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Boromir Essay Post #3: Canon, Schmanon?

A few weeks ago I made two posts gearing up for an essay I'm writing on Boromir. Previous posts, for anyone still wanting to comment:

I'm actually making progress on the essay (which is good since the challenge it's for is due soon), but there's one more thing I want to talk about: how does what Tolkien write affect what you view as "real" Middle-earth?

I'm talking about the issue of canon. There are some details that are cut and dried, like the fact that Déagol originally found the ring, or that at the time of the Ring War Minas Tirith was the capital of Gondor – and if a fanfic story doesn't reflect that fact, we think of it as AU. But just what facts count as canon? As far as I can tell there are three main ways to approach this question.

  1. Canon reflects Tolkien's intentSo what he wrote is obviously canon, but so are applications of his biography, his letters and other things that had nothing to do with Middle-earth.
  2. Canon reflects Tolkien's words. So what he wrote in his books is canon, but anything beyond that is fair game.
  3. Canon reflects Tolkien's conceitHe said that Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were historical documents and historical documents often get things wrong.

So for instance an example of (1) would be to take Tolkien's letter #42 where he writes to his son (I believe Michael) about sex and respecting women, then to say a "good" character in Tolkien would basically live by similar principles and a "bad" character wouldn't (or would do the opposite). (2) would mean taking things written in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit at face value, and using them as your guide – but not feeling bound by anything outside those books (or Tolkien's drafts and other pseudo-canon written as tales about Middle-earth, if you like). (3) would mean interpreting those stories as one glimpse on a historical event, which might be open to interpretation.

(I'm skimming over the question of whether things like Unfinished Tales and The Silm are Tolkien's words. That doesn't mean you have to. But whatever you think on that, I am drawing a hard divide between Tolkien's writings that form the basis for Middle-earth, like his tales, and the secondary sources where he describes his works, like the letters where he answered reader's questions.)

Personally I tend to do (3) in my mind, but only use that mindset when writing if I have a good reason to. That's practical – if I'm changing what Tolkien wrote, I have to justify it, and often I prefer to dwell on different things. But I don't consider this AU in the same way I would if I ever got around to writing a Boromir!lives story.

What about you? Do any of these describe how you think about and write Tolkien's world? Or have you found another approach? And why do you take your approach (if you have reasons)? I'd also be interested in how your approach affects how you think about Boromir and sex, since that's what I'm writing about.

Have at it, guys! And thanks for all your help.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
When I first began to write fanfic, I would say I was firmly in the first camp. Gradually, though, my approach has loosened up a little, and I suppose I write a blend of the three approaches. I frequently read stories that approach things in a way I certainly would not, myself, and find them more or less plausible.

I would say I approach LotR fanfic like an archeologist who tries to reconstruct a dinosaur out of a tiny fragment of bone, or a whole pot out of a little shard. I make use, then, of all the tools I have at my disposal. I'm exploring M-e both story-internally and story-externally. The former interests me the most, but sometimes the latter can spark or inform my view of the former.

As to canonicity, I approach LotR and TH as if they are from "The Red Book", the most reliable of the various sources that has come down to us as canon. I tend to include the Silm in that as well, as we are told Bilbo included Elven history in his book. The remaining sources I think of as "quasi-canonical"-- fragments from other sources that may or may not be reliable, but can cast a light on things. (This also BTW, includes the fanon of movie-verse, which I do not consider canon in and of itself, but as a dramatization of the history that has about as much relationship to the "actual" history of M-e as the film Zulu! had to the real historical events it purported to show-- and I chose that example precisely because PJ at some point said it was one of his inspirations.) Fanon I find useful for inspiration sometimes, and don't mind including those elements as well, so long as they don't contradict what I do view as canon. But I think I have gotten off track-- pardon my ramble!

Back to "canon": I am challenged by trying to write within the constraints that JRRT gave to us by the story as he set it down. I like working within his framework for the most part, and even when I don't like parts, I include it in "my" version of Shire history; so even though I view the Edict banning Men from the Shire as a mistake, JRRT said it, and so I have to work with it-- unless I am deliberately going down a specific AU path. When I write AU, I am doing so on purpose, to examine what could have happened if some little thing or other had been changed. I also like to explore some of the lesser known areas of canon, like the Family Trees-- I have a lot less to work with, so that dinosaur is a lot more imagination than bone-- but I try to extrapolate reasonably from what we "know" of "actual" events.

Oh. I have lots more to say on this-- but have to run off an do an errand. Being out of dog food is a Bad ThingTM!

Aug. 14th, 2012 12:41 am (UTC)
Fascinating! It's interesting - for me, canon is more about respecting my readers and not "jarring" them, than about challening myself. For me to write a story that breaks canon carelessly would be like a Harry Potter story where Snape isn't suspected at some point or other - the absence would be so shocking, it would keep the reader from enjoying it as much as they could otherwise.

Speaking personally, I treat the movies and books like two completely different universes and usually have it worked out in my head if not made explicit to my lovely readers just which 'verse I'm working in. The default is bookverse but when I choose to write about uniquely movie events (like Gimli's blowing the horn at Helm's Deep), I go with the movie portrayed things and don't feel any particular drive to use book events not part of the Jackson movies. For instance, if I was writing a story about Pippin lighting the beacons, I wouldn't feel compelled to bring Beregond into the story afterwards.

Feel free to elaborate! I probably have another day or two before I'm ready to write this bit of the essay, and even then there's nothing to say this conversation has to stop.
Aug. 14th, 2012 02:26 am (UTC)
I'm back!

Yes, I agree that respect for the reader does play a part for me, as well as the desire to consider myself as paying respect to Tolkien himself. (Not necessarily reverent respect, but in the sense that I'd like to hope he'd find that not everything I wrote was total drivel, and that he'd be amused by it rather than offended.)

But I have always enjoyed art that has form and limits. I like poetry that has rules, and I love to write stories that have challenged me. (It's one reason I take part in challenges and write specific forms like drabbles.) To me, I find having limits actually freeing. It's why I often get blocked or frustrated by stories I have taken on just for myself, and yet rarely find myself blocked by a challenge prompt! If I can write whatever I want, however I want, I'm likely to ramble and meander and never get to the point. But if I am told I have one month to write a 400 word ficlet containing the words foot and shoe, that must somehow reflect the theme of harvest, I am a very happy woman!

Anyway--Boromir. I have written him some, both in traditional Quest stories and in a Boromir!lives AU based on a remix story I did. But it has almost always been "friendship fic" with the hobbits-- never anything in which his sexual leanings would be relevant to the story. However, if I were ever challenged, for example, to write a story in which Boromir was telling of a relationship to the other members of the Company, my inclination would be for him to describe a discreet and long-standing liaison with the respectable widow of a noble-- a relationship of which he knew his father would not approve. His mistress would be the sort of woman who not only would not expect him to wed her, but would actually prefer to avoid any legal entanglement with the Steward's son and all the political responsibility that would ensue. He thinks Denethor doesn't know, but Denethor does, and having had the woman checked out, decides to ignore it. Faramir also knows, and doesn't quite approve on the one hand (because he's a romantic), and on the other is glad Boromir has someone who can make him happy. (Actually, I am making this up now out of whole cloth, solely because you challenged me to think about the subject, but now that I have, it has become my head-canon for "my" Boromir!) But I also must say, I truly like your own preference for the Boromir/Theodred pairing simply because it is elegant and makes a lot of literary sense considering JRRT's fondness for parallelism between Rohan and Gondor! If Theoden and Denethor have many parallels, and there are parallels between Eowyn and Faramir, then the idea that the parallels between the two heirs who are killed could also be carried somewhat further. So I guess I can say that while I don't normally see him in a slash relationship (especially with his brother or any member of the Fellowship!) this one makes enough sense that I have read and enjoyed stories based on the premise of Boromir/Theodred.

