Friday, January 17, 2020

Another Dismal Day of January: Christopher Tolkien 1924-2020

In medieval superstition, two days of each month were accounted especially unlucky, the so-called dies mali in Latin, or dismal days in English. For me these dies mali of January will henceforward remind me of the deaths of two friends. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's biographer, passed away on 4 January 2005 at the age of 58, and now, fifteen years later,  Christopher Tolkien has passed away in the night of 15/16 January 2020 at the age of 95. These two men taught me more than I can express about the literary life and what it means to be, and how to go about being, a literary scholar. I became friends with Humphrey in the summer of 1978 when I attended a summer program in Oxford. A few years later Humphrey put me in touch with Christopher. Though I had some excellent and helpful teachers in college, none of them affected me as profoundly, or as lastingly, as did these friendships with Humphrey and Christopher. It is too soon for me to comment about Christopher, but here I pass on my condolences to his family and to his wide following among Tolkien readers and scholars. Below I share a photograph, taken at Keble College during the Tolkien Centenary Conference in August 1992, of Verlyn Flieger, myself, and Christopher.  The postcard I am holding shows one of the faces and stone heads outside of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.* I had just commented that that particular head epitomized how I felt just before delivering my talk at the conference. (The photo was taken by Marjorie Burns.) It is unfathomable to me that more than twenty-seven years have passed since that day.

*I think. I still have one similar postcard that I bought on that same day.


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien was the master of Middle-earth, but, in his lifetime, C. S. Lewis was the indispensable man, who got Tolkien to finish LotR and boosted it, after publication, in influential reviews and remarks.

    After JRRT's death, Christopher was the indispensable man, most obviously for his great-hearted sharing of his father's legacy in his own books, but also for his generosity towards Tolkien scholars. The period of CJRT's activity, from 1975's release of Sur Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, to 2018's Fall of Gondolin, may be considered the golden age of Tolkien studies. It was a real thing, and, though, good articles and books will yet appear (I trust), the golden age is over.

    Dale Nelson


    Passing away of such a prominent figure causes a lot of obituaries with some discrepancies, but some questions were raised even in his lifetime. The first is the portrait of Edith with her son, who was identified as Christopher in 1925 in ‘The Tolkien Family Album’ (p. 48), and as John in 1917 in ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth’ (p. 260). I suppose, the situation is the same as with two ‘Arthurs’ on the photo discussed here a year ago: the photo probably wasn’t being labeled at first, and the assumptions were made decades later.

    The second question is about the obstacles of Christopher’s demobilistaion. When I was writing his biography for the anniversary post last autumn I found the lack of accounts.

    It is written in ‘The Letters’ that in March of 1945 Christopher was on his way to England from South Africa ( No. 098), and in May ‘After returning from South Africa, Christopher was stationed with the R.A.F, in Shropshire. He was hoping to arrange a transfer to the Fleet Air Arm’ (the prefatory note to No. 100). In April 1946 Christopher, travelling with his father and returning to his studies (according to W. Hammond and C. Scull, ‘Chronology’), was obviously a civilian. Letters written by Tolkien to his son between those dates only indicate that Christopher was living on his own. Christopher’s inclusion as a member into the Inklings’ club on the 9th of October doesn’t add much for it was announced in his father’s letter, and could be taken in absentia.

    The third question is why did he move to France in 1975. I’ve seen speculations on his escape from his father’s fans, but as far as I know, his own popularity in the 1970-es was much less than now.

    All my condolences to his family and people closest to him.