J.R.R. Tolkien's Works Belong in the Public Domain
How to Honor a Myth-Maker
“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We're in one, of course, but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: "Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring!" And they will say: "Yes, that's one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn't he, dad?"
I periodically find myself writing about J.R.R. Tolkien. To the point that it’s become a running joke among my friends, but it’s something I can’t seem to get away from or ever seem to say my final word on. I Always find something new in his writing, some hidden gem to uncover or mysterious connection to unravel.
I think his writing is the most impactful body of literature (not just fantasy, but literature) of the 20th century.
I think without him, the entirety of the English canon would be weakened- both the works that he inspired and the works that he drew his own inspiration from would be lessened without his contribution. Tolkien is the loadstar from which the entire modern conception of the mythic northwestern spirit springs from. Without him we would not have modern myth, modern “fantasy” as we know it would be completely different. Without his work, modern appreciation of Beowulf, the Eddas, the Volsungs, all of the ancient northwestern canon would be substantially weakened. Without him, even the modern conceptions of elves, dwarves, goblins and dragons that we take for granted would not exist.
Tolkien’s importance as a myth-maker cannot be overstated.
Which is why it is high time the copyright to his legendarium expires and his creation is set loose to the public, to the whims of any talented artist, writer, screen producer, composer, musician, poet, or novelist that wishes to make their own addition to, or rather make a discovery in, Middle-Earth.
There could be no better fate for Tolkien’s works than for them to finally be released into the great public melting pot of myth and story.
And now that I’ve spoken heresy, I have to explain myself.
The Tolkien estate and Tolkien’s “conservative” fanbase, though often at odds, are in full agreement on one issue. That is, that the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s works should be religiously guarded and kept in the sole possession of the Tolkien estate. They dogmatically hold to keeping the Silmarillion and other works out of the hands of movie studios, and many even argue that allowing the Peter Jackson films to be made was a step too far.
Tolkien’s son Christopher was well known for holding this view and considered reproductions of his father’s mythos as inadequate at best and sacrilegious at worst. Even after Christopher’s death, the attitude of the Tolkien estate has remained mostly the same, despite their willingness to work with Amazon in producing the Rings of Power.
This purist view is especially prevalent among conservative and traditionalist fans of Tolkien. And for good reason- the Rings of Power fiasco was enough evidence to prove that modern studios are entirely unequipped to handle Tolkien.
But not only am I in favor of allowing movie adaptions of Tolkien’s works to be made, I would even be ok with other’s publishing their own books set in Middle-Earth.
I believe allowing Tolkien’s stories to enter the public domain once the current copyright expires is the best thing for the professor’s legacy.
Why? Well, that requires answering a few questions.
Firstly, what were the views of J.R.R. Tolkien himself regarding adaptions of his works?
Secondly, what was his primary intention in creating the legends of Middle-Earth?
And finally, how can we best honor these intentions?
Since I’m discussing how to best honor Tolkien, the first point I should address is whether the professor would have been for or against adaptions of his works.
Some may be surprised to hear that Professor Tolkien’s attitude towards adaption was never quite the same as that of his son Christopher or of his most passionate fans- that is, it was not entirely dismissive or negative.
In a 1951 letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote about his intentions to create a "body of more or less connected legend," of which "the cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama”.
Clearly, these are not the words of a man that wanted to keep his works far from the hands of other creative minds. Rather, he welcomed the idea of his world being expanded by others.
It was only specific instances and philosophies of adaption that he was opposed to. He rejected certain movie proposals based on his books because he felt they missed the point and spirit of his work- not because he was opposed to Middle-Earth movies in general.
But if this was Tolkien’s opinion, why do so many of his fans take a different approach?
For the most part, its because the fans take more after Tolkien’s son Christopher, and view the Middle-Earth legendarium as something that must be “protected”.
Christopher Tolkien, whose life’s work was completing, editing, compiling, and promoting the work of his father, was fiercely protective of his father’s legacy and took a hardline stance.
This isn't to say I think Christopher took the wrong approach. I think Christopher did exactly what he needed to do for the job he had been given and the role he had to play, in his own time. His father’s work had to be protected in order for its legacy to be cemented.
But we’ve moved past that era now. Tolkien’s legacy, in large part thanks to the vigilance of his son, is now cemented, and even the most egregiously bad adaption could never change that (looking at you Amazon).
Tolkien’s works don’t need protecting anymore, and especially not if they are released into the public domain- becoming part of the public literary canon is the best protection any story can get. Once mythologized, a tale is invincible. Does a bad Trojan war film diminish Homer? Do viking LARPers diminish the sagas of the Northmen? Not in the slightest.
But that word “mythologized” brings us to the bigger question- what was Tolkien’s intention in creating his legendarium anyway?
His intent was not just to write a great novel, and it was not an “excuse” to create fictional languages as some have said.
Tolkien’s intention must have been for his works to eventually be expanded upon by other writers and artists. Why?
Because his intention was to write a myth. Creating the mythology of Middle-Earth was his life’s work, and he always asserted that it was meant to be a mythic history of our own Earth, not merely a work of fiction. He expressed disdain for fantasy that was random or allegorical, that made no attempt to recreate the spirit that he found in real ancient myths and legends.
