Christopher Reuel Tolkien, born on 21st November 1924, is the third son of J.R.R. Tolkien. Appointed by Tolkien to be his literary executor, he has devoted himself since his father’s death in 1973 to the editing and publication of unpublished writings, notably The Silmarillion and the collections entitled Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth . He and his wife Baillie have lived in France since 1975
In April 2007 Christopher Tolkien published The Children of Húrin, one of J. R. R. Tolkien's earliest stories, its first version dating back to 1918, and most recently, HarperCollins’ publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún in 2009.
Christopher Tolkien answers questions put to him by Ms Alison Flood of The Guardian.
When, and why, did your father decide to compose his versions, and why might he have been particularly drawn to the form of narrative verse?
I believe that the poems belong to my father’s years at Oxford before the Second World War when he regularly lectured on Old Norse literature: at a guess, I should say the earlier 1930s. It is remarkable that there exists no reference in his surviving letters or other writing that bears on the question.
His bent towards narrative verse is seen in the long but unfinished poem The Children of Húrin, written when he was at the University of Leeds in the earlier 1920s, in the Old English alliterative metre (which he used in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and other works). That poem he abandoned in 1925 for The Lay of Leithian, a long poem in rhyming couplets telling the story of Beren and Lúthien which Aragorn told to the hobbits on Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings. That poem in turn he abandoned unfinished in 1931, and I have suggested, as a mere possibility, that it was soon afterwards that he turned to the poems of Sigurd and Gudrún.
He had great skill as a metrist, and he was gently drawn to the alliterative metre descending from very ancient times in the north of Europe, which is found in related forms in Old Norse and Old English.
Why did you decide to publish it now?
The reason was purely one of time and energy. I had always intended to publish these poems one day, ever since I first read them after my father’s death, and indeed I made an abandoned draft of an edition years ago; but when I finally reached the conclusion of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth in 1996 I took a long break, and didn’t publish any further work of my father’s until The Children of Húrin in 2007.
How much work have you had to do in editing it to make it ready for publication? How complete was your father’s version?
Very little work was needed for the publication of the two poems themselves. My father left one manuscript, and that was complete; there were no more than a few pages of earlier writings, and all other drafting has disappeared. The manuscript is in good clear handwriting, written out without corrections, and obviously intended to be a final fair copy. A few minor changes were made to it much later.
My ‘editing’ consists very largely of explanation and clarification, concerned principally with the course of the narrative which is not always easy to follow, and his treatment of the sources; there is also an edited text of a lecture given by my father on the subject of the ancient Norse poetry, the ‘Elder Edda’.
Do you think that this new work will be of interest to an audience who may be unfamiliar with appreciating stories told in verse?
What do you think readers will make of it, particularly given that it’s not set in Middle-earth? Was part of the reason to publish it a hope on your part to broaden their experience of and appreciation for your father’s work in general?
Taking these two questions together, I have to assume that for many or indeed for most people who read or might read these poems this is unknown territory. I dare say that a good many will be instantly put off by the very idea of ‘long narrative poems in verse’ and pursue it no further.
On the other hand, it may be that the verse-form in which they are written, closely modelled in metre and manner on the poems of the ‘Elder Edda’ (in which aspects of the story were told long ago by different poets in Norway and Iceland) will have an unexpected impact.
My hope is that some of those who appreciate and admire the works of my father will find it illuminating in respect of Old Norse poetry in general, in his own treatment of the fierce, passionate and mysterious legend, and in this further and little known aspect of him as both philologist and poet. Above all I hope they will take pleasure in this poetry.
Could you explain why you took the decision years ago to work on The Silmarillion? It has been said that your father either didn’t want to, or couldn’t, finish The Silmarillion. What made you decide to take it on, and how did you go about drawing together over 60 years’ worth of material to create a coherent work? How hard was it?
I think the fundamental problem for my father (and for me!) was this: up to the last year of his life he was still evolving his ideas in the central work of his life, as I hold it to be, that came to be called The Silmarillion, which had begun in tales and poems of his youth.
It was now a changed world. I can’t do better than to repeat what I said in my Foreword to the published Silmarillion – and that was already 32 years ago.
As the years passed the changes and variants, both in detail and in larger perspectives, became so complex, so pervasive, and so many-layered that a final and definitive version seemed unattainable. Moreover the old legends (‘old’ now not only in their derivation from the remote First Age, but also in terms of my father’s life) became the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections. In his later writing mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations: from which arose incompatibilities of tone.
