January 17th, 2020

I come to bury Christopher Tolkien, not to praise him

Christopher Tolkien, son of JRR Tolkien, is dead. Wes thu hal, sir, and Good Journey.

It feels a bit odd, almost sacrilegious, to follow that sentence with these next ones. A lot of fandoms divide over ships or adaptation-versus-original issues. Tolkien fandom, at a deep level, seems to draw the line over purity: how important it is to stay true to some perceived canon standard and how free we are to reach for new interpretations and readings. And in the Silm fandom in particular, that divide seemed to fall over how bound we felt by Christopher Tolkien's read of his father's work, versus if we preferred to take the sparser crumbs of JRRT's own world and build more on that. There was more freedom in that second path, but also I always felt more of an originalism, a kind of return-to-basics about what made Arda such a breath of fresh air for a world-weary twentysomething.

To be blunt, I thought Christopher was prim and stuffy and tended to suck all I liked out of his father's work. I was not a fan, and as soon as I discovered HoMe was a thing that existed, I was much more eager to dig into those drafts and snippets than the published QS and Akallabeth rewritten in Christopher's tone.

But time and maturity blunts the edges on all that, at least a bit. He was the steward of his father's legacy; and a steward really isn't a king, whatever Denethor might have thought (or wished). Part of it is I've been a steward to the memories other people leave behind, in my own small way, and I get how that can control how you interact with their legacy. I still think he was a cranky old fusspot for most of the time I interacted with him as a consumer of his father's works. But I guess I see more why his situation would amp up those tendencies. I also see it as a much more useful thing than I once did. Not so much that his father's writings should be consumed as he presented them, but that those of us not overly comfortable with the way he read him really benefited from having someone protect and develop his world. He's a useful point to orient ourselves against, contrapposto-style.

Plus, let's be frank here: the man has done a tremendous service. He worked hard to cull and develop and bring into publishable form so many drafts from so many different points in his careers, and give us all this coherent story. I don't necessarily think he was commercial, milking his father's works for all he could get out of them; rather, I think he genuinely cared about bringing those stories into the public in a way his father would be proud of, or at least comfortable with. And while I wasn't always head-over-heels for the final product, man, one has to recognize and appreciate the effort!

And as a great Akallabeth/Numenor fan, I can't really be too harsh on him for being almost slavish to his father's perceived intents. Because let's be honest: the Akallabeth really doesn't fit with the QS or the Ainulindale or any of the rest, does it? Someone exercising more editorial discretion would have chucked it or buried it in a HoME volume. He says as much in the intro to the Silmarillion: he only really included it because his father had been quite explicit he wanted it included. And my life over the last 15-odd years would have been so much less if that wasn't such a central part of the Tolkien fandom.

That's all about Christopher the old man, the inheritor of his father's kingdom. As a great fan of the Letters, I also have to remember and "bury," to the extent I can, Christopher the young man who went off to war and begged his father for more chapters by mail. Who helped pore over the maps. Who seems to have been both a support and a burr in the boot to getting JRRT to actually finish the damned thing. Forget The Silmarillion, we probably wouldn't have gotten Lord of the Rings (certainly it would have been in a much different form) if not for Christopher. And those letters between the two of them are always just so comfortable and interesting, they're easily among my favorite, and I think Christopher's and JRR's relationship was a deep and warm one. It makes me smile, thinking about the glimpses I've been given over the years there.

As an aside, not many people can claim to have a fanfic about JRRT and Christopher Tolkien, but I actually can! Sort of. The idea is that Christopher dies during World War II and JRRT must decide how (if) to continue on with his "mad hobby." It seems a bit bold to offer it up, as it got me kicked off one major fandom archive back in the day for not being respectful to the real people involved. But in my own slightly-heretical way, I actually meant it as an offering of sorts, to both men. So if you have a mind: Bronwe Athan Harthad.

Enough thinky thoughts and wordy words. Let me just close with these words: We still remember, we who dwell, in this far land beneath the Seas. You will be missed.

(ericadawn16 asked for my thoughts. Thanks for the prompting.)