And when something is truly mythic, rather than just a good story, it has the potential become something more.
In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien describes the process of how stories are thrown in the “cauldron” of myth and transformed:
“speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty… …new bits added to the stock. A considerable honour, for in that soup were many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible than they were in themselves (considered simply as figures of history… …It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faerie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred's defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faerie. The situation is similar in the great Northern “Arthurian” court of the Shield-Kings of Denmark, the Scyldingas of ancient English tradition. King Hrothgar and his family have many manifest marks of true history, far more than Arthur; yet even in the older (English) accounts of them they are associated with many figures and events of fairy-story: they have been in the Pot.”
If this is true, and if it’s true that Tolkien wanted to write a true myth- then by definition he would want that myth to be eventually added into the “pot”. Of course, Tolkien was far too humble to ever have asserted that his story deserved this honor, but this is not for authors to decide for themselves. Rather, it is up to us, over the course of generations, to decide what gets thrown in the pot.
The final and best way to honor a myth-maker is to allow his works to become myth.
But does Tolkien deserve this honor? Should we pull Tolkien from the world of fiction and throw him into the mythic cauldron?
Well, it’s already happening- Tolkien is already in the pot, becoming myth, he is public domain in every sense but the purely legal (the least important sense).
He is English mythology.
Sure, in the immediate years following the release of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had something more akin to a modern “fandom”, what with fan mail and meetups and all that jazz, but it’s grown beyond that in the decades since.
There is a staggering amount of work out there based on Tolkien.
Incredible poetry, and music, and art. There are endless Tolkien based artworks out there, and I mean really beautiful artwork, not your typical “fan art”.
You can go to university to study Tolkien. What better evidence for his becoming myth could there be? Have you heard of George R.R. Martin studies? No? Well, Tolkien studies are a real thing and are only taken more seriously with each passing year.
Alan Lee, Howard Shore, John Howe, Ted Nasmith- just a few names that have contributed some of the best music and art in decades, and without Tolkien we would have none of it.
The cultural impact of Middle-Earth is unparalleled. There are statues of its heroes, the Peter Jackson films are the most culturally significant and impactful films ever made, and “hobbits” might as well be as ancient an idea as elves and dwarves at this point. D&D style fantasy these days calls them “halflings”, but that’s all Tolkien.
But it’s not just that, it’s the way Middle-Earth is spoken of. In England people make jokes about Hobbits in the same way Scandinavians joke about elves- as if it’s just an ancient part of their culture, a reference everyone understands. Frodo, Gollum, Aragorn, these names are referenced more like folklore characters than names from a fantasy series. Tolkien references aren’t considered “nerdy” anymore, and this is a huge point even if it goes unnoticed. It shows that he is being integrated into the English mythos, and more broadly the entirety of European mythology.
Tolkien has even become politically relevant. The aesthetics of his work are symbols for traditionalists, conservatives, and even nature conservationists. In an era where the right-wing is fractured, Tolkien appreciation is one of the few uniting things left. Don’t think that I’m being hyperbolic- with Tolkien and then especially without the Peter Jackson films, there would be a gaping hole in modern day right-wing aesthetics and culture.
No other work of fiction is treated like this. This phenomenon is more akin to the treatment of Greek and Roman legends than to the treatment of normal fiction.
The legends of Middle-earth are already in the public domain- in all but legality.
It’s high time we allow Tolkien to be fully thrown into the great cauldron of myth and story.
Let Middle-Earth leave the realm of legal disputes, contracts, and movie studio negotiations and let it take its place among the rest of the European mythos. Let Aragorn and Frodo finally sit with Beowulf and Thor and King Arthur.
Go further, let others write their own legends for Middle-Earth, there’s plenty of story left to tell, and the tale belongs to all of us. Middle-Earth is simply our own forgotten history, after all.
The Saxon Cross is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien wrote that:
“It [Beowulf] is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal…”
If this is true of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem many centuries removed from the modern peoples of the Anglo-sphere, than how much more is this sentiment true of Tolkien’s own writings?
There is nothing today that defines the English, even the European, mythos as strongly as Tolkien’s writing. No man in centuries has contributed so much new life to the European canon, cultural spirit, and mythos.
J.R.R. Tolkien accomplished what as a young man he could have only ever dreamed of- he transcended literature and became a conduit for something truly mythic, became a sub-creator of something beyond simple storytelling.
Both his fans and family need finally let him go, let him fade away into the murky depths of the cauldron of story, where over time he will be mythologized and churned and molded and where even his name could be forgotten as the years roll by. It matters not- because in the European mythos hobbits are now as real as dragons, and the halls of Valinor as real as Asgard.
At what point can you move a work from the shelves of fiction to those of mythology? Has Tolkien fully become myth yet? Despite everything I’ve said here, no he has not, otherwise I wouldn’t have ever thought to write this.
Tolkien exists somewhere in the grey, not quite belonging anywhere in the library. But every year Middle Earth becomes more real, and its tales and heroes become more akin to those of Olympus than those of fiction.
Few ever deserve the honor of being thrown into the cauldron of myth.
J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those few.