Farewell to the Last Inkling: Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020)

Last week, the news broke that Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. Tolkien, had passed away at the age of 95, and Image result for christopher tolkienwhile we might all have hoped he would make it to 111, 95 is quite a run for a human being, even one whose story is so deeply entwined with those long-lived denizens of Middle Earth. While I am not a Tolkien expert (my area of focus is usually an elder Inkling, C.S. Lewis), I hope you will indulge me in a few thoughts about the gentleman who is the last of the Inklings, why his legacy matters, and what this means for his father’s creations.

The Perfect Audience

Many others have already beautifully eulogized Christopher Tolkien, so there is little need for us to do that here. To learn more about his life, from his schooling to his war service, one can certainly find resources aplenty. To better understand the senior Tolkien, I can warmly endorse Tom Shippey’s  outstanding J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000). But as our focus here is on the literary,  it is interesting for us to note the importance of Christopher Tolkien’s role in the creation of his father’s fantastic world of Middle Earth.

Image result for tolkien hobbitAs a child who could appreciate his father’s stories, Christopher (please pardon my use of the familiar first name for clarity) originally  supplied the all-important role of audience. Although Tolkien, Sr., clearly championed the fact that fairy stores were neither simple nor juvenile, he also understood their appeal to the young, and the young Christopher was an invaluable audience for drafts of The Hobbit, occasionally even correcting continuity errors. Even now, readers of a wide age range continue to feast upon the tales of Middle Earth. Children are entranced by the adventures of Thorin and Co., and by the trials of the Fellowship of the Ring. My own daughter is currently reporting breathlessly on her progress through the Ring saga (she just made it to the Prancing Pony), but they are equally mesmerizing to adults. As fellow Inkling Lewis says in his dedication to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by the time the book is completed, the child to whom it is dedicated may be “too old” for it,  “but some day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Christopher played an important role for his father’s imagination as an audience member, both as a child and as an adult. Like the other Inklings, whom he joined at age 21, making him by far the youngest of the group  known for meeting over drinks at the Eagle and Child pub (which they called the Bird and Baby), he helped to encourage his father to complete The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Lewis, whose composition methods seem positively slap-dash by comparison, Tolkien was known to labor over his stories’ most minute details, often slowing him down for long periods of time. I often stress the importance of Writing Groups with my students by telling them that if it were not for the Inklings, Gandalf, Frodo, and the rest of the Fellowship would likely still be stuck outside the door of Moria, poised to speak friend and enter for all eternity.

By serving as the original members of an appreciative, but also expectant, audience, the Inklings in general and Christopher in particular  have allowed millions of others to join that audience.


The Posthumous Collaborator

Even before his father’s death in 1973, Christopher also provided his own contributions to his father’s incredible, sprawling world. From suggestions to edits, he was helpful in the crafting of Middle Earth, but his map is perhaps one of the most important contributions. It’s hard for us to imagine a fantasy novel set in a fantasy setting without a fantasy world all mapped out inside the first few pages. In fact, speculative novels without maps tend to baffle readers who want to follow along with the charactersThe 1980 Christopher Tolkien Middle-earth map.

Christopher Tolkien’s definitive 1954 map of Middle Earth did more than codify his father’s sometimes contradictory geography; it laid the template for how a fantasy world should look.

In addition, after his father’s death, Christopher continued to work as his collaborator, updating and improving that glorious map, and dutifully editing and publishing a host of additional Middle Earth materials, such as The Silmarillion and The History of Middle Earth. He also brought to the world his father’s non-Middle Earth work, including The Fall of Arthur (2014), a verse re-telling of the last days of the legendary British monarch, and his brilliant translation of Beowulf, which is quite illuminating to read alongside that of Seamus Heaney.  Both of these volumes are valued members of my own personal library, and I am deeply grateful to Christopher for sharing them with the rest of us.

