The Hobbit

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The Worlds of Middle-Earth: The Millions Interviews Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine

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Beginning with The Silmarillion in 1977, and ending with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018, Christopher Tolkien edited and published 25 books of his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Shepherding J.R.R’s mostly unpublished writings about Middle-earth into the literary canon, Christopher deepened public appreciation of J.R.R.’s elaborate world-building, especially during the eras before those described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to his diligent efforts as his father’s literary executor, Christopher was awarded the Bodley Medal in 2016, “for his outstanding contribution to the world of literature.”

In The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, Richard Ovenden, who serves as Bodley’s Librarian, the senior Executive position of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, and Catherine McIlwaine, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries, have assembled a remarkable anthology about Christopher, who died in 2020. Though originally planned as a festschrift, the book’s scope is both vast and intimate, including memories from Christopher’s sister Priscilla, a eulogy delivered at his funeral by a close friend, literary essays from Tolkien scholars, and an examination of a lost BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from the 1950s (J.R.R. himself rewrote narration and dialogue for the production, the only known adaptation with which Tolkien himself was involved). I spoke with Ovenden and McIlwaine about The Great Tales Never End, and Christopher’s work to preserve and expand upon his famous father’s legacy.

Lenny Picker: What personal memories of Christopher Tolkien are your most vivid?

Richard Ovenden: I had the good fortune of visiting him at least once a year for about 10 years. Staying in the house, having long conversations. He looked quite like his father. I never knew J.R.R. Tolkien, but Christopher’s memory of Oxford really was quite profound. He was born there, grew up there, and lived there for many decades. But his memory of it is really kind of frozen in about the middle of the 1970s, when the family moved to France. And so having a conversation with Christopher about Oxford was like having one about the Oxford of when J.R.R. Tolkien was still alive. So it seemed to me almost like you were talking to J.R.R. Tolkien. And because he had this immense knowledge of his father’s work and his mentality, there was that sort of connection. Christopher also had a very great sense of humor—a very, very dry sense of humor. And he was a very funny human being. He also was a great reader; he loved reading fiction, Victorian fiction, in particular, Dickens, Trollope, were a great source of pleasure for him. So he was a very literary person, not just in his own field of scholarship.

Catherine McIlwaine: I didn’t know him personally as well as Richard did. I only accompanied Richard once to Christopher’s home in the south of France, but it was a very memorable occasion, as you can imagine. We had some business talk, and then we had a lovely meal outside—cheese and bread and wine, just a simple, beautiful meal, really like we’d had a Hobbit feast. We walked around the grounds, and Christopher talked about the difficulty of reading his father’s handwriting, and how some of it remained impenetrable. Most of it—with patience and by developing a familiarity with the handwriting—he was able to decipher. And that really chimed with me because, of course, a lot of my work as the Tolkien archivist is reading Tolkien’s handwriting, and he could write so beautifully, and so calligraphically. But when he was writing really fast, and the ideas were just coming out of his head and he was scrawling in pencil, particularly, it becomes awful, just like a string of squiggles. So I really felt that we had some connection in our daily lives from that shared experience.

LP: Richard, how would you summarize Christopher’s role in both preserving and enhancing his father’s legacy?

RO: When J.R.R.Tolkien died, he had published only a fraction of what he had actually written about the worlds of Middle-earth. There were a series of legends which were left in unfinished form in manuscripts, which Christopher then edited and brought into publication. The first of these was The Silmarillion, and that was then followed by The Unfinished Tales, and then the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-Earth. It’s a massive achievement, really. And that breadth of detail which Christopher’s edited works bring to the world of Middle-earth would have never appeared if he hadn’t taken on this labor—and it was a labor that really lasted 50 years. And that was brought about through his painstaking scholarship. He was a scholar of Middle English. He lectured and taught at Oxford and brought that erudition and that scholarly rigor to the manuscripts of his father, as if they were Middle English manuscripts that had been written on parchment 600 years ago. He gave up his academic career to do that. He’d been very successful in Oxford for about 10 or 12 years as a lecturer, as well as a fellow. So he gave that up and just dedicated himself to the editorial work. But I don’t think he ever saw that as a loss. Quite the opposite. It was a fantastic opportunity for him to dedicate himself to providing, the most faithful editorial versions he could. And in his nineties, he produced his father’s edition of Beowulf. So there’s not just the literary works related to Middle-earth, but something which scholars had never thought would see the light of day—one of the greatest scholars of medieval literature of the twentieth century’s edition of Beowulf, one of the most important works in literature. And Christopher finally bringing it to the public in a meticulous edition, while in his nineties—I mean, what an incredible achievement.

LP: Catherine, was there anything from the contributions to this volume which changed your understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work?

CM: I do feel like I have a much greater understanding now of Christopher’s role in his father’s work—from his childhood, sitting on a stool and listening to tales,  right through to not just his editorial work on his father’s writings, but, as some of the essays in this volume note, creative work in collaboration with his father. There’s a lovely phrase in the eulogy in the book by Maxine Pascal, who was a family friend—she says Christopher served as “a creative companion.” I thought that was a really lovely sort of description of that relationship between Christopher and his father. There was a lot in this book that is thought-provoking. I particularly liked Vincent Ferré’s essay, “The Son Behind The Father: Christopher Tolkien as a Writer,” for making you think about which parts Christopher might have contributed himself, rather than just rearranging words on the page.

And I always found the ending of The Lord of the Rings quite disappointing. I do love that book, but when you get to the end and Samwise says, “Well, I’m back” [the last words in the published The Lord of the Rings], that feels like you missed a step or something. And Verlyn Flieger’s essay “Listening To The Music” brings to the fore that there was more to the book that Tolkien had written, and that that wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It was supposed to end with, “Sam heard suddenly the sigh and murmur of the sea on the shores of Middle-earth.” And that was a link back to the creation of the world, and the Music of the Ainur [immortal spirits existing before the Creation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology] in the waves. And that just changed my whole approach to the ending of The Lord of the Rings, which is lovely because I’ve read it, you know, probably every year of my adult life. And that scholarship changed my way of thinking about it.

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