Tolkien readers, scholars and enthusiasts of today are incredibly fortunate as they have a unique collection of Professor’s writings available to them. Apart from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, some poems, short stories and academic papers, which appeared during Tolkien’s life, there are also posthumously published works, including early and transitional versions of the well-known stories, non-Middle-earth and academic writings. None of this would have been possible, though, had it not been for Tolkien’s son Christopher.Third out of four children and Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher was born on November 21, 1924. There was a special bond between Tolkien and his youngest boy, and after the writer’s death in 1973 it was Christopher who became the keeper of his father’s legacy and his literary executor. Having inherited dozens of boxes with thousands of pages of notes, writings, essays and stories, Christopher began a massive labour — and the labour of love it was — of making them available for readers and thus show the grand scope of his father’s imagination and genius.

In many ways Christopher Tolkien was the best person to fulfill such a massive task. He, together with his elder brothers John and Michael, became the first audience to hear The Hobbit read by their father. Being the youngest, Christopher nevertheless was the most attentive. It was he who noticed inconsistencies in small details and informed Tolkien about them.

Later Christopher became the main reader of The Lord of the Rings. He drew maps and helped his father with bringing such a massive book to a single unit, smoothing out differences and noticing various errors. From 1943 to 1945 Christopher underwent a training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force in South Africa, and Tolkien the senior sent chapters covering Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor to him for enjoyment and to get his son’s feedback which he clearly valued a lot (1). Being so involved in his father’s literary work, Christopher gained a very intimate knowledge of the world Tolkien was creating.

The son also shared his father’s interest in Old English, Middle English and Old Norse languages, the respective literatures and was a specialist in them. Christopher was the youngest member of the Inklings and attended their meetings where he read some of his father’s writings, being generally acknowledged to be a better reader than J. R. R. Tolkien. After the war Christopher resumed his studies of English at Trinity College at Oxford. Following his graduation he worked as a lecturer and a tutor in the English Faculty, Oxford, and completed a thesis which included the translation and commentary on the Old Norse Hervarar Saga. In the 1950s Christopher began establishing himself as a philologist and medievalist. His published works include his discussion of the possible historical aspects in The Battle of the Goths and the Huns and coediting some of Chaucer’s tales. In 1963 Christopher Tolkien was elected to a Fellowship at New College, Oxford, where he lectured on Old English, Middle English and Old Norse languages and literatures (2).

Thus it does not come as a surprise that after Tolkien’s death it was Christopher who decided to make some of those materials, embracing the vast mythology of Arda as well as his father’s other literary and philological interests, public. He began by publishing Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which also included Pearl and Sir Orfeo). But then the time came to consider other writings.

Willing to publish them, but seeing that the undertaking was too great, Christopher resigned his Fellowship at Oxford in 1975, moved to France with his family and dedicated his time to bringing his father’s notes into a publishable form (3). The first book to appear as the result of this massive labour was The Silmarillion.

As Christopher himself wrote in the Introduction to The Book of Lost Tales I, he had no doubts concerning The Silmarillion: it had to be published. But the unfinished and uncertain state of the book upon Tolkien’s death made the task very difficult. There were three options before Christopher: to withhold the publication until an uncertain date, if publish the book at all; present it as an ever-evolving narrative which could only lead to confusion and too much elaboration; or try and make a cohesive text out of the notes he had (4). The son opted for the latter option. The difficulties going hand in hand with this decision were considerable: The Silmarillion existed in several versions, and Tolkien’s final intention concerning its publication framework was not entirely clear. Moreover, some legends remained untouched for a long time, while others bore more recent changes, so there existed numerous inconsistencies between various aspects and events of the narrative.

However, even these difficulties in mind, Christopher felt certain that The Silmarillion needed to be published. It was the work which his father loved deeply and never ceased writing during the course of his life. The care that went into creating languages, genealogies, geography, history, traditions and other aspects of his imaginary world was immense, and withholding the story that Tolkien loved so much but had no time to finish was not an option. Thus Christopher Tolkien undertook a massive responsibility of an editor to bring The Silmarillion into one single unit. He had to decipher through sometimes hardly legible notes, make difficult decisions on how to unravel the intricacies that his father left ambivalent or unfinished, edit a lot of passages and compile, compile, compile. Assisted in it by Guy Kay, Christopher Tolkien had The Silmarillion published in 1977.

