Patterico's Pontifications


Christopher Tolkien, 1924 – 2020

Filed under: General — JVW @ 4:17 pm

Christopher John Ruel Tolkien, youngest son of the legendary British phiologist and writer John Ronald Ruel Tolkien and guardian of his father’s literary legacy, died Wednesday in his adopted country of France at the age of 95.

Though not a renowned academic or famous author achieving the stature of his father, Christopher Tolkien spent the latter half of his life keeping J.R.R. Tolkien’s work alive in the public imagination after his father’s death in 1973. He helped finish and prepare for publication the manuscript to The Silmarillion, which sought to provide a comprehensive history of Middle Earth, the magical forgotten realm in which The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were both set. To complete the task, Christopher Tolkien scoured thorough decades and decades of his fathers notes, drafts, and annotations, as explained in the obituary:

Much of it was handwritten; often an earlier draft would be discernible, half-erased, under a later one, and names of characters frequently changed between the beginning and end of the same draft. Christopher Tolkien, with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay (later a respected fantasy author in his own right), took on the task of editing this disparate mass of legends with an appropriate degree of trepidation.

Tolkien’s task was far from straightforward; as he described it, his father had “tended to work on a story by starting again at the beginning, so one might find a complete version of a very early date, and then another version in which part of that was re-written, and then another, layer upon layer. Some parts were so worked over that the styles didn’t match.”

Later, Christopher Tolkien would add to the lore of Middle Earth by compiling his father’s unpublished short stories into a collection titled Unfinished Tales, and he would publish the twelve-volume set The History of Middle Earth which would include his own notes on his father’s work as well as some encyclopedic information about the amazing fantasy world Tolkien père had constructed.

This ability to compile material from notes and then add helpful background analysis served Tolkien fils well when he turned to his father’s academic writing. Though the elder Tolkien had published a lengthy academic article on Beowulf in 1936, at the time of his death he was sitting on several unpublished translations of famous Old English, Norse, and Germanic tales. In 1975 came the posthumous publication of his translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” along with its contemporary poems “Pearl” and “Sir Orfeo,” followed eventually by The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013), and, at long last, Beowulf (2014), some 88 years after Tolkien had first started the translation. Each one of these volumes, like The Silmarillion before it, was lovingly and meticulously compiled by his faithful son. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work should indeed be grateful that Christopher Tolkien did so much to introduce us to the scholarly side of his father, whose lectures at Pembroke College and Exeter College in Oxford had been the stuff of legend.

Like his father, Christopher Tolkien served The Crown during a world war, spending 1943-45 as an RAF pilot. He too taught at Oxford, but only for a relatively brief spell from 1964 to 1975. He created the first map of Middle Earth which was published in a 1970 edition of The Lord of the Rings, so all of us who have read the book since then have Christopher Tolkien to thank for helping us understand the general layout of the Shire relative to Isengard, Minas Tirth, Mount Doom, and all of the other exotic locations therein. He was skeptical of Peter Jackson’s ability to make movies of his father’s magnum opus (J.R.R. Tolkien had sold the movie rights in 1969, so the decision was out of the hands of his estate), and reportedly later dismissed them as action films devoid of the deep meaning which his father had imbued in the books. By all accounts he was a friendly and convivial neighbor. As with so many children of the brilliant and renown he never matched the public greatness of his father, but at his own death Christopher Tolkien deserves an appreciative salute for keeping the flame alight.


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