It cannot be easy to have made one’s career as the editor and collaborator for another, even a father, but Christopher did so, allowing his father to publish far more titles after his death than before, carefully ensuring that the work reflects well on both the person and the scholarship of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Passionate Protector of the Legacy

Shortly after news of Christopher’s passing was announced, a colleague of mine began pondering what this might mean for the “rigid” treatment of his father’s work. It is no secret that Christopher was adamant about the way his father and his creation were used by others.  Much has been made of his underwhelmed reaction to the Peter Jackson films, for example.  With both personal and professional care, he worked to make sure that the materials that bore his father’s name were worthy of such. Of course, there has been a flood of material not endorsed by the Tolkien estate which clearly shows the influence of the Tolkiens. From those ubiquitous fantasy novel maps to the entire world of role-playing games, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is everywhere. And while Christopher could not have possibly reined in all that sprang from his father’s creation, he was well-known for his protective stance.

My colleague, like many others, seems to think that Christopher’s passing will loosen things up a bit, perhaps paving the way for others to stake more of a claim on the landscape his father he created and which Christopher mapped. The folks planning new movies, series, video games, lunchboxes, and everything else may be eager to see how much leeway they can now wield.

But I suppose that, like most of the Inklings themselves, I am a bit old-fashioned. I liked the idea of ChristopherImage result for the inklings guarding his father’s treasure. I always thought of him as a bit like Frodo, bearing the ring of his elder on far more complex journeys, shouldering a responsibility he did not create and managing it heroically. Or perhaps, he is more like Sam, or Legolas and Gimli, who departed Middle Earth long after Gandalf and Frodo, last vestiges of a bygone world, the final thread of the beautiful tapestry that once gathered around pints of warm beer at the Bird and Baby. Now that he is gone, I wonder about how that ring will be carried. I can only hope that those who handle the Tolkien legacy in the future will do so with respect and with just some of the integrity and literary ability of Christopher Tolkien, whose tireless work has been a gift to us all. Now that he has boarded the white ship and sailed into the west, I fear we shall not see his like again. Farewell, and well done. Thank you.

Image result for tolkien white ships


  1. He was only underwhelmed by Jackson’s movies? That’s much better than my reactions to them.

  2. Well George, like both Gandalf and the nameless poet who originally wrote Beowulf, I have been known to indulge in understatement.

  3. Prof. Hardy.

    I first caught the news listed as an “item” on my phone. When I saw that, my reaction was twofold. On one level, it was plain heart-sinking. I don’t know that I ever expected Prof. C. Tolkien to live forever, or anything like it. Instead it was more like losing sort of a lighthouse figure. On some level he functioned as one of those people you come to see as silent mainstays. They’re the kind of people who never hog, and haven’t got much use for the spotlight. Though they don’t say much, you know they are capable of living and figuring a lot of important ideals. Or at least those were the, up till now, unexpressed thoughts, as far as his life and scholarship went. So yes, on the one hand, it was a palpable sense of loss.

    The first time I saw him was also sort of the last and only time I think anyone has ever been able to catch a glimpse of him in public. He was showcased in an old documentary about his father’s works, and it is the only extent public footage that ever that he ever wound up in. At the time, my sense was he was important, yet it seemed like he was destined to be just one of life’s background figures. Then I found out about Professor C’s “History of Middle Earth”. I think it was then I began to realize I was dealing with an actual talent and scholar in his own right. To this day I’m left to wonder just how much he knew about his father’s themes, and literary practices. It’s the one question that was perhaps at the center of his existence, and also the one I don’t think anyone ever bothered to ask or know about. At least not much.

    Still, I would hope his efforts to preserve his dad’s manuscript history is enough to cement his place in the history of English literature. My hope is that his reputation can one day be set alongside other great caretakers, such as Lady Valerie Eliot, Thomas Stearn’s wife. All of which sort of brings me to the more difficult aspect of my reaction. My other thought was, basically, what’s gonna happen to all the texts now? I mean like are they in good hands, or are we in danger of seeing a Great Book misused like with Harper Lee? I don’t know if that sounds selfish or not. I just know that, like you, I have concerns about how Tolkien’s legacy is going to treated, or even if it will be re-shaped and mis-formed out of all recognition from the original search, statement, or concept of the novels. It’s something that I think needs to be kept an eye on, because not a lot of the future generation will be capable of holding to the kind of high standards set by Christopher Tolkien. There’s too much of a mercenary style of thinking when it comes to intellectual properties these days.

    Finally, for whatever its worth. Christopher Tolkien can be seen and heard, here:


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