It was the beginning of a true literary feat. Having published The Silmarillion, Christopher still had a lot of material which was of great worth in its own right. The year 1979 saw the publication of Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien, which Christopher provided with annotations. It was followed by The Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth — unconnected by a single plot line, but referring to different aspects of Middle-earth, adding more details to the well-known tales. As the depth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is not superficial, but refers to the existing texts, Christopher gave these sources to the eager readers. However, he realised that such a book might not be to the taste of everyone: one had to be well familiar with the world of Middle-earth to enjoy and, what’s more, to understand these tales, as well as wish to know more about the secondary world without the fear of ruining the magic of the unknown. This is also quite true about The History of Middle-earth.

The History of Middle-earth is as the history of the imaginary world itself as it is of a literary creation: the twelve volumes document minutely the evolution of those legends in their different forms and aspects, tones and frameworks. Apart from providing valuable material for even more depth on Middle-earth, especially on philosophical issues, the collection shows the evolution of these legends and gives the readers a chance to see how the writer’s mind and imagination worked, how his ideas changed and the new ones replaced the old. The History of Middle-earth was followed by more Tolkien’s writings published by his son, including academic and non-Middle-earth stories: The Children of Húrin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Beowulf: Translation and Commentary, The Fall of Arthur, Beren and Lúthien — all of these appeared only owing to Christopher’s incessant, dedicated work.

This work was not only time-consuming, but also very hard. Going through all Tolkien’s notes was not an easy thing to do. Many of the Professor’s writings were chaotic: on different pages, with inserted riders, written down quickly in an illegible hand, rewritten over the previous versions, with notes in the margins, so to guess the time of composition and how these writings should be compiled was very difficult. Christopher, though, managed to do so in numerous cases, which allowed him to attribute different stories to exact periods of time and put them together. To do so he had to look at the ink colour, analyse ideas expressed in this or that note, base his conclusions on whether a text was handwritten or typed and what kind of paper it was written on. All of these were certainly clues, but could also be misleading. Pencil writings had faded by that time and sometimes words were erased with something new written over them. Very often Christopher had to use a magnifying glass in an attempt to decipher a single word, but, alas, his patience was not always rewarded.

A brilliant and experienced scholar, Christopher Tolkien not only compiled all these notes into the volumes of valuable material, but also provided detailed commentaries to all of the books edited by him. His commentaries serve as a guiding light making the experience of going through these books pleasant and clear as readers are navigated by the son’s explanations, references and additions. In 2016 Christopher Tolkien was awarded the Bodley Medal, the highest honour from the Bodleian Libraries, for his great contribution to the world of literature, and in 2017 he resigned from the position of director of Tolkien Estate which he had held for a long time.

Such a titanic literary labour could only be performed by the son who loved and was totally dedicated to keeping his father’s legacy alive and remembered. It is a feat not often found in the world of literature. Christopher Tolkien demonstrated incredible dedication and determination in showing his father’s genius and vast interests to those who both — wished to look deeper into the world of Middle-earth and saw J. R. R. Tolkien not only as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also the sub-creator of a vast world, a brilliant scholar, a philologist and a gifted, educated and erudite person with the immense scope of imagination.

Thank you, Troy, for suggesting that I should write about Christopher Tolkien. Considering the latest news on Christopher’s resignation as director of Tolkien Estate, it couldn’t come at a better time.


(1) J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia – p. 664

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid.

(4) The Book of Lost Tales I – p. 6

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Book of Lost Tales. Part I; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  4. Michael D. C. Drout – J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment; Taylor & Francis Group, LLC; 2007.

Images – Creative Commons at Pixabay

19 thoughts on “Christopher Tolkien: the son’s literary feat.