Movie-verse: I tend to use it to incorporate elements I like which do not contradict Tolkien, most especially visuals, music and props, but also sometimes bits of dialogue that could have happened in those gaps which we love to fill. As far as events go, though, I much prefer to follow the book.

I do love to tweak PJ's nose sometimes. For example, although the events of the beacon lighting took place as they did in the book, there is nevertheless a popular song in Minas Tirith about how Pippin lit them. Every time he hears it, he winces and says "It didn't happen that way. The beacons were already lit!" and his friends laugh at him.

I think I have written only ONE story set solidly in movie-verse, and that was for a "fix the movies" challenge.
Aug. 14th, 2012 04:55 am (UTC)
Some combination of all, or tactical use of all
I've gone through phases where two or three were more important, and sometimes the phases depended on the arguments flying around in fandom.

Given that my approach to writing fanfic assumes that my job as a fanficcer is to say what's going on either between the lines of the text or beneath them, three is really more congenial up to a point. Like all historical documents, one has to assume - if there is no other evidence to dispute it - that at least some of the story is true and is grounded in reality. The tricky part then becomes identifying areas of inconsistency or silences or else of exaggeration that would reasonably be taken as departures from events if one were reading as a historian. Once I've located such an area, I always try to write in such a way that one can see how or why the "historical text" was written as it was - it should be clear what interests or social positions or catastrophes exist in the society that would prevent certain information or versions of the story from surviving. The changes I introduce can't be so arbitrary vis-a-vis what we have that it's impossible even to reconstruct a plausible history for the writing of the Red Book (or any other story from the Silm for that matter).

Definition two is what I tend to default to in the perennial "What counts as canon?" debates, because it's the easiest to defend and causes the fewest community fights. If Tolkien wrote it, then even if it contradicts something else, it's canon - and at this point in my fannish existence, I leave to those with more interest in that fight the details of how one interprets inconsistencies or what not. Sometimes, too, it's useful to go to two because a minor variation on a story is actually more interesting, and just because it wasn't in the published Silm or whatever is no reason not to write fic about it. Granted, there are times when I think, "Yeah, good thing Tolkien dropped that draft", and then somebody else writes a story on it, and I'm just not interested because to me, there was a good reason not to go that route. But whatever - Tolkien wrote it, so if that's what someone wants to use, I'm not going to contest it. I'm clearly not the intended audience for that story!

Definition one depends more on interpreting Tolkien the man and his context, then trying to decide how that context, and his particular embodiment of it, affects the meaning of his stories' explicit content. This is basically historical work, and while that is certainly relevant, on the whole, it's not work I want to do (because it's, you know, work - and I do enough of that!). There are certain exceptions I regularly make, however, to the authorial intent definition: Tolkien's essays on subcreation, his stuff on faery, for example, his linguistic play, LACE - these are structurally important to understanding his approach to writing LOTR and The Silmarillion, and to more expert deployment of Elven and other languages. I personally find them very helpful conceptually, so I use them to frame how I present certain aspects of Arda's various societies.
Aug. 14th, 2012 04:56 am (UTC)
Re: Some combination of all, or tactical use of all, pt II
Of those listed exceptions, my reliance on LACE is undoubtedly the interpretive approach that would generate the most controversy when it comes to Tolkien, Arda, canon, and sexuality. Most other fans argue over including LACE as canon, and if they include it, they often interpret it as either the gospel according to Tolkien on Middle-earth (or at least elven) sexuality or else treat it under the historical conceit approach, which means that it is an ideological text, whose ideology must be assigned to some other culprit than whatever sect of Elves one happens to want to spare the heterosexism. This tends to result in a selective reading, rather than an effort to find a unifying element to the text, and in practice, it tends to lead to a dismissal of the text's other elements. At least, those seem to be the major options.

