The Canon According to Dawn Felagund
I considered back-dating it to preserve flist space but then decided that some of my flist might actually be interested in it.
Of course, these are my ideas. I am not saying that all writers need to abide by my particular methodology nor am I making any claims of superiority. This is simply my attempt to explain how I interpret canon so that those readers who are interested in such things can easily access it without miles of author's notes (of which I am generally not fond) that repeat themselves from story to story.
The Canon According to Dawn Felagund
Before I even begin with specifics, I should state forthrightly that I do not believe that Tolkien's works are subject to any sort of "true canon"; that is, I believe that there are few instances where we can unequivocally say, "That without a doubt happened just as the book says."
Part of what I enjoy about writing stories based on Tolkien's works is that there are few facts that are black or white. Mostly, we deal in shades of gray, where what is said might not be what really happened, either for reason of the historical context in which the books were written or because Tolkien's own ideas on that particular aspect of "canon" were incomplete or contradictory. Like historians, we as authors are then left to take the clues that we do have, put them in context, and try to arrange them in some sensible way that then becomes our canon--or our personal interpretation of the material presented in the books.
Defining a "true canon" is problematic for several reasons. To begin with, we are working with several works that are often at odds with each other. There are obvious examples of this, such as Fingon being listed as Gil-Galad's father in The Silmarillion while Orodreth is listed as Gil-Galad's father in some places in HoMe. There are less obvious examples, such as Tolkien's original notion that Eöl raped Aredhel, followed by his proclamation in "Laws and Customs among the Eldar" that death can occur following rape, followed by removing that particular caveat from later drafts of "Laws and Customs" while also casting Aredhel as a willing bride. So which is it? We are left with a conundrum and, often, several options from which to choose.
Different writers weight the works differently in terms of their truth and importance. Any scheme is possible, and none are right or wrong; for me, the importance is more an issue of establishing some measure of consistency. My own personal definition takes into account when the works were published (pre- or posthumously) and my appraisal of the veracity or consistency of their content. For example, there are many passages in HoMe designed to show the evolution of a particular story that Tolkien later discarded or changed. Are these facts canon?
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--having been published within Tolkien's lifetime--are as close to absolute canon as one can get. These were finished ideas worked into publishable (and thus consistent) form.
- The Silmarillion is canon for me so long as it does not contradict ideas offered in The Hobbit and LotR. While The Silmarillion was edited by Christopher Tolkien, much of it was J.R.R.'s own work. (There are exceptions to this, of course.) Furthermore, it has a good deal of internal consistency, which makes it convenient for me to make the rather arbitrary distinction that "I consider this truth." I could just as easily say the same of the HoMe, but the consistency is not there.
- The HoMe series is not canon. Aside from being inconsistent, it is largely formulated based on old and unfinished ideas. However, the HoMe series is useful in getting ideas of how Tolkien saw his world and the characters in it. For example, his early idea that Elrond and Elros were fostered lovingly by Maedhros--not Maglor--might be used as evidence that Maedhros is not the cruel and heartless monster of fanon lore (while Maglor is the pie-eyed sentimental pansy) and to further combat the fanon notion that Maedhros abused Elrond and Elros. HoMe is also handy for providing background and context for much of The Silmarillion, as in "The Shibboleth of Fëanor" that traces the bulk of the conflict between Fëanor and Fingolfin to a difference in how they chose to speak the letter "Þ." I have used this idea in my stories because it is keeping with the conflict presented in The Silmarillion and the idea that Fëanor was exceptionally gifted (and assumedly sensitive) in matters of language.
In line with this is the story presented in HoMe about the burning at Losgar where one of the Fëanorian twins was trapped and killed in the blaze aboard the ships. This also comes from "The Shibboleth of Fëanor"--and I believe that it is also one of the passages that was accidentally omitted by Christopher Tolkien when preparing The Silmarillion manuscript--yet I do not use it. Why? Because it contradicts The Silmarillion, which has both twins living well into the First Age and dying together at Sirion.
All of this would make for a fairly straightforward definition of canon. However, there is another particular challenge in defining Tolkien's canon: He didn't consider himself the author. Actually, he wished for his stories to be looked at as works from a long-gone history, and the "authors" were loremasters of that time. As such, the point-of-view of all of his stories is not omniscient and not necessarily correct or immune to bias.
Consider for a moment the real-life conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. We are all looking at the same conflict, yet an account by a Palestinian "loremaster" is going to be vastly different from that written by an Israeli "loremaster." My perspective, as a liberal and agnostic American, is going to be different as well and--despite my lack of personal involvement--not necessarily neutral. A conservative Christian American is going to have different perspectives still, so even within the same populations, there is going to be further dissention.
