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It is almost always difficult to determine the canonicity (if that's a word) of different works within a fictional universe, but the problems are even more complicated in regards to Tolkien's Middle-earth/Arda related material.

It is safe to say that LotR, the second edition of The Hobbit, and probably the published Silmarillion are canon. But even the published Silmarillion is, in large part, the work of Christopher Tolkien, although to a lesser degree than it is the work of his more famous father.

When we look at the rest of the corpus, things become even more opaque. Unfinished Tales contains different versions of the same stories. The same is true, in even greater degree, of The History of Middle-earth. These volumes might be considered an almost equal endeavor on the parts of Christopher and J.R.R Tolkien.

Is there a tentative canon of Tolkien's Middle-earth related works, and if not, is it possible to create one?

With such a large body of work, of varying degrees of canonicity, it would be very helpful to have something like the now-outdated levels of canon associated with the Star Wars universe, ranked by a series of letters. Has anyone put together such a system for Tolkien's Middle-earth related works?

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  • I'm going to try to put together a tentative example of what a canon system for Tolkien's work might look like, right after I figure it out myself. It is a daunting prospect, to say the least. – Wad Cheber Jul 10 '15 at 3:05
  • related answers: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/15534/572 – Travis Christian Jul 10 '15 at 14:49
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+100

The Tolkien fan community broadly agrees on three levels of canon:

  1. Works that were published in Tolkien's lifetime (so The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
  2. Works published after Tolkien died (typically excluding the drafts of Lord of the Rings; it's a rare fan who'll argue that Trotter supersedes Aragorn in the canon)
  3. Non-Tolkien works, like the Jacksonverse movies (which have the own internal canon, which is wholly out-of-scope for this question) or The Last Ringbearer

But calling these "levels" of canon is abusing terminology a bit; these "levels" don't really imply a hierarchy, but are more about our degree of confidence in the canonicity of the given work:

  1. Most everybody agrees that works in this level are canon1
  2. There's some debate about works in this category; the debate is mostly around the published Silmarillion versus the History of Middle-earth drafts, but there are also arguments about whether Tolkien's essays should be considered canon
  3. Most everybody agrees that works in this level are not canon (or at least not in the same canon as the novels). While they may be amusing or interesting on their own merits, few (if any) fans will seriously argue that they can be true simultaneously

Of course the question is focusing on the debate surrounding Tolkien's posthumous works, so that's what I'll focus on as well.

Is there an official canon?

Yes, but it's not a helpful one.

The thing about canon is that, in order for it to be useful you need someone to arbitrate it; there needs to be somebody all fans can trust who says "this is canon" and "this is not canon". In Star Wars, for example, this is the Lucasfilm Story Group, a division of Disney with no other purpose but to manage the Star Wars canon.

With the Tolkien Legendarium, the only reasonable person to take on this role is Christopher Tolkien (and the Tolkien Literary Estate more generally). The problem is that he isn't interested in a cohesive and internally consistent canon, as he writes in the foreword to The Silmarillion:

A complete consistency (either within the compass of The Silmarillion itself or between The Silmarillion and other published writings of my father's) is not to be looked for, and could only be achieved, if at all, at heavy and needless cost. Moreover, my father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition; and this conception has indeed its parallel in the actual history of the book, for a great deal of earlier prose and poetry does underlie it, and it is to come extent a compendium in fact and not only in theory.

The Silmarillion Foreword

See also the structure of the History of Middle-earth series: Tolkien's notes are presented, warts and all, with minimal editing and surrounded by commentary that provides context and narrates the changing conceptions.

While interesting academically, this isn't really helpful for fans; we want to know which version is "correct", something Christopher Tolkien is wholly uninterested in.

Is there an unofficial canon?

In the absence of an authoritative voice saying "This is what is canon", it falls to individual fans to decide on their own. Ultimately you have to take every inconsistency on a case-by-case basis, and decide for yourself what bit is canon. You can look at what other people have decided to give yourself a guideline, but saying that one fansite's interpretation is more objectively correct than another fansite's is wrong on many levels.

