Gondolin, especially the former, were largely written by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, to fill in gaps in the available story, and therefore do not represent J.R.R. Tolkien's own ideas about how those stories should be handled.
Unfinished Tales consists of essays and stories composed after The Lord of the Rings which were generally consistent with The Lord of the Rings. The book reveals parallel traditions regarding the history of Galadriel and Celeborn, the nature of the Istari, and a few minor sub-plots. Although some people argue that the book is generally acceptable as canon, readers must bear in mind the fact that no true consistency exists between these unfinished tales and the earlier works.
The various texts published in The History of Middle-earth date from all periods of Tolkien's life and generally exclude the more finished sections used for the published works.
An example of the canon question is the lineage of Gil-galad. In the published Silmarillion he is said to be the son of Fingon, but as disclosed in The War of the Jewels Tolkien considered many arrangements before apparently deciding that he was the son of Orodreth, who would then also be displaced as a son of Finarfin and turned into Finarfin's grandson instead. Also, most people think Finwë had three children, all sons; Fëanor by his first wife Míriel, and Fingolfin and Finarfin by Indis. However, this is incorrect, since he also had two daughters, Findis and Irimë, by his second wife (Findis was in fact Finwë's first child by Indis), thus Finwë had five children. If the published Silmarillion is taken as canon all later material must be discarded, but if the later writings by Tolkien are taken as canon the Silmarillion must be rewritten, a task which Christopher Tolkien has stated he will not do as he is now retired. So we are left with a Quenta Silmarillion which contradicts the original author's intentions, but which is the only authoritative narrative in existence for most of the traditions. The latter third of the Quenta Silmarillion in particular was never rewritten by Tolkien as a whole after the early narrative of his youth.
A further problem is reconciling The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. In 1947, Tolkien suggested to his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, that The Hobbit required revision to make it more consistent with the then nearly finished sequel. In 1950, Tolkien was surprised to be informed that the publisher had incorporated his 1947 suggestions into a new edition of The Hobbit. When he received the proofs for this update he subsequently altered some of the as-yet unpublished material in The Lord of the Rings to more fully conform to the changes Allen & Unwin had made to The Hobbit.
Among inconsistencies which survived into the second edition, Bilbo and the Dwarves took far too long to reach Rivendell when a map from The Lord of the Rings was used to gauge the distance, which can only be explained with great difficulty if at all. There are additional problems as well, such as the exact location of the Troll encounter. When he began writing The Hobbit Tolkien did not intend for it to be part of his Middle-earth mythology, but was simply populating an imaginary landscape with characters and locations for a children's adventure story. Nonetheless, for his own amusement, Tolkien borrowed several references to his unpublished mythology to give the story a sense of depth. Thus Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield wield swords from Gondolin, and Elrond, ruler of Rivendell, is Half-elven.
Canon and Tolkien Gateway
For the sake of consistency, in this encyclopedia The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are considered fully canon, but the status of The Silmarillion and other posthumous writings is more complex. In general, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales are treated as canon, but corrections published in The History of Middle-earth generally take precedence. Late writings by Tolkien published in The History of Middle-earth that do not contradict more established texts are also generally treated as canon.
This choice of canon means that this encyclopedia includes a number of corrections to the information in The Silmarillion as published. For example, the article on Gil-galad states that he is the son of Orodreth, the article on Amras mentions his death in the burning of the ships of the Teleri, and Argon, Findis and Irimë have articles of their own. Details of the history of the Nauglamír and the fall of Doriath are treated as uncertain, and the story of the Wanderings of Húrin is accepted as accurate. Information on earlier or alternate versions of the stories is provided when possible.
On Canon and Mythology
In treating Tolkien's work as a revealed mythology, it must be taken into account that the material presented is done so in such a manner that it represents only one possible telling of a story. While the readers of Tolkien often take all of the material as being a "factual" accounting of what transpired in the various ages of Middle-earth, it must be remembered that he himself knew that he was constructing a mythology. As such, different versions of a story could be held as true by various peoples or tellers of those myths.
Thus, Bilbo's account of The Hobbit may be coloured by his perceptions and personality; while Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits' accounts in The Lord of the Rings will have a completely different feel and quality to them. Tolkien may not have been completely conscious of this at the time of the earliest conceptions of his writings. But later in life, when he had begun to explore the more distant and remote past of Middle-earth and the various themes that run through it, he was almost certainly aware of this.
When looked at in this light, it is quite easy to reconcile the various versions of the stories and canon of Tolkien's work as being simply the cultural variations of the peoples of Middle-earth in their retelling of these stories.
Canon status of various writings
While readers often differ in their opinions of which writings to treat as canon, this encyclopedia uses the following choices:
- The Hobbit (third edition — canon, author's final intent)
- The Lord of the Rings (second edition — canon, author's final intent)
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (preface is canon, poems are treated as Hobbit folklore)
- The Road Goes Ever On (poems, thus irrelevant to the canon question)
- Bilbo's Last Song (poems, thus irrelevant to the canon question)
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (canon when not in conflict with later writings)
- The Silmarillion:
- Ainulindalë (canon, author's final intent)
- Valaquenta (canon, author's final intent)
- Quenta Silmarillion (mostly canon, except for editing errors and where contradicted by later writings)
- Akallabêth (canon, author's final intent)
- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (canon, author's final intent)
- Unfinished Tales (mostly canon, except where specifically contradicted by later writings or noted as contradictory in the text)
- The History of Middle-earth (some parts are canon, especially late writings — but see individual parts)