Tolkien was trying to make a new mythology, a new set of deeply resonant stories, for modern (especially English) culture, and he succeeded. He transformed fantasy, and founded the concept of high fantasy. His detailed legendarium (as his mythology is called) is a masterpiece of world-building, with deep symbolism and emotional complexity, a mythology with arguably more depth and room to explore than many ancient ones. Tolkien scholars work full-time to study it, and many more people draw from it explicitly and implicitly for their own art, in D&D and other more modern fantasy settings. Especially with his near-human species, his concepts of hobbits (off-brand as halflings) and elves (distinct from previous iterations) have deeply resonated with many people.
And yet, relatively few of the works from his legendarium are actually that enjoyable (or even feasible) to read. Only the works published in his lifetime, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are readable as literature by modern audiences – and many modern readers even struggle to get through the reams of poetry and milieu-building that make up The Lord of the Rings, with many fans only familiar with the much more digestible Peter Jackson movies.
As for the posthumously published works, even though they more fully flesh out his beautiful and intricate imagined history – detailing, for example, the character of the elves, the creation of that world – they are extraordinarily dense and heavy reading. The Silmarillion has famously been compared by many readers to the Old Testament, and this was definitely meant as an insult – although I personally am a huge fan of the Hebrew Bible as literature, this is a large part of why my friends consider me such an eccentric.
It’s easy to understand why. The Silmarillion was composed in a remarkably similar process to how historical-critical scholars say the Hebrew Bible was composed. That is to say, both were composed after the fact, by a redactor. For both, this redactor stitched together somewhat-contradictory stories in their rudimentary form into a consistent order, with minimal editing and no attempt at expansion. Many of the original sources read as synopses, and the only consistency of voice is self-conscious archaism and reverence.
And the more recent publications are worse, and even more like modern editions of ancient texts. Beren and Luthien is stitched together between poetry and prose, and as full of footnotes as many “study Bibles” I’ve seen. This is beautiful work – or at least the source material is. But rather than presented in a form that can be enjoyed, it is only presented in a form that can be studied. It is treated like we treat the literature of an ancient civilization (as C.S. Lewis complained about in his Introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation), rather than the writing of someone who died within living memory and whose works are now a multi-billion dollar media franchise.
And that’s a damn shame, because the world that Tolkien created is beautiful, and the stories that he grew within it are beautiful, and deserves a presentation, a literary realization, as beautiful as the underlying concepts. You shouldn’t have to be the type of nerd who is intrinsically driven to read through tedious notes to see the underlying beauty that is the Tolkien legendarium – the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth deserve to be portrayed through engaging, well-written literature, like the end of the Third Age is in The Lord of the Rings, rather than a study Bible that can only be read by those whose devotion to Tolkien borders on religious – the hyper-nerds (and I number myself among them) whose very existence testify to how great the ideas are.
Unfortunately, too many Tolkien hyper-nerds feel that their ability to access this is a compliment towards them – that it’s the reader’s fault for not liking or being able to get through The Silmarillion, for not being dedicated enough. But this attitude – in addition to being arrogant, ableist, patronizing, and damaging to the reputation of Tolkien fans as a whole – is simply not worthy of the beautiful world that Tolkien built. Tolkien was trying to craft this world into publishable books.
That world should be accessible to as many people as possible, not only some “elites” who are willing to go footnote-diving. If that world is so beautiful that it inspires some people to do incredible feats of research to try to understand it, it is beautiful enough that it should also be shown to those who (quite reasonably) don’t have the time or energy for such activities.
This is a solvable problem – in fact, many other literary franchises have solved it handily: The franchise should be opened up to collaborators. There would be no shortage of talent: Tolkien’s work is well-loved within the genre, even foundational. Many fantasy authors – top-tier ones – would consider it a great honor to be able to write within Tolkien’s legendarium in an authorized fashion.
But for it to work, the Tolkien estate would have to allow those collaborators to do their job. We have to allow them to question and add complexity to Tolkien’s themes, to explore some of the awkward components (like the moral status of the orcs, or questions of races of men and apparent races of elves) at their own discretion. They have to be allowed to make adjustments to the canon – something Tolkien would’ve done freely himself.
Perhaps it would be made easier if there was no attempt to keep the extended canon strictly consistent, if they rejected that as a possible goal from the outset. Some rules and negotiation will doubtless be necessary, but complete alignment to canon and literary excellence are fundamentally incompatible goals – and literary excellence the more important one.
Because of course, these works are literally not scripture, or ancient texts. They are modern fiction, and like many works of fiction they deserve to be taken seriously – but not religiously. Those who do take it religiously are not the best company to keep.
But even if they were ancient texts, allowing an open, logically fluid canon would be appropriate. After all, Tolkien was trying to build a modern mythology – a legendarium – and ancient mythologies are contradictions and fanfic the whole way down. Remember Achilles' Heel? It seems a core part of the mythos. But not only are there multiple versions of that story that disagree on how the rest of him was made invulnerable, it also doesn’t even appear in the Iliad which considers him as vulnerable as any mortal. There are even versions of Achilles' story where he dies a normal death being shot in the back.
Throughout antiquity, every time a new poet or playwright would set a Greek myth to writing, they’d put their own spin on it. When modern writers do the same, they’re not ignoring or changing or misrepresenting Greek mythology, but just continuing the same pattern.
This is nothing against Tolkien scholarship, and trying to study his mind and the original intent behind the legendarium – that is also a good thing. But perhaps that scholarship would be more useful if it had an outlet in the creation of new works.
The TV Show#
Of course, so far I’ve avoided the elephant in the room – the new Rings of Power TV shows. So I will address that now.
I acknowledge many of the problems with them. I was particularly
disappointed by the “elves taking our
jobs trades” concept.
Rather than express the original, interesting reasons that men had
become bigoted against elves in Númenor – jealousy of Elvish immortality
and closeness to the gods – they fell back on a cheap political
reference. I’m OK with changing the canon, but it doesn’t work. Elves
are the colonial power, the more privileged species, and “taking our
jobs” is generally a line that is used by the more privileged against the
less privileged. It makes no thematic sense, and I have to simply pretend
they said something else in order to keep watching the show.
(Diverse casting is, to be clear, not a problem with them. It’s a fantasy world, and they’re actors. Literally all of the elves are also – gasp! – depicted by non-elvish actors. It’s unfortunate that that conversation took up well-needed space for better conversations about the show.)
But that’s the risk of opening the canon up, and I accept it. I did enjoy Rings of Power a lot, just for depicting on screen many places and events that were emotionally resonant for me. I am happy it was made, flaws and all – while still not really counting it as “canon” in my mind. I hope they recover from many of their flaws, and I hope more work like it is done.
Because more important than “getting everything right,” it presented this world in a way that many of my friends could enjoy it. Basically none of my friends would be willing to read The Silmarillion just because they would enjoy discussing it with me (or for any reason at all). But many of my friends watched the show, and enjoyed it, and those discussions have been great.
Now, imagine if more such works were made, and by established fantasy greats!
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