As one might expect, this is something fans argue about a lot, and a cursory Google will reveal no end of attempts at reconciling the canon. A personal favourite is this discussion on Michael Martinez's blog; while I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, I think his ultimate point is a good one:

"How do you pick and choose your texts?" I am sometimes asked.

I like to say, "Carefully."

"Is Your Canon on the Loose?" Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien Blog by Michael Martinez

Probably the two most common (broad) approaches are described on Tolkien Gateway:

  • Final intent. Basically, Tolkien's later writings take priority over his earlier ones. This is the version I personally favour, because it allows for the fact that Tolkien's ideas shifted as he wrote The Lord of the Rings

  • Height intent. This version prioritizes the final version of the Legendarium as written in History of Middle-earth V, everything pre-Lord of the Rings. I'm not a fan of this one personally, because it seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of writing2

However, probably the most useful I've seen comes from a fan named Michael Kane . Kane proposes three levels of Tolkien canon, which depend not on the works themselves but on the purpose of the discussion. Kane's levels are:

  1. Practical Canon

    This is the arm-chair level of canon and the easiest one to use and talk about. This includes the major published works, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and probably the Children of Hurin (Not previously mentioned). This is the canon that anyone can pick up and have a conversation about with their friends. It takes The Silmarillion as is.

    We can presumably lump The Tale of Beren and Lúthien into this group as well.

  2. Academic Canon

    This is the one that mostly leaves out The Silmarillion in lieu of other manuscripts. This canon is comprised of late versions of The Silmarillion. Whatever Tolkien wrote later in his life is generally expected to be accurate in this case. (The Hobbit and LotR are included here as well, with a special understanding of The Hobbit that may come up on a later day.) This is the canon that Tolkien enthusiasts talk about, waxing eloquently about specific versions of specific stories written at specific times. Most people aren't interested in this one.

  3. Ideal Canon

    This one doesn't actually exist. This is The Silmarillion as Tolkien would have eventually published it. Perhaps even more accurately then that, this is the version that Tolkien would have considered to be the “true” one, the events as they actually occurred with Tolkien's human meddling. Why do I consider this canon important? Frankly, while the Academic Canon is fun and entertaining to talk about, there is a fundamental flaw in it. Simply because a given writing was the last on a particular subject does NOT mean that Tolkien, had he lived longer, would have changed his mind again. The Histories of Middle Earth document many such changes over the course of decades. We don’t and never will know what the ideal canon looks like.

However, this strategy isn't exactly useful when trying to arrive at an internally-consistent canon; it's a place to start a conversation, not where you go to end one.

Should there be a canon?

I want to return to a comment by Christopher Tolkien that I quoted earlier:

[M]y father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition

The Silmarillion Foreword

This introduces the interesting idea that not only isn't there a definitive Tolkien canon, but that there shouldn't be. Obviously that doesn't hold for our purposes on SFF.SE, but it's worth thinking about: very few (if any) mythologies have a single, self-consistent canon; the kerfuffle over King Arthur's sword(s) is just one example out of many.

From this perspective, attempting to wrestle the Tolkien Legendarium into a single box is an exercise in missing the point.

Non-Tolkien Works

I mentioned this flippantly in a footnote, but it's worth pointing out that there is a more-or-less recognized pecking order for non-Tolkien authors, particularly works of Tolkien criticism. Although the number of people studying Tolkien is legion, I'll describe some of the more commonly-cited here.

  • Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull are generally recognized as the leading Tolkien authorities, after Christopher Tolkien himself. In addition to editing several publishings of Tolkien's own writings (including The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), they've produced several reference and critical works; the most famous of these is The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion

  • Douglas A. Anderson's The Annotated Hobbit is viewed with some authority. While not strictly speaking a work of criticism, it does include some insightful analysis of the work, and of its connection to the greater Legendarium

  • John Ratlieff's The History of the Hobbit is also well-regarded; it was written in similar style to the History of Middle-earth series, and has been endorsed by the Tolkien Estate (Christopher Tolkien wrote a foreword for the second edition)

  • Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-earth is a pre-eminent work (iwhat it covers is pretty self-explanatory), and based on extensive research and knowledge of geography and cartography

  • On a sour note, David Day is a Tolkien writer of dubious repute. His books, especially A Tolkien Bestiary are criticised for deviating from Tolkien's writing. Day's defence, that his books provide a good overview to casual readers, is true, but nevertheless he is not regarded particularly highly as a source

There are more, of course: Michael Martinez's blog is rather good, though I find myself disagreeing with him as often as not; Robert Foster's A Complete Guide to Middle-earth is an excellent reference, and is what Day's Bestiary tries to be; Ask Middle Earth is a more recent entrant, and I don't have much to say about them.

It should be noted, though, that even the best of these isn't flawless, and so should be treated with some skepticism.


1 Though this is kind of a false confidence. As KutuluMike (correctly) points out (correctly) in comments:

[W]e tend to afford higher status to the published works because there's a least some sense that Tolkein [sic] was "done" with them. However, given the major revisions to the Hobbit to fit within LotR I think that's a false sense of finality: had he published another novel, who knows what changed he'd have made to the LotR books to match?

On some level this is, of course, true of every fictional work; that's basically what "retcon" is. But it's arguably more relevant with Tolkien's works, partly because he demonstrably changed "canon" in later editions of some of his books, and partly because he was a notorious perfectionist who spent the better part of his 81 years revising the canon

2 As one fiction writer said, "All writing is rewriting"

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    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The conflicting impulses of attributing canonical status to the classics (LotR and The Hobbit) and prioritizing the latest version of the texts are probably impossible to reconcile. – Wad Cheber Jul 10 '15 at 19:24
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    @WadCheber I think we tend to afford higher status to the published works because there's a least some sense that Tolkein was "done" with them. However, given the major revisions to the Hobbit to fit within LotR I think that's a false sense of finality: had he published another novel, who knows what changed he'd have made to the LotR books to match? – KutuluMike Jul 13 '15 at 20:50
  • Jason Baker - "Final intent. Basically, Tolkien's later writings take priority over his earlier ones. This is the version I personally favour, and that I think Steuard Jensen would argue for, because it allows for the fact that Tolkien's ideas shifted as he wrote The Lord of the Rings." - My attitude with, for example, Star Trek, is more the opposite. If a later movie or episode appears to contradict an earlier one, and they can't be reconciled, the earlier version should be correct and the later one a mistake. Of course it is a little different with Tolkien the eternal rewriter. – M. A. Golding Jun 16 '17 at 23:25
  • Great answer; I just wanted to relate an anecdote I heard in college regarding rewriting (footnote #2): At a convention, Asimov asked R.A.Heinlein how much he rewrote a story before ge was satisfied enough to submit it. Heinlein replied, "What? Don't you do it right the first time?" – Spencer Jun 16 '17 at 23:57
  • A superb and well-thought out answer! If I can second what you said a bit differently, Tolkien liked to see himself and us, in effect, as historians faced with a varied set of historical records that were written by different people at different times with different points of view and differing agendas. There is a real history behind it all, but we can only see it through a glass darkly. – Mark Olson Dec 20 '17 at 20:38
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After reading through (most of) the History of Middle-Earth, it is clear to me that there is no definite canon, apart from perhaps what you decide for yourself. There is the LotR, the Hobbit and the Silmarillion, and many fans consider them to form the canon.

