January 17, 2020 4:38:51 pm
By Katharine Q. Seelye and Alan Yuhas
Christopher Tolkien, the son of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien who guarded his legacy and edited posthumous works like “The Silmarillion,” died Wednesday in France at age 95.
His death was confirmed by Daniel Klass, Tolkien’s brother-in-law.
For nearly 50 years after his father died in 1973, Tolkien worked to keep alive the world he had created in “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” (1949) — the spiders of Mirkwood, the Eye of Mordor, the elves of Rivendell and thousands of pages’ worth of other characters, places and plot twists. In all, he edited or oversaw the publication of two dozen editions of his father’s works, many of which became international bestsellers.
Tolkien was his father’s literary executor but played a far more expansive role than that title usually implies. While the elder Tolkien was writing “The Lord of the Rings,” he was also creating a vast world of legends and mythologies that he hoped would accompany the book. But he was a notorious perfectionist and was never able to put this work in publishable form before he died.
His son spent four years organizing and compiling those myths and legends, publishing them in 1977 as “The Silmarillion.”
“This opened up a wealth and depth of Tolkien’s imaginative world that was breathtaking,” Corey Olsen, a Tolkien expert, said in an interview.
But Tolkien fans and scholars wondered how much of “The Silmarillion” was the work of the father and how much was the work of the son, said Olsen, the president of the American online university Signum, which specializes in Tolkien studies.
In response, Christopher produced the 12-volume “The History of Middle-earth” (1996), a compilation of drafts, fragments, rewrites, marginal notes and other writings culled from 70 boxes of unpublished material. It showed that virtually everything he had published had come from his father’s hand.
“Christopher showed how his father’s ideas grew and developed over time,” Olsen said. The volumes did not just reveal J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind at work, he said; they also provided a case study in the creative process.
Christopher Tolkien is also credited with creating the widely acclaimed 1954 map of Middle-earth, the land in which the sprawling stories were set; a copy is now held by the British Library.
“Without Christopher,” Thomas Shippey, a British professor who has been writing and lecturing on Tolkien for 50 years, said in an interview, “we would have very little knowledge of how Tolkien created his mythology and his own legendarium.”
Like his father, an Oxford linguist, Tolkien spent much of his life devoted to books, and surrounded by them. Both men were scholars of Old and Middle English, and both lectured at Oxford. But while the elder Tolkien was a specialist in Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon sagas, the younger was an authority, above all, on the reams of writing that his father produced.
“He has been treating this extraordinary archive as if it had been discovered in a sealed tomb,” the Houghton Mifflin editor Austin Olney said after meeting Tolkien at his home in England. By then, almost a million hardcover copies of “The Silmarillion” had been published, and several more books were about to emerge from the vault.
His brother-in-law, Klass, described Tolkien as extraordinarily disciplined. He said he would lock himself in his office early in the morning and not emerge until lunchtime.
“His life’s work was to convert this huge mass of material written on envelopes and napkins in his father’s unreadable handwriting,” Klass said.
Tolkien fans responded on social media to the news of Tolkien’s death with an outpouring of emotion.
“Takes a humble man to dedicate his life to someone else’s work,” one person wrote on Twitter. “I think of all the books that might never have been published without Christopher’s input. Some of those books define how we now view the professor’s legacy.”
Christopher Tolkien was born in Leeds, England, on Nov. 21, 1924, the third and youngest son of J.R.R. and Edith Mary (Bratt) Tolkien.
For a time he was a sickly child and often stayed at home, giving him and his father a chance to develop a close working relationship. The writer often read to his son, and the son offered encouragement and soon became his father’s assistant and one of his earliest readers.
Christopher Tolkien once said that he grew up in the world his father had created. “For me,” he said, “the cities of ‘The Silmarillion’ are more real than Babylon.”
During World War II, when Christopher was serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa, his father mailed him parts of “The Lord of the Rings” for comment and editing.
Though the tales of Middle-earth waxed and waned in popularity, they were all but cemented in popular culture in the 2000s, with film adaptations that garnered Academy Awards and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. Those movies were not the first adaptations, but they helped bring the stories to a new audience. And their success has in part inspired a forthcoming series on Amazon — the rights to which reportedly cost $200 million.
Even as Tolkien burnished his father’s legacy and brought it into the 21st century, he could be intensely protective of it. In 2012, the Tolkien estate filed an $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. over the digital merchandising of characters from “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” The suit accused the company of causing harm to the Tolkien legacy. It was eventually settled on undisclosed terms.
Last year, the Tolkien estate disavowed a film based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and experiences in World War I, saying the family did “not approve of, authorize or participate” in the project.
In his later years Tolkien became a French citizen and lived a private life with his second wife, Baillie Tolkien, in the foothills of the Alps in southeastern France.
In addition to Baillie Tolkien, survivors include his sister Priscilla and three children, Simon, Adam and Rachel.
Despite the voluminous amount of unpublished work that Christophe Tolkien brought to light, some Tolkien enthusiasts hoped there might still be more.
“While Tolkien was very poor at finishing things, he also never threw anything away, so we don’t know what’s still unpublished,” Shippey, the British scholar, said. “There may be some surprises yet.”
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