Christopher Tolkien, 1924 – 2020

The Committee for the J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College was very saddened to learn of the death of Christopher Tolkien on January 16th 2020.

Christopher John Reuel Tolkien was born in Leeds on November 21st 1924, the third child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien. Upon his father’s appointment to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, the family moved to Oxford, where Christopher was schooled at the aptly named Dragon School, and later the Oratory School, Woodcote. As a child, Christopher and his siblings heard their father reading the first drafts of The Hobbit, clearly an influential experience in Christopher’s life. Christopher went on to read English at Trinity College, Oxford, completing his studies—after an interruption due to his service in the RAF during WWII—in 1949.

After obtaining his BA, Christopher took up a teaching post in the 1950s at Oxford’s Faculty of English, during which time he married his first wife, Faith Faulconbridge, with whom he had a son, Simon, and wrote his B.Litt., an edition and translation of the Old Norse Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (subsequently published as The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise in 1960). It was during this time that Christopher not only published on Old Norse, but also co-edited a few tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with fellow member of the Inklings, Nevill Coghill. In 1963, Christopher was appointed a fellow of New College, Oxford, lecturing—like his father before him—on Old Norse, Old English, and Middle English. Christopher and Faith separated in 1964 and in 1967 he married Baillie Klass, with whom he had a son, Adam, and a daughter, Rachel.

After his father’s death in 1973, Christopher took on the role for which he is, and will surely always be, best known: literary executor of his father’s vast body of unpublished work. After publishing his father’s translations of the Middle English poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo in 1975, Christopher resigned from his fellowship at New College and moved with his family to southern France. In 1977 he edited and published The Silmarillion, marking in earnest the beginning of a new career in which he would also publish his father’s Unfinished Tales (1980), The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983), The Book of Lost Tales (1983, the first in the monumental twelve-volume The History of Middle-earth, 1983–1996), and, more recently, a series of Tolkien’s retellings and translations of medieval texts, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013), and Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014), and finally, the much-awaited Middle-earth Legendarium tales of Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018).

Recognising in the preface to this final contribution to a very long list of edited works that ‘in [his] ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’, Christopher finally drew to a close a formidable career in editing and publishing spanning over six decades. His legacy in making the extensive œuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien accessible to as wide a readership as possible is, indubitably, without equal.

Sonr er betri,
þótt sé síð of alinn,
eptir genginn guma;
sjaldan bautarsteinar
standa brautu nær,
nema reisi niðr at nið. 

‘A son is better,
though he be born late,
after his father has passed;
seldom do memorial-stones
stand near the road,
unless one kinsman raises them for another.’

Hávamál, stanza 72

Christopher Tolkien, credit: François Deladerrièr

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