However, Tolkien has been working on (and changing) his legendarium through most of his life, and a lot of stuff was left unfinished or undecided. For example, the canon idea about the origin of orcs is that they were elves (and perhaps men) corrupted and changed by Morgoth in the First Age. But in his later writings, Tolkien came to a decision that orcs were corrupted animals, being given some faculty of speech and intelligence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc_(Middle-earth)#Sentient_beasts

Another example is the legend of the creation of the Sun and the Moon from the last fruit and flower of the two Trees of Valinor; Tolkien had eventually come to the conclusion that this myth was of mannish origin, and that the Elves, being instructed by the Valar about the real physical nature of the universe, knew that the Sun and the Moon were celestial bodies as we know about them today from real astronomy.

~~~

As an insight note from me about this whole "canon" thing, once you start digging deeper, you will start seeing that Tolkien didn't set out to just write a fantasy book like other writers do. He invented a fantasy world (as a prehistoric version of the Earth), but got caught up in trying to figure out what happened in that world and how and why everything occured, how everything was related to everything else... a mission that he dedicated his life to, but didn't come to finishing it.

Thus, I believe that a Tolkien fan's mission should be not to try to establish a "canon" and the final and definite organisation of things, but to explore and examine the evolution and the creative process behind the legendarium. Tolkien is not your typical fantasy author, he is an "archeologist" and a "historian" that tries to put things together from what he has uncovered in the mythical past of our world.

  • Great answer, and many thanks. In your personal opinion, do you prioritize the latest version of the stories, or the best known versions? – Wad Cheber Jul 10 '15 at 23:50
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    It's a diffucult question for me, as I'm still in the process of reading the HoME series and trying to access what Tolkien wrote about Middle-Earth through many decades of his life and what to make of it. As I have mentioned, for me personally (as a Tolkien fan digging deeper and deeper), the question ceases to be about prioritisation or the "canon", and becomes a discovery and examination of his creative process, his run of imagination and his own discovery of what his legendarium was about. I think we can have some more in-depth discussions privately, in the chat or on Facebook. – Maksim Jul 11 '15 at 0:12
  • Fair enough. The more I learn about him and his process, the more intriguing he becomes. – Wad Cheber Jul 11 '15 at 0:14
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    If you're interested, I have compiled a "chronology" of the conception of Middle-earth legendarium: facebook.com/notes/the-book-of-lost-tales/… This will give you some idea about Tolkien's creative process and how his work progressed through the years of his life. – Maksim Jul 11 '15 at 7:28
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IMHO There is a different canon scale for each Tolkien work.

Thus The Hobbit is almost 100 percent canonical with itself, while other Tolkien works like The Silmarillion and The lord of the Rings are canonical with The Hobbit to a somewhat lesser degree.

And The lord of the Rings is almost 100 percent canonical with itself, while other Tolkien works like The Silmarillion and The Hobbit are canonical with The lord of the Rings to a somewhat lesser degree.

And so on and so on for everything Tolkien wrote in his Middle-earth legendarium. Each work is almost 100 percent canonical with itself, and is canonical to a somewhat lesser degree with the other works in the Middle-earth legendarium.

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    "The lord of the rings is almost 100 precent canonical with itself" how can something be "almost canonical" with itself? That's like saying 12 is almost equal to 12..? What? – Edlothiad Dec 20 '17 at 20:32
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    "Each work is almost 100 percent canonical with itself". Huh? I'm sorry, but this is just gibberish – Valorum Dec 20 '17 at 20:34
  • Your opinion is invalid. – Möoz Dec 20 '17 at 20:56
  • Edlothiad and Valorum - There are many examples of apparent contradictions within works of fiction. Either a fan accepts an explanation that one or both of the statements does not mean exactly what it seems to, or else they must accept that the two statements contradict each other and thus that the work of fiction is not 100 percent consistent and canonical with itself. You should just accept that LOTR is not 100 percent consistent with itself and thus not 100 percent canonical with itself. – M. A. Golding Dec 27 '17 at 3:26
  • Mooz - In my opinion your opinion about my opinion is invalid. LOTR does not consist of a single short simple sentence that says only one simple thing. LOTR is much more complicated than that. Gene Roddenberry, who was a much more successful writer than we probably are, is famous for decreeing that different Star Trek movies and episodes, and even parts of movies and episodes, are not canon Star Trek. Challenge his belief that it is possible for only part of a story to be canon after you have created something as great as Star Trek. – M. A. Golding Dec 27 '17 at 3:43

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