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Canon

Post by Eldorion on Thu Sep 08, 2011 7:21 pm

This topic came up in the Elves thread but since that discussion has moved on I thought I'd create a new thread instead. Smile

Canon is in origin a religious term, as everyone here probably knows, referring to the set of documents considered to be authoritative scripture by a given religious sect. In fan contexts, the term is broadly applied to the set of creative works considered to be official and authoritative representations of the fictional world in question. This term is commonly used in the fanfiction community to distinguish between elements of an original book, movie, or TV programme (the canon) and ideas that were invented by fanfic writers (the fanon).

In a lot of cases there really isn't much question of what canon is: it's just the book, movie or whatever that people are fans of. Some franchises, such as Star Wars, have a lot of derivative works and spin-offs, so they have official policies about licensing that fans use to determine what is canon and not. In keeping with the original meaning of the word, rules about canon come from the original creator of the work or, it said creator is deceased or no longer involved with the franchise, from whichever people or company owns it now.

The question of Tolkien canon is complicated for two main reasons. First, there are a lot of inconsistencies in the published material that we have. This isn't a criticism, it's simply the inevitable reality when Tolkien composed his stories over a span of decades. Contradictions are in fact not contrary to his goal of creating a mythology, since real mythologies are never perfectly consistent with themselves, though one can reasonable assumed that had Tolkien lived and longer and finished The Silmarillion within his lifetime we might see fewer inconsistencies. However, this leads us to the second difficulty; namely, that so much of the material we have was published after Tolkien's death from his unfinished drafts and notes.

The post in the Elves thread that originally got my attention was this one:

Lorient Avandi wrote:Well the Narn is considered canon, as is most of the UT, so I believe that Tinuviel's quote about Turin and Hopafoot, but there are conflicting stories throughout Tolkien's books and that also was just hopafoot's account which may or may not be right.

Petty mentioned that he considers The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to be the only truly canonical books in the Tolkien mythos, though as Elthir pointed out, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On were also published by Tolkien within his lifetime. It has also been observed elsewhere that Pauline Baynes' map of Middle-earth was approved by Tolkien and he gave her a few places names that hadn't appeared elsewhere but can be reasonably taken as canon. Still, that leaves us with very little material about the First and Second Ages, which I know is unsatisfying to a lot of people who enjoy those tales.

Another post in the Elves thread that caught my eye was by Elthir, of which I quote a selection below:

Elthir wrote:
Pettytyrant101 wrote: (...) So whilst I include TB as canon where he is mentioned in the books I treat the poems from within the conceit as a hobbit collection. So still more in the myth, folktale category.

For myself (and not that you said otherwise here), I don't think true and 'canon' are mutually exclusive. If there is a poem about a troll that bakes bread for Perry-the-Winkle written in the Red Book of Westmarch, or a copy, it is certainly part of Frodo's world simply because it's part of the Red Book. It's part of the same conceit as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo's earlier version of how he got the One was untrue in parts, but Tolkien preserves the first edition of The Hobbit as Bilbo's version of things -- rather than an externally rejected thing.

I think this is interesting because it touches upon Tolkien's "conceit" about his mythos, which I think is important to keep in mind when analyzing the texts but which seems to be little known. Tolkien presented himself as the ostensible discovered and translator of an ancient text from which he derived the stories he published. One of his earlier ideas (though one that he toyed around with until fairly late in his life) was that the text was written by an ancient English mariner named Eriol or Elfwine who (I'm sure Elthir will correct me if I'm misremembering here) discovered an Elven society on Tol Eressea and was told their ancient stories, including those of Turambar and Luthien. This is the framing device presented in The Book of Lost Tales, one of the earliest versions of what would become The Silmarillion.

In The Lord of the RIngs, however, Tolkien presents a different account of how he came into possession of the stories about Middle-earth. He reports in the Prologue that both TH and LOTR were based on "the Red Book of Westmarch", and in the Prologue and Appendices he claims to quote directly from the book in a number of places. The rest of TH and LOTR are a mix of translation and reconstruction in which, especially in TH, Tolkien added his own asides as the narrator. Still, the basic pretension that Tolkien simply discovered the old accounts remains.

