Christopher Tolkien, son of The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, has died at the age of 95. Born in Leeds, England in 1924, Christopher was the editor of much of his father’s posthumously published work and was the artist that created the origional maps of Middle Earth for The Lord of the Rings, which he simply signed with C.J.R.T.
As a child at his father’s knee, listening to the stories of Middle Earth, Christopher had intimate knowledge of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and the world they inbabited. The elder Tolkien invited his son to join the Inklings, the informal literary discussion society that included C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Warren Lewis, Lord David Cecil, and Nevill Coghill at the age of 21. J.R.R. Tolkien credited his son as his ‘chief critic and collaborator’, and named him as literary executor in his will. Christopher Tolkien spent the next 47 years editing and publishing his father’s work, as well as publishing his own The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise: Translated from the Icelandic with Introduction, Notes and Appendices by Christopher Tolkien in 1960.
During WWII, Christopher, much like his father in WWI, joined the military to fight for his country. He trained with the RAF and was commissioned with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and later the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Following the war, Christopher went on to Trinity College, Oxford for his BA in English, and finished his B.Litt a few years later. Like his father, Christopher went on to become a lecturer and tutor in English Language at New College, Oxford.
When his father died in 1973, Christopher took on the arduous task of taking his father’s manuscripts and notes, often hand written on scraps of paper, and turning them into the beloved stories that we know today. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth were published between 1977 and 1996. In 2007 he published The Children of Hurin, followed by Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin, which formed the ‘Three Great Tales’ of the Elder Days. J.R.R Tolkien had begun these tales in 1918, but had abandoned them.
In 2001 New Line Cinema, with Peter Jackson directing, released the first film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While there was some creative difference between Christopher and the makers of The Lord of the Rings films, with Christopher stating that ‘they gutted the book, making an action film for 15-25 year olds’, the films were a critical success. The films won 17 Academy Awards and remain some of the most beloved fantasy genre films to date.
Having grown up reading The Lord of the Rings myself, and being very much influenced by the tales, I must wonder what it was like for Christopher Tolkien. Hearing the stories of Bilbo and the Ring as a bedtime story. Discussing Aragorn at the dinner table. How extrodinary that must have been. Did Christopher know, as a child, the influence these tales would have, not only on the readers, but on his own life?
Had it not been for Christopher Tolkien we would likely not have much of the world of Middle Earth that we know and love in the modern day – nor would this, in turn, have guided the minds and hands of generations of creators of fantasy in books or film.
I, for one, would like to raise a toast to Christopher, and thank him for all of his work in expanding the work of his father. His was a world of imagination to live in, and he did his best to share it with us all. We owe him a great debt.
Your journey has come to an end, Christopher. Thank you, and rest well.
Sidney Fraser is an American transplanted to a new life in London, where she explores fannish and geeky places, events and creations, which she relates in the continuing True and Proper Adventures of Sidney Fraser.