Thursday, July 9, 2009

Christopher is Distinguished

So, