Christopher Tolkien died on January 16, 2020. It makes me wish we still sang for the dead as Aragorn does for Boromir in The Two Towers. I feel like something has to be said. 

But I’m not good at this. I’m not good at funerals (for no lack of practice). But I always want to say something profound. And all words taste like blood and gravel and pour out shamefully like the emptying that happens to a body after death. 

Maybe I’m not actually that good at words.

But I want to say something. 

I don’t know much about Christopher Tolkien, third son of the man who saw dragon-stalked dwarven halls in the flames of his fireplace.

But I’ve read the letters his father wrote him as Father Christmas. Tolkien didn’t write these for publication, but they are just as magical, just as much a fierce and dumb-striking burst of creativity as The Lord of the Rings. Father Christmas has shaky handwriting, but his elven clerk has beautiful script, and his polar bear friend has a chunky scrawl. What must it have been like to live in a house full of the kind of love that spins worlds into existence around you? 

I know from my own childhood, when my father told my sister and me, one nodding head on each knee, stories where we met Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred-Acre Wood, that storytelling love makes you feel like the center of the world, the hero of an epic. 

What must it have been like to be Christopher Tolkien? Was it magical to be the son of a mind carpeted with stars that shone upon vast worlds? Or is it strange to know that you are not your father’s greatest legacy, at least in the world’s eyes?  

It is one thing to have a father who is bard, wizard, sage, poet, scholar, and the father and patron saint of modern high fantasy. It’s another thing to follow him in the same career. If I had been Christopher, I think that would have sealed my career as a quantum physicist or an archeologist. Anything but a writer. I’d give any limb to be an Inkling. But I wouldn’t want to be a Tolkien. 

What is it like to have your life swallowed up in someone else’s epic?

I think most humans think of themselves as the protagonist of the story they live. 

But I have a growing suspicion that I am not the main character. Each day without any great enchantments humming anxiously within family heirlooms or black riders arriving at my door is another proof that I am ordinary. That’s a terrible fate in a story. Whatever the hero has to do, we’d all still rather be Frodo than Gaffer Gamgee whose biggest problem are the bugs on his roses. Sometimes we’d rather be Frodo or Bilbo than ourselves. We’d try our luck with dragons over taxes.

And then there’s that nail-biting, Gollum-ish creature that I think must live in the back of everyone’s head, munching on one’s inspiration and casually wondering if you’re actually all that good at whatever adventure is supposed to give meaning to your life. We all want to do something. 

Many people try to make Tolkien’s work about World War I, an outcry against a growing mechanized brutality against a rural peace. Christopher Tolkien has always insisted that those themes were not his father’s intent. 

But I wonder if the foolish bravado and false heroics, the glory hunger, of World War I propaganda rusted the gleam of the archetypal hero for Tolkien. I wonder if that is the point of Boromir. He’s the stuff of epics and he’s dead less than halfway through the story. Not a senseless death, but a bright life consumed quickly in a story so much bigger than himself. And the spirit of Boromir kind of hums through the rest of The Two Towers, a story about stewards, exiles, and servants. 

That’s the interesting thing about Tolkien—it’s hard to untangle a single hero from The Lord of the Rings, even harder in the Silmarillion. Often, a side character does the epic deed, always at great cost, with little praise. 

I think Tolkien had a soft spot for side characters, characters whose whole lives are in the shadow of someone else, the wills and selves that are caught up in the current of some greater epic. 

Noble deference, thankless stewardship, the dogged bravery of faithful exile. Those whose call it is to watch, wait, and suffer are Tolkien’s heroes. This is the final courage of Boromir, the love of Arwen, the virtue of Faramir, and the power of Galadriel. It’s what makes the line, “I can’t carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you” so spectacular. And I’m not even sure if that’s from the book or the movie, but it sounds like Tolkien’s kind of hero. Maybe that is what the epic life is—to diminish that someone or something else might increase. 

It is not grasping or achieving. It is giving up. The willingness to be second. That’s the heroism of Sam—picking up a work someone else will be hailed for and dragging it through the hardest miles.

I read somewhere that J. R. R. Tolkien hated editing. Sometimes he’d just start over from scratch. Sometimes he’d write the new version directly on top of the old. The fever and frenzy of creativity are rapturous. Editing is a trudge at best. Editing Tolkien must have been torturous. 

But his son devoted years of his life to it and stood guard over it. Like Boromir, Christopher’s role was to be a steward. 

Christopher Tolkien was not a great writer. Not like his father. 

But Christopher was a true Tolkien hero. 

And if it turns out that the tendency of my words to fall flat when they really matter and my immature over-assessment of my own skill and centricity in the story of life turn out to truly herald that I am not the next epic writer, it will be agonizing. But I would hope to at least not miss the moral of the Tolkiens’ legacy—that heroism is not to be confused with greatness, nor the ordinary with the unimportant. 

May the westward sea be smooth for you, Christopher Tolkien, the faithful Steward of Gondor.

3 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    “…a soft spot for side characters.” Some of my favorite stories spin out from this center, the notion that you don’t have to be Important to be important.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    “Or is it strange to know that you are not your father’s greatest legacy, at least in the world’s eyes?” As a daughter of a teacher, I feel this line in my soul. How do you honor what someone who you love did so well without being able to build on their shoulders? It kind of puts you in your place; however, as you seem to say, maybe that space of being the secondary hero is the place we should strive to occupy.

    Reply
  3. Kryic Koning

    Where to begin? There are so many beautiful lines in this piece. The heart of it is true and wonderful and beats, for many and many years to come. Such delightful sentiment. I am in awe. Great work, great words. All they need to be are your own. Someone will find them beautiful.

    Reply

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