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Dhaka Tribune

Christopher Tolkien: The champion of his father’s literary legacy

A tribute to Christopher Tolkien

Update : 08 Feb 2020, 04:39 PM

Fans of The Lord of the Rings will probably have heard of the sad passing of Christopher Tolkien, the scholar and champion of his father JRR Tolkien’s literary legacy, who died at the age of 95 on January 16. He was responsible for greatly fleshing out his fathers invented world of Middle-earth, compiling and editing notes left by his father and publishing dozens of posthumous works in his role as the senior Tolkien’s literary executor. 

JRR Tolkien’s genius was to create a hugely extensive lore of Middle-earth, of which the two books published during his lifetime, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1949) only skim the surface. He spent decades working on expanding his literary creation; however, as an apparent perfectionist, these works remained unpublished at his death in 1973, aged 81. Thus, it fell to his son, Christopher, to sort and study his father’s extensive but scattered collection of essays, notes, poems and unfinished manuscripts, which reportedly filled over 70 boxes, and ensure that generations of readers to come could be immersed in the world his father invented. 

It would take Christopher, a scholar in his own right — having studied, lectured and been a fellow at Oxford University for over 20 years, before dedicating himself to his father’s literary legacy — four years to compile his father’s notes into what would become The Silmarillion, published in 1977. Mirroring the epics of antiquity, the work provides a history of Middle-earth from its creation to its primary focus on the First Age, when Morgoth reigned supreme, through the Second Age, with the downfall of Númenor, and up to the Third Age, describing the rise of Sauron and the creation of the Rings of Power. 

It would then take a further three years to edit and publish the Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, released in 1980. Whereas Christopher had to make some modifications to the materials published in The Silmarillion to ensure a coherent and consistent narrative, the Unfinished Tales was a riskier endeavor, comprised of mostly fragmented, unfinished narratives. However, its popularity showed that readers couldn’t get enough of Middle-earth, so Christopher embarked on his most ambitious project, going on to edit and publish the mammoth 12 volume, over 5000 pages long series The History of Middle Earth, between 1983 and 1996. 

You would think that such an all-encompassing volume of works would stem the tide of Middle-earth lore, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary creativity knew no bounds. Readers were later gifted with three more stories significantly expanding, in a more novelistic style, stories of the First Age that had first appeared in The Silmarillion, with the publication of The Children of Húrin (2007), The Tale of Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin, published as recently as 2018. 

In addition to his works on Middle-earth, Christopher edited and published a number of his father’s more scholarly works and poems, including a translation of the early medieval epic Beowulf. But it is for the gift of recognizing and sharing — through decades of dedication, hard work and scholarly research — the depth of Middle-earth lore that Christopher will be most fondly remembered. And of course, I would be remiss to not mention that Christopher is credited with drawing the now infamous map of Middle-earth, which first appeared in 1954 in publications of The Lord of the Rings and now adorns desktop wallpapers and phone covers for geeks the world over. 

So, thank you Christopher Tolkien, the first Middle-earth scholar of this world. May you find peace in Valinor. 

The author is a life-long bookworm and Technical Lead, Libraries Unlimited, the British Council.


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