I took it on because I had agreed with my father that I should; and I began work on it soon after his death in 1973. As I wrote in the same place,
On my father’s death it fell to me to try to bring the work into publishable form. It became clear to me that to attempt to present, within the covers of a single book, the diversity of the materials – to show The Silmarillion as in truth a continuing and evolving creation extending over more than half a century – would in fact lead only to confusion and the submerging of what is essential. I set myself therefore to work out a single text, selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative.
After its publication in 1977 I began on what at first was a purely private study, a History of The Silmarillion, an exhaustive investigation and analysis of every page and passage in all my father’s writings, leaving no stone unturned; and as this evolved over the years it became, greatly enlarged in scope, The History of Middle-earth in twelve books, finally completed in 1996. In this the relationship is revealed between the published Silmarillion and the vast mass of writing from which it was derived – but not of course all the reasons and justifications for the way in which the work was carried out.
The Children of Húrin: why did you decide to publish it, and how much of what you did was editing, and how much adding your own material based on what you know of your father?
Above all the work that has come my way from my appointment as my father’s literary executor I have taken as my primary task the publication of his unpublished writings in forms as accessible and as accurate as I could make them. Looking back, it is strange to see how little was known of the whole conception of Middle-earth when he died. This also is for me an absolute justification for the work that I have done.
The Children of Húrin was indeed a somewhat special case, since he had told the story itself many times in different forms: one could say that it evolved as The Silmarillion evolved. The history of the story can be largely discovered from The History of Middle-earth. But it was long my father’s ultimately unfulfilled ambition to tell three of the major individual stories from The Silmarillion in a much fuller form than was suitable for that work itself; and it is clear that if he had completed any one of these tales, he would have wished to publish it as a separate work, despite its being part of a much larger history. This was why I published it as I did, two years ago, as I wrote in my preface, ‘as an independent work, between its own covers, with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which he left some parts of it.’
There is in fact, as I have said in the book, ‘no element of extraneous “invention” of any kind, however slight’ in my edition of The Children of Húrin; but the text is in some parts necessarily artificial, since I used draft material from different stages in the evolution of the story. The way in which this was done is described in an appendix to the book.
Have you ever had any desire to write a work of fiction?
Though a long time addict of the novel myself, I have never attempted, or ever been tempted, to write a work of fiction.
Is it true that your father would read The Hobbit to you when you were a child, and that you were paid two pence per correction?
In 1937, the year in which The Hobbit was published, I wrote that my father ‘read [The Hobbit] to John, Michael [my older brothers] and me in our winter “reads” after tea in the evening.’
My father wrote in a letter to his publishers Allen and Unwin dated 4 February 1938: ‘I received a letter from a young reader in Boston (Lincs.) enclosing a list of errata [in The Hobbit]. I then put my youngest son to find any more at two pence a time. He did. I enclose the results – which added to those already submitted should (I hope) make an exhaustive list. I hope also they may one day be required.’ I have no recollection of this, but it’s obviously true.
It is also true that he would send portions of The Lord of the Rings out to you while you were in the air force for your contributions? Can you remember any particular points or concerns you had back then that you shared with him?
That also is true. I was in South Africa during the war training as an R.A.F. pilot, and during that time my father wrote to me many long letters, all of which reached me, and of which a number have been published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. In many of these letters he told me of the progress of The Lord of the Rings, and he sent me the actual chapters of almost all of Book Four (the second part of The Two Towers) as they were written.
These interventions and suggestions of mine were of a very minor nature. For example, he wrote to me in May 1944 that he would change the name Gamgee to Goodchild ‘if I thought you would let me’, ‘since Hobbits of that class have very Saxon names as a rule’. I replied that I wouldn’t at all like to see Sam Gamgee changed to Sam Goodchild; and Sam Gamgee remained.
How far do you think publishing has changed over the years, particularly with regard to publicity? For the better, or the worse?
My experience of publishing, though continuous for 35 years, has I think been perhaps too specialised to allow me to offer any general opinion.
What do you think your father would have made of his enormous popularity?
I often speculate about this, but any answer to the question would depend on how much the soothsayers told him of the future, and how it was conveyed to him. I think (if one extends the question to include more than simply his enormous popularity) that he might have been in turns delighted, charmed, amused, puzzled, disquieted, baffled, indignant, but, finally, comprehensively astounded.
Is it really true that you guard your home with a wild boar?
No, this isn’t true at all. It is a scaled-down version of a wholly unfounded piece of nonsense that gained currency, with much else of the same order, at the time of the films of The Lord of the Rings. In the full form of the story I keep not one, but a whole troop of wild boars, expressly in order to chase off Tolkien fans who are imagined to lurk in the woods that surround my house. There are indeed many wild boars in these parts, but I don’t think they would be at all suitable as guardians even if I wanted them.
This Q&A originally appeared on The Guardian’s website and can be found here: