- "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama."
- —J.R.R. Tolkien
It is difficult to speak of what is "true" in the context of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, or what texts should be considered canon; some readers do not believe that any clear canon exists at all. Others argue that a legendarium for its very nature does not need any kind of canon.
There are various reasons for the matter of what is authoritative to be confusing:
- Tolkien worked on Middle-earth over the course of decades, making substantial changes. Readers may remember, for example, the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with regard to Gandalf and the Elves. Moreover, toward the end of his life the focus of his writing shifted from pure story telling to more philosophical concerns, which led to a considerable shift in tone and content.
- Tolkien's writing is laden with details and hints, which can be contradictory, especially in the posthumously published work. Such information should not take precedence over more explicit statements elsewhere, but it can help to flesh out our understanding of Middle-earth (even if it does at times add confusion). In general, the revised versions of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are considered canon, but with The Silmarillion and other posthumous texts the matter is more complex.
- To add to the confusion, in some cases, Tolkien intentionally left some gaps in his works. In one of his letters (#144) he provided both an explanation and an example of this, writing concerning Tom Bombadil that "even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)." Giving an incomplete picture in this way can be frustrating, but it also makes the invented world feel more natural.
- I am doubtful myself about the undertaking. Part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. Also many of the older legends are purely 'mythological', and nearly all are grim and tragic: a long account of the disasters that destroyed the beauty of the Ancient World, from the Darkening of Valinor to the Downfall of Númenor and the flight of Elendil.
- - from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter 247
For the purposes of this wiki, canon will be defined as anything pertaining to Middle-earth that was written/invented by J.R.R. Tolkien or developed under license from Tolkien Enterprises. Although elements of the latter will be regarded as non-canon relative to Tolkien's works, they are both officially approved by his estate and internally consistent with themselves and any other directly related works. For example, the three films comprising the Jackson trilogy are internally consistent with each other and licensed by Tolkien Enterprises, so they may be included if the information from these films is clearly indicated to be derived from Jackson's work, as opposed to Tolkien's work, by being placed under the "Portrayal in Adaptations" section of an article. Should some element of an adaptation be unique to that adaptation, however, and not found in Tolkien's works, it is still permitted, but is considered and must clearly be categorised as non-canon, and labeled so with the "NonCanon" template.
The sources released for mainstream consumption and can be read as stand-alone 'stories' (or short stories) and 'novels' in a linear manner. These are generally considered the most reliable (though they sometimes share 'alternate accounts' of certain events). These are generally meant to be complete stories or to fill in the gaps of the stories (and often from in-universe perspective).
Non-canon vs. "Precanon" vs. External Mythologies
If the topic of an article here is non-canonical from the start, it will be categorized and labelled as such. The same goes for few topics of Middle-earth lore that are here considered not non-canonical but precanonical - for example, any topics indigenous to the story of Eriol, a character who originates from a real location (England) and is thus only semi-invented (he is partially reintroduced as a framing character in Beren and Lúthien (2017), and was reused by Tolkien in some fashion in some of his later generation works, or such as the villain Tevildo, the forerunning character to Sauron (who was however reintroduced in Beren and Lúthien as a separate minion of Morgoth from Sauron), or such as Kullervo, a character who originates from Finnish Mythology and yet in the publication summary to The Story of Kullervo is referred to as "..the darkest and most tragic of all Tolkien's characters."
Unlike the case of the English and Finnish mythological elements mentioned above, the book Finn and Hengest is not here considered precanonical, nor is it associated with non-canon. It is merely a study, narration, and interpretation by Tolkien of two characters who appear in two different Old English poems. The same goes for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, another work published under Tolkien's name that contains narrative directly originating from Norse Mythology.
Most but not all lore discussed on articles in a section labeled "Earlier Versions of the Legendarium" concern precanonical events, story-lines, or events. As signified by that section heading used, topics that are precanonical do still fall under the umbrella of the "Legendarium", or mythology of Tolkien. Non-canonical topics that do not, as they by definition are invented outside of any version of legendarium. Relative to canon and precanon, non-canonical topics can be described as truly "fictional".
In The History of the Middle-earth and Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien apologizes for some editorial choices he made with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, in which he admits in hindsight that several chapters of The Silmarillion were is or Guy's inventions and not wholly J.R.R. Tolkien's ideas. He occasionally discusses some things he would have done different if he was to edit the book again. Certain materials he 'ignored' or tossed out he realized in hindsight would have been fairly easy to manage. In some cases he has reintroduced some of the stuff he changed into later books.
On Eriol, Christopher Tolkien notes in The Peoples of Middle-earth that in the final version of Akallabêth written by J.R.R. Tolkien (which was edited and published in the Silmarillion), that the work is written in the voice of Pengolod, and that the story was originally addressed to AElfwine by him.
- The authentic text begins: Of Men, AElfwine, it is said by the Eldar that they came into the world in the time of the Shadow of Morgoth ...',
He admits that this removal made the whole source lose its anchorage in Eldarin lore, and led him to make through what he believes was excessive vigilance incorrect changes which also led him to altar the end of the paragraph (perhaps editorial work that was not his to properly make, as he went against his father's original intent). Christopher also points out the last paragraph of Akallabeth as published in the Silmarillion, still contains indirect references to AElfwane, the 'straight road' and other 'future mariners, which he never altered or removed.
On this wiki, there is no category exclusively for all things that are canon, for those make up the main space of the encyclopedia. With the three exceptions of Wiki policies, all writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and all other Real World topics (Real people, books, websites, games, etc.), informative articles on this Wiki that have no categories with the word "canon" in them are canonical, and pertain to the predominant and "true" (or final) version of the legendarium of Middle-earth.