Unsung Inklings: Christopher Tolkien

Reading Time: 4 mins

Christopher grew up in his father's literary world, a joyful reminder and glimpse of something far greater that we as Christians grow up in our Heavenly Father's living word.

My children love stories. "Again, again. Read it again," they say as we read the same story for the tenth time in as many days. Many children grow up hearing their father's stories: dad jokes, fishing tales, mealtime, and bedtime stories. From an early age, good stories have an enduring power to shape our lives and imaginations. 

So it was for Christopher Tolkien. Before The Lord of the Rings was adapted into Academy award-winning movies, viewed by millions, before The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit became international best-sellers translated into multiple languages, the myths that became the stories of Middle-earth began simply as stories told by a loving father to his beloved children. 

J.R.R. Tolkien was a storyteller, and his children, particularly his son Christopher, reveled in the vocation of story-listener. Christopher Tolkien was the first to hear those famous words, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." He was one of his father's earliest and most faithful critics and editors, with a keen attention to detail and consistency of his father's writings. In a letter to his publisher, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that Christopher "was my real primary audience who has read, vetted, and typed all of the new Hobbit…he occupied the multiple positions of audience, critic, son, student in my department, and my tutorial pupil." [1]

The "new Hobbit" was the original title of the sequel to The Hobbit, which became The Lord of the Rings. Christopher's love for his father's stories and attention to detail began at a young age when the first hobbit adventure was still only a household tale. In the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of The Hobbit, Christopher recalls, 

On one occasion, I interrupted: "Last time, you said Bilbo's front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his hood, but you've just said that Bilbo's front door was green and that Thorin's hood was silver"; at which point my father muttered "Damn the boy," and then strode across the room to his desk to make a note.

Christopher was the first scholar of Middle-earth and a gifted cartographer of his father's mythological landscape. He not only read and loved his father's stories, he lived in Middle-earth. He breathed the air of Elfland. Christopher grew up in his father's literary world, a joyful reminder and glimpse of something far greater that we as Christians grow up in our Heavenly Father's living word. 

Christopher Tolkien was born in Leeds on November 12, 1924. He attended Dragon School in Oxford, a fitting school name for a Tolkien if there ever was one. He studied at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1942 until he joined the RAF and went to South Africa, where he served in the pilot training program from 1943-1945. During the war, he and his father shared regular correspondence. Their letters are full of the things they loved most: faith, family, mythology, and the unfolding drafts of The Lord of the Rings. After the war, Christopher resumed his studies, earning his BA in English in 1949. He shared his father's interest in philology, Norse mythology, and Old and Middle English. He eventually published his thesis, a translation of "The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise." Christopher later joined forces with fellow Inkling, Nevill Coghill, as editors of several of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Christopher became a formal member of the Inklings sometime around October 1945. At the age of twenty-one, he was the youngest of the Inklings. He was a faithful and regular member of the Tuesday morning and Thursday evening gatherings and was well-known and loved for his beautiful public reading of his father's works. At one Inklings gathering, he was the recipient of a tuxedo that was sent to C.S. Lewis along with ham and other delicacies made scarce by post-war rationing. 

Christopher Tolkien was also the longest living of the Inklings. He died on January 16, 2020. Throughout his life, especially after his retirement from New College, Oxford, in 1975, Christopher continued to forge his own identity as a storyteller and scholar. When his father died in 1973, he left behind countless notes, manuscripts, fragments, bits and pieces of unfinished tales, fits, and spurts of stories, as well as his most beloved mythological work, The Silmarillion, yet unpublished. 

Christopher helped turn his father's legendarium into a legacy, particularly in editing, arranging, and publishing his father's most beloved work of narrative mythology, The Silmarillion, a book of history, tales, and adventures from the world of J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. By 1977, with the help of Guy Gabriel Kay, Christopher Tolkien finally published The Silmarillion. It reads, in many ways, like an epic mythology and at times, like reading Genesis or the books of Judges, Kings, and Chronicles. Christopher published twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth and other posthumously published works of his father. Just as Christopher was an heir of his father's work, a body of work which is much larger than he was, we as Christians are also heirs of something much larger than ourselves: the righteousness of Christ, the gracious gifts of God the Father to us in Jesus.

In a letter to his son, Christopher, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "You were so special a gift to me, in a time of sorrow and mental suffering, and your love, opening at once almost as soon as you were born, foretold to me, as it were spoken in words, that I am consoled ever by the certainty that there is no end to this." [2]

Christopher and his father not only shared a love of language, mythology, and storytelling, but they also shared the love of Christ. They found mutual encouragement in the Christian faith. Tolkien writes to his son in this spirit, "If you don't do so already, make a habit of the 'praises.' I use them much (in Latin): the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Laudate Dominum; the Laudate Pueri Dominum; one of the Sunday psalms; and the Magnificat…If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy." [3] 

Joy is exactly the right word. It was J.R.R. Tolkien's joy for his children that inspired him to fill their lives with such marvelous stories, and it was Christopher's joy to listen to his father's stories and eventually to continue in his footsteps as a storyteller.

[1]  J.R.R. Tolkien, Collected Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, p. 112-113.
[2]  J.R.R. Tolkien, Collected Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, p. 76.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Collected Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, p. 66.