In the last chapter of LOTR, the authorship of the Red Book is revealed. It is given by Frodo to Sam as The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King, drawn from Bilbo and Frodo's accounts of their respective adventures, and "with extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell" (presumably the basis of The Silmarillion and much of the Appendices) appended. It is mentioned in Appendix B (the Tale of Years) that a copy of the Red Book was kept by Sam's daughter Eleanor and her descendants, and in the Prologue (the "note on the Shire records") it is stated that several additions were made by one Findegil, a scribe in Gondor, expanded from and based on a copy in the possession of Pippin when he died in Minas Tirith decades after the end of LOTR, and including in full Bilbo's aforementioned Translations from the Elvish and The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, written by Faramir's grandson after Aragorn's death.

If one thinks about it, I think this conceit makes a great deal of sense. It is not an omniscient narrator commenting on the story, it is the characters themselves writing about it after the fact. They are not infallible and the story presented is inevitably tinted by their own experiences. In this sense, it is not just (as Petty said) The Adventures of Tom Bombadil that must be taken with a grain of salt as an in-universe document written by fallible characters, but all of Tolkien's writings. Now, TATB is presented as a collection of folklore, so it should still be considered differently than LOTR, which is presented as history, but the basic principle is similar. We should take into account the supposed origins of the books within Middle-earth when considering them. In this sense I am just agreeing with Elthir in extremely verbose terms. Razz

However, even if one agrees with all this, the situation is still complicated because of all those unpublished writings. Do we really take something that Tolkien wrote in 1916 and combine it with material from the 1960s and call it call canon? Well, Christopher Tolkien had to combine things like that to get a complete story for the version of The Silmarillion that he published in 1977 (since many stories, including the Fall of Gondolin, exist in complete form only in their very early versions). I don't think that the younger Tolkien ever claimed to be creating the final, ultimate, canonical work, and he has commented that after the further study that went into compiling The History of Middle-earth, he probably would have made some of his editorial decisions differently.

This isn't to say that all of the older stuff is worthless and we should only go with what Tolkien's most recent writings before his death were, but it is a tricky situation. The Fall of Gondolin, for instance, contains references to thousands of Balrogs and weird steampunk tanks (probably inspired by WWI which was ongoing at the time). People have tried to make this fit in with Tolkien's later conceptions of Middle-earth but it just doesn't work for me. Tolkien had changed his vision of Balrogs during the course of writing LOTR), and the steampunk stuff feels out of place compared with accounts of Morgoth's armies in other places (IMO), though it's worth noting that the Numenoreans under Sauron were also pretty steampunk, so who knows.

The point that I have been very slowly building towards is that I don't think there is any canon for Middle-earth. There is a collection of legends and mythic history that Tolkien presents, but even limiting ourself to what he published within his lifetime, we still have to interpret things through a certain lens. With the posthumous material, I approach it in a few different ways. The first way I like to interpret it is that the different stories reflect different stories passed down through the Ages and/or different versions of Bilbo's opus that were transcribed, and that we just have to accept that we can't know for sure what "really" happened. That's the in-universe analysis. Sometimes I prefer to try to look at the different versions Tolkien wrote (and that Christopher Tolkien generously published) and try to determine what Tolkien meant in an out-of-universe way, but both ways require speculation on the part of the reader.

TL;DR: Since the Tolkien Estate doesn't appear interested in making an official canon policy (and they have no reason to do so), I think all we can do is approach things on a case-by-case basis and try to take into account as much information as possible. Of course, this is just my opinion, and I'd be interested in hearing any other opinions about canon. I should really try to edit this down to something shorter but I'm out of time. I hope this isn't too boring to read. Rolling Eyes
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Re: Canon

Post by Orwell on Sat Sep 10, 2011 12:21 am

Is this your indirect, oblique and devilishly cunning way of saying that anything PJ does with The Hobbit is Canon? Suspect

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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Sat Sep 10, 2011 12:35 am

No. Rolling Eyes
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Re: Canon

Post by Orwell on Sat Sep 10, 2011 12:46 am

Oh --- was this meant to be a serious discussion? My bad... sorry...

