Canon

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Re: Canon

Post by Bluebottle on Tue Sep 16, 2014 4:57 pm

Pettytyrant101 wrote:The space elevator is still a good possibility, last I read about it they were getting pretty close to cracking the major problem- creating a cable that can take the stresses and strains.

Yeah, the cool thing about the whole concept is that, while being distinctly science fiction in nature, with a bit of technological development it would not only be feasible, but quite successful in a real world context.

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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Tue May 17, 2016 10:24 pm

Bumping this thread because I got back into things after a month's break and finished expanding and moving out the Lore essays from my old Wordpress site to the new Tumblr one. The one that got considerably more expansion was my piece on canon, which actually predated this thread and used to be only four paragraphs long. My views on this matter are still largely the same but I won't promise complete continuity with everything I said five or six years ago. Razz

http://nolondil.tumblr.com/post/144518958061/the-futility-of-canon

I think the formatting is nicer at the link and it includes images, but I'll copy and paste it here too. Much obliged to Elthir in the original round of activity in this thread and to everyone else who has discussed the concept of a Tolkien canon with me over the years. As always this is just my take on things, though I like to think its an informed one.




The Futility of Canon

The question of what the “Tolkien canon” is, or whether it even exists, is a deceptively tricky one. The first issue is that there is some disagreement over what exactly the term means. The more common definition in literary criticism is “the works of a writer that have been accepted as authentic” (Wiktionary). This is more of an issue with historical literature, where authorship is often unclear and there is sometimes suspicion that a work is a forgery. In the context of Tolkien, there’s no real issue with determining which works were truly written by him. However, a great many of Tolkien’s incomplete stories and early drafts have been published since his death, many of which never achieved a finished form, which raises the question of how much weight they should be given. This leads into the second relevant definition of canon, the one common in fandom circles: “Those sources, especially including literary works, which are generally considered authoritative regarding a given fictional universe”.

Questions of canon in fandom typically involve franchises with a great number of published works by different authors that rely on a complex, well-developed setting as part of their appeal. One famous example is the Star Wars franchise, which in addition to the mainline movies includes a mass of made-for-TV movies and shows, comic books, novels, and video games. Lucasfilm Ltd., the company in charge of Star Wars, closely reviews new tie-in media to maintain continuity between these works, but in some cases the shared universe moves on and older works are declared “non-canon” and no longer binding on future works. In the case of Tolkien, there is only one author who has worked in the setting (although Christopher Tolkien had to make creative decisions at times in his editorial capacity), and the Tolkien Estate does not have a policy creating a hierarchy between Tolkien’s various works. The relative lack of spin-off media (excluding the movies, which have their own continuity between themselves) renders many of the typical questions of canon moot.

One of the main questions that does come up in Tolkien fandom is the aforementioned editorial role of Christopher Tolkien, principally in regards to The Silmarillion. The elder Tolkien worked on the complex of legends, stories, and related linguistic and philosophical that comprises the mythology of the First Age over a span of nearly 60 years. These stories shifted in form and content over time, although structurally they were largely settled by the late 1930s. Late in his life Tolkien contemplated radical revisions of fundamental concepts in his mythology without following through on them, but at his death in 1973 some key stories, especially The Fall of Gondolin, had not been fully rewritten since the 1910s, leaving them at odds with much of the other material. Tolkien’s will gave his third son and literary executor, Christopher, “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”. Fortunately, Christopher decided to edit these works into a form suitable for publication, but he immediately faced an unenviable dilemma:

It became clear to me that to attempt to present, within the covers of a single book the diversity of the materials – to show The Silmarillion as in truth a continuing and evolving creation extending over more than half a century – would in fact lead only to confusion and the submerging of what is essential I set myself therefore to work out a single text selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative. (Christopher Tolkien, Foreword to The Silmarillion)

