Only the works published during J.R.R. Tolkien’s lifetime should be considered canonical, whereas the unfinished works collected, collated, and edited by Christopher Tolkien should be considered extra-canonical. I would even venture to suggest that Christopher Tolkien’s work should be considered as footnotes to his father’s corpus and not an extension of it.
In the wake of Christopher Tolkien’s death in January, The Imaginative Conservative published three essays paying tribute to his legacy as the trusted custodian and editor of his father’s works. Although I was happy to see these essays published, I was not minded to follow suit. In fact, I had politely declined a couple of requests from other journals to write on the subject. My reasoning for such a reluctance to raise my voice in unison with those praising Mr. Tolkien is rooted in an ambivalence with respect to his legacy which I hesitated to express at the time of his death.
Now, however, I am feeling the need to say what was on my mind, or perhaps to get the whole thing off my chest. I am prompted to do so by an e-mail I’ve received from a young lady working on a research project on Christopher Tolkien’s editing of his father’s unpublished work for an English class she is taking at a Catholic college. Her thesis is as follows: Christopher Tolkien has contributed much to the fantasy literature of the past eighty-two years through his work on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings of Middle earth; although his father, Tolkien, was the creator of this imaginary world, without Christopher, much of this lore would have been lost.
In my reply, I urged her to take a cautionary approach, and what follows is my justification for such advice.
It is imperative that we keep a “hierarchy of authenticity” in mind when dealing with Christopher Tolkien’s engagement with his father’s work. Tolkien did not discard rejected pieces of writing as most other writers would do, in the sense of literally (and literarily) throwing them away, and I am pleased that he did not do so. I am also pleased that Christopher Tolkien had used his father’s unfinished work to piece together the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. We should be aware, however, that Christopher was making subjective judgments with respect to his father’s intentions, which may or may not be valid. And we should also bear in mind that Tolkien did not feel that any of the material in Christopher’s History was ready for publication, which is why it wasn’t published. At best, the raw materials that Christopher Tolkien stitches together are unfinished works; at worst, they are rejected pieces of work that Tolkien never intended to bring to fruition or to see the light of day. We can be pleased, as lovers of Middle-earth, that even the pieces of work that Tolkien had specifically rejected have seen the light of day, but we need nonetheless to see such work in the light of Tolkien’s own intentions also.
Christopher Tolkien’s work is of most value to scholars seeking a deeper understanding of his father’s creative mind. In this respect the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth is not merely valuable but priceless. This is more than enough in itself for all lovers of Tolkien to be deeply indebted to Christopher Tolkien for his dauntless and tireless labours. The cautionary note is, however, necessary in order to make the nuanced distinction between those works which Tolkien considered finished and ready for publication, and those fragments of unfinished and possibly rejected work which he considered unfit for publication at the time of his death. The latter is the raw material with which Christopher Tolkien worked.
I am not suggesting that Christopher’s work is defective (though it doubtless has defects) but that it is deficient. It lacks the authenticity which is inseparable from the authority of the author. In lacking this seal of approval which resides in authorial authority, The History of Middle-earth should be kept at a distinct distance from those works published with Tolkien’s approval. Only the works published during Tolkien’s lifetime should be considered canonical, whereas the unfinished works collected, collated, and edited by Christopher Tolkien should be considered extra-canonical. Adding an element of rhetorical controversy, I would even venture to suggest that Christopher Tolkien’s work should be considered as footnotes to his father’s corpus and not an extension of it.
Having made the foregoing distinction, I would add that there is a scale of significance (to borrow a phrase of Tolkien’s) with respect to the extra-canonical works edited by Christopher Tolkien. It is as though there is a hierarchy of authenticity which not only separates the canonical from the extra-canonical but which orders the extra-canonical itself. The analogy I would use is that of the sun and the planets of the solar system. The canonical works (principally The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) can be likened to the sun, the fixed star of finished work. Those works published posthumously as the fruits of Christopher Tolkien’s labours have more gravitas in direct proportion to their closeness to the canon. Thus, for instance, The Silmarillion, published a few short years after Tolkien’s death, is nearest the canon and so important to our understanding of the canon that it can almost be considered canonical itself, or at least quasi-canonical. It’s as though Christopher was haunted by the ghost of his father as he worked on The Silmarillion, keen to do his father’s will in order to bring to light those works which his father considered most important and which would otherwise be lost. Few would doubt that everything in The Silmarillion can be considered unfinished works which Tolkien intended to bring to fruition and desired to have published. In contrast, the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth contain seemingly everything that Tolkien ever wrote, or scribbled, or sketched, or doodled.
To reiterate, Tolkien had difficulty finishing things, but he also had difficulty throwing anything away. In the former case, he kept fiddling with unfinished work, ever the perfectionist and never able to feel entirely satisfied; in the latter case, he either hoped that a rejected piece of writing might serve as a catalyst to spark his Muse into new and creative directions, or he simply kept it in the manner that a pack rat hoards things that he cannot bring himself to throw away. There is no way of knowing to what extent Christopher Tolkien considered these distinctions with respect to the sources he used for The History of Middle-earth.
Taking this hierarchy of authenticity into account, it could be argued, and I think convincingly, that canonical works, such as the short story “Leaf by Niggle,” the poem “Mythopoeia,” and the academic lecture/essay “On Fairy-Stories,” shed more light on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit than any of the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, even though none of them is ostensibly about Middle-earth itself. These works reveal Tolkien’s philosophy of myth which explains why he wrote anything at all and why he wrote about Middle-earth in particular.
Perhaps, as a means of concluding this discussion, I should emphasize, once again, my gratitude to Christopher Tolkien for his herculean labours. Handled with the appropriate care, his painstaking editing of his father’s unfinished and discarded works can help all lovers of Middle-earth to further appreciate the genius who gave us The Lord of the Rings.
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The featured image is a detail from “Still-life with Books and Musical Instruments” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.