The Canon Conundrum
I've been in this wild and wonderful Tolkien fandom for about two years now. Most of those two years, I've been up to my neck in it; it's been a pretty significant part of my life, for better or for worse. I've learned a lot, met many wonderful new friends (and a handful of new enemies), and in general, had a good time. Two years isn't long, true, but given the heavy involvement I've had in those two years, I've come quite a long way.
And one of those ways is canon. Canon used to be much more absolute to me: It was or it wasn't. Then I started to write and build on canon, and canon became a far more nebulous concept. Canon also used to be something I considered a personal weakness. I was rereading some old AMC comments the other day and saw many times when people brought up points, and I said, "Well, I don't really know much about canon ..." I certainly wasn't ready to get up to my elbows in canon debates. Even more amusing is the number of times that people quoted incorrect canon or fanon to me in those days, without me even knowing it ... but I digress.
These days, yes, I consider my canon pretty good, at least in the areas in which I write. And I'm perfectly content to debate whomever wants to take me on.
Part of this, of course, is becoming more comfortable with the canon: knowing, for example, that I have read that bit in The Silmarillion (and where to find it) and becoming increasingly familiar with the HoMe. But another part is becoming more comfortable in defending my choices in my stories versus curling into a ball and apologizing for getting it wrong.
Because there is a lot of wrong "canon" floating around out there. And I've had people hold up their hand and swear that it's true, even in absence of being able to find proof. "I can't find the quote, but I just saw it; I know it's there!"
For example, how many people think that these are true "canon" facts from Tolkien's works?
- Nerdanel has red hair.
- Maglor's hand was eternally scarred by the Silmaril.
- Maglor was the gentlest of the sons of Feanor.
And then there is the issue of defining canon to begin with. It seems that every Tolkien author defines canon differently, and I've seen a good deal of unnecessary head-knocking based on the fact that Person A takes this source as canon and Person B does not. Ours is not a "normal" fandom in terms of canon (is anyone fandom truly normal, though?): We have works published by the author (LotR), works written by the author but compiled and published by someone else (The Silmarillion), notes and letters by the author published by someone else (the HoMe), notes that aren't yet published but are publicly available, creative works based on the author's works (Jackson's movie trilogy), and secondary sources based off of publicly available but unpublished notes (Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-earth). And of course, no living author to ask for clarifications on uncertain matters. This differs us from, say, the Harry Potter fandom where there are the books and the movies ... and Rowling still alive to clarify uncertainties or deal with loose threads.
This doesn't even begin to address the fact that Tolkien's works were written as historical accounts, not necessarily as simple stories. True, most stories have a point-of-view character, and the story is then subject to his perceptions and biases. So Harry and Draco tell the same story differently; as it is, we see things through Harry's eyes. But Tolkien's works are unique in that the PoV character isn't always readily clear, and the "author" of these historical accounts did not necessarily experience the events he is recounting (i.e., Bilbo as the ultimate author of The Silmarillion). Imagine Harry's great-great-great-great-grandson compiling his ancestor's stories based on oral histories handed down, books, and artwork from that time. Now we have a completely different (and far less trustworthy) Harry Potter canon. That is what The Silmarillion is.
This complicates things immensely in defining a "canon" for Tolkien's Arda. In my two years of struggling to define the elusive canon, even if just for my own purposes, I've come to the conclusion that attempting to define a universal canon is impossible. On the Henneth-Annun Yahoo! list, there was recently a discussion of defining canon, with some people accepting The Silmarillion (for example) as absolute canon, others (like me) considering it inferior to LotR and The Hobbit but more canonical than the HoMe or UT, and others considering it not canon at all. And so many arguments about what is and is not canon really need to start there: Do you define canon as I do? If not, arguing about canon based on works that we view differently in terms of canon is really a moot point.
(Note that I said arguing and not discussing. I will discuss canon until the cows come home with nearly anyone. But the aggressive, snobbish aptly named "canaticism" [a term coined by satismagic, I believe*] where canon is a matter of being right or wrong and persuading rather than learning ... that I will not do.)
* satismagic informs me that the term was actually made up by rous3, so far as she knows. Now can we call that canon? ;)
A few weeks ago, I was feeling somewhat frustrated with fandom in general. I don't even remember why. My focus on fandom is slowly shifting from writing almost obsessively to acting like a responsible moderator on SWG by, like, actually doing things for the group. It's working for me, at the moment. But anyway, I was frustrated a few weeks ago, and all that I remember was that it had canon at its core. I said to Bobby that if I ever stopped writing stories based on The Silmarillion, it would be because of canon.
