In Praise of Christopher Tolkien

Today I finally got around to finishing up a post I started two years ago. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how very much we Tolkien fans–laypeople and scholars alike–owe Christopher Tolkien. From The Silmarillion to The History of Middle-earth (12 volumes!) to the upcoming volume on Beren and Luthien, Tolkien has been a masterful and truly dedicated curator of his father’s literary legacy. While I disagree with some of his positions (particularly about the Peter Jackson films), on the whole I admire him and feel very grateful to him for his willingness to devote his life to cultivating his father’s posthumous reputation.

Imagine how poorer we would be if Christopher (with the assistance of the wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay, a great fantasy writer in his own right) hadn’t managed to carve out a legible narrative from his father’s manuscripts to give us The Silmarillion. While I know that that particular Tolkien work is not to everyone’s taste, it’s important to remember that in many ways this later volume was the core of Tolkien’s entire life’s work. To my mind, no appreciation of Tolkien is actually complete unless one has read The Silmarillion at least once. To this day, I am in awe of the amount of dedication and editorial virtuosity it must have taken in order to gather together such far-flung and often contradictory fragments into a cohesive (and very compelling) narrative.

Or take, as another example, the publication of the voluminous The History of Middle-earth. While some might find this slow going, I was surprised (upon picking up the first volume some time ago), how eminently enjoyable it was to read. It really is utterly fascinating to see the ways in which Tolkien’s vision slowly took shape over the long years. While the works’ primary value is in showing the working processes of the elder Tolkien’s mind, Christopher’s commentary is often enjoyable, as he always has a keen grasp of his father’s mind, and one cannot help but be in awe of the sheer amount of hours it must have taken him to make his way through the mountains of manuscript pages.

However, it is also important to point out that Christopher has also been slowly but surely solidifying his father’s academic reputation. It’s no secret that J.R.R. was not a prolific writer of academic articles–something no doubt incomprehensible to today’s academics, who seem to exist in a perpetual state of anxiety about their lack of publications–but he had a mind that was more than suited to his chosen profession. One need only look at something like the extensive commentary in the recently published Beowulf  to see that Tolkien was that most extraordinary type of academic, i.e. one who brings a true passion to the material that he taught, translated, and loved.

One area in which I fundamentally disagree with Christopher is in his not-so-secret disgust with the way that his father’s work has been translated to screen. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion among Tolkienists about whether Jackson’s adaptations, and the question of whether or not they were faithful to Tolkien’s original vision (or whether that is even the right question to ask) will no doubt continue to motivate many in the community to write about it. While I disagree with Christopher about this, I do think that his is an important voice. After all, if there is anyone who is familiar with the intricacies of the elder Tolkien’s mind, it would of course have to be this man, who has done so much to excavate and make public his father’s work.

While it may seem impossible that Christoper Tolkien could unearth any more of his father’s work, those of us who just cannot get enough of the elder’s work are in for a treat this spring, when the stand-alone volume finally comes to bookstores. It’s hard not to be in awe of this venerable editor, who even well into his 90s continues to be a custodian of his father’s work and an inspiration to all of us who continue to yearn for more of the old master’s work.

We can only hope that Christopher has at least a few more volumes in the pipeline.

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