  1. Thank you so much, Olga, for writing this appreciation of the career of Christopher Tolkien. I agree with you entirely about the debt of gratitude that all who love his father’s work owe to him. He has devoted a lifetime to making J.R.R Tolkien’s work available to readers around the world. It is one of the finest examples that I know of scholarship as a an act of service. Service to his father’s work and legacy, service to the readers of his father’s work and service to the deepest reality that his father and the other Inklings sought to bear witness to.
    I remain optimistic about the future of the legendarium. Perhaps more optimistic than Christopher Tolkien is himself! It was his father’s desire to create a mythology for England, a mythology that he believed was lost with the Norman invasion of 1066. That mythology has grown far beyond England as your own passion for Tolkien displays. It is the nature of a mythology that it grows with every telling and there is little that can be done to control the growth. Thankfully we have the original texts to read and they will be our guide but films and TV etc will take us to new possibilities, perhaps even fan fiction!

    1. Thank you for reading, Stephen! It was such a pleasure to research and write it! I’ve always admired Christopher for his hard work, dedication and passion in bringing so much of Middle-earth to us.
      I should learn this optimism from you, I must confess. As I seem to be sharing the pessimistic attitude. The fact that the texts will always remain with us is a comforting one, and as long as there are people who research, read and talk about them, the genuine Tolkien legacy will remain alive.

  2. It is spooky timing, isn’t it? Who could have planned that? The detail work he went through… it’s as much archaeology as it is literature. Remarkable post. Thanks for this.

    1. Thank you, Troy! I first conceived it as a birthday thank-you post, but then the news about his resignation came and it all became even more meaningful. Thank you for your wonderful suggestion!

  3. Thank you for another insightful essay — in this case, perfectly (if not intentionally) timed. What Christopher Tolkien accomplished in bringing his father’s unpublished works to light is truly unparalleled — an epic task that has consumed nearly 45 years of his life. Those of us who appreciate Tolkien’s works owe Christopher a great debt of gratitude — thanks for reminding us!

  4. A very nice tribute to a man to whom all Tolkien fans owe a great debt, and whose intentions have been too often misrepresented. Thank you, Christopher, for all you’ve done… and thank you, Olga, for writing this!

  5. Thank you for this wonderful summary of the contributions of Christopher Tolkien. I’m not sure many people realize how incredibly fortunate it was that he was there to carry on his father’s literary legacy. Unfortunately I cannot help but believe that we are soon to be assailed by an outpouring of commercialized and exploitive material now that Christopher Tolkien is taking a reduced role in the administration of his Father’s estate.

    1. Thank you, Miles!
      It’s a pity indeed, and I’m aware that a lot of people don’t understand how massive his contribution has been. I don’t think we would be reading and exploring Tolkien like we do today if Christopher hadn’t published these books.
      His resignation is a sad thing. But I hope those of us who love the books will help spread the word about them in any times that are to come. I, for my part, will do everything in my power to tell the world about the books above anything else.

  6. Do you ever wonder if any other works of art got the full History of Middle-Earth treatment? I couldn’t think of any until last week. The BBC’s “In Our Time” podcast informed me that while Picasso was painting “Guernica”, his companion (he said, discreetly) took photographs in the process. Now those photographs, showing the various ideas Picasso rejected or altered during the composition, go on exhibition tours to museums around the world on their own.

    Christopher Tolkien single-handedly put The Lord of the Rings in that company. Bravo! May his retirement be comfortable and without adventures.

  7. Came to read your Gnome article (thank you for that) and drifted to here- this one even more enjoyable 🙂 . I have said this elsewhere but to me it is as if Christopher decided to forego whatever his own path might have been and voluntarily become a Salieri to JRRT’s Mozart. Such devotion and sacrificial love. That one of JRRT’s children would be brilliant in ways similar enough in power and proclivity to successfully accomplish what Christopher has accomplished is to me a miracle, and meant to be. I would like to leave a link here to a dedication of some Aubusson tapestries attended by Christopher and Baillie because it captures such a tender moment between father and son and also is just a beautiful video to watch. … ….

    1. Welcome to Middle-earth Reflections, Gary! Thank you for reading!
      I totally agree with you! Christopher has done something utterly incredible, with great love, respect, devotion to his father’s legacy. I admire him for that!
      This video is absolutely beautiful!

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