J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is without question one of the most vividly realized imaginary worlds in all of literature. From its history to its languages to its inhabitants and beyond, it is vast in scope yet intricate in detail, rivaling even the mythologies of entire ancient cultures. A tremendous number of readers have deeply enjoyed Tolkien's stories about that world, and for many the heart of their enjoyment is a love of Middle-earth itself.
What makes Middle-earth such a joy to explore? There are many answers, but the most basic of all is that on some level, Middle-earth simply feels real. This is one of Tolkien's main points in his essay "On Fairy Stories", where he claims that no story can be successful without maintaining "the inner consistency of reality." An author, he says,
"makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. ... The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed."
Tolkien spent much of his life seeking to bring this level of consistency to his own "sub-created" world.
Achieving that goal is no easy task in a fantasy story! Tolkien goes on to admit that "It is easier to produce this kind of 'reality' with more 'sober' material." The countless drafts and revisions found in the "History of Middle-earth" books reveal Tolkien's long struggle to perfect his work, but they also make it clear that the process was far from complete. By the end of his life, some of his tales had approached a "finished" form or even become largely fixed by being published, but many remained in flux, and some existed only in outline.
Because of this, it is difficult to know how to think about Tolkien's Secondary World. In a very real sense, it exists only as an evolving creation that changed continuously throughout his life. In the Foreword to The Silmarillion Christopher Tolkien makes note of this, explaining that its content "was far indeed from being a fixed text, and did not remain unchanged even in certain fundamental ideas concerning the nature of the world it portrays." How can we hope to find "the inner consistency of reality" in a world that was in such flux in its author's own mind? The answer, of course, is that we cannot: Middle-earth was never "finished", and knowing Tolkien's fondness for tinkering with his tales they might never have converged on a final form no matter how long he had lived.
However, that cannot be the end of the discussion: the positive experience of so many readers makes it clear that much of the inner consistency of reality is already there. This is due in part to Tolkien's own methods of developing his stories, in which he often "discovered" new details of his world while exploring the logical consequences of some particular historical or linguistic detail. It must also reflect his superb intuition for a good story. In any case, Tolkien's readers do get a sense that Middle-earth "exists" in the sub-creative sense, and many of them take great pleasure in exploring it themselves as best they can.
For this reason, readers who venture beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quickly faced with ambiguity: which version of each story is "true" in Tolkien's Secondary World? And more fundamentally, how is it possible to define a version of that world that is stable enough to explore in this way at all? Those who want a full understanding of Middle-earth must read Tolkien's original writings and decide how much weight to assign to each one. In what follows, I discuss some of the issues involved in this process of defining the "canonical" Middle-earth, list some goals that a set of canonical texts should satisfy, and suggest a general approach to meeting those goals that I prefer.
The meaning of "canonical"
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "canonical" in this context as "of admitted authority, excellence, or supremacy; authoritative." For most of Tolkien's readers, the choice of canonical texts is not a conscious one: they assume that the books are equally authoritative until they first encounter obvious ambiguities. Those assumptions can persist through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, but are quickly shattered by Unfinished Tales and the "History of Middle-earth" books.
Once a reader becomes aware of the question of "canonicity", several general responses are common. Some people abandon the idea of a "true" Middle-earth entirely and simply enjoy observing Tolkien's process of creation. That is a very reasonable choice, and I will not fault anyone who decides that reading this essay would be a waste of their time. Among those who still hope to explore a "true" Middle-earth, some treat Tolkien's latest version of any given story as the canonical one. Some choose one reference (typically The Lord of the Rings) as absolutely canonical and judge Tolkien's other writings by their consistency with it. And some choose canonical texts based on their personal impression of which "feel right". Each of these approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably as many variations and combinations of them as there are readers to discuss them.
Any attempt to define these strategies more clearly quickly leads to some fundamental observations about this issue. To begin with, it is clear that the canonicity of a text should be judged on a sliding scale rather than a simple yes or no: two choices would obviously not be enough to distinguish the trustworthiness of published books like The Lord of the Rings, well-developed texts like the "Annals of Aman" in Morgoth's Ring, and early explorations like The Book of Lost Tales. A continuous scale will give us the freedom we need.
Less clear at first is whether canonicity should be assigned text by text or detail by detail. That is, if one part of a text is "wrong", should anything else in that text be trusted? It seems that the answer is somewhere between yes and no. Certainly if Tolkien bases a discussion on a "flawed" premise (one that contradicts firmly accepted information), the conclusions that follow are not reliable. (The essay "The Problem of Ros" in The Peoples of Middle-earth is a classic example: Tolkien rejected most of its conclusions himself for this very reason.) On the other hand, one small mistake in a text should not immediately lead unrelated statements there to be rejected as untrustworthy (though twenty mistakes might). The best approach seems to be to make each decision carefully based on context.
Finally, we must address the role of personal preferences. Is it even reasonable to look for a universal definition of the Tolkien canon, or should everyone make their own choice? If we hope to discuss Middle-earth together, we need at least some common ground, but how much personal variation should the definition allow? A major goal of this essay is to seek as much common ground as possible while recognizing that each person's priorities in defining canon differ. No single strategy is right for everyone.
Goals in identifying canon
Having established what we mean by "canonical", the next logical step is to list a set of goals that we would like the canonical Middle-earth to satisfy. The list that follows inevitably reflects my personal preferences, but I hope that it will seem at least reasonable to most readers. These goals are listed roughly in order of precedence as I see it (and I suspect that that the order is more likely to be controversial than the contents). The goals are:
- "The inner consistency of reality": Above all, the accepted canonical facts about Middle-earth must describe an internally consistent world. That consistency must be natural, too: "acts of God" should be limited to those Tolkien described, and less complicated solutions are generally preferable.
