What The Hell Is Canon, Anyway?

That long-awaited/feared Amazon-made show based on Tolkien’s stories is finally out and I have watched the first two episodes and let me tell you that I am surprised by how much I dig it. Understand, I absolutely love The Lord of The Rings —in both book and movie form—, I tackled The Silmarillion shortly after reading the books when I was twelve and remember its history better than whatever I was studying in school at the time, and I’m the person who will intoxicatedly tell you the story of Beren and Luthien at a party. This stuff is my jam.

As much as I hoped it would be good, I was expecting the worst with The Rings of Power. There was just so much it could get wrong. That the show, in its first two episodes, seems to actually be pulling something off is great! It’s so much fun to be back in Middle-earth! They’re telling what’s supposedly an entirely new story while throwing enough deep-cut lore bones around that I audibly squealed. It gets a lot right and some of the plot moves seem to be meant to add texture to the established Lord of The Rings story.

Which, in the back of my mind, makes me wonder, does it really?

The Lord Of The Rings is a very established story and has been an established story for nearly seventy years now. The author is long dead and the story of Middle-earth ostensibly over, save for an assortment of notes that get edited into coherence every now and then. Technically speaking, there can be no new Middle-earth stories. The adaptions by Jackson, et al. were an adaptation of what was written, reinterpreting the narrative to give it new life. They weren’t exactly telling a new story. Tolkien told his stories and he wrote his canon; everything else is just people making up what else they think could happen. That’s right; the only difference between Rings of Power and some twelve-year-old on fanfiction.net is the Tolkien Estate’s blessing and Jeffrey Bezos’ considerable capital.

Doesn’t the same apply to Star Wars? George Lucas washed his hands of the franchise when he sold it to Disney, yes, and in doing so cast the entire Expanded Universe into the chasm of non-canonicity. But did Thrawn really ever count as canon if his existence wasn’t blessed by the original creator of Star Wars? But I like those stories, and even if Heir To The Empire isn’t technically canon anymore, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a great Star Wars story. Likewise, if a story doesn’t do it for me, I can choose to ignore it (like how The Last Jedi never really got a sequel). Absent the requirement for it to interact with other stories in the same universe, what is canon except for what you want it to be? Stories are a two-way street; you get what you put in, you take out what you want.

And even if Heir to The Empire and Rings of Power are just elevated fan fiction, that’s far from the worst. People have been making fanfics of popular stories for thousands of years. Paradise Lost is John Milton’s fan fiction of the Bible and The Aeneid is Virgil’s fanfic of The Odyssey. Some dude name Avellaneda published an unofficial sequel to Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes did not like that. As long as there have been stories people have been riffing, remixing, and reinterpreting them. Canon, absent the original author and the intent thereof, is just stories curated by a copyright holder.

So maybe whatever’s ‘canon’ doesn’t really matter, and maybe a bad sequel or prequel can’t ruin what’s already there. Maybe it’s more important to just tell a really good story in keeping with what made the original so good, then take or leave whatever you like from it.

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