Christopher Tolkien 1924-2020

I had just finished my Tolkien class yesterday when I returned to my office and found my social media sites flooded with news of Christopher Tolkien’s death. Just an hour before, I had been telling my students that, as Tolkien researchers, we owe a great debt to his son Christopher.

My students have been doing presentations on sections of The History of Middle-earth that include drafts of The Lord of the Rings. This exercise gives them just a glimpse of this immense project (12 volumes in all!) that Christopher Tolkien edited. I had just been saying to my students that morning that Christopher has given us all — students, fans, scholars — the means to experience what it is like doing specialized archival research with manuscript drafts. While we only get a few samples of Tolkien’s actual handwriting in The History of Middle-earth (HoMe), which is often the most difficult part of deciphering his actual papers, we can at least gain an understanding of Tolkien’s revision process for The Lord of the Rings, a glimpse into what characters and ideas he was developing and what ideas he knew he wanted from the start.

The presentations I’ve assigned my students are inspired by Yvette Kisor’s article, “Using The History of Middle-earth with Tolkien’s Fiction” which appears in Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. As she explains on p. 75,

Christopher Tolkien’s commentary, replication of different drafts, description and dating of manuscripts, determination of the order of composition, and other scholarly apparatuses expose students to the editorial tasks that go into the production of any authoritative edition.

But it’s not just Lord of the Rings drafts that are included in HoMe. There is a wealth of material, including unfinished stories like “The Notion Club Papers” which I’ve been working with in recent years. I’ve heard very occasionally the criticism that Christopher shouldn’t have published unfinished drafts without knowing if his father would have wanted the world to see them. But had those drafts been placed in the Bodleian Library with his other unpublished papers, I would have written about them anyway, as researchers do. Instead, Christopher gave access to such materials to a wider public.

HoMe is not the only publication that Christopher produced. Having trained as a medievalist, he edited and translated several medieval texts before resigning his position at Oxford to work full-time on his father’s materials. The Silmarillion is one of the texts that Christopher compiled after his father’s death (with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay), and although he wasn’t satisfied in later years with all of what he had produced, it nevertheless must have been a daunting task to make sense of these disorganized papers, something that his father himself was not able to do. The Silmarillion that was published in 1977 gave the world the first look at the mythology Tolkien had been working on for most of his life — the backdrop, in a way, to the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Christopher was always closely bound with his father’s writing. From listening to his story-telling when a child, drawing maps for The Lord of the Rings, typing up drafts, and, as an adult serving in the RAF during the Second World War, reading and commenting on chapters of The Lord of the Rings that his father mailed to him, he knew his father’s work intimately.

Christopher Tolkien dedicated his career to providing us with the materials for understanding his father’s works, and I am immensely grateful for that opportunity.

Here he is reading the ending of The Lord of the Rings:

From JRRT: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1996


The Tolkien Society announcement of Christopher Tolkien’s death.

Yvette Kisor’s essay can be found in Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works, edited by Leslie Donovan, MLA publishers, 2015, pp. 75-83.

An up-to-date list of Christopher Tolkien’s publications can be found on Tolkien Gateway.

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