To the end, Christopher Tolkien was loyal to his father’s astonishing legacy
Talk about living your life in your father’s shadow.
I certainly do not envy Christopher Tolkien, a scholar of the highest order, who has just passed away at the age of 95. Tributes have poured in from all corners, but for the most part, the real love is for Tolkien. The other Tolkien that is — Tolkien Senior.
But devotees of the works of JRR Tolkien, legendary in multiple senses of the word, cannot deny that they owe much to Christopher, who never sought the limelight but only tried to safe-guard the rich world created by his father.
Who knows what a vivid understanding of Middle-earth was locked inside that mind of his. Over the years he assiduously tried to put it down to paper for the rest of the world, but sometimes text doesn’t cut it. The world created by JRR was an intangible matter of imagination, and it means different things to each of us. Volume after volume has been written about Middle-earth, but it forever remains a few inches out of reach.
Christopher, then, gave himself a task at which there was no way he could really win. Like the members of the Night’s Watch from a very different fantasy epic, Christopher made an oath to protect the legacy of his father’s works, but what does such an oath mean when millions feel like The Lord of the Rings belongs to them, and that nobody, not even the creator’s son, has a higher claim?
Middle-earth is for the intellectually brave
I myself was a late-comer to the epic fantasy genre. In my formative years, the bulk of my readings were non-fiction, and the novels I leaned toward were what I considered to be closer to the real world, not make-belief. In those years, I was reading Nietzsche and Kundera, and feeling some kind of emotional kinship with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (I realize now that this is a mildly disturbing thought). But there was no space in my mental world for Frodo Baggins, Sauron, or the ageless Legolas.
I liked to geek out over real world geo-politics in those years, but could care less about the Shire, the Mountains of Moria, or the fiery pits of Mordor. CS Lewis’s Narnia was as far as I could venture, thanks to a TV show BTV used to air back in the day. But Tolkien’s world confounded me. I mean, what the hell is a hobbit?
Of course, I am wiser now to that question, and since I am older, I am in a way even more of a child, and the magic has returned. Since those early days, I have boldly journeyed into Middle-earth like so many other pilgrims, and lost myself in that alternate dimension. I felt a crushing emptiness when I finished the last page, and knew that like Frodo, for me there was no going back to a pre-LOTR time.
The book, whether you read it in three separate volumes, or a single door-stopper edition, can at times be testing, but patient readers will be richly rewarded. While the child in you goes along for every ride, an abundance of complex themes will keep the adult, critical part of your brain busy — from questions of duty, to racism and how we see the other, to a painfully relatable picture of PTSD.
Post-LOTR, armed with this relatively new intellectual freedom, I can now move about freely (in a manner of speaking) not just in the three dimensions of this world, but in the worlds of JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie. Their works of epic fantasy are supreme achievements of the human imagination, and Tolkien was the grand-daddy of them all.
Tolkien thought up everything, from the creation myths, to the geography of the world, to the values that make kings, down to the smallest detail. Every blade of grass in the green pastures of the Shire was strictly in his universe.
No wonder then, that Christopher felt possessive. Some children get sub-standard bedtime stories from their parents. Christopher got the world’s greatest epic.
In the end, he was a victim of his own success. His tireless advocacy paved the way for the most hardcore of fanboys throughout the world, and naturally matters got out of hand — from Christopher’s perspective.
Christopher Tolkien famously hated Peter Jackson’s three films, which are almost universally acknowledged to be monumental achievements in cinema. The last of the three, The Return of the King, swept up a number of Oscars including Best Picture, and many new generation Tolkienians experience the viewing of it as pure heaven. Why then, couldn’t Christopher just be happy for us? Why did he have to be such a stick in the mud?
I do not hold this against him. His sense of ownership went far beyond what we understand as the legal rights, which were long out of Christopher’s hands, free for Peter Jackson to cross-breed with his own fertile New Zealand-bred imagination. In his very long life, Christopher Tolkien did not waver from his duty. Maybe he did not succeed 100%, but we are all the better off for it.
So, dear Christopher, if you’re looking down at us from up there in Valinor, forgive us for our sins, our somewhat philistine interpretations and undignified fandom of The Lord of the Rings. We know not Middle-earth the way you did, but please know that we come from a place of pure love.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.