None of these are readings or ways of reading that text that I find particularly useful or interesting (too easy, too reactive), although I think it's clear that if ever Tolkien wanted his own ideal views on the meaning of sexuality to enter explicitly into Arda, this would be the text where that happens. I tend to avoid arguments about the sexual ideology of the text because that ideology implies the complementarity of the sexes, that sex is essentially, even if not exclusively, about producing children, and it covers over the dynastic pressures of society, and I have no interest in defending any of it. I also have no real interest in arguing against the former two, since that's been done about a zillion times by now. They are clearly untrue according to scientific views, and I just don't want to expend the energy fighting them or producing another happy romance just to be contrary to that ideology, so I tend not to write in that frame of mind much anymore. As a fanauthor, I prefer to write about sex and sexuality in view of dynastic politics, cross-cultural interactions, or in response to the romance genre's constraints.

Of those three negatives, however, that latter one is what I'm most interested in myself, whether a character is written as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. That's what tends to drive how I write Boromir vis-a-vis sex and sexuality. I try to problematize Boromir's unmarried status in relation to his position as a political figure in a dynasty under pressure, whether he's written as straight, gay, or bi. So when I write in the Unabeauverse, it's class or else it's cultural interaction (or both) that sets up the drama. And that I guess gets back to canon - what's canon is a society whose presentation is dynastic, stratified, and at war against an even more oppressive hierarchical regime of multi-cultural empire. It is idealized consistently, and without denying some of the particular ideals, they can't be consistently achieved within such a social structure. What's interesting is to rub the ideals against the structures that help generate and sustain them and see what comes out.

Edited at 2012-08-14 04:57 am (UTC)
Aug. 14th, 2012 05:12 am (UTC)
Re: Some combination of all, or tactical use of all, pt III
(Of course, one could say that to adopt definition 3 is also to adopt definitions 1 and 2 - after all, Tolkien intended for the stories to be framed by another story, that they were found texts and histories of another time, and we have access to this historical conceit through the words that Tolkien wrote in the Appendices 'first of all' for those of us who came to the story without immediate access to him through personal interaction or through his letters and secondary sources about him. So perhaps we cannot really choose any of those definitions in isolation from the others...)
Aug. 14th, 2012 09:09 am (UTC)
I tend to accept what Tolkien says as canon, so 1, is nearest to my viewpoint.

In my stories, I depict Boromir as having a series of casual liaisons with lower class women and have given him an illegitimate daughter, but I do feel a bit guilty that Tolkien probably would not approve! On the other hand, he did depict Boromir as flawed,so I don't think it as bad as giving, say, Frodo, a rather immoral lifestyle.

Edited at 2012-08-14 09:39 am (UTC)
Aug. 14th, 2012 10:45 am (UTC)
When I teach literature, one of my favorite approaches is Reader Response, which very simply put means that an author writes a story but it had different meaning to each reader, depending on his life experiences. So, when I write fanfic, I tend to focus on #3. The Hobbit is particularly useful for that in my stories because we see the characters I write about (Mirkwood Elves) from the POV of the dwarves and Bilbo. The dwarves, for obvious reasons, have one view of the elves. Bilbo, clearly, given his actions in the Battle of Five Armies and after, has a slightly different one. That is what has determined my characterization of Thranduil.

When I write Legolas, on the other hand, my characterization of him is strictly #1. I have literally gone through all of LotR and pulled each time Legolas was mentioned or spoke and tried to formulate from that a characterization.

So, I guess for me, as far as characterization goes, it depends on whether we have enough 'reliable' source material (Legolas) or if there is little/somewhat unreliable source material (Thranduil).

As for story action, I go for #1. I enjoy most reading and writing stories that fill in gaps in the source material, but I find some of the contradictions (particularly relating to Galadriel and Celeborn) in the UT to be useful (the part that says Celeborn was the original ruler of Ost-in-Edhil but overthrown by Celebrimbor) and others not useful (the part that says Amroth was their son). So I use what is helpful and, frankly, ignore what is not without any guilt because UT, especially, is so much more story notes than actual canon to me. I'd be far, far less likely to discount something in the Silmarillion, for example.

