Christopher Tolkien, son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien, died today at age 95. He was the very first “Middle-earth scholar,” having organized, edited and published many of his father’s works after his father’s death in 1973.
I grew up ignorant of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Science fiction was my thing. And anyway, my parents tended to discourage us from reading books that had even a hint of magic.
I wasn’t introduced to the LOTR story until 2001. I was in college when Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” movie was released. My friends and I had a regular “movie night” discussion group where we would see a film, then come back to someone’s house to talk about themes and meanings.
We decided to watch “Fellowship.” Many of my friends had the advantage, having read the books when they were younger. To make up for that, I watched “Fellowship” several times before our movie night, in order to immerse myself in the story. Of course, I loved it — and afterward I dove into the books straight away.
A new world opened up in the pages of those books. Reading the end of The Two Towers remains a vivid memory for me. I was gripped until the very end as Sam and Frodo struggled at Cirith Ungol.
Eventually I finished LOTR, and I sought out other Middle-earth adventures. I turned first to The Hobbit, which I also loved very much.
And next, The Silmarillion. The stories of this book were J.R.R. Tolkien’s life work. He constantly tweaked them: writing, rewriting, and starting again. But he never brought it to completion. It fell to Christopher Tolkien to finish what his father could not, and he succeeded in 1977. He published a massive history of his father’s work in The History of Middle-earth series, which he published through the 1980s and 1990s.
After the LOTR movies had all been released, Christopher Tolkien began again to edit and publish more of his father’s stories posthumously. It was perfect timing for me, and I devoured them. Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, Beowulf, etc.
I was late to the party, but I was so glad to find J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. I have read and re-read it — many, many times — over the years with much enjoyment.
The movie was a gateway into J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. But it was Christopher Tolkien’s work as an editor that fully opened the vista for me.
I wrote to the Tolkien Estate in 2010 to thank Christopher for his work. His son, Adam, responded, telling me Christopher would be very pleased to hear it. “His stated wish in producing works such as ‘Children of Hurin’ was the hope that it would attract people who had maybe only seen the films to read further the works of his father,” Adam wrote to me.
Christopher Tolkien dedicated half his life to arranging, publishing, and explaining his father’s vast collection of unpublished works. It’s amazing. And yet it seems a thankless task in many ways. I feel Christopher Tolkien was misunderstood, particularly by fans who only ever saw the movies. My general impression was that many knew him only as “the guy who didn’t want any more movies.” Others seemed to think he invented or manufactured most of The Silmarillion. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Think of what might have happened to J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished work in someone else’s hands. They could have licensed the entire legendarium. Invited lesser authors to write “new” Middle-earth adventures. Given his blessing to new movies about Morgoth, Fëanor, Túrin, etc. That would have been a travesty. Instead, Christopher Tolkien stayed true to protecting and enhancing his father’s literary legacy.
Over the decades I have come to appreciate Christopher’s voice as editor. I love reading his notes and interpretations of various fragments and drafts of his father’s work almost as much as the work itself. I love listening to his actual voice, too. YouTube also has a series of clips from a BBC documentary about Tolkien in which Christopher talks at length about his father and the legendarium. And I just love hearing Christopher read passages from the Silmarillion in “The JRR Tolkien Audio Collection.”
I’m sorry his voice is now stilled. But Christopher Tolkien leaves a mighty legacy behind: a lifetime of staggering scholarship.