- Consistent with published texts: The writings that Tolkien completed and shared with the world should take precedence over those he did not. This seems to have been Tolkien's own strategy most of the time (yes, he made revisions, but not often, and we don't have that freedom). If those texts are themselves inconsistent, things get more complicated; most agree that The Lord of the Rings takes precedence over the others, but seeking a mutually consistent solution is best. Minor problems such as typographical errors are probably best solved by deducing Tolkien's intent from earlier notes and drafts (like those in the "History of The Lord of the Rings" books).
- Preserves the general structure of the mythology: While details both large and small changed all the time, Tolkien's legendarium retained the same basic outline for most of his life. Although Tolkien occasionally considered radical changes to that structure, our only hope of constructing a complete picture of Middle-earth is to base it on the best developed version of the stories. Thus...
- Based on Tolkien's latest and best developed statements: Tolkien spent most of his life trying to perfect his tales of Middle-earth, so the latest version of each tale or essay is our best guide to his vision. Note, however, that some of his early stories are also some of his most vivid: they may convey the "feel" of events in the history of Middle-earth more successfully than later versions, even when their details are entirely untrustworthy.
- Makes a satisfying and enjoyable story: This certainly opens the door wide to personal preferences, but it is not a bad way to decide between variants that otherwise seem comparably reliable.
- Provides as much information as possible: As a general rule, err on the side of accepting information, even if only tentatively. Don't reject all of a detailed intermediate draft because a few parts of it contradict a later sketch.
With goals like these in mind, we as readers already have a general idea of how to choose a set of canonical texts that will be as satisfying as possible. But I will go one step further and outline a more specific vision of the canonical Middle-earth, which can provide a guiding philosophy to achieve the above goals. This is essentially a statement of my own personal approach, but I think it is worth sharing.
I envision the "true" Middle-earth as the result that Tolkien would eventually have achieved if he had been given unlimited and productive time in which to perfect it. I like to think of this as "Tolkien's Parish", his own version of the "picture made real" that became known as Niggle's Parish in his story "Leaf by Niggle". This is only a metaphor: I do not mean to imply that Tolkien wrote "Leaf by Niggle" with such a specific comparison to his own work in mind. Still, Tolkien's own experience and his thoughts on the nature of art must have contributed to all of his writings, and I would be amazed if the similarities between Tolkien and Niggle were entirely coincidental.
This approach satisfies all of the goals listed above quite naturally. Niggle, like Tolkien, struggled to perfect the details of his art, and when he explored the realization of his picture he found that "Nothing needed altering any longer, nothing was wrong, as far as it had gone, but it needed continuing up to a definite point." Tolkien's Parish would be the Secondary World of Middle-earth itself with all its history, and would of course have "the inner consistency of reality."
Just as the heart of Niggle's country was the Tree, the heart of Tolkien's Parish would be the stories of The Lord of the Rings and the other writings Tolkien published while he lived, but perfectly executed, "as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them." The place of Niggle's Tree relative to the rest of his country also has a clear parallel in Tolkien's works. We read that "The Tree was finished... but in the Forest there were a number of inconclusive regions, that still needed work and thought." In the same way, the Silmarillion and the other early tales were envisioned but not yet completed. The special appeal of their distant history even matches the special appeal of Niggle's "distant Forest" that one could approach and even enter "without its losing that particular charm." (Some people choose not to read The Silmarillion out of the fear that its stories will lose this mystique of distance.)
Because some of Tolkien's latest writings included attempts to remove all references to a flat earth before the sun and moon, it is less clear that Tolkien would have chosen in the end to "preserve the general structure of the mythology." However, he might well have done so: after all, he had seriously considered the same idea years earlier before abandoning it. Tolkien considered these changes in order to make Middle-earth's nature and history closer to that of the real world, but he might have reconsidered once he realized that no realistic connection to true history was possible.
The connections between this concept of Tolkien's Parish and the final three goals are clear. Naturally, Tolkien's latest writings give good hints about the mythology's ultimate form (and this framework provides guidance on choosing between them). His works, finished and unfinished, are deeply enjoyable to a great many people, and in most ways they only improved as he put more thought and effort into them. And finally, as a full sub-created Secondary World, Tolkien's Parish would be "complete" in its history and content.
A canonical Middle-earth
Of course, fully understanding Tolkien's Parish in this sense would be impossible, as Tolkien did not in the end achieve it. What value, then, does this concept have for us as fans and readers? First, it provides a common framework for discussions about Middle-earth that makes the role of personal preference clear. Many heated debates could be more polite and productive if the participants understood each other's assumptions.
Second, it guides our efforts to extrapolate beyond those facts directly stated in Tolkien's writings. By trying to fill in gaps in our knowledge in the way Tolkien would have, searching for answers that bring Middle-earth closer to being a complete and consistent Secondary World, we can gain new insight into his vision. Naturally, however, we have less freedom of choice in this than Tolkien did, so where he could make a final decision we can only make educated guesses.
In the end, though, the greatest benefit of imagining Middle-earth as Tolkien's Parish is the joy of exploring a true Secondary World. Very few authors can equal Tolkien in their ability to portray a world so different from our own and yet so real and alive. By treating that world seriously, as having true existence on an artistic plane, we come as close as possible to experiencing it as Tolkien himself did, as close as we can to sharing his delight and love of Middle-earth.