Strangely, I find Letters to be the most canon of all and I often go to them to find the intent behind Tolkien's words, especially the Ring Lore and his attitudes regarding things like creation v machination. I have re-written major parts of stories after seeing they don't really fit Tolkien's views in his letters.
Aug. 27th, 2012 10:01 pm (UTC)
I'm finally getting around to this. Hopefully it's not too late coming in, or, if it is, hopefully it will be enjoyable anyway.

I view canon as a spectrum involving 1) and 2): while 3) is fun, and I've appreciated a lot of works that take that approach, it's been done a little bit too much for my own tastes. So much of my own writing is based on the absences other authors have left, and that applies to approach as well as material. I also try to avoid 3) because there's the peril of turning it into a shortcut of, "I don't like this so I'm going to handwave it away with a cry of 'authorial bias!'" which is intellectually lazy. If I had a dime for every time I encountered a fic which used 3) to utterly nullify LACE, I'd... okay, well, I probably wouldn't have more than $5, but still.

Rather than putting everything else as boxes of "canon" or "not canon," I look at things as "more canon" and "less canon." The "most canon" works are those published by Tolkien during his lifetime. Everything else edited by his son afterwards is deuterocanonical. Among these works, primary source material NOT contradicted by JRR-published canon that was written around the time of his published works (TH to a few years after LotR) is the most canon. The farther away a work's writing date goes from this range of years, the less likely I'm going to take it into consideration. Early and late-life essays reflect the mindset of a different man from the one who produced (and indeed, had the energy to produce) LotR.

I also take into account whether I think Tolkien abandoned a concept deliberately because he didn't like it, or because he ran out of steam. So Tal Elmar (I think that's the name) is more canon than the post-LotR work he attempted, even though they both date roughly from the same era. But this is really subjective.

Secondary works by Tolkien about his writings help color how he read the primary sources, so they fit somewhere on the spectrum as well. I treat others' biographies of him in the same light: through them we learn a lot more about the impact of the war, his mother's death, his religion, etc., about his attitudes, and can apply them (if we so choose) to the way we interpret his work in our fan fic. I want to stress that this isn't limited to viewing Arda through the lens of Catholic sexuality: I would feel quite uncomfortable writing a fic dealing with war without looking at its adverse consequences, because to do so would disrespect the extreme loss Tolkien, and indeed, all those drawn into the Great War, experienced.

Where the real delight in writing this style of fan fiction comes from is in trying to still say something *about* Tolkien's canon (rather than just rehashing it without adding anything new) while remaining in that framework. So, if I were to write a fic dealing with LaCE, I would neither blindly affirm it nor dismiss it out right as a case of "Oh those sanctimonious Noldor elves don't REALLY act like that!" Rather, I think I'd write something where one of the Noldor visits a camp of Men and realizes that they don't follow the sexual ideals laid out in LaCE and concludes, "oh, they really MUST be the weaker race if they're engaging in all these practices we've only seen ANIMALS behave in!" Or, if I *really* wanted to be disturbing, have a First Age elven healer treat a human rape survivor, before elves were really aware that mortals *do* survive that. So, yes, LaCE is still canon, but now we're looking at the way beliefs like that can be used to limit empathy for other people.

I like taking this approach so much because it really involves taking the challenges of working within an limited intellectual framework head-on. The other big reason I do this is because I want to prove to people that not all thought-provoking fic breaks the stereotypical view of "canon," and not all "canonical" fic is just a rehash of something Tolkien already wrote that adds little, if anything, new.

As far as how this would inform my approach to Boromir's sexuality? Heavens if I know. There is so much good exploratory work being done with Boromir that I've never felt a niche that needed to be filled.
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