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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Why inconsistency in Tolkien's canon is actually a good thing

News from Bree

Apr 24 2013, 11:07pm

Views: 441
Why inconsistency in Tolkien's canon is actually a good thing Can't Post

The Doors of Night by John Howe The quest for Middle-earth canon. In some ways it always feels a bit of a Sisyphean endeavour.

You know the story of the mythological Greek king, Sisyphus, right?

for those who don't recall, Sisyphus was just too crafty for his own good. So the Greek gods, never tolerant of being made to look foolish, designed for him the most frustrating of punishments: Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Just before he could reach the top, it would roll back down, forcing him to begin all over again.

Consistency and canon in Tolkien always feels a bit like that -- something that hovers just out our of reach. More, the harder you push for it, the more it slips away from you.

The answer you seek isn't in quite The Lord of the Rings, so you start examining what Tolkien wrote in the published Silmarillion. But that's still too vague, so you delve into Unfinished Tales or the History of Middle Earth. You might find some hints, but they're at best fragmentary, or worse, the stories offer conflicting information!

Of course, as humans we feel compelled to seek consistency and place things within a coherent framework -- a framework that does not always exist.

Which is why people twist themselves into knots of logic to try and make sense of conflicting evidence of whether Balrogs do or do not have wings.

Or whether Galadriel departed Valinor with Feanor's rebels, or -- as Tolkien later preferred but never integrated into the Quenta Silmarillion texts -- left independently but at the same time.

Or... well, I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Tolkien canon has a natural limit...

The fact is that no matter how hard you work at it, no matter how many resources you consult, there's a limit to how consistent you can make canon. For some things in Arda, there is simply no single, definitive answer.

My take is that this inevitable inconsistency is not not only not necessarily bad, but actually a good thing. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe the uncertainty about "factual truth" works to increase our investment in the story.

Why? It makes us ask questions and discuss what "really" happened. we question and discuss not in the hope of a definitive answer, but as a means of discussing alternatives hypotheses.

It's worth considering that history -- or more precisely -- our knowledge of it, is messy and fractured. And the further one tries to delve into history, the more fragmentary and conflicting this knowledge tends to become.

The Fall of Gondolin by John HoweThis is self-evident. Oral traditions fail; records are lost, destroyed.

The fractured, incomplete and contradictory nature of Tolkien's legendarium mirrors this -- and this is one of the keys to its deep verisimilitude.

It helps make it more believable, not less.

Just think how many ancient records of the Edain would have been lost in the Akallabeth when Numenor sank beneath the waves. Consider how many more would have been lost in the sack of Ost-in-Edhil by Sauron, in the destruction of Osgiliath during Gondor's terrible kin-strife, and in the decades when Arnor dissolved under the twin influence of internal strife and the assaults of Angmar. More -- much more -- was lost than just the Palantiri, I fancy.

More, elves in the First Age were often poor record keepers:

Menegroth Lee "By the Naugrim the Cirth were taken east over the mountains and passed into the knowledge of many peoples; but they were little used by the Sindar for the keeping of records, until the days of the War, and much that was held in memory perished in the ruins of Doriath." The Silmarillion, Of the Sindar.

And it's not hard to conclude that this is one of the themes of the First Age. Every setback for the Noldor is not simply a blow against their forlorn hopes to overcome Morgoth, it's another diminution of their collective memory -- part of a piecemeal destruction of culture, knowledge and history.

So many elves -- both Sindar and Noldor -- get (to employ the vernacular) toasted in that long, vain war to reclaim the Silmarils from Morgoth. In fact, it's easier to list those who survive than those who perish before the Valar finally show up to haul them out of the fire.

(For the record, of the dominant players in that long, bitter war, my shortlist of survivors amounts to Cirdan, Elrond, Gil-galad, Celeborn and Galadriel -- and the middle two play only a small role in later events, while the latter pair left Beleriand either before, or in the wake of the ruin of Doriath.)

Plus many of the few remaining Exiles who survived the War of Wrath chose to return to Valinor.