Complicating matters further is the idea that loremasters are often writing about events and people of which they have no firsthand knowledge. Assuming Pengolodh as the author of "The Quenta Silmarillion" (at least the part that occurs in Middle-earth), how can we trust his assessments of Fëanor and what transpired when the Fëanorians first landed in Middle-earth? Pengolodh was born in Nevrast after Fëanor's death. His writings, then, must be based on accounts that he heard from others. Is it fair to acknowledge the possibility that a loremaster loyal to Turgon (who hated the Fëanorians) might not have been necessarily conscientious in seeking those from the Fëanorian side to tell him what happened? Beyond that, is it fair to assume that perhaps those with whom he did speak might not have told the whole truth? They were speaking to the lord and loremaster of one who openly acknowledged disliking them and had their own interests, loyalties, and families to protect.
A good deal of The Silmarillion, then, may have been passed from person to person as a sort of myth. Consider Beren and Luthien, who had no companions for much of their journey and so no one to tell their story once they'd died. Perhaps Pengolodh sat down with them before they died and conducted an interview, but given the hidden state of Gondolin at the time and the relative remoteness of Beren and Luthien as well, it is more likely that he heard the songs and stories just as everyone else did and penned his own version. And, as anyone who has ever been in the midst of a rumor mill can attest, stories get exaggerated or even changed outrightly (whether intentionally or because of spotty memory) all of the time. No one wants to hear if the pair ever had any disagreements or misgivings over their quest. No, we want to hear of their resolute bravery and unequivocal success. And the story is more dramatic if the "good guys" are really, really beautiful and really, really brave and the bad guys are really, really depraved and really, really despicable.
This leaves a lot of wiggle room. It leaves the possibility of making Luthien less than the perfect and beautiful heroine that she is made out to be; it allows the possibility of making Beren more...well, Human. It allows one to question whether the etherealness and magic that marks this story might have been more ordinary or even invented entirely.
Of course, this ruins it for some. Some like their heroes really heroic and their villains down-in-the-dirt nasty. But considering the historical context, rather than this view being held as an absolute and all others to some degree AU, more possibilities are opened, all while staying within the confines of the canon.
This makes things more difficult and requires a slightly more skeptical reading of the books, but it certainly opens the doors to creativity and authorial invention. This, for me, is the joy of writing stories based on Tolkien's works: not only the fun of putting together a puzzle but also feeling that I am building upon--rather than merely rehashing--stories that I love and admire.
There are a few specific issues that I don't think I can escape in an explanation of how I interpret canon.
Firstly, there's fanon. Such an innocent little thing--intriguing, even--and perhaps an example of how we humans are seizing back our roots in oral history and storytelling. It becomes less-than-innocent when people start believing it to the degree that they berate authors who do not follow it.
I have no problem with fanon, and I am not immune to it myself. The entire character of Erestor in my novella By the Light of Roses was based on the idea of an uptight, conservative character with a greater love for books than other people. Even given Erestor's conservative recommendations in the Council of Elrond, one cannot derive this from canon alone. It is a fanon convention that is seen in story after story. Rarely are fan fiction portrayals of Erestor what one would call footloose and fancy-free.
But supposing that I wanted to write one, would I be wrong? No, but I'd probably have a legion of Erestor's fans proclaiming that I've violated some sort of canon when all I've really done is break ranks with the majority of authors who write the character of Erestor.
I generally find is illustrative when I receive a criticism of my canon that contains not a single quoted passage or mention of where I can find a reference to support what the reviewer is saying. Nine times out of ten, the reviewer is either quoting fanon or simply doesn't like my interpretation but wishes to make it more absolute than that by claiming that I am outrightly wrong. This post is not intended to rant at or instruct reviewers, but I will mention that it is generally helpful when criticizing an author on her use of canon to provide some sort of reference. There have been times where I have been certain that an author has made a canon error but, lo, when I check the book, it turns out that my memory is either wrong or simply twisted by too much fanon.
After fanon, I frequently hear (in my stories and in reading reviews of others') that a certain interpretation is wrong because Tolkien never would have wanted it that way.
I really think that we are treading on dangerous ground once we start claiming to be able to speak for what an author deceased for several decades would have wanted. We have no legal right and no imperative to make such a statement.
This is most often used as ammunition against authors who utilize sexuality in their stories--especially as it breaks with LaCE--and especially those who write slash. "Tolkien was a Catholic!" such authors are told. "He never would have wanted his Elves to be written as being gay!"