(For the record, I am not planning to stop writing Silmarillion stories. So there is no need to beg, plead, cajole, and *hugs* me into writing Silmfic. But what writer doesn't occasionally question her work and its value to the world at large? These things usually pass, and quickly.)
But if I was to stop writing Silmfic, it would be because of canon. Hence my ambivalence: on the one hand, I absolutely love studying Tolkien's works. I collect notes on his works, write essays, and spend a good amount of time putting pieces together into what is (to me) a coherent whole. In many ways, I am a canatic, at least in terms of obsessive behavior when it comes to reading and studying canon. But adherence to canon is not why I write. Yes, most of my stories stick to canon; I rarely write AU. Personally, I've felt that to stray into the realm of AU, I might as well write original fiction. Even the most "out there" details in my stories have some sort of basis in canon, even if they involve a good deal of invention on my part as well. But I don't think I've ever taken one of Tolkien's canon details and intentionally defied it or turned it on its head.
I write to tell a story. I write to increase my personal understanding of something--a character, an event, an idea--and to entertain and maybe enlighten an audience. I don't write with the expectation that another Tolkien fan come into my story with a scorecard, keeping track of how many "canon" mistakes I make. I write with the expectation that my audience will probably have a very different view of canon than I do, but that they will judge the story on the story and how well I can transport them to my own version of Tolkien's world. I want to bring that world to life in a new and unexpected way for every person to read my story. I don't simply want to retell the same story for the hundredth time, exactly as it has been told one hundred times before. After all, isn't that one of an author's roles? To take the reader to her world? It is beyond presumptuous of a reader to assume that an author will necessarily write to the reader's interpretation of things and that the author has erred if she does not.
But this is not the expectation in many corners of this fandom where a story that is written well enough to win a Nebula Award would still be despised by many for not meeting their personal standards of "canon." I find this interesting on good days (like today) and dismaying on bad days (like the day when I told Bobby that canon would be the chief reason that I would quit writing Silmfic). As much as I find the line between "fan fiction" and "real fiction" growing increasingly blurred for me, this particular behavior sets the Tolkien fan fiction community far apart from the speculative fiction community at large because criticisms of Tolkien-based stories are largely not even based on how the story is written. They are based on what is written. And this is ridiculous.
If I am reading an original fantasy story about red dragons, a criticism that everyone knows that dragons are green, not red, would not be well received. And rightly so. It is ridiculous to expect an author to write about green dragons simply because I--a stranger she has never met before--like green dragons better than red. Likewise, the vast majority of "canon" criticism that I see made against stories has nothing to do with canon but with personal interpretation. Like saying, "You wrote Celegorm as black-haired and that's against canon." Well ... no it's not. It depends on how that particular author considers different sources--and different pieces of information within those sources--as canon. But you don't see many reviewers of fan fiction stories asking authors why they made a particular choice or how they define canon. No, you see them presenting canon as a single right-or-wrong interpretation and expecting authors to write to that interpretation. And like expecting all authors to write about green dragons simply because I like green dragons, this is an absurd expectation and, therefore, not a legitimate criticism.
Now, I'll agree that there are instances where something is clearly outside of canon. If I write Feanor as a blond, I think that's a mistake. Nonetheless, the way that canon mistakes are approached in this community is sometimes baffling. It is very rare when I get a canon criticism on one of my stories that comes with a quote or a source to back up the reviewer's point. The reviewer clearly believes that I am not aware of that particular detail ... yet she doesn't see the need to provide that detail for me? How else am I to learn? And am I to believe that she really has my "education" in mind when she makes such criticisms, or is she simply attempting to create an aura of superiority because she knows more about canon than I do?
Why do we tolerate this sort of absurdity? No, I'm not talking about hunting down and flogging ridiculous canatics, but a good number of reasonable fans see nothing wrong with someone snarking about canon without first establishing if we even define that canon in the same way. Most of the gripes that I've heard from authors about the old HASA review system, for example, pertained to reviewers rejecting stories because they didn't like the way that the author interpreted the canon. And I've gotten criticisms from well-meaning reviewers who did not intend to be offensive, certainly, but still addressed points as "canon" that were in fact interpretation. Not to start a discussion, mind you, but to have me change my view to match theirs. How can we expect this?
And so, on my "bad days" when I doubt my place as an author in this fandom, I wonder if my expectations as a reader and an author are simply mismatched to the majority of people in this community.
I realize that this is largely fruitless griping. But really, I find this rather interesting that so many fans and readers possess such unreasonable expectations of the stories that are usually written with the same goal in mind as any other story: to entertain. But we are not entertained: We are too busy worrying about Celegorm's hair color to even notice the story, which might otherwise delight and inspire us.