Now Residing in the Blessed Realm: Chris Tolkien (1924-2020)
Rivaled only by his father, he was an exemplar of piety and scholarship who understood myth like few men in history.
On Wednesday, January 15, 2020, the holy host of the Valar (all 14 members of that august body) welcomed and praised Christopher Tolkien as he gently passed from this Middle-earth toward the Blessed Realm, with a quick stop in Tol Eressëa. It was yet one more grievous loss to us in early 2020, and one more celebrated in the Halls of Manwë. Christopher Tolkien had led an exemplary life, one of immense piety. He’d dedicated himself to his father in mythology, to his country in wartime, and to his civilization in crisis.
When J.R.R. Tolkien died in September 1973, he had yet to complete the grand prequel to his entire mythology, the story of the Elder Days, The Silmarillion. The failure to complete this work weighed heavily on the author as well as on his legions of admirers. Clyde Kilby, a Wheaton College professor who’d spent the summer of 1966 helping Tolkien organize his manuscripts, recorded in his diary: “A letter received today (July 30) from one of my friends in New York says: ‘We’re all saying prayers and lighting votive candles for the early appearance of The Silmarillion. Tell JRRT his following is no longer a cult. It is a zeitgeist. He is determining the frame of mind of a whole university generation.’”
The letter writer was not incorrect, despite the tangible enthusiasm dripping from his pen. However minor a literary figure Tolkien might have been in the 1960s, he has since become a giant in terms of reputation, success, influence, and fandom. That success, in no small part, is due to his third child, Christopher.
After his father’s death, Christopher became the literary heir of all things Middle-earth. He quit his prestigious academic professorship at Oxford and dedicated himself fully to his father’s legacy. “My father’s invented languages, though enormously complicated, are of more interest than the rather well-tramped field of Anglo-Saxon,” Christopher admitted at the time. “I would like to go on to prepare the remaining material, other versions of stories in prose and poetry.” His father’s stories and larger mythology (the legendarium) had been with him, he beautifully recalled, since childhood. “All the children were very frightened of Gollum,” Michael and Priscilla Tolkien reported in 1974, but Christopher delighted in the character. At night, his siblings remembered, he would turn off “the lights, and rushed into the room holding two lighted torches by his eyes, and succeeded in scaring the other three out of their wits!”
As a college student, Christopher (born November 21, 1924) had proudly read out loud his father’s chapters from The Lord of the Rings—as it was being written—to the formidable literary group the Inklings, consisting of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others. His father had sent him each successive chapter while he served as an officer in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Still, the separation affected both men deeply. “My own third boy (of the same name Christopher) goes into the RAF in March,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a private letter. “The best of my bunch. It casts a shadow of gloom over us.”
When, in 1936 or 1937, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had challenged each other to write the kind of story each liked, Lewis took the theme and setting of space, and Tolkien took the theme and setting of time. Though Tolkien never completed his, The Lost Road, what remains of the story, explains much about his intense love toward and friendship with Christopher. The Lost Road follows a father and son who reappear throughout a multitude of generations in Anglo-Saxon civilization down through the ages. “At any rate he seemed interested in the same things, and asked the same questions; though with much less inclination to words and names, and more to things and descriptions,” Tolkien wrote in The Lost Road. “Unlike his father he could draw, but he was not good at ‘verses.’” True to life, it was Christopher, not the father, who made the best maps of Middle-earth. If one looks carefully at the map “The West of Middle-earth,” included with The Lord of the Rings, he will see the initials of the cartographer, CJRT: Christopher John Reuel Tolkien.
During the Second World War, Tolkien wrote letter after letter to his son, in addition to sending him the newly completed chapters. These letters serve as a window into the thought of the father. In them, J.R.R. details everything from his thoughts on the Catholic faith to loss to friendship to politics. In one such letter, he wrote: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control no whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants).”
In another, the father worried that America and the U.S.S.R. were mechanizing the world in their own materialistic image:
Well! I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hither Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be.
If Christopher really was as reactionary as his father, we have no evidence to prove it…or deny it.
