Suite101: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Canon – Michael Martinez’ J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth

by Mar 22, 2001Lord of the Rings (Movies)

In this week’s Suite101 article, Michael Martinez takes a light-hearted romp through the wordscape of Tolkien canonical arguments.

Here is an excerpt:

I checked in on the Barrow-downs’ canon discussions recently and was glad to see that they haven’t died down completely. Not that I think they should die down, but this was a project I felt from the start would have trouble keeping the steam going. Let’s face it, not too many people are going to care what one small group of readers decides should comprise the “correct Silmarillion“. Whatever proposal finally emerges from the discussions, I am sure to disagree with it. So are many other people. But the canon discussions represent a legitimate effort by some of Tolkien’s readers to identify his intentions. This may or may not be the first such attempt, but it will undoubtedly draw some fire when something is produced.

Nonetheless, every first endeavor serves an important function in the ongoing study of literature and the past. And the canon discussions are relevant to our knowledge of the literary past. Literature doesn’t make the world go round. It doesn’t save lives. It doesn’t put food on the table. It’s just there. We read it. But it moves us, provokes us to discuss it, and to understand it. In fact, we attempt to understand things about literature which the authors never intended us to understand. A friend recently asked me, after finishing, The Lord of the Rings, what the book is really about. I told her that not everyone agrees with him, but Tolkien said it was about death and the search for deathlessness.

No, that’s not what my friend thought the book is about. In fact, until I saw a video of Tolkien explaining the story, I didn’t think about that, either. Up until that time I had always thought it was about how heroic Hobbits can be. Some people see it as a brush stroke on the canvas of the battle between Good and Evil (I always have trouble sorting the Good guys from the Bad guys myself). Some people seem to feel The Lord of the Rings is a subtle allegory about expanding personal horizons through chemical processes. I suppose the 60s weren’t too good to those folks.

Inevitably, any serious discussion about Tolkien leads to the question of what is acceptable. That is, what is the “canon” we must rely upon to form a common reference?

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