Christopher Tolkien died yesterday, aged 95.
On my wall is a map, a map instantly recognizable to millions. That hand drawn map of Middle Earth, with the Shire tucked up in the middle of Arnor, the Misty Mountains sweeping across the middle like the spine of the world, Mordor hunched down in the corner like a twisted letter ‘c’. If Lord of the Rings defined forever what fantasy was, that map defined forever what fantasy maps should be. Every fantasy paperback has had a map like it, styled like that, perched on the opening pages of the book.
Christopher Tolkien drew that map, first cribbing it together from his father’s less than immediately coherent attempts (some of which survive in the extended volumes) as a teenager, and then the final ubiquitous version in the seventies.
First and foremost, he was a man who lived his life caring for the legacy of his father. He defended that legacy with a singular passion, spearheading the Tolkien Estate’s reticence to allow use or adaptation of his father’s works. We did not spend the eighties and nineties seeing shelves get weighed down with dime store paperbacks of pulp sequels, like happened to some titanic genre authors of the twentieth century. There were no cash grab further adventures of Legolas and Gimli, or tedious hack and slash prequels of the young Strider.
Christopher lived a life of stewardship, ensuring that his father’s work was treated as literature. He kept the endless boxes of notes, and cared for them, piecing them together and editing them so that the work could be honored but still seen. Some two dozen volumes of the works surrounding The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sit on my shelves, parceled out over the years as Christopher lovingly turned the inevitable detritus of a writer, the forest of handwritten scribblings and notes in margins and lists and tidbits into an organized legacy of an artist.
This wasn’t ransacking, or a simple matter of having someone type up some old notebooks. He approached the matter as a literary historian and detective, piecing together for us the history of the history of Middle Earth. He traces the evolution for us of every page of his father’s works, through all the drafts and ideas. Those works are the single most valuable teacher a would-be writer of fantasy could ever drawn upon, showing the scaffolding and minute detail of how the master built the masterwork.
The past is a lot closer than we think isn’t it? The man who remembered being a boy listening to the stories of Bilbo Baggins before they were ever written down was still with us just yesterday.
As his father wrote, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
Header Image Source: The Tolkien Estate