Tolkien had long desired the publication of “The Silmarillion”, which he considered his most important work, so Christopher (assisted by Guy Gavriel Kay, who later became an acclaimed fantasy novelist in his own right) began the task of turning “The Silmarillion”, the vast and often contradictory body of works left at his father’s death, into The Silmarillion, the single, more or less cohesive volume that was published in 1977. The overwhelming majority of the words in The Silmarillion are Tolkien’s own, but they are sometimes pieced together from texts written decades apart in order to achieve complete and mutually consistent versions of all the constituent parts of the mythology. The main exception to this is the chapter “Of the Ruin of Doriath”, which was largely written by Christopher himself, as there was little to work with that could be made consistent with the rest of the emerging volume without substantial rewriting. Christopher also rejected most of Tolkien’s late ideas to make the cosmological framework of “The Silmarillion” more compatible with modern science, as Tolkien never made the comprehensive rewrites of long-settled works that these changes would have necessitated.

Following the publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher moved on to Unfinished Tales, giving readers a taste of less settled Tolkien works, and following the success of that book embarked on his 12 volume exploration of the evolution of “The Silmarillion” and The Lord of the RingsThe History of Middle-earth. Over the course of this longer and deeper study of the manuscripts, Christopher came at certain points to question decisions he had made when editing The Silmarillion, and suggested that he could have achieved his aim of publishing the book with less editorial intrusion. One such point is the parentage of Gil-galad, which appears somewhat contradictory in the published Silmarillion (the crown passes to Fingon’s brother before going to his son), but that Christopher decided 19 years later was based on a passing idea of his father’s that had never been fully implemented. As such, many fans consider the version of Gil-galad’s parentage given in The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996) to be the “true” one, even though this change was not incorporated into the second edition of The Silmarillion (1999), which made no changes of note to the text.

While some fans have a regrettable and unjustifiable antipathy for Christopher’s editorial decisions (he deserves our gratitude for giving us both the edited single volume and the expansive 12 volume version, though the latter would likely never have seen the light of day if not for the success of the former), The Silmarillion remains a highly condensed version of the Elder Days, and much of the beauty and richness of the work Tolkien was most dedicated to can only be appreciated through reading the drafts available in HoMe, incomplete as they mostly are. It’s not simply intriguing details like Gil-galad, but also more fleshed out characterization for characters from Melkor to Maedhros and many details of the languages and philosophical ideas that underpin the mythology but didn’t fit into the main narrative. Had Tolkien finished “The Silmarillion” himself (which is a questionable proposition even if he had lived another 10 years), it would likely have been a compendium containing not only the Quenta Silmarillion and its associated tales, but several lengthy essays included as appendices. While the published Silmarillion does consist of five semi-distinct works, the philological essays were excluded (for understandable reasons). The unabridged versions of the “Great Tales” of Beren, Túrin, and Tuor were also left in too undeveloped of a state to include (length was also a consideration), though Túrin’s was eventually published as a stand-alone volume 30 years later. But all of these tales, as far as they were developed by Tolkien, can be read in UT and HoMe.

In light of the abridgments and the points in which it arguably diverges from Tolkien’s latest intentions, many fans are reluctant to accord The Silmarillion full “canonical” status. This can lead to a grab bag approach, where people construct their own “Silmarillion” canons (either individually or in groups) from the published version and a mix of various ideas from HoMe. It is alluring to approach the whole body of work as similar to primary world mythologies, which tend to survive as incomplete collections of sometimes contradictory stories. Coupled with Tolkien’s stated desire to create a mythology of his own and his description of feeling that he discovered things about his stories more than he created them on his own, it is tempting to attempt to “reconstruct” the “true” version of the First Age underlying all the different versions that have been published. However, Tolkien himself was concerned with consistency between his stories and wanted to arrange “The Silmarillion” in a complete form suitable for publication. We can’t claim to know how Tolkien would have done on this, or what ideas he would have kept and which he would have replaced with new ones. Treating Tolkien’s invented mythology as a vast puzzle often results in ideas that are not recognizably Tolkien’s, especially when trying to view Tolkien’s early stories through the lens of late conceptions that only entered the mythology decades later. This becomes a species of fanfiction, which is not necessarily without merit, but should not be presented as anything like authoritative.

