A farewell to Christopher Tolkien.
By Michael Toscano
By the time Christopher Tolkien was called up, His Majesty’s Royal Air Force had already been chased off the continent of Europe, losing nearly five hundred fighters over Belgium and France; had turned around and repelled the ’til-then-unbeaten and far-superior-in-number Luftwaffe over Southern England, locking Hitler onto the mainland; and had, for several years, been sending wave after wave of Lancaster bombers to open their bellies and lay waste to entire German cities. It was the summer of 1943; Christopher was eighteen; and while Europe was still hot, he was being trained to fly in South Africa, where things were very cold.
“How stupid everything is!”, wrote his father, J. R. R. Tolkien (“Tolkien”), who hated the war, knowing its character well from his time in the trenches of the First World War, and who hated just as much that his son, like the sons of so many others, was wasting away because foolish and evil men were charting the course of the world. “I do find all this mighty hard to bear.… The utter stupid waste of war …” For Christopher, evidently, was deeply frustrated by a sense that he was languishing uselessly in the desert. I say “evidently,” because, however much we would like to, we cannot quote Christopher directly on it (or much else); but we can glean his concerns through his father’s responses to them in his published letters, in which he frequently consoled his son.
Air Command, we learn from Tolkien, was in no rush to get Christopher’s air crew combat-ready. Though much death was still in store for others, the war, by that time, was in hand. And so, Christopher, it appeared, was destined to wait it out in the hard deserts of South Africa. This is more or less what happened. Christopher saw no action. He just waited.
This might seem a strange way to begin a commemorative essay on the life of Christopher Tolkien, who sadly died on January 16. But I do so because it is during this time of waiting that a fundamental aspect of his father’s imaginary world is revealed, as something in its essence shared with his son.
For, following the extraordinary popularity of The Hobbit, Tolkien was pressed by his publisher to write a sequel, and after making great progress, he was stuck. Hard stuck. It was getting bigger. Darker. More complex. And its development was forcing changes on the text of The Hobbit itself, which would need revision to accommodate the sequel’s unexpected directions. Plus, there was home life and the duties of his Oxford professorship that held him up. Worse still, the world was at war again, and his youngest, most treasured son of three was being prepared to fight in it. (Or so it was thought.)
His only way out of the hole was to continue writing for the pleasure of Christopher. As Tolkien wrote in a 30 September 1944 letter to him, “I don’t think I should write any more, but for the hope of your seeing it.”
Christopher would receive thick packages containing freshly typed new chapters of what would become Book IV of The Lord of the Rings, and he would be lifted out of South Africa and into the tale. His depression, one supposes, was to be lifted out, too.
But he would also send back comments, which his father treasured. “This book has come to be more and more addressed to you,” he wrote, “so that your opinion matters more than any one else’s.” And elsewhere, “Lewis”—meaning C. S. Lewis, a famous encourager of his writing—“was moved almost to tears by the last chapter. All the same, I chiefly want to hear what you think, as for a time now I have written with you most in mind.”
And Christopher did right by the tale. Not only did he inspire his father to continue, but he also saved him from making a significant mistake. Tolkien, knowing perhaps more than any other man living at the time about the evolution of English words, became bothered by Samwise’s last name. He had imagined up “Gamgee.” It had a nice flavour and sounded right when paired with Sam. But it had the serious disadvantage of not being a Saxon name, and “Hobbits of that class have very Saxon names as a rule.” He was strongly considering changing Gamgee instead to Goodchild, “if,” as he wrote to Christopher, “I thought you would let me.” Christopher did not.
You see, Christopher was something of an expert, too. He was not yet an expert in English languages, although he would be someday, like his father, a professor of English at Oxford. Rather, he was an expert in his father’s tales, to which he had been listening and cherishing since he was a boy, and for which he had a refined taste. As Tolkien once put it jokingly, but truly, “[my son is] learned in this lore.” Christopher, through much experience, could sense Gamgee was right. And it was.
In Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter’s simple and delightful biography, he tells of how, “On many evenings in the early nineteen-thirties Christopher, huddled for warmth by the study stove, would listen motionless while his father told him (in impromptu fashion, rather than reading aloud), about the elvish wars against the black power, and of how Beren and Luthien made their perilous journey to the very heart of Morgoth’s stronghold. These were not mere stories; they were legends that came alive as his father spoke.” Carpenter quotes the father saying of his son, “there is something intensely loveable about him, to me at any rate, from the very similarity between us.”
Many years later, in the late 1990s, Christopher speculated on why so many readers loved his father’s published works, which, by this time, included The Lord of the Rings, published after much labor in 1954. He offered this, which is worth quoting at length:
the appeal, the attraction, lies in my father’s extraordinary power of compelling literary belief in an unreal world, what he called, a ‘secondary world.’ That is, a world that exists only in the mind. It cannot be seen, cannot be found … And many people have discovered, perhaps many people for the first time in their lives have discovered, that this is a very delightful thing. And this world that they enter proves to be an extraordinarily interesting place, with a long imagined past. In this world, strange beings—beautiful, noble, terrifying, hideous—strange places, strange events, are encountered. But in this world of his devising, when you enter it, they are true. Their existence cannot be doubted, as long as you are in that world …
Christopher knew of what he spoke. He was not the first to experience this “extraordinary power” of his father’s. For he had two older brothers who experienced it, too; and there was, of course, Lewis. But I think it’s safe to say that Christopher was the one who experienced it most profoundly.