Of course, this ignores the fact that many Christians--including Catholics--not only support GLBT rights but also believe that same-sex marriage should be recognized, if not by the church, then at least by the government. Perhaps if Tolkien had lived to or in our era, he would have been of a like mind. Perhaps not. Unless you have a really kick-ass Ouija board, that is not for any of us to know.
Like the fanon-based criticism, this notion seems to me to be nothing more than a personal dislike for certain subjects or genres of fan fiction disguised as some sort of canon. Nowhere in Tolkien's works does it say that homosexuality does not exist on Arda. Nowhere does it say that Elves didn't enjoy sexual acts up to (and possibly including) consummation outside of marriage, depending on your interpretation of LaCE. (And if you discount HoMe and LaCE altogether, it is a moot point entirely.) Anyone who claims otherwise is attempting to make their personal misgivings more profound than what they really are: an individual interpretation.
Perhaps an important difference to recognize is that something can be absent from the canon without being non-canonical. "Non-canonical" implies that some clearly stated fact is ignored or misrepresented. If I claimed that there were four Silmarils, that would be non-canonical. No, it does not say in any of Tolkien's works that there is homosexuality on Arda or that Elves can have strong physical desires for sexual fulfillment. But it doesn't say that there is not homosexuality on Arda or that all Elves are frigid until the moment that they bond themselves to a spouse, so such authors are not breaking canon so much as adding their own inventions to it, which we all do to a certain extent. Otherwise, we'd just be copying what Tolkien himself had written.
This, then, bring us to the idea of authorial invention, which is perhaps a bit of a tangent from the original topic of interpreting canon, but it is an issue that arises a lot and that I wish to address.
My paperback Silmarillion has 363 pages of story. This excludes the indices and family trees and introductory material. Doing a quick count, that puts the story portion at about 130,000 words. My novel Another Man's Cage is about 350,000 words unto itself, solely to cover one of the many thousand of years represented in The Silmarillion. Necessarily, I have indulged in authorial invention. I have given the characters attributes and written events that are not even hinted in Tolkien's actual works. Nowhere does he make a claim that Caranthir may have been exceptionally gifted--or cursed--with mindspeak. He never implies that Rumil and Feanor may have been friends and had a strong professional rapport. Maglor doesn't study in Alqualonde, Celegorm never runs away from home for a night, and Maedhros is never said to have fallen in love with a girl. All of these things are my own invention.
But I am careful with my inventions too, and most do derive from something based in canon. To use Caranthir as an example, since he is perhaps the most dramatic example of authorial invention on my part, I created Caranthir as a character with abilities in "mindspeak" after searching for an explanation as to why he might have been so dark and moody and chose to be perpetually alone. Furthermore, his relationship with the children of Finarfin was strained, and we know from LotR that Galadriel at least used mindspeak and Finrod had "supernatural" communications with Ulmo. Is it possible that strife might have occured on this level, unheard and so unmarked by loremasters? Perhaps it is a stretch, but it is possible, and so Caranthir's character was developed along these lines.
Some authors have made success by sticking to events written in the books. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but the more that you write, the more you will necessarily need to invent with the result that a story like AMC--longer than the original work itself--will consist largely of invention. It is not a violation of canon so much as taking the story in a direction that makes sense in the context of the canon but is itself unwritten.
And, really, when you look at The Silmarillion, it is hundreds of characters doing dozens of things over thousands of years...all in 363 pages? Looking up Maedhros in the index--doubtlessly one of the most important and influential characters in the story and one of the few to exist throughout almost the entire "Quenta"--he is mentioned on a bare twenty-nine pages, some of which mention his name once in a single sentence. Even disregarding this, that is not even 8% of the book. For a character of Maedhros's importance in one of my original novels, I could easily devote twenty-nine pages to character study and prewriting alone.
So, clearly, there is a lot going on, and it is only barely sketched into place. I have always viewed Silmarillion characters--right up to those like Luthien, Maedhros, and Fëanor who are fairly well developed by Silmarillion standards--as skeletons of characters upon which readers and authors put flesh. The result is a similarly shaped character who may nonetheless have vastly different features. But none of us are wrong.
Add to that the idea of historical bias or the variation between different sources and the vast number of possibilities that we see in Silmarillion fan fiction suddenly becomes more understandable. And we are also forced to become more tolerant of less-than-typical interpretations as a result.
There is no single right answer, and part of my point in setting these ideas to paper is to 1) give interested parties insight onto how my strories and characters have developed from these ideas and 2) express my displeasure with the number of "canatics" that I see making claims as though there is a single black-and-white true canon.
There is not, and when we threaten to discourage the vast diversity of stories and ideas being set forth in Silmarillion fan fiction, we do a great disservice to that which makes this such a fun and thought-provoking sandbox in which to play.