{{{{hee hee heee}}}}}

At least I had the courtesy to reply, mind.... Laughing

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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Sat Sep 10, 2011 12:55 am

I'll take what I can get. Mad Razz
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Re: Canon

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Sat Sep 10, 2011 1:19 am

An excellent post Eldo not dull in the slightest even to a non Lore-Head as myself. And in short I agree with your general thrust. I much prefer to view the works through the conceit of it being history. I treat TH as a version of events as related by Bilbo, who seemed mainly concerned with making it a tale palatable to childen. LotR's I view as the most 'concrete' account as it was compiled from 1st hand witness accounts. Sil I take as legends, myths and a mix of history that has come down through the ages.

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Re: Canon

Post by Elthir on Sat Sep 10, 2011 4:04 am

Nice post/thread Eldorion!

One of his earlier ideas (though one that he toyed around with until fairly late in his life) was that the text was written by an ancient English mariner named Eriol or Elfwine who (I'm sure Elthir will correct me if I'm misremembering here) discovered an Elven society on Tol Eressea and was told their ancient stories, including those of Turambar and Luthien. This is the framing device presented in The Book of Lost Tales, one of the earliest versions of what would become The Silmarillion.

I think that's basically it. What I find interesting here is (if I may add a bit that I'm sure you know already): early on we have someone hearing the Elvish tales first-hand, who will translate them into Old English (Old English versions even exist for some of the early Silmarillion related texts), allowing for someone who knew Old English -- like Tolkien obviously -- to translate the matter.

But where does Old English go when we come to the later chain of tradition: Elvish -- Numenorean -- Middle-earthian -- Bilbo (the 'new Elfwine' in a sense) and so on, in which one can note that there is more chance for confusion and interpretation here than when Eriol or Elfwine learned the tales more directly in Eressea. How did Tolkien translate from Westron? as it seems he did at least; or was there still and Old English component somewhere? especially if Tolkien employed Old English to represent the language of the Rohirrim (not the actual language of the Rohirrim), as he did, has it vanished with respect to existing copies of the original material?

Anyway, on to 'canon'...

The point that I have been very slowly building towards is that I don't think there is any canon for Middle-earth. There is a collection of legends and mythic history that Tolkien presents, but even limiting ourself to what he published within his lifetime, we still have to interpret things through a certain lens.

Perhaps this is more semantics than anything else, but for me the canon is the work: if it's an Elvish work, or Mannish, or a mix, or a Hobbitish poem, it's all canon if Tolkien included it within his conceit. And while I put author-published texts on the highest shelf, I then build the rest of my Middle-earth around that with certain posthumously published texts.

With the posthumous material, I approach it in a few different ways. The first way I like to interpret it is that the different stories reflect different stories passed down through the Ages and/or different versions of Bilbo's opus that were transcribed, and that we just have to accept that we can't know for sure what "really" happened. That's the in-universe analysis. Sometimes I prefer to try to look at the different versions Tolkien wrote (and that Christopher Tolkien generously published) and try to determine what Tolkien meant in an out-of-universe way, but both ways require speculation on the part of the reader.


Hmm, before I comment here, can I ask what you mean by the different stories? Do you mean, for example: Qenta Noldorinwa versus Quenta Silmarillion? externally earlier and later versions of the same work?


Last edited by Elthir on Sat Sep 10, 2011 4:18 am; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Sat Sep 10, 2011 4:17 am

Pettytyrant101 wrote:An excellent post Eldo not dull in the slightest even to a non Lore-Head as myself. And in short I agree with your general thrust. I much prefer to view the works through the conceit of it being history. I treat TH as a version of events as related by Bilbo, who seemed mainly concerned with making it a tale palatable to childen. LotR's I view as the most 'concrete' account as it was compiled from 1st hand witness accounts. Sil I take as legends, myths and a mix of history that has come down through the ages.