* * *
With the conclusion of his deployment in 1946, Christopher returned to Trinity College, Oxford, which put him in intimate touch with the Inklings, his father’s reading club, a group held together by mutual friendship with C. S. Lewis and an appreciation for certain kinds of talk and literature. Although the Inklings was really ever only an informal group, Christopher was named an official member by the mainstays, becoming the youngest by decades. You can find his name jotted down on different roll calls of many sorts, and his main distinction was as a fine reader of his father’s own works. It is something of a common myth about the Inklings that Tolkien had read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings to them, where it was received warmly from the first page to last. Really, several ears had grown sick of this elf talk and refused to hear another word about it. Besides, the group much preferred Christopher’s lovely, crisp renditions of his father’s material to Tolkien’s reading voice; and so, if they heard it at all, they’d much rather hear it from him.
Christopher had a nice academic career at Oxford, translating a legendary thirteenth-century Norse saga and editing three Canterbury Tales along the way. He ended, eventually, as a Fellow at New College, before retiring to France, to become his father’s literary executor full time.
* * *
Those who know something about Tolkien, which these days is most of us, know that, despite his affection for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he considered a body of unpublished myths—something like a cosmology and history of Middle-earth in one—to be his true life’s work. He started writing it in 1916 on the Western Front and worked on it intermittently over the course of his life. But he never finished.
It began at creation and spanned many ages, with numerous stories of different kinds running through it, loosely united by a larger drama of good versus evil. In fact, there were many versions of it produced over the years, often radically revised and fundamentally different in tonality, with little scraps and notes left here and there, containing ideas of how he would fix parts that did not work. That is to say, when he died in 1973, the text itself was in quite a state.
As he neared the end of his life, it became clearer to Tolkien that he did not have the energy—nor perhaps the ability—to bring it together. And he spoke with Christopher about the problems of the story at length, exploring with him over many hours how, if he had the power, he might fix it. He was preparing Christopher to complete the work for him after his death, and told him, that if he should die, it would be up to him to bring it together.
The Silmarillion was published in 1977 with Christopher listed as editor, disclaiming any significant hand in its composition. It was important to him that people realize its authenticity as a work of his father’s. When there were questions upon its publication, to prove its legitimacy, Christopher went so far as to publish a twelve-part history of Middle-earth with the intention of showing that The Silmarillion was the work of his father’s hand, and that he had only an incidental role in its shaping.
With all due respect to Christopher, while this may be true, it’s also beside the point. For his father himself would often define art as the act of taking older, formerly used material and uniting it into a new and harmonious form that itself comprised a unique and beautiful whole. It makes no difference that its many parts were dreamed up by his father. The act of unification is itself an artistic act, and Christopher performed it masterfully.
Although not as popular as the Hobbit stories, it is still a magnificent work of fantasy, exuding the full power of imagination that the medium can allow. It is the sort of illuminating text that only a Tolkien could make; and it took the full powers of two Tolkiens to make it.
The Silmarillion is one of the great imaginative works of the twentieth century. For that, we have both father and son to thank.
* * *
If you include the Letters, in total, Christopher was editor of twenty-four of his father’s unpublished works. Some are valuable only for scholars of different kinds, others only for Tolkien enthusiasts, and others still are made to appeal to a more general audience. But all of them, one way or another, are valuable.
But why? Why did he do it, knowing that in most cases his father, being a perfectionist, would never have countenanced their being published in the incomplete form that they were?
The motivations are complex, but I’ve already alluded to the most significant one. He did it for love, of the imaginary world and of his father.
Middle-earth was the special place where Tolkien would meet his son, in the inner sanctum of their shared imagination, and where they opened their hearts to the luminosity of beauty and art well made, and to one another. As Tolkien wrote to Christopher during the early months of his deployment, “We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us).” Then he adds, “But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love.”
* * *
Tolkien was a man who labored long over the simplest things, yet one story just flowed out of his pen, arriving in finished form. It is a beautiful little fable called Leaf by Niggle, written some time around 1938, about a painter with a grand vision for a painting, who was forced to leave it incomplete. He was constantly pulled away from it by the duties of life, which called on him too often.
The painting was to be of a magnificent tree, with a mass of long, stretching branches, lovely birds at rest upon them, a country rolling out behind and snow-capped mountains overshadowing it in the distance.
After many years of interruptions, the painter dies disappointed, leaving only a single leaf perfected. The work was, so to speak, just a dream, and the worries of this world kept it from reality.
But he wakes to find himself in Heaven, where, on the other side of death, the painting has been completed for him and brought to life. “It’s a gift!” he cries. Heaven had blessed the painter by finishing what he started—and more. “All the leaves he ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded …”
Not only was the tree real, but the country behind it was real, too, and so were the mountains, and much else, presumably, that were once only whispers in his heart. He could touch it, hear the birds singing, walk through the country, which would last forever.
This fable was an expression of hope for Tolkien, a dream that God would finish in heaven what he couldn’t in life. Little did he know that, in the here below, Christopher would make it his mission to give God a running start.
Requiesce in pace, Christopher. You were the last Inkling, and truly a son who honored his father.
Michael Toscano is the executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.