Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, and a Letter from His Father

Tolkien Society Photo of Christopher TolkienAs last evening tilted towards nighttime in my part of the world, my social media feeds began filling with the news that Christopher Tolkien had died. The last living Inkling, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (21 Nov 1924 to 15 Jan 2020), may well have been merely an interesting historical note, a minor scholar or writer always overshadowed by his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. And while it is true that his father was the subcreative genius of a vast, sweeping legendarium associated with the bestselling Lord of the Rings, Christopher Tolkien grew to become the literary curator of that world.

For this gift to us, the lovers of Middle-earth and fans of Tolkien’s linguistically rooted mythic worlds, we are ever grateful. Whereas many estates would have been content to leave the bulk of the author’s “unfinished tales” incomplete, Christopher Tolkien left behind a world of medieval scholarship to prepare his father’s papers for the world. This began with some translation work and The Silmarillion in the mid-1970s–with some help from Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay–and continued at the pace of about a book every year or two (though a pace that slackened in the last half of this period. This list is not complete, leaving out indices, alternate editions, and the like. But it gives a sense of Christopher Tolkien’s work:

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, with E.V. Gordon, 1975)
  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales (1980)
  • The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, assisting Humphrey Carpenter (1981)
  • The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays (1983)
  • The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1, part 1 (1983)
  • The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2, part 2 (1984)
  • The Lays of Beleriand, Vol. 3 (1985)
  • The Shaping of Middle-earth, Vol. 4 (1986)
  • The Lost Road and Other Writings, Vol. 5 (1987)
  • The Return of the Shadow, Vol. 6 (1988)
  • The Treason of Isengard, Vol. 7 (1989)
  • The War of the Ring, Vol. 8 (1990)
  • Sauron Defeated, Vol. 9 (1992)
  • Morgoth’s Ring, Vol. 10 (1993)
  • The War of the Jewels, Vol. 11 (1994)
  • The Peoples of Middle-earth, Vol. 12 (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009)
  • The Fall of Arthur (2013)
  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

There is more archival work tucked away in theses and other published papers, as well as major works by folks like Verlyn Flieger, Dimitra Vice and Andrew Higgins, and Michael Drout. But our debt is greatest to Christopher, who worked tirelessly from his father’s death until his mid-90s to bring this material to the world. I suppose Christopher Tolkien’s work began long before the 1970s, starting with his first job as an editor–a young man looking for errors in The Hobbit for a bit of pocket money! After that, there were maps to draw (see below) and discussions with the Inklings (see below) or at home or through letters. It is not often that we can speak of a lifetime of work with such fine results.

I have not read all of this material yet, but I will do so if the Lord tarries. And at 95 years old, lovers of Tolkien’s worlds have benefited from the long life, sharp eye, and steady hand of Christopher Tolkien–the custodian, guardian, conservator, gift-giver, and curator of Middle-earth. I don’t know who will follow, if anyone can, or what there is to come. But my life is richer for Christopher Tolkien’s work.

Given that one of the last edited volumes was the much anticipated Beren and Lúthien, I thought it would be nice to include the “Lúthien letter”–a note that J.R.R. Tolkien sent to his son, Christopher, about a year before he died. It is a mix of melancholic nostalgia and fond memories with some hint of boyish glee that The Lord of the Rings continues to delight readers, and a little bit of regret.


I have at last got busy about Mummy’s grave. …. The inscription I should like is:

EDITH MARY TOLKIEN
1889-1971
Lúthien

: brief and jejune, except for Lúthien, which says for me more than a multitude of words: for she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien.*

July 13. Say what you feel, without reservation, about this addition. I began this under the stress of great emotion & regret – and in any case I am afflicted from time to time (increasingly) with an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I need advice. Yet I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy. It is at any rate not comparable to the quoting of pet names in obituaries. I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.

I will say no more now. But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you. For if as seems probable I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths — someone close in heart to me should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal the wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began – all of which (over and above our personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives — and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed our memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.

15 July. I spent yesterday at Hemel Hempstead. A car was sent for me & I went to the great new (grey and white) offices and book-stores of Allen & Unwin. To this I paid a kind of official visitation, like a minor royalty, and was somewhat startled to discover the main business of all this organization of many departments (from Accountancy to Despatch) was dealing with my works. I was given a great welcome (& v.g. lunch) and interviewed them all from board-room downwards. ‘Accountancy’ told me that the sales of The Hobbit were now rocketing up to hitherto unreached heights. Also a large single order for copies of The L.R. had just come in. When I did not show quite the gratified surprise expected I was gently told that a single order of 100 copies used to be pleasing (and still is for other books), but this one for The L.R. was for 6,000.

*She knew the earliest form of the legend (written in hospital), and also the poem eventually printed as Aragorn’s song in LR.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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40 Responses to Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, and a Letter from His Father

  1. Pingback: Christopher Tolkien R.I.P. – Carlos Carrasco

  2. dalejamesnelson says:

    I posted this comment elsewhere, but would like to share it, lightly edited, with readers of this blog.