The Second Age and Third Age are similarly chaotic -- much is created but even more is destroyed in in conflict, or just lost in the mists of time.

Is it any surprise that our knowledge of Middle-earth is so contradictory and incomplete as a result?

Of course, there are exceptions. One is Pengolodh the Loremaster, who escaped the sack of Gondolin and then compiled the oral traditions, legends and stories that would eventually form the basis of the Quenta Silmarillion. This is the Quenta that later forms the basis of Bilbo's translations of elvish that descend to us via the Red Book of Westmarch.

Pengolodh later survives the destruction of Eregion in the Second Age (lucky guy!) before deciding enough is enough and heading off to Valinor.

Incompleteness generates verisimilitude

But to return to my point: all this messiness is actually really, really cool.

The Bridge of Khazad-dum by John HoweJust think: without this historical haziness there would be no Bombadil debates, no Balrog wing discussions, no asking "just where the hell did Hobbits come from?".

Instead of swapping theories we'd just have bald restatement of whatever Tolkien settled on. And by golly that would be ever-so-dull.

Of course, some of this ambiguity is inadvertent -- the result of Tolkien discarding stories mid-draft for reasons only known to himself.

But read Leaf by Niggle and you begin to understand Tolkien was also aiming for this sort of effect. As he divulges in Letter #154 in The Letters of JRR Tolkien, it is "an elaborate form of the game of inventing a country -- an endless one, because even a committee of experts in different branches could not complete the overall picture."

And I wonder if that is not one of the most astute decisions he ever made as a writer.

So I encourage you to enjoy the journey through Tolkien's world. Because half the wonder of it is that you'll never truly, and definitely, reach the destination.

Demosthenes has been an incredibly nerdy staff member at TheOneRing.net since 2001. The views (and wacky theories) in this article are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of other TORn staff.

Subject User Time
Why inconsistency in Tolkien's canon is actually a good thing News from Bree Send a private message to News from Bree Apr 24 2013, 11:07pm
    Ugh, can someone redirect this to RR. My bad // Demosthenes Send a private message to Demosthenes Apr 25 2013, 5:39am
    "Like" (if we had a "Like" button, I'd just have pressed it) // noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Apr 25 2013, 10:46am
    "all this messiness is actually really, really cool" Riven Delve Send a private message to Riven Delve Apr 25 2013, 11:44am
    Art imitates Life FantasyFan Send a private message to FantasyFan Apr 25 2013, 12:08pm
        Very well said CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Apr 25 2013, 12:57pm
    Good point about dull debates CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Apr 25 2013, 1:04pm
        Nicely said CG - and great post Demosthenes! Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Apr 25 2013, 2:31pm
            brethil gets coolness points for referencing the amber room. // Maciliel Send a private message to Maciliel Apr 25 2013, 3:47pm
                *Thank you Maciliel!* Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Apr 25 2013, 5:33pm
    i think rather neutral, than good... Maciliel Send a private message to Maciliel Apr 25 2013, 2:52pm
    Completely agree imin Send a private message to imin Apr 25 2013, 2:59pm
        What we know and don't know CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Apr 25 2013, 3:36pm
    purposed inconsistency Elthir Send a private message to Elthir Apr 25 2013, 3:07pm
        Great distinction between internal and external inconsistency // CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Apr 25 2013, 3:30pm
        purposed ambiguity Riven Delve Send a private message to Riven Delve Apr 25 2013, 5:14pm
            The author as the narrator...not the creator Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Apr 25 2013, 5:40pm
                The clinching argument for verisimilitude in Tolkien: the crazy cat lady Riven Delve Send a private message to Riven Delve Apr 26 2013, 12:05pm
                    Now THAT is a great line, R-D! Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Apr 27 2013, 2:43am
            Another good distinction... Elthir Send a private message to Elthir Apr 25 2013, 7:49pm
                It is fun to read Appendix F with 'Prof. Tolkien, translator' in mind as a fictional character squire Send a private message to squire Apr 25 2013, 8:06pm
    Great post Ziggy Stardust Send a private message to Ziggy Stardust Apr 26 2013, 1:35am


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