Christopher Tolkien: His Father’s Son

Paramvir Singh Khera 22 January 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle-Earth” wrote George R. R. Martin in 1996. Whilst Christopher Tolkien would not have agreed with these words literally, he surely understood the spirit within which they were written better than anyone else, perhaps even better than his father. He was the first to taste the perils of the High Pass over the Misty Mountains, to see cave trolls turned to stone with the cold light of day, to feel the thunder of battle under the shadow of Erebor. As his father read him The Hobbit before bed, he was imbued with the magic of Middle-Earth. His childhood was spent amongst the towers of Gondolin, towers that seemed to him “more real than Babylon”.

It was this that made Christopher Tolkien the most successful executor of a literary estate that ever will be. He not only loved his father’s ideas and creations, he understood them. After an apprenticeship as an astute, if rather informal, editor of The Hobbit whilst still a young child, he became the chief co-collaborator, critic, and mapmaker for The Lord of the Rings. Whilst that great work gains all its depth and improbable realism from the solid stone of J.R.R. Tolkien’s foundational myths, linguistic theory and intricate imagined history, the ancient stories that contained these elements were unknown and unpublished at the time of his death. Christopher’s profound contribution to his father’s legacy would be to collect and edit these into The Silmarillion. Even the most devoted of sons might have faltered when faced with box after box of unsorted documents. Instead, Christopher edited and posthumously published over fifteen works, and then compiled a twelve-book series on how the books were written.

To many admirers of Tolkien’s work, however, Christopher’s most remarkable achievement is the one most often overlooked. The greatest and most energetic pieces of art can be dulled by sustained misuse, but Christopher was determined to see the cultural and artistic weight of his father’s work remain untainted. As the director of the Tolkien Estate, he oversaw a period of Spartan interference with the congruity and completeness of the Tolkien universe. His displeasure with Peter Jackson’s film adaption was perhaps disproportionate, but indicative of just how seriously he took his father’s work. He could not bear to look, he admitted, at the commercialisation that had “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing”. He was too harsh, not just on Peter Jackson’s trilogy, but, more importantly, on himself. As authors like Martin well know, it is partially through Christopher’s efforts that J.R.R. Tolkien’s work continues to inspire, and yet still dominate, an entire genre.

It is uncommon, but not impossible, for a man to garner adulation for merely shining a spotlight upon greatness. Of course, Christopher Tolkien was even more to J.R.R. Tolkien than Ruskin was to Turner. He was the guardian of his father’s legacy, but he was also his father’s son.