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It is remarkably difficult to speak of what is "true" in the context of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth 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 one of his letters (#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 #247

As only The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (LotR), 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. But The Hobbit was revised twice, and The Lord of The Rings revised 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 (Wizards), 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 History of Middle-earth (HoMe) date from all periods of Tolkien's life and generally exclude the more finished sections used for the published works. Readers must be careful not to confuse the various mythologies depicted in these writings as a continuous stream of revisions, for they are not successive revisions of the same stories, but rather are successive experimentations in the development of fictional mythologies and folk-lores.

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 HoMe 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, but they never coordinated any changes with him. Instead, in 1950, the publisher incorporated suggestions Tolkien had submitted in 1947 into a new edition of The Hobbit of which Tolkien was unaware. When he received the proofs for the second edition, he subsequently altered some of the as-yet unpublished material in The Lord of the Rings to 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 LotR is 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 writing The Hobbit Tolkien had not yet developed Middle-earth, 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 Silmarillion 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.

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 HoMe generally take precedence. Late writings by Tolkien published in HoMe 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.

Canon status of various writingsEdit

While readers often differ in their opinions of which writings to treat as canon, this encyclopedia uses the following choices:

External linksEdit


J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium

Works published during his lifetime
The Hobbit | The Lord of the Rings | The Adventures of Tom Bombadil | The Road Goes Ever On

Posthumous publications
The Silmarillion | Unfinished Tales | The History of Middle-earth (12 volumes) | Bilbo's Last Song

Lists of articles about Middle-earth
by category | by name | writings | characters | peoples | rivers | realms | ages


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original content was at Middle-earth canon. The list of authors can be seen in that page's history. As with Tolkien Languages, the content of Wikipedia is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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