RIP Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien has died at the age of 95. This is sad news but not entirely unexpected. He himself in the preface to “Beren and Luthien” questioned at the age of 93 whether it would be the last volume of his father’s works that he edited, and he certainly drew the line in the preface to “The Fall of Gondolin”. It was fitting in a way that the last work that he edited was his father’s first tale of his mythology, written whilst he was invalided out of the trenches in World War One.

Christopher John Reuel Tolkien was the third son of the author J. R. R. Tolkien and was born in Leeds on 21 November 1924. Christopher had long been part of the critical audience for his father’s fiction, first as a child listening to tales of Bilbo Baggins(later published as “The Hobbit”), and then as a teenager and young adult offering much feedback on The Lord of the Rings during its 15-year gestation.

He had the task of interpreting his father’s sometimes self-contradictory maps of Middle-earth in order to produce the versions used in the books, and he re-drew the main map in the late 1970s to clarify the lettering and correct some errors and omissions. J. R. R. Tolkien invited Christopher to join the Inklings when he was twenty-one years old, making him the youngest member of the informal literary discussion society .

Following the death of J.R.R Tolkien in 1973, Christopher became his literary executor and was responsible for editing and seeing to publication “The Silmarillion”. This was followed by “Unfinished Tales” and the massive 12 volume collection of his father’s Middle-earth writings entitled “The History of Middle-earth.” In addition he edited as collections tales under the title “The Children of Hurin”, “Beren and Luthien” and in 2018 “The Fall of Gondolin”

In addition Christopher edited and saw to publication many of his father’s more academically inclined works such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo”, “The Monsters and the Critics and othe essays”, “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”, “The Fall of Arthur” and “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary”.

Christopher’s son Simon described the enormity of the task after his grandfather died with so much material still unpublished.

Simon said: “He had produced this huge output that covered everything from the history of the gods to the history of the people he called the Silmarils – that was his great work but it had never seen the light of day despite his best efforts to get it published.”

Christopher was critical of the comercialisation of his father’s work and was critical of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

In a 2012 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, he criticised the adaptations, saying: “They gutted the book, making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.”

He also said: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time,” and that “the commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing”.

Tolkien served as the director of the Tolkien Estate until 2017, when it was believed he stepped down due to Amazon Studios acquiring the Lord of the Rings TV rights.

His opposition to the movie adaptations is understandable, given that he wished to protect the integrity of the original creation. But in many respects, J R R Tolkien and latterly Christopher themselves were involved in an adaptative process. Given that Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England it is in the nature of myth that the tales are told and retold, varied, edited, truncated and adapted. This is the nature of story-telling. It is doubtful that the Greek versions of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are as they were originally narrated by the poet or poets we name as Homer, and one has only to look at the various translations that are available to understand the differences that can occur in telling the same story.

Furthermore it must be remembered that the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” was an adaptation in a different medium from a book in the same way that the BBC radio adaptation by Brian Sibley starring Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Frodo is just that. Some material was left out. Like the movie, for example, there was no Tom Bombadil nor Fog on Barrowdowns. I must say that I thought a liberty was taken substituting Arwen for Glorfindel on the Flight to the Ford in the movie. But the essential elements of the story, the basic themes remained the same. There are moments in Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings where he gets it just right. The passing of the Elves to the West, Rivendell and the Bridge at Khazad Dum are well done.

It is to be hoped that the Amazon adaptations will maintain the integrity of the parent work and as I have suggested elsewhere, hopefully we will see some of the tales of the First and Second Ages. Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin would make for amazing viewing. Move over Game of Thrones.

Tolkien scholar Dr Dimitra Fimi reflected on Christopher’s academic contribution:

Tolkien studies would never be what it is today without Christopher Tolkien’s contribution. From editing The Silmarillion to the mammoth task of giving us the History of Middle-earth series, he revealed his father’s grand vision of a rich and complex mythology. He gave us a window into Tolkien’s creative process, and he provided scholarly commentary that enriched our understanding of Middle-earth. He was Middle-earth’s cartographer and first scholar.

Christopher Tolkien passed to the West on 16 January 2020.