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Christopher Tolkien, Son of J.R.R. Tolkien and ‘First Scholar’ of Middle-Earth, Dies at 95

Following his father’s death in 1973, Christopher began editing and publishing the “Lord of the Rings” author’s unseen writings

Christopher Tolkien at Keble College, Oxford, in 1992 (Courtesy of the Tolkien Society / Photo by Charles E. Noad)
smithsonianmag.com

As the youngest son of beloved fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien was raised hearing fantastical tales of Bilbo Baggins and Middle-earth. When his father died in 1973, the younger Tolkien became his literary executor. Over the next 47 years, Christopher sorted through 70 boxes of Tolkien’s unpublished work; ultimately, he compiled and edited 24 editions of poems, histories, translations and stories centered on his father’s expansive fantasy world.

Christopher died Wednesday in Provence, France, report Katharine Q. Seelye and Alan Yuhas for the New York Times. He was 95.

Per the Times, Christopher’s first editing project was a tome of myths and legends from the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Building on a 12-volume compilation of drafts and rewrites left by his father, he published The Silmarillion in 1977.

“This opened up a wealth and depth of Tolkien’s imaginative world that was breathtaking,” Tolkien expert Corey Olsen tells the Times.

In total, three-quarters of Tolkien’s works were published posthumously. Of these post-1973 collections, around three-quarters were edited by his son. The most recent addition to the author’s oeuvre, The Fall of Gondolin, was published in August 2018 but originally written more than a century earlier, when Tolkien was recovering from trench fever in 1917.

The tale, which served as a template for the author’s later works, features a reluctant hero whose quest culminates in a battle with Middle-earth monsters like orcs and balrogs. The 2018 edition includes not just one story, but all of Tolkien’s many rewrites, accompanied by historical notes and explanations penned by his son.

“[Christopher] gave us a window into Tolkien’s creative process, and he provided scholarly commentary that enriched our understanding of Middle-earth,” says Tolkien scholar Dimitra Fimi in a statement. “He was Middle-earth’s cartographer and first scholar.”

The third son of J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien, Christopher was born in Leeds, England, on November 21, 1924. He spent his childhood in Oxford, where his father was a professor, and joined the Royal Air Force during World War II. Stationed in South Africa, he regularly corresponded with his father, who was then writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien often sent draft chapters to his son.

Christopher made small interventions when his father sought advice, he told the Guardian’s Alison Flood via fax in 2009.

Referencing Samwise Gamgee, a Hobbit who accompanies Frodo Baggins on his journey, Christopher said, “[My father] wrote to me in May 1944 that he would change the name Gamgee to Goodchild ‘if I thought you would let me,’ ‘since Hobbits of that class have very Saxon names as a rule.’”

The younger Tolkien replied “that I wouldn't at all like to see Sam Gamgee changed to Sam Goodchild; and Sam Gamgee remained.”

After the war, Christopher became a lecturer in Old and Middle English, as well as Old Icelandic, at Oxford University. He drew many of the original maps that accompanied his father’s first editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, in addition to revised maps in the 1970s editions.

Later in life, Christopher moved to France with his second wife, Baillie Tolkien. He became a French citizen and lived at the foothills of the Alps. In 2016, he received the Bodley Medal in recognition of his contributions to culture and literature.

“Christopher’s commitment to his father’s works [has] seen dozens of publications released, and his own work as an academic in Oxford demonstrates his ability and skill as a scholar,” says Tolkien Society Chair Shaun Gunner in a statement. “Millions of people around the world will be forever grateful to Christopher for bringing us The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, The History of Middle-earth series and many others. We have lost a titan and he will be sorely missed.”

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