January 16 brought the news that Christopher Tolkien, best known as the longtime literary executor of his father J.R.R. Tolkien, had died at his home in the South of France at the age of 95.
Tolkien was born in 1924 in Leeds, England, while his father was a professor at the University of Leeds prior to obtaining his more famous chair at Oxford. His mother was the former Edith Bratt, J.R.R. Tolkien’s wife and the inspiration for several of the black-haired, grey-eyed Elven beauties who populate Tolkien’s Middle-earth. As a child, Tolkien was part of the original audience for The Hobbit, which was originally told to the Tolkien children as a series of bedtime stories. After serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy during World War II, the younger Tolkien studied English at Oxford and became an integral part of the critical audience for his father’s postwar work. Upon the senior Tolkien’s death in 1973, Christopher became the literary executor for his father’s body of work. In this role he oversaw the posthumous completion and publication of the Silmarillion as well as the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished notes accompanied by Christopher’s sometimes-controversial commentary.
Christopher Tolkien is mostly of interest to Catholics due his involvement with his strict, Traditionalist-leaning Catholic father’s work. Christopher divorced and remarried late in his father’s life, a development that I am unaware of the senior Tolkien’s attitude towards, and his own religious beliefs, if any, were rarely implicated in his presentation of his father’s work. However, J.R.R. Tolkien’s religious beliefs are evident in much of the posthumously published material, especially in the 1977 Silmarillion and some of the later volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which cover a late stage in Tolkien’s writing period in which he turned towards philosophical and anthropological themes.
Christopher was a zealous—some would say overzealous—guardian of his father’s intellectual property. He applied a gentle hand when it came to expressions of Tolkien fandom such as fan fiction and music inspired by Tolkien’s work, but a much heavier hand regarding efforts to adapt his father’s work commercially, especially for the screen. He was unhappy with certain changes made for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies and refused to allow adaptations of any of his father’s other works, although the rights to The Lord of the Rings have since passed out of his (and, indeed, Jackson’s) hands. It is worthwhile for people interested in issues of intellectual property to look to Christopher Tolkien as an example of an extremely rigorous attitude towards adaptation of a copyright-holder’s work. Whether this was the correct or most fitting attitude for Tolkien to take is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
Christopher Tolkien is predeceased by his father and mother as well as by J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien’s two oldest children, John (a Catholic priest) and Michael. He is also predeceased by his first wife, Faith Faulconbridge. He is survived by Priscilla Tolkien, his younger sister and successor as their father’s literary executor; his second wife, Baillie Klass; several children and grandchildren, including the attorney and novelist Simon Tolkien; and several descendants of his siblings, including the competitive fencer Ruth Tolkien.
Image of the Silmarillion title page from Wikimedia Commons
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.