The question of canon and The Silmarillion is intractable since Tolkien never came to a final decision on many points. For example, Tolkien originally imagined orcs as creations of Morgoth, but after introducing the idea that evil can only corrupt, not create, he went back and forth between many different possibilities for what orcs originally were, including elves, men, fallen Maiar, and beasts. He never definitively settled on one answer, nor did he solve the related question of whether orcs had free will or were irredeemably evil in a way that was consistent with all of his stories. We could rely on the published Silmarillion for the answers to such questions, and many do, but Christopher warned in the Foreword that “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.”With no official policy, any defined canon for the First Age must be a creation of fans, which undermines the very concept, and is ultimately a distraction from a deeper appreciation of both “The Silmarillion” and The Silmarillion.

Very well, one might say, but “The Silmarillion” is famous for the difficulty Tolkien had in attempting to complete it. It would seem reasonable to suppose that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien’s two most famous books and the only two major works about Middle-earth that he published in his lifetime, would obviously be canonical. Indeed, many people define canon as simply being those works published during Tolkien’s lifetime, while those published posthumously are not (or perhaps are quasi-canonical, unless one is comfortable rejecting The Silmarillionentirely). However, even limiting ourselves to these two works (and the slim, lesser known volumesThe Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On, both published in the 1960s), there are still issues. Tolkien famously revised The Hobbit to make it more consistent with its sequel, primarily by rewriting the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” to reflect the more sinister nature of the Ring and the impact it had on Gollum. But much remains that gives the attentive reader pause.

One of the most obvious differences between the two books are the number of whimsical asides and anachronistic elements in The Hobbit that don’t fit comfortably into the more serious world established in The Lord of the Rings. Some of this can be explained away as a question of unreliable narrators. The Hobbit is presented as being based on Bilbo’s diary of his adventure, and when Tolkien wrote the second edition he did not declare the original non-canonical, but gave it a place in the framing device as a fibbed version that Bilbo told so that he wouldn’t appear as a thief of the Ring, an early example of the Ring’s corrupting influence on him. However, Bilbo is clearly not the narrator of The Hobbit, as the narrator is a modern figure who comments on the story and characters from an outside perspective, not always approvingly. Knowing that The Hobbit began as a bedtime story told by Tolkien to his sons, it is easy to hear this narrative voice as Tolkien’s own parental one, but the relationship of the narrator to the story he tells is left unclear in the book.

The narrator of The Lord of the Rings is far less intrusive, but Tolkien substantially developed and extended the conceit of the book as being based on the Hobbit characters’ own accounts, primarily on Frodo’s. At the end of The Return of the King, Frodo gives Sam a book bound in red leather, with the title “The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King”, which includes both Bilbo’s diary from the Quest of Erebor and Frodo’s account of the War of the Ring. Back in the Prologue, this book is called the Red Book of Westmarch, and a complex textual history of different versions and additions made by various figures is laid out. Middle-earth is described as a distant historical period of our own world, with Tolkien as the discoverer and translator of the tales (possibly assisted in the translation by a small surviving population of hobbits). Crucially, the book is not presented as a literal translation of the Red Book, but a modern adaptation of it. A note at the beginning of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings distinguishes between ostensible direct quotations from the Red Book and the modern editor’s words. This also explains the modern voice of the narrator in The Hobbit.

