Friday 17 January 2020

Why I will miss Christopher Tolkien

JRR the father with his arm around Christopher, with whom he had a specially empathic relationship - that lasted until this week

Christopher Tolkien died a couple of days ago, which marks the end of an era - the last person who participated in the core Inklings meetings; the writing and discussion group that met in the evenings to read works in progress and have discussions stimulated.

CT was probably the person I would (in a theoretical way) most have liked to get to know, as a friend, for long and detailed discussions - because there was so much that only he could have told. But I do feel as if I knew him; because I have read so many of his words, in so many different situations relating to his Father's work.

I always enjoy and appreciate (and re-read) those parts of the History of Middle Earth which Christopher contributed; starting with Unfinished Tales of 1980 (which I happen to be re-reading currently) and continuing up to The Fall of Gondolin (which was published in 2018, in which he said his goodbye).

(I leave aside the 1977 Silmarillion as somewhat of a failure, in which he had not hit his straps as an editor; and which lacks his authorial voice.)

Christopher brought a remarkable (and unexpected) extra dimension to his Father's work, which is probably unique in the history of literature; since it is exceedingly rare to combine such knowledge, talent and dedication with deep sympathy and an apparently complete absence of ego.

Christopher's vast output of his father's posthumous primary writings, and of commentary and scholarship, seems to be motivated entirely by filial love; and this is what makes his achievement so beautiful.  


Wurmbrand said...

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 -- before it abolished, for example, the Beowulf requirement.

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 and 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, but he has died. Happily, there are several fine Tolkien scholars -- all of whom, I suppose, are indebted to CJRT -- remaining. I would name Tom Shippey, Douglas Anderson, John Rateliff, Verlyn Flieger, Dimitra Fimi, John Garth, and they don't exhaust the list of Tolkien scholars with real accomplishments to their credit.

Still -- without doubt, the golden age of Tolkien scholarship has ended.

Dale Nelson

Wurmbrand said...

Certainly I should have added the names of Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond to that list of living, outstanding Tolkien scholars.