Thanks Petty! It sounds like we generally agree, though there is one point I'm not sure about. I wonder how much of the "children's book" nature of The Hobbit should be attributed to Bilbo's narrative style or Tolkien-as-translator's style. There are plenty of points in the book where Tolkien is giving asides to the reader: explaining what Hobbits or Goblins are and comparing the ancient setting of Middle-earth to the modern world. I don't know if Tolkien stated anywhere whether Bilbo was trying to make the story kid-friendly or whether Tolkien had decided to do so in the course of his translation. Though I suspect that if Tolkien knew his fans were trying to do such analyses he would be discouraged, given his attitude towards his "deplorable cultus". Laughing
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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Sat Sep 10, 2011 4:27 am

Elthir wrote:Nice post/thread Eldorion!

Thank you! It's always nice to get your feedback. Smile

But where does Old English go when we come to the later chain of tradition: Elvish -- Numenorean -- Middle-earthian -- Bilbo (the 'new Elfwine' in a sense) and so on, in which one can note that there is more chance for confusion and interpretation here than when Eriol or Elfwine learned the tales more directly in Eressea. How did Tolkien translate from Westron? as it seems he did at least; or was there still and Old English component somewhere? especially if Tolkien employed Old English to represent the language of the Rohirrim (not the actual language of the Rohirrim), as he did, has it vanished with respect to his translation?

That's a very interesting point, and one I had not considered before. I had wondered how Tolkien supposedly translated the Westron, but I have not familiarized myself with the Elfwine account since I consider it somewhat superseded by the Red Book version. Perhaps Tolkien as not the first one to have discovered the Red Book and there had been translations made throughout the ages, from Westron to some unknown language(s) and eventually to Old English, with Tolkien discovering a copy that was translated less than 2000 years ago. I admit that this is just speculation, though.

Perhaps this is more semantics than anything else, but for me the canon is the work: if it's an Elvish work, or Mannish, or a mix, or a Hobbitish poem, it's all canon if Tolkien included it within his conceit. And while I put author-published texts on the highest shelf, I then build the rest of my Middle-earth around that with certain posthumously published texts.

I'm using the term in more a fanfictiony sense (which no doubt says something about the geeky sort of sites I visit Rolling Eyes) but I see your point. If we use the word canon in the same way as the "Western canon", then it applies to all of the works in the corpus of Tolkien's legendarium (please correct me if I'm misinterpreting you). I don't, however, consider just anything in this canon to be authoritative or definitive. The author-published texts would be, as you say, at the highest level, but there isn't a strict policy that separates canon (in the religious sense) from Tolkien's "apocrypha". In my opinion, anyway. Smile

Hmm, before I comment here, can I ask what you mean by the different stories? Do you mean, for example: Qenta Noldorinwa versus Quenta Silmarillion? externally earlier and later versions of the same work?

Yes, that's what I had in mind. Something like the different versions of the Quenta, or of the Narn, or The Fall of Gondlin as compared with Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin (though as I'm sure you know that last one was never completed).
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Re: Canon

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Sat Sep 10, 2011 11:29 am

"I wonder how much of the "children's book" nature of The Hobbit should be attributed to Bilbo's narrative style or Tolkien-as-translator's style."- Eldo

That's a good point Eldo. Typical of Tolkien even trying to keep within the conceit of history presents its problems. For myself I think Bilbo wrote a more light hearted almost fairystory version of his journey and Tolkien as translator added to that with asides.
But looking even further into it the first version of TH printed by Tolkien contained Bilbo's 'false' account of how he got the Ring. Presumably as translator Tolkien had only manged to translate Bilbo's part of the work by then (along with the Elvish stuff that would form the Sil a sizeable body of work in itself) translation of Frodo's part of the Redbook seems to have come later. And as its translation came with a correction of the version of events in TH presumably it was Frodo who included the 'true' version of events. This implies Bilbo's own account in the Redbook was never corrected or the earlier version would not have been published.

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Re: Canon

Post by Elthir on Sun Sep 11, 2011 5:29 am

Eldorion wrote: Yes, that's what I had in mind. Something like the different versions of the Quenta, or of the Narn, or The Fall of Gondlin as compared with Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin (though as I'm sure you know that last one was never completed).

Ah, thanks, that clarifies this...

The first way I like to interpret it is that the different stories reflect different stories passed down through the Ages and/or different versions of Bilbo's opus that were transcribed, and that we just have to accept that we can't know for sure what "really" happened. That's the in-universe analysis. Sometimes I prefer (...)

