J.R.R. Tolkien is responsible for the existence of Middle-earth, the richly realized fictional setting of the Lord of the Rings novels. But he also did his bit for the existence of the much less fictional Christopher Tolkien, his third son as well as, in J.R.R.’s own words, his “chief critic and collaborator.” Christopher spent much of his life returning the favor, dedicating himself to the organization, preservation, and publication of his father’s notes on Middle-earth’s elaborate geography, history, and mythology until his own death this past Wednesday at the age of 95.
Most fans of Tolkien père came to know the work of Tolkien fils through The Silmarillion, the collection of the former’s previously unpublished mythopoeic writings on Middle-Earth and the universe that contains it. That book came out in 1977, four years after J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, and for a time thereafter, write The New York Times‘ Katharine Q. Seelye and Alan Yuhas, “Tolkien fans and scholars wondered how much of The Silmarillion was the work of the father and how much was the work of the son.”
In response, “Christopher produced the 12-volume The History of Middle-Earth (1996), a compilation of drafts, fragments, rewrites, marginal notes and other writings culled from 70 boxes of unpublished material.”
Christopher Tolkien didn’t just take over J.R.R. Tolkien’s duties as the steward of Middle-earth; he more or less grew up in the place, and even provided comments, at his father’s request, on the work that would become The Lord of the Rings. The power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s storytelling, one often hears, owes in part to the writer’s thorough grounding in literary and linguistic subjects like English and Germanic philology, heroic verse, Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and medieval Welsh. Christopher Tolkien, in turn, made himself into what Seelye and Yhuas call “an authority, above all, on the reams of writing that his father produced.” You can hear Christopher Tolkien read authoritatively from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien in the videos presented here.
The first three clips from the top come two vinyl LPs released in 1977 and 1988 by Caedmon Records (the proto-audiobook label that also put out Edgar Allan Poe read by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone as well as Hemingway and Faulkner read by Hemingway and Faulkner). All of their selections come from The Silmarillion, the Tolkien text that would never have seen the light of day if not for Christopher’s efforts (and those of Guy Gavriel Kay, who would later become a fantasy novelist himself). But as a tribute to the man’s life so rigorously devoted to a body of work that has fascinated so many, what could be more suitable than the video above, his reading of the very end of the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. Christopher Tolkien kept his father’s flame alive, and thanks to his work that flame will survive him — and generations of Tolkien readers to come.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.