“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…”
— essay by Joseph Pearce
Opinions will differ, but I have to confess, I am inclined to agree with this perspective. Even from an early age – I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1977, at age 11, and The Silmarillion not much later – I have had a sense that Christopher Tolkien’s edited and compiled contributions to the Middle Earth legendarium of his father were, let us say, of a second tier. Not apocrypha, precisely; but certainly deuterocanonical, to use terms I would not learn for some decades after that original reading!
Since Christopher Tolkien’s passing, and the outpouring of encomia to his memory, I have come to appreciate more fully the degree to which he was a collaborator (a junior collaborator, it must be said, but a collaborator nonetheless) – perhaps even, in a certain limited sense, a co-creator – with his father in the development of the latter’s legendarium. But that has not altered my early-formed perception that he, to some extent – maybe a significant extent – rode the coat-tails of his father’s name and fame.
On the one hand, his life-long work as executor, curator, editor, and compiler of J.R.R. Tolkien’s copious literary legacy exhibits a remarkable, and admirable, level of filial devotion. One cannot help but be impressed, and as I say, admiring. On the other, it (rather conveniently) meant that he never had to actually do anything on his own. I know from my own experience that it is a far simpler matter to edit and compile the works of others (and it would doubtless be even easier with one as well-known as one’s own father) than it is to generate original content of one’s own.
In any case: as the essay notes,
“We should be aware… 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.”
Now, some of that lack of publication had to do with J.R.R. Tolkien’s publishers, and their sense (and in some cases, Tolkien’s own) of what the reading public would be interested in – what would sell, in other words. But the critique is not unreasonable or inaccurate, even so.
To give an idea of how drastically Tolkien himself could change his original concepts, it may be worth noting that the earliest form of the character that became Strider – heir of Isildur, Ranger of the North, Lord of the Dunedain, and last King of Gondor and the West at the close of the Third Age and the dawn of the Fourth – was originally a “wild” hobbit named Trotter, with wooden feet. What might Tolkien have done with his “unfinished tales,” if he had had the time, energy, and in some cases, desire to bring them to published form? Impossible to know.
I would, however, agree with Pearce that The Silmarillion represents something of a special case. It was by far the most complete and fully-formed of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished works; it was also, as his surviving correspondence makes clear, one he had hoped and intended to publish, one day (although he was unsure of how it would be received). This, combined with the fact that it was published so soon – only four years after his death – makes it much closer to simply editing the work of a living author (though of course it lacks his final imprimatur) than any of the twelve volumes of compiled and edited tales collectively known as “The History of Middle Earth.” It is certainly, as Pearce points out, at least “quasi-canonical.”
In any case, the late Christopher Tolkien is to be commended for preserving and curating so much of his father’s work, which otherwise might have been moldering in boxes, or worse yet, discarded entirely. As Pearce accurately notes, “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.” But that doesn’t necessarily place them in the same league as those works of his which were published under his – J.R.R. Tolkien’s – authority, and in his own lifetime. Nor, if I may indulge in supposition, do I think that The Professor would have wanted us to think them so!