You are certainly not alone here, and I understand what you mean by in-universe, but does this not characterize the external as internal, and thus create a false inconsistency; or let's say rather, a fan-created measure of inconsistency?

World building is an art: it's difficult to make readers accept a 'green sun' even though they are prepared to be swayed by the author of fantasy. Tolkien is a Master here, and outside the relatively few slips (and niggling of details) in the author-published works, he wove in purposed variations too; although given that we have so much posthumously published material -- still 'draft texts' essentially -- it's not always easy to tell the intended internal variation from the external revision.

I think the fall of Numenor was going to be represented by multiple texts (or at least two), with purposed inconsistencies due to varying perspectives and internal authorship. Another example is the two internal tales of the Elessar jool. But if we simply adopt this general idea for other parts of the corpus, parts that really only amount to texts alongside their superseded versions, I would say we are creating Tolkien's measure for him, or perhaps not even minding it; and arguably underming Middle-earth for JRRT in a way that he wouldn't have imagined.


I admit there is a sort of poetic attraction about accepting Tolkien's external variations as if they echo the many hands and minds of storytellers in the Primary World (the Arthurian corpus for instance). It's an approach that also seems to do away with negative terms like rejected or superseded; and even the brief starts can be looked at as enticingly mysterious fragments of a real and ancient corpus found in some unlikely place.

This has its lure, but in the end I think, especially because Tolkien is such a master world builder, and did indulge in what I call purposed inconsistencies, being well aware of the positive effect these can have on the Secondary World, that we readers and fans should not fiddle with the 'ingredients' so much in this way. A fine soup is not just about ingredients, but the measure of them too.


And speaking of measure, I could have said this much more briefly!
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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Sun Sep 11, 2011 6:58 am

Interesting points, Elthir, and ones I will have to spend some time mulling over before I can say what I really think about them. But I will make an effort to give a full response soon! Smile
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Re: Canon

Post by Orwell on Mon Sep 12, 2011 1:03 am

All the diverse writings certainly foster the impression that Middle Earth is a real world with lots of different versions of history and no definitive, fully accurate account of any event. The "conceit" is a mighty broad one. This is why so much other fantasy seems so "thin", (perhaps like butter spread too thinly over bread, very very thin bread).

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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Tue Sep 13, 2011 1:45 am

Elthir wrote:You are certainly not alone here, and I understand what you mean by in-universe, but does this not characterize the external as internal, and thus create a false inconsistency; or let's say rather, a fan-created measure of inconsistency?

I can't really disagree with you here, but the alternative seems (to me) to be acknowleding no consistency at all for the First Age, as opposed to an imperfect situation with inconsistencies. There is certainly an attraction for me in having a corpus of faux-mythological works rather than a series of rough drafts that often have little relationship to each other because of the spans of time between their writing. So really I'm just agreeing with you've said about the allure. I'd like to try to defend this idea, but I can't deny that it involves fan intervention in what Tolkien wrote, so I have to concede that the "in-universe" method of analysis doesn't stand up particularly well in rigorous analyses, despite it's "poetic" appeal.
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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Tue Sep 13, 2011 1:48 am

Pettytyrant101 wrote:But looking even further into it the first version of TH printed by Tolkien contained Bilbo's 'false' account of how he got the Ring. Presumably as translator Tolkien had only manged to translate Bilbo's part of the work by then (along with the Elvish stuff that would form the Sil a sizeable body of work in itself) translation of Frodo's part of the Redbook seems to have come later. And as its translation came with a correction of the version of events in TH presumably it was Frodo who included the 'true' version of events. This implies Bilbo's own account in the Redbook was never corrected or the earlier version would not have been published.

I'd never thought of the Riddles in the Dark situation that way before, but I think that's a very elegant way of tying both accounts together in light of Tolkien not wholly discarding the original version. cheers
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Re: Canon

Post by Lorient Avandi on Tue Sep 13, 2011 2:22 am

Just have Tolkien write out everything once ya get to Heaven! cheers
(Meant to be more of a joke than religious comment)
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Re: Canon

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Sep 13, 2011 2:25 am

I'll be to busy repeatedly kicking God in the bollocks for all the crap He has visited on people. Very Happy
(Also meant to be more of a joke than religious comment)


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Re: Canon

Post by Wisey Banks on Tue Sep 13, 2011 7:26 am

I wonder how big they would be?
God's bollocks, I mean?
But this is the "Canon" thread,
Or, at least, that's what it seems.

