Keeper of Middle-earth’s Legacy
Christopher John Reuel Tolkien, son of world-creator J.R.R. Tolkien, editor of his many posthumously-published works, and the last living member of the Inklings literary group, died yesterday. His death marks the end of cultural era.
Oxford University awarded Christopher its Bodley Medal in 2016, but not on account of his translation of the Icelandic The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (his only published book). J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 and named Christopher his literary executor, a task to which he devoted himself for the rest of his life. Thanks to his efforts in sorting and sifting and striving to make sense of seventy boxes of papers in various states of completion, and indeed in various states of decay, we have such works as The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien, and The Children of Húrin, not to mention the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. In his own lifetime, J.R.R. Tolkien published two novels that showed just the fringes of the mythic world he’d created. It fell to his son to bring that whole world to light.
It would be easy to say that Christopher Tolkien lived in his father’s shadow. But as he himself said in a 2012 interview with Le Monde, “I grew up in the world he had created. For me, the cities of Silmarillion have more reality than Babylon.” Having grown up listening to stories of Middle-earth at his father’s knee, it would have seemed only natural that he would go on to take part in this patrimony at the meetings of the Inklings, where after his service in World War II he would read each new chapter of The Lord of the Rings to the group. He lived not in a shadow, but in service of a vision, for most of his life.
The Inklings were a group of writers and academics at Oxford who met every Tuesday at Oxford’s Eagle and Child pub. They would read to each other from their latest efforts, and talk (as one does at a pub). They were all men, all very British. Today the best-known of them, apart from J.R.R.T., is C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. Lewis’s Space Trilogy drew on Tolkien’s Middle-earth lore at several points, where he used it to deepen the mythology underlying his action. The Inklings dealt in art and ideas, and especially in the ideas that buttressed art. To them, art was no mask over political purposes.
As J.R.R.T. wrote, “If [World War II] had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used,” and the hobbits at the heart of The Lord of the Rings “would not have survived long even as slaves.” It wasn’t about how well the writing served a cause, however noble. It was about how well your art embodied ideas of true and lasting value. In Christopher’s opinion, Peter Jackson’s film adaptations betrayed that purpose: “They gutted the book, making it an action movie for 15-25 year-olds,” he told Le Monde.
Christopher Tolkien had an influence on my life and imagination, even if I wasn’t always aware of that fact. My old friend Nathaniel and his wife came to visit me and the family in our small South Texas town just after Christmas. Before they headed back to Saint Louis, I gave them the extra hardback set of The Lord of the Rings that was sitting in the library. It’s a very well-made set of books, solid in the hand, nice thick cream-colored paper, a big fold-out map of Middle-earth affixed inside the back of each volume. We all took a few moments admiring the maps, not just for their extravagance but for the skill of their rendering. Had we looked a little closer, we would have noticed a set of initials in red ink in each map’s corner: C.J.R.T.
He made it his life’s work to show the world the unfolding of his father’s ideas. The History of Middle-earth, for instance, is not a series of completed stories all cleaned up and neatly packaged. Rather, it chronicles the decades-long work J.R.R.T. undertook in creating, revising, and revising again, even up till his death, the many stories that built up the universe he created.
As C.J.R.T. wrote of his father’s struggle to complete The Silmarillion after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, “he had become absorbed in analytic speculation concerning its underlying postulates…. he must satisfy the requirements of a coherent theological and metaphysical system, rendered now more complex in its presentation.” He never finished. Ars longa, vita brevis. But thanks to Christopher Tolkien, we have a beautiful illustration of that truth, as complete a picture of a writer’s process as we can ever hope to see. C.J.R.T, RIP.
(Photo Credit: François Deladerrière / © The Tolkien Estate Limited 2016)