The first task of Christopher—after 1973, of course—was completing The Silmarillion. “I’ve had his whole opus spread out in front of me, letters, papers, essays—more than he ever had, because of the confusion his papers were in,” Christopher explained. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology had begun just prior to the First World War, but had found inspiration and animation in the war itself, as he struggled to remember the permanence of goodness and beauty apart from the brutality. Rarely rewriting on the same copy of a story, the father would almost always start over, thus leaving “layer upon layer” of manuscripts and ideas. He spent his final decade and a half of his life writing about the ideas that animated his stories, characters, and plots, more concerned with explaining than storytelling. “As his life went on, the mythology and poetry in my father’s work sank down behind the philosophy and the theology in it,” Christopher noted.
Christopher hired a young Canadian and future novelist, Guy Gavriel Kay, to assist him in the overwhelming task. “The initial idea had been to produce a scholarly text rather than a single narrative,” he remembered 15 years later. “Such a book would have been some 1300 pages long, and would have consisted of chapters which had as their main text the latest version of the passage concerned, followed by appendices giving variant readings from other, earlier versions, complete with an editorial apparatus of footnotes and comments on dates and inconsistencies, and so on.”
Given Tolkien’s reputation as a supreme storyteller, Kay objected profoundly to this approach, arguing that the book must find its structure in a narrative or not at all. Christopher agreed, and the two proceeded chapter by chapter, with Kay always proposing solutions to the textual problems that inevitably arose. It took roughly a year to complete the first draft, and the two men had it done by February 1, 1975. Kay “and Christopher felt like medieval monks,” he recalled. “It was a labor of love for both of them, a time of rigorous mental discipline.”
Initial reviews by and large savaged The Silmarillion, but sales and time have proven the book a classic, equal in importance and beauty to The Lord of the Rings.
Diligently and with never an expectation of profit, Christopher continued to edit his father’s unpublished works: Pictures; Unfinished Tales; The Monsters and the Critics (academic essays); History of Middle-earth (12 volumes); The Children of Húrin; The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún; The Fall of Arthur; Beowulf; Beren and Lúthien; and The Fall of Gondolin.
A year ago, in the pages of the glorious American Conservative, I had this to say about Christopher, his father, and the publication of The Fall of Gondolin, the last of the three great tales of the First Age of Middle-earth.
As always, Christopher offers not just the chronology but an insightful examination of why his father chose this or that, as opposed to that or this. Presumably, The Fall of Gondolin is the son’s last, though not all of the father’s writings have yet seen print. Now aged 94, Christopher must be praised mightily and in every way for his service not only to his father, but, frankly, also to Western civilization. After all, it would not be too much of a stretch to compare his father’s mythology to that of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. And, it bears repeating: though J.R.R. Tolkien despised formal allegory, his created mythology, begun sometime around 1913 and still not completely finished—despite the work of father and son—reflects all of our anxieties and desires in the modern and postmodern worlds. If we speak exclusively of J.R.R. Tolkien in relation to the mythology of Middle-earth, we have created a grave error. Truly, we must properly speak of the Two Tolkiens: J.R.R. and Christopher.
Much to my absolute delight, Christopher responded to my review through my good friend, the excellent Tolkien scholar and NASA engineer Carl F. Hostetter.
Please will you thank Mr. Birzer for his extraordinarily — but it must be said, excessively! — generous references to my work. As I see it, I have called myself a ‘literary archaeologist’. I have never been more than a discoverer, and interpreter of what I discovered. My chief underlying purpose, I incline to think, was to demonstrate the fulness and the richness of the narratives of the First Age, and to show that The Silmarillion was essential to the Myth. ‘One long saga of the Jewels and the Rings’, my father said; ‘I was resolved to treat them as one story, however they might be issued.’
Well, Christopher Tolkien, no one has ever accused me of subtlety, and I can only repeat and affirm what I wrote a year ago. You were and are a great man, an exemplar of piety and scholarship. Rivaled only by your father, you understood and lived myth like few men in history. We are a better people and a better civilization because of you. You most certainly demonstrated fullness and richness—in this world and in any other.
Bradley J. Birzer is author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth as well as The Inklings: Tolkien and the Men of the West (forthcoming from ISI Books).