Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christopher Tolkien, 1924-2020

Here is what I wrote about Christopher Tolkien when he was Guest of Honor at Mythcon 18 in 1987. It's vastly out of date for all the remarkable work he's done since, but it's work of the same kind, and this will serve as an introduction.

The words "edited by Christopher Tolkien" appear on the title pages of most of the many works by J.R.R. Tolkien that have been published since that author's death. For many readers, Christopher Tolkien is a dimly perceived figure residing far inside his father's shadow. But as he is to be the scholar Guest of Honor at Mythcon XVIII this summer, it's time to bring out his scholarly achievement as editor of his father's works, and to pay tribute to it.

Christopher Tolkien was born in Leeds, England, in 1924. As a child he was privileged to hear the works that later became The Hobbit and The Silmarillion; in an interview, he once said that "among my earliest literary recollections are my father telling me stories from The Silmarillion." After service in the Royal Air Force during World War II (while overseas he received newly-composed parts of The Lord of the Rings as a sort of aerogram serial), Mr. Tolkien completed his undergraduate degree in English at Trinity College, Oxford; C.S. Lewis was among his tutors. While there, he began to attend meetings of the Inklings, at first in his father's company, but soon as a separate member in his own right. He took over from his father the practice of reading aloud the new sections of The Lord of the Rings, as the Inklings agreed that the younger Tolkien had a superior reading voice. (Mr. Tolkien's reading voice can be heard in two excerpts from The Silmarillion issued by Caedmon as LPs in the late 1970s.)

After earning his bachelor's degree, Mr. Tolkien took a fellowship as a lecturer in English at New College, Oxford, and taught there for over twenty years. (His position would be called a professorship at an American university, but the title is not used so extensively in England.) The major scholarly work of this period of his career was a translation of a medieval Icelandic tale, The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. He also prepared, in collaboration with fellow-Inkling Nevill Coghill, editions of three of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: The Pardoner's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale, and The Man of Law's Tale.

In 1973 Christopher Tolkien became his father's literary executor upon the latter's death. To him fell the daunting task of editing all the unpublished papers that his father had left. This was not a labor that could be undertaken lightly; Mr. Tolkien eventually resigned his fellowship and moved, with his family, into isolation in rural France in order to devote full time to this work.

To the position of his father's literary executor Mr. Tolkien brought many signal skills: a knowledge of old English and other Germanic linguistics; training in text editing; considerable familiarity with the material; and, above all, an understanding of and sympathy with his father's aesthetic interests and creative imagination. Combining this with editorial restraint and taste of an uncommon order, and a meticulous skill at piecing together the patterns and significances in manuscripts that are often very complex and difficult to follow, Mr. Tolkien has prepared for publication a series of nine books (to date) of increasing assuredness and artistry in editing. (Each has been published by Allen and Unwin (now Unwin Hyman) in Britain and Houghton Mifflin in the U.S.)

The first fruit of this labor was the simplest: J.R.R. Tolkien's translations of three Middle English poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, in 1975 (now out of print). These translations had been complete for many years, and the editorial labor consisted of compiling commentaries from the relevant papers.

Two years later, in 1977, followed that long-awaited work, The Silmarillion (HM trade pb, $7.95; Ballantine pb, $3.95). In editing this complex and diverse work, Mr. Tolkien set himself the task of preparing a single coherent and (as nearly as possible) consistent text, without editorial commentary, out of writings by his father dating over a long period, many with inconsistencies and stylistic differences. This editorial goal was achieved masterfully, bridging the seams in the tale with commendable skill. In this work, Mr. Tolkien had the editorial assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay, now better-known as the author of The Fionavar Tapestry.

The Silmarillion as published succeeded at the purpose it was intended to achieve - presenting a single narrative which could be read and enjoyed by people uninterested in the textual history - but it gave a one-dimensional view of the nature of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings on the First Age, and left the reader ignorant of the wealth of literary invention and discovery that went into them. For this and other reasons (notably to correct the mistaken impression that the editorial labor on The Silmarillion had involved substantial original composition, and because of the fragmentary nature of many of the remaining J.R.R. Tolkien manuscripts), Christopher Tolkien has taken a different editorial approach in subsequent books of his father's writings. Rather than polishing over textual problems as a literary editor would, he has brought them out to the forefront as a textual editor would. Ironically, though textual editing involves less emendation of manuscript, it yet requires a greater editorial presence, as the editorial explanation of a particularly complex piece of text can begin at times to take more words than are in the text itself. Over the course of Mr. Tolkien's editions, the reader can sense the editor becoming more confident with his material, and making bolder and more imaginative decisions as to its treatment and presentation.

Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (out of print), published in 1979, was a collection of paintings and drawings with copious notes by Christopher Tolkien. Most of the contents had appeared over the previous few years in a series of Tolkien calendars published by Allen and Unwin. Unfinished Tales (HM hc, $15; trade pb, $8.95), a collection of Middle-earth miscellanea, followed in 1980. Most of its contents bear in common only the state of never having been brought to completion by their author, though the beginnings of some were revised and polished to a high degree. It is the first posthumous Tolkien book in which the editorial apparatus is essential to the reader's understanding of the material.

Christopher Tolkien assisted his father's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, in preparing a collection of Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1981 (out of print, but still available remaindered), and then made a selection of his father's nontechnical scholarly essays, published in 1983 as The Monsters and the Critics. This required minimal editing inasmuch as all but two of the essays had previously been published in journals and books. Mr. Tolkien then embarked upon his major work as editor of his father's papers, "The History of Middle-earth."

This multi-volume work (four volumes published to date) is, simply put, an attempt to study the Silmarillion from a historical perspective, going through all the manuscripts roughly in the order that they were written. As the Silmarillion, in any form, is not a simple work, and many changes were made to the story over the sixty years of its gestation, merely reading this material is an awesome enough task, comparable to juggling several balls while negotiating a complex maze. The role of the editor of such manuscripts is to guide the reader gently through the maze, displaying all the wonders of the landscape while ensuring that you also keep your eye on the balls. Christopher Tolkien has accomplished this with remarkable patience and care. The volumes of "The History of Middle-earth" (The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1, HM hc, $15.95, trade pb, $8.95; The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2, HM hc, $16.95; The Lays of Beleriand, MN hc, $16.95; The Shaping of Middle-earth, HM hc, $16.95; a fifth volume, The Lost Road, is due out later this year) are among the most elaborately and carefully annotated books ever devoted to the posthumous papers of a great writer.

For this, and for all his other editing work, the Mythopoeic Society honors Christopher Tolkien and welcomes him to Mythcon XVIII.

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