The Conservative Stewardship of Christopher Tolkien


“A wizard is never late,” says the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lords of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. “Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he needs to.”

I am not a wizard. Which is why I am only now getting around to memorializing J.R.R.’s son Christopher, who died earlier this month at age 95. Indeed, his passing has already been noted, in a more timely fashion, elsewhere on Ricochet. So I can only hope that readers will excuse my tardiness. For Christopher’s efforts on behalf of his father’s literary legacy are not merely worthy of praise in themselves. They also present an example of what it means to be conservative, in the most literal sense.

Christopher was involved in the saga of The Lord of the Rings almost from its very beginning. Though the germ of Middle-Earth predates any of J.R.R.’s children, telling what became his works as stories to his children helped him refine and develop them. Christopher later recalled, “[a]s strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created. For me, the cities of The Silmarillion are more real than Babylon.” And of these children, Christopher was the keenest on these tales. So keen, in fact, that his father put a young Christopher to work as an editor. In a letter to his publisher, the elder Tolkien wrote that “I received a letter from a young reader in Boston (Lincs.) enclosing a list of errata [in The Hobbit]. I then put my youngest son to find any more at two pence a time. He did. I enclose the results—which added to those already submitted should (I hope) make an exhaustive list.”

The younger Tolkien’s editorial efforts did not end there, however. He corresponded extensively with his father during the writing of The Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that Christopher was serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II at the time. But that did not stop Christopher from reading entire sections of the text. In one notable instance, he even kept the name of one of its most important characters from changing. In Christopher’s telling, as his father contemplated changing Samwise Gamgee to Samwise Goodchild, “I replied that I wouldn’t at all like to see Sam Gamgee changed to Sam Goodchild; and Sam Gamgee remained.” He even drew some of the earliest maps for the text. It was for these and other reasons that J.R.R. made his son the youngest—and ultimately the last living—member of The Inklings, the famous literary society centered around Oxford University that also counted C.S. Lewis among its ranks.

And so, when J.R.R. died in 1973, it somewhat naturally fell upon Christopher to become the caretaker of the work his father had produced. This was no easy task. But the spirit with which the younger Tolkien approached the task emerges from the contrast between his own characterization of it and that of others. In his 1977 foreword to The Silmarillion, which I described last year as the “Old Testament” to The Lords of the Rings’ New Testament, Christopher simply wrote: “On my father’s death it fell to me to try to bring the work into publishable form.” And in a 2009 interview with UK’s The Guardian, he modestly submits that he began this work because “I had agreed with my father that I should; and I began work on it soon after his death in 1973.” From such statements, one might think it was just a matter of correcting a few spelling errors, maybe changing the typeface, or other such clerical tasks.

Far from it. A fuller account of the work that confronted Christopher belies his modesty. Here is how Hannah Long described it in her wonderful account of Christopher’s labors in The Weekly Standard (from which, I should readily admit, my own tribute draws heavily):

In 1975, Christopher Tolkien left his fellowship at New College, Oxford, to edit his late father’s massive legendarium. The prospect was daunting. The 50-year-old medievalist found himself confronted with 70 boxes of unpublished work. Thousands of pages of notes and fragments and poems, some dating back more than six decades, were stuffed haphazardly into the boxes. Handwritten texts were hurriedly scrawled in pencil and annotated with a jumble of notes and corrections. One early story was drafted in a high school exercise book.

Despite the challenge, Christopher did ultimately publish The Silmarillion in 1977, fleshing out a world only hinted at in prior published texts.

But Christopher did not stop there. Again in that work’s foreword, he wrote that “[t]here is indeed a wealth of unpublished writing by my father concerning the Three Ages, narrative, linguistic, historical, and philosophical, and I hope that it will prove possible to publish some of this at a later date.” Once more, Christopher was understating. For after many years of similar work, he eventually published the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, a sort of dual history both of the world of The Lords of the Rings and of how his father created that world. Along with other, similar work, this history almost fully filled out all dimensions of Middle-earth.

The son concluded his efforts with a trilogy, book-length expansions of three tales that appear in The Silmarillion: The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and, finally, The Fall of Gondolin. The publication of the last of these occasioned Long’s wonderful tribute to Tolkien, and perfectly bookended the world Tolkien created: The last complete work that one can claim to have been written, in any meaningful sense, by J.R.R. (with his son’s diligent posthumous assistance) was in fact the first conceived in what became Middle-Earth. Father began imagining it years before his son was born, as he lay incapacitated in the trenches of the First World War, uncertain that his very life would continue, much less that his work would achieve any kind of legacy.

Thanks to Christopher Tolkien, that legacy is now an ongoing reality of our culture. The popularity of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations is proof of this, as is Amazon’s recent decision to spend more than a billion dollars to adapt other portions of the Tolkien legendarium. Every year, more readers find their way into the fascinating, rich, and uplifting world of Middle-Earth. And every year, other readers return to it and find themselves welcomed as though they had never left. For all of this, we have not only J.R.R. Tolkien to thank, but also Christopher.

In our gratitude, we should also note the fundamental conservatism of Christopher’s efforts on behalf of the world his father created. He not only accepted gratefully the cultural inheritance his father passed on to him. He also preserved it, refined it but never changed its character, only trying to bring it to the standard he knew his father would have wanted it to be at, and then himself passed it onto succeeding generations. I know nothing of Christopher’s politics. But in this, at least, Christopher acted in miniature as we all ought to, serving as stewards for what we receive from those who came before so that we can hand it on to those who come after. That Christopher did it for his father’s world does not make his example any less instructive for the rest of us, who thanks to him will always enjoy the privilege of visiting Middle-earth.

In fitting Lord of the Rings fashion, I am having trouble ending this tribute; I could say much more. I think the best way to remember Christopher is by quoting his father’s own work. And so, though I am not a wizard, I will again quote one, to advise how best to mourn one so important, the last of the Inklings: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” And now I shall truly end the only way I think appropriate: by linking to a video of Christopher himself reading the final words of The Lords of the Rings: The Return of the King.

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  1. Valiuth Inactive

    Christopher Tolkien was indeed a great steward of his fathers work, maybe the best possible. His careful curation of his fathers notes on the First Age really has done so much to give  Lord of the  Rings fans that little bit extra that we all craved after finishing the trilogy. And in a strange way its fractured and conflicting nature gives it the  feel of a real world mythology. A feat that no other work of fantasy fiction no matter how elaborate has ever really achieved. And it may be the only time when an academic dedication to the study of an author has contributed as much to that authors cannon as his own exertions. 

    • #1
  2. ShaunaHunt Inactive

    Amen! Thank you for this beautiful tribute! I think I’m due to re-read the Trilogy.

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