    Christopher Tolkien was a great benefactor for readers, fans, and scholars of his father’s work. He was generous towards people who were working in Tolkien studies. He was also a scholar of medieval literature in his own right, with an edition of King Heidrek’s Saga to his credit.

    My own CJRT story is a very modest one, but worth recording. I had no direct contact with CJRT, but an editor who did approached him on my behalf. My query was this: JRRT had said that C. A. Johns’s Flowers of the Field was his favorite book in his adolescence. But which edition had JRRT owned? My research had turned up a puzzling variety. CJRT responded with a detailed bibliographic description of the book, which his father had written up in the 1930s for insurance purposes. This information was forwarded to me by the aforesaid editor. I was able to get a copy of Johns for myself and write an article about it. That was Christopher’s helpfulness in action. The books and articles of others acknowledge the man’s assistance.

    Now that Christopher has died, who can be approached with questions such as that? Who will possess the profound knowledge of JRRT’s papers, personality, and intentions that CJRT had, so important for scholarly questions? CJRT understood the context of his father’s life better than almost anyone, not only because of his intimate filial relationship, but because he knew firsthand the old Oxford.

    Christopher’s editions of his father’s work were prepared just right. On one hand he made the presentation of fragmentary work intelligible. On the other hand, what he gave us was, so far as I can tell, an accurate and faithful record of what JRRT actually wrote. He didn’t, for example, take the unfinished but extensive and intriguing Notion Club Papers and “complete” it himself or hand it over to some other author to make a commercially appealing “NEW NOVEL BY J. R. R. TOLKIEN with Irving Forbush.”

    We are indeed fortunate in having had CJRT’s labors for almost half a century. Thanks to him, the golden age of Tolkien scholarship came to be. Christopher Tolkien was the indispensable man.

    And with his death, the golden age has ended.

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 4 people

    • Wow, thanks so much for sharing that with us, Dale. It shows the careful consideration of readers and thoughtful representation of the Author with restrained consideration of self. The “Golden Age,” yes. I’ve been wondering about that, whether there is a Golden Age of fandom, like before digital/internet connection. Now we have to think of the Golden Age of the Legendarium, and probably even the editors (Fimi, Higgins, Flieger, etc.) are in the next age.

      Like

    • Hi Dale, John Garth tried to respond on the weekend but it didn’t work for him. He sent me the note to post here:

      Hi Dale,

      It was good to read your comments on the Notion Club Papers blog. I take your point about the “golden age” having ended; it is as if we are in Númenor, with all its lore, but there is no longer any elven ship bringing fresh news and gifts from Eldamar. Still, I think it’s possible that the family will be keen to see Christopher’s work continue. My last letter from him, in August, provided me with the details of his father’s copy of Nansen’s In Northern Mists, answering my question as to when it was acquired (November 1921). He had sent his son Adam up into the loft to locate the book for me. So one logical step might be to have JRRT’s remaining books catalogued, if not deposited at the Bodleian. And Christopher must have many papers (far more orderly than his father’s) that might well end up lodged at the Bodleian as vitally ancillary to the Tolkien papers there.

      I’d love to know what edition of Flowers of the Field Tolkien owned, and whether he wrote in it. Do you have the details, and would you mind sharing them?

      Best wishes,

      John

      Like

  3. lolalwilcox says:

    Lovely. Thank you for letting us know.

    *Lola*

    Lola L. Wilcox White Raven Enterprises, LTD 303.919.6153 and What’s App

    http://www.LolaWilcox.com linkedin.com/in/lolawilcox http://www.StillRoomBook.com https://www.facebook.com/groups/spiritualseasonings/ https://www.facebook.com/pg/lola.wilcox.author

    On Fri, Jan 17, 2020 at 6:28 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “As last evening tilted towards nighttime in my > part of the world, my social media feeds began filling with the news that > Christopher Tolkien had died. The last living Inkling, Christopher John > Reuel Tolkien (21 Nov 1924 to 15 Jan 2020), may well have been” >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Theresa Weissinger says:

    Thank you for posting that beautiful letter.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wayne Stauffer says:

    Great post. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dalejamesnelson says:

    Although I think it will be seen that the golden age of Tolkien scholarship has ended, I’m sure we’ll see worthwhile new scholarship. Scholars such as Scull and Hammond, Shippey, Flieger, Anderson, &c. must have felt a rare excitement as they made their contributions during the same time as CJRT’s tireless activity. What a period that was, from 1975 to 2018 or even 15 Jan. 2020, seeing publication of studies such as The Road to Middle-earth, A Question of Time, J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, etc.; seminal, but *readable*, works. A high percentage of the work was done but independent scholars. That reflects another element of the golden age — namely the great helpfulness of the Wheaton College and Marquette University people with their holdings of Tolkien and Inklings materials. I wouldn’t be surprised if, for legitimate reasons, these institutions, and Oxford, will become a bit more restrictive of access to their Tolkien holdings, although access to digital images thereof may prove to be an outstanding feature of the new phase of Tolkien studies that we entered this week, on the day after CJRT’s passing.

