One of the most frequent requests I receive from fans of Tolkien and Middle-earth is to speculate on what The Silmarillion might have looked like, “had Tolkien finished it”. This is a really popular topic. I have stumbled across more than one attempt to produce a (pseudo)-canonical Silmarillion text through the years. Canonical contrivances always lead into the Valley of Canonical Collisions. There is no canon, and everyone has their own idea of what should be canon. The problem is of such universal proportions that the Vulcans have a saying: “Only J.R.R. Tolkien can write a canonical Silmarillion; everything else is fan fiction.”
Of course, people are not asking me to create a canon. They just want to know what I think Tolkien would have done with the book, had he ever found time to dispense with distraction and delve deep into his own psyche. But there is a very large, complicated problem with the request. In the 1992 Tolkien Centennial documentary, Christopher Tolkien said that he felt the task of finishing The Silmarillion had become too large for his father, too daunting:
I think one must say it was the last version of The Silmarillion that he couldn’t finish. He couldn’t finish a version of The Silmarillion that would stand in relation to The Lord of the Rings. It was inevitable that The Lord of the Rings must alter The Silmarillion, because having once been — as I have said — an enclosed myth, with a beginning and an end — it now has the vast extension. And in The Lord of the Rings there are major figures who come out of the Elder Days, out of the primeval world of The Silmarillion; chief among them, Galadriel.
So a great deal of writing back would have to be done. But my father being who he was, this writing back would never be a simple thing because he — when Galadriel enters out of the Lord of the Rings into the world of the Elves in Valinor new stories begin. Right up to the end of his life Galadriel’s position in the Elder Days was still being developed.
So this was a major problem, but I think there were deeper problems than this. I think that in his later years he became — he had become detached in a way from the old legends: Turin, Beren, and so on. And they were immensely important to him but they were things that — they were like the legends of the real world which he could observe and study. And he became more and more interested, I think, more and more interested in what I call the metaphysical aspects of … his secondary invention.
Above all with the nature of the Elves because it is absolutely fundamental to the whole conception … that men are mortal and Elves are immortal. And as he declared — and so rightly declared — the fundamental underpinning concern of all his work was death, the intolerable fact. And the nature of the Elves, going right back to The Book of Lost Tales, was above all that they were immortal. They were not naturally destined to die. They could be killed, because they had bodies, but they were not in their nature destined to die where men are of their nature destined to spend only a short while in the world, whereas the life of the Elves was co-terminus with the life of Arda, Arda being the Elvish word for the world, our world, of which Middle-earth was a part.
And so in his later years he became involved in profound attempts to determine the nature of an immortal being who is nonetheless incarnate and possesses a body. This would in turn — was beginning to develop new stories within The Silmarillion. And I think the whole thing simply became too large, too complex to have so precise — to attempt to propose a precise metaphysical explanation of it. It was perhaps a task for a younger man; the flame began to die down, and he hadn’t the energy left that would be needed for such a huge transformation.
Some people who knew him well … said that he didn’t really want to finish The Silmarillion, suggesting even that at some level he felt that to finish The Silmarillion would be finishing his life. I personally don’t think that at all. I don’t think there’s any real evidence for it. I think he deeply wanted to finish it but couldn’t: Too large, too large a task, too tired.
So this is the problem with all attempts to define canonical maps, or even to speculate on where Tolkien might have gone next: the framework was incomplete in not one but two critical areas. First, Tolkien had not really completed sorting through his thoughts on what it means to be immortal among mortals. Secondly, he was spawning new stories all the time, rarely fleshing out their details all at once.
We can discuss the question of what it means to be immortal as an Elf in a world beside mortal Men and arrive at all sorts of marvelous, worthwhile conclusions; but those would be our own conclusions, not Tolkien’s.
And as for the rush of new stories (and characters) that continued up to within a few months of the end of his life, Tolkien’s work was so unfinished that we could most likely do no better than Christopher Tolkien and simply cut off the speculative revision at some point. And to do so would be to defeat the purpose of the speculation, for the request for speculation really drives at the quest for knowledge that can never be had. We cannot know what J.R.R. Tolkien himself did not yet know, never mind what he knew but did not write down in a thorough and rational, definitive outline.
He certainly expressed a frustration with the mythical landscape he had created for Middle-earth. He regretted not using a real map of Europe to plot the scene locations for The Lord of the Rings. And beyond that he may have regretted using the “flat world” mythology for the Elder Days. He was unsatisfied with the changing of the world at the Downfall of Numenor; he wanted (although we don’t know how much) to rewrite the history of Arda so that it was more compatible with what was known to science.
Personally, I think he would have been comfortable incorporating the Big Bang into the history of Eä. Most people seem to be unaware that the idea of the universe expanding from a “primordial atom” is a Christian idea, proposed by Monseigneur Georges Lemaître (a Belgian Jesuit priest who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Physics) in 1927. If the Big Bang was good enough for the Catholic Church it should be good enough for J.R.R. Tolkien, right? And that in itself would not require any real change with respect to Ilúvatar creating the universe. But things break down after that.
To change anything so fundamental as the role that the Valar played in the shaping of the universe would create resonances among the characters. Would Varda still be the Star Kindler, for example, if Tolkien would concede the formation of stars to gravity? If Varda did not kindle new stars in anticipation of the awakening of the Elves, then why would they revere her so much? Tolkien would have to devise new myths to explain where the Elves came from and what their special relationship with Elbereth (Varda) should be; for The Lord of the Rings had all but codified this relationship, which was also acknowledged in The Road Goes Ever On.
Galadriel’s place among the Elves and her role in the rebellion present new problems for Tolkien had decided in the last year of his life that she should have met Celeborn in Aman, not Middle-earth. Galadriel was hardly a major character in The Silmarillion but Tolkien had introduced a starburst of other characters among Finwë’s descendants; characters who might well have had their own stories, given enough time.
And as new characters and details emerged year by year the chances for new inconsistencies between the books to appear also emerged. Take Gildor Inglorion, for example. He is one of the problematic characters in Middle-earth because he does not fit into any of the known princely houses. Tolkien seems to have forgotten about Gildor when he was busy renaming some of the major Elf princes and moving their children around the family tree. What if something else fell between the cracks as a result of the new stories?
A more scientific Silmarillion would have destroyed some of the many cherished stories, such as the history of the Two Trees and the making of the Sun and the Moon. Tolkien would have to devise another explanation for why the Elves referred to the Sun as “She”. Would Arien still be in there somewhere? And would Tilion still be the man steering the moon?
Would Dirhavel, who is only mentioned once in The History of Middle-earth, have become a more prominent character? Would “The Wanderings of Hurin” have been included along with the story of Turin? Would Glorfindel still slay a Balrog?
We don’t know the answers to these questions and they cannot be answered by speculation, democracy, or arbitration. The Source itself has left us and we can no longer obtain new information from him.
In the final analysis we can argue that we might devise a more satisfying Silmarillion than Christopher Tolkien did, but the satisfaction would not justify any single extrapolation over any other. We have what we have and it can get no better than that. Fan fiction may plug some of the obvious plot holes but it will never answer the question of “what might J.R.R. Tolkien had done next, had he lived a few years longer”.