Perhaps a new Thread should be made?
"Kick God's Bollocks", I mean,
But I'll leave that to Petty,
It appears it's his dream.
Shocked


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Re: Canon

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Sep 13, 2011 4:51 pm

It's ok I'm in no danger. He is a loving forgiving God afterall- so He can forgive me, after each kick. Very Happy

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Re: Canon

Post by Orwell on Tue Sep 13, 2011 9:14 pm

Is that the God of Grace - Pauline? Or the God where you gotta earn things - Jamesian?

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Re: Canon

Post by Ally on Mon Sep 19, 2011 10:22 pm

I thought God was female...

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Re: Canon

Post by Lorient Avandi on Mon Sep 19, 2011 10:34 pm

That discussion is over. It was overruled.
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Re: Canon

Post by Ally on Mon Sep 19, 2011 10:47 pm

Whose side was overturned? I'm guessing it was the whole 'God is a Chick' side... Mad

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Re: Canon

Post by Orwell on Tue Sep 20, 2011 10:00 am

I'm still in two minds, actually. Maybe the Godhead is in two parts. The M and the F principle... Bears thinkin' on, friends.

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Re: Canon

Post by Elthir on Tue Sep 20, 2011 5:32 pm

Eldorion wrote:
Elthir wrote:You are certainly not alone here, and I understand what you mean by in-universe, but does this not characterize the external as internal, and thus create a false inconsistency; or let's say rather, a fan-created measure of inconsistency?

I can't really disagree with you here, but the alternative seems (to me) to be acknowleding no consistency at all for the First Age, as opposed to an imperfect situation with inconsistencies. (...)

Yes I would say that from a realistic perspective we have an unfinished corpus of inconsistent texts written at various times. But I think it's also realistic to say that we have a chronology of Tolkien working toward an internally consistent (but not perfectly consistent), finished version. In other words, he's working towards something like what Christopher Tolkien produced, in essence if not in all details.

One could just say it's all draft text and the only internal truth of the Elder Days is to be found in the works Tolkien published in his lifetime. On the other hand JRRT set out the task, at least generally, in letter 247, 1963:

I am afraid all the same that the presentation will need a lot of work, and I work so slowly. The legends have to be worked over (they were written at different times, some many years ago) and made consistent; and they have to be integrated with The L.R.; and they have to be given some progressive shape. No simple device, like a journey and a quest, is available.

So I say let's seek this kind of consistency. Not easy! but Christopher Tolkien has done a lot of the work for us, and in my opinion he provided a reasonable model too -- and I think we can pursue this minus the constraints that Christopher Tolkien had, he being Tolkien's son and having to actually produce a 'real copy' for all readers. Anyway, the (simplified) model as I see it, is:

A) mind chronological revisions
B) mind consistency with author-published works

Of course B will affect A, and so the latest text will not always win out. But if we are not tasked with producing a real copy for Tolkien's readership, for the imaginative construction we can more easily incorporate ideas versus actual 'finished' (Tolkien-written) text. For example, the late story of the death of Feanor's youngest son: it's not a finished text in my opinion, and it's inconsistent with earlier descriptions; and moreover, Tolkien didn't run through his own work correcting any and all later references to both Amrod and Amras being alive.

But if Tolkien desired this change (as he appears to in a note, as well as the existence of the text itself) then surely he would have altered any texts where Feanor's youngest still appears after the burning of the ships at Losgar.


My Silmarillion includes the death of Ambarussa Amarthan at Losgar. I know other people's Silmarillions do not. Maybe some will see this as cheating, I don't know, because I don't have all the text and revisions that go with the idea, but for me it follows Tolkien's desire as well as can be determined, and the approach in general at least seems to match the author's goal and perspective well enough, as opposed to characterizing superseded ideas as internal.
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