This framing device is an important part of Tolkien’s goal of writing in a mythological style: as a medievalist he was aware of the convoluted paths that ancient tales took before they came to be read by modern audiences, and the Red Book is seemingly based on the real Red Book of Hergest, one of the collections that preserved the Welsh Mabinogion. Tolkien also wrote several revisions of a framing device for “The Silmarillion” centered on a figure known as Eriol, or Ælfwine, though late in life he probably changed his mind and thought of “The Silmarillion” as being preserved and transmitted in Bilbo’s three volume work Translations from the Elvish, which is mentioned as part of the Red Book in The Lord of the Rings. The framing device resolves certain questions, such as the infamous description of the fireworks-dragon flying over party-goers “like an express train”. This anachronistic analogy could not possibly have been made by a Hobbit, so it must have been introduced by Tolkien in his supposed role as translator/adapter of the Red Book.

Other elements are not so easily harmonized. Hobbits in general are an anachronism in Middle-earth, being based on Tolkien’s experiences growing up in rural England late in the reign of Queen Victoria, though his home was increasingly transformed upon by industrialization even during his childhood. Tolkien referred to the Shire as “in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” (Letters, no. 178), and it’s social and political structure, while idealized, includes elements that seem centuries ahead of anything else in Middle-earth, including estate agents and a postal service. Bilbo has a small mechanical clock at home, where he eats potatoes and smokes tobacco (both New World crops not introduced in Europe until after Columbus). Some of this can be explained away: Dwarves may have made the clocks, and Tolkien himself presents an explanation for tobacco as being brought from Númenor to Middle-earth in the Second Age. Of course, many of these elements are present in The Lord of the Rings as well, but Bilbo’s use of matches in The Hobbit remains a particularly troublesome point.

Beyond details of worldbuilding, The Hobbit retains many artifacts of its origins as a stand-alone tale that borrowed names and ideas from “The Silmarillion” without being intended to form a part of that world. The behavior of some characters is different (Gandalf being unable to read the runes on the swords found in the trolls’ cave is at odds with both his shown abilities and his general reputation in the sequel), and the plot as a whole depends strongly on contrivance in a way that is taken in stride in a fairy tale or bedtime story, but strains credulity in a more serious work of sub-creation. Tolkien began a second revision of The Hobbit in 1960 with the intention of it making it more consistent with and stylistically similar to The Lord of the Rings that quickly turned into the beginnings of a full rewrite, though he abandoned it early on after receiving negative feedback, something that Tolkien normally did not take to heart. While he remained critical of the children’s book tone of The Hobbit, Tolkien made no major changes in the third edition of 1966.

In the end, all three of Tolkien’s major works of fiction (The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) have their own distinctive features not shared by the other two, though of course they also form parts of a much greater whole. Tolkien worked on this overarching whole, his mythology or legendarium, for nearly all of his adult life, and it absorbed numerous originally unrelated works. Tolkien attempted to maintain continuity with his published works once The Lord of the Rings was in print, but he continued to fiddle even with the that work until the end. “The Silmarillion”, without a published referent except for brief mentions in The Lord of the Rings, was of course in a much more fluid state at the end of Tolkien’s life than either of his Third Age works. The desire to know lots of facts and details about Tolkien’s secondary world in all the Ages of its history is understandable and a testament to the creative power of his work, but Tolkien himself did not know all the answers. The legendarium, by its nature, does not provide a good foundation on which to built a solid, strict continuity. However, by reading the successive draft versions of Tolkien’s stories, as we are able to thanks to The History of Middle-earth and The History of The Hobbit, the dedicated reader is able to see the full scope of the evolving body of work - with its through-lines, its variations on single tales, its wildly divergent branches - and gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the magnitude of Tolkien’s accomplishment. And that, ultimately, is far more rewarding than having an “official” explanation for the origins of orcs.
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Re: Canon

Post by halfwise on Tue May 17, 2016 11:31 pm

Nice and clearly put as always, Eldo; but if you look back on the previous page wouldn't it be more concise to say that cannons are futile because you can't make them long enough to achieve orbital velocity with a reasonable acceleration?

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Re: Canon

Post by Eldorion on Wed May 18, 2016 5:20 pm

Thanks halfwise! Very Happy

I could say that, but then I'd have to start thinking about the canonical status of Ilmen, Menel, and the other Airs of Arda's cosmology. Razz
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