    Dale Nelson

    Like

  7. dalejamesnelson says:

    This bibliography

    http://www.tolkienbooks.net/php/cjrt-bibliography.php

    seems to be very much out of date, yet it contains a bunch of items new to me.

    DN

    Liked by 1 person

  8. dalejamesnelson says:

    Here’s another anecdote. Again, this contact with CJRT was indirect, by means of an editor. I asked if Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico was in JRRT’s library. I had thought perhaps the epic storytelling of that work might have been known to Tolkien, perhaps even an influence on him. CJRT let me know the book wasn’t in his father’s collection. I’d have been more excited to learn from him that the Prescott history *was* in Tolkien’s library — especially if it had been the splendid two-volume edition illustrated by Keith Henderson, who illustrated Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. But for his information, I’m grateful to him.

    I suppose I was one of the last inquirers to receive information from CJRT. This was just a few months ago.

    DN

    Like

    • I had a couple of posts go viral and it has been a lot of work to keep up. But I had posted a short note that I guess I lost. I wanted to say that I appreciated this note as I love hearing the personal stories behind the books I love.

      Like

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A gratifying account provided by the Tolkien Gateway of one area, in its article, ‘Elvish Linguistic Fellowship’ (as “last modified on 10 September 2014”): “In 1992, Christopher Tolkien appointed an editorial group consisting of the chief editors and scholars of the E.L.F. to order, edit, and then publish his father’s writings concerning his invented languages, working from photocopies of the materials sent to them over the course of the next decade and from notes taken by the group’s members in the Bodleian Library and Marquette University Tolkien manuscript archives. It was agreed by all parties that the best way to do this was chronologically, as Tolkien’s writings are often enough fully explicable only in light of his earlier writings, and often enough are dependent on those earlier writings for their context (both in internal and external terms). This main course of publication is being carried out in the journal Parma Eldalamberon. There are, however, some writings that are largely independent, and/or whose context has been sufficiently established by Christopher Tolkien’s own chronological publication efforts in The History of Middle-earth, and so do not have to be presented in the normal chronological flow of the larger project. Such materials are being published in the journal Vinyar Tengwar.

    “The members of this editorial team are: Christopher Gilson, Carl F. Hostetter, Arden R. Smith, Bill Welden, and Patrick H. Wynne.”

    The phrase “if as seems probable I shall never write any ordered biography” in Letter 340, above, leapt out at me, as I have been wondering if Christopher will have left anything about his life and times for posthumous publication – with lots of young Inkling insider details. We once heard an anecdote – perhaps it was from the late Professor Karl Leyser – about Christopher taking over Lewis’s Prolegomena lectures (later distilled into The Discarded Image) when Lewis took up his professorship in Cambridge. The story goes, that at the start of term JRRT arrived at the Examination Schools just in time to give his first lecture and the first thing which caught his eye on the notice board was ‘Tolkien’ assigned to one of the great upstairs Writing Schools with its huge capacity – which left him gratified if a little surprised. Arriving there, he met Christopher on the podium, who cheerfully said, ‘Daddy, get the h*’ll out of here – your lecture room’s downstairs’ (one of the little ones, to which he was accustomed) – such was the popular repute of the Prolegomena series, even without Lewis.

    Liked by 3 people

    • David, that’s brilliant. That’s awesome. It is so far from my expertise, but as a lover of archives and stories–and the warm Elvish glow from afar–I’m thrilled.
      And I had no idea about the Prolegomena lecture store. Super cool.

      Like

  10. Pingback: Elites, Content Collapse, and Amish Outhouses | Front Porch Republic

  11. I think that without Christopher Tolkien, our knowledge of J. R. R. Tolkien would be so much the poorer; not just in the many elements of the Tolkien mythos that were edited and published, but in terms of the elder Tolkien’s creative process. It’s the latter, in many ways, that I find more fascinating to understand. Especially the way that the Lord Of The Rings really did ‘grow in the telling’ – but where Tolkien never lost sight of the greater mythic structure around which he was shaping the work.

    Like

    • Oh yes, I can’t imagine we’l have a quarter of the material–or even a tithe of it–with Christopher. The quality is high too. No doubt, there are choices he made that will cause concern, but I am grateful on the whole.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, there were times where I felt he was dragging the archive a little heavily: obviously material that the elder Tolkien had never intended to be published. Still, it underscores how the quality of what published emerged as an iterative process.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Steve says:

    Reblogged this on Khanya and commented:
    Many words have bee written about the death of Christopher Tolkien, and I don’t feel like adding to tehm. I just draw your attention to these.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post Brenton. The letter from JRRT to CJRT brought tears to my eyes. The passing of CJRT is indeed the end of an era.

    Like

  14. Pingback: Editor of the Legendarium: Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) |

  15. Pingback: Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” for #TolkienReadingDay | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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