I’m an admitted, even gleeful, Tolkien geek. I read LOTR once a year or so, and sometimes more often than that. I actually enjoy all that description that seems to scare so many would-be readers away. And hearing about some new Tolkien ephemera always makes me excited.
Which is why I love the news that Tolkien has published a new book. And yes, the Tolkien in question is J.R.R. Tolkien, with some help from his literary executor and son, Christopher. It’s called The Children of Hurin and it tells some of the key tales underlying Tolkien’s later masterpiece.
I saw the book in B&N the other night and nearly … well, I was very excited. Flipping through, I found just what the cover promised, the tale of Turin Turambar and the coming of Glaurung the worm, among other tales heretofore only told in snippets. It looks good. I hope it is good. It does however bring up the question of posthumous collaboration, as well as providing an avenue to discuss the biblical canon. Humor me.
This non-collaborative collaboration between Tolkiens alive and dead isn’t an isolated incident. Many authors have written about a deceased author’s characters. One of my favorites is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea which gives us a different perspective on the madwoman Jane Eyre finds in Mr. Rochester’s attic. Others have had less critical and commercial success, such as The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall’s retelling of Gone with the Wind. In the SF world, and most similar to the Tolkiens’ collaborative effort, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written a number of Dune novels from novelist Frank Herbert’s notes. Though their “canonicity” is hotly debated, the novels have done quite well. There are other examples, too, from the “new” Godfather novel to Jon Clinch’s recently published Finn, which tells the story of Huckleberry Finn‘s Pap.
Rhys offers a prequel/parallel story that eventually intersects with a well-known one; Randall tells the same story from a different perspective; and Herbert and Anderson enlarge a well-loved world with prequels and sequels. How should we read these novels? Does it matter if we consider them canon or not? And who is authorized to determine a canon anyway?
These are just novels, you might say. They don’t really matter. True, but the question provides an excellent springboard for talking about the biblical canon. My ideas on this aren’t fully formed yet, but consider the parallel stories in Kings and Chronicles, for starters. Both tell many of the same stories about some of the same kings (true stories, mind you) yet with different thematic emphases. The same goes for the Gospels, particularly the Synoptics. Some scholars hypothesize a “sayings gospel,” often called Q, that along with Mark provided most of the material for Matthew and Luke. John, on the other hand, creates a quite different narrative, one that rings with all the true tones but whose themes are more developed and somewhat richer. (Which is to be expected since he wrote his Gospel a good bit later than his fellows.)
Take note: None of what I’m saying undermines the stature of Scripture. It remains infallible and inerrant. But these thoughts illustrate how incomplete is any one person’s version of a story. Some think Mark has Peter’s point of view, while Matthew had firsthand experience of his own. Luke’s account has the feeling of a documentary (a good one) that captures the perspectives of eyewitnesses. John, called the Beloved, sees beyond the events themselves to their significance. He exemplifies the fact that the disciples remembered what Jesus said and did after he was gone. And as with most remembrances, the depth of meaning that was lost in the moment, when the disciples were “amazed” or “astonished” by Jesus’ words and actions, comes into sharp focus upon recollection.
But all four capture the Savior from a different angle, and the portrait, layered with the others, makes for a fuller-bodied Jesus than we’d have had if the early church (or any of the councils) had collaborated on a single version.
The Author of Scripture could have simply given us an authoritative version, a transcript of his dealings with humankind. The Deist god would have committed such a travesty, had he bothered to touch the world at all. Instead, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob told us his own story, from dozens of perspectives and angles, with the end result that we find the invitation to take our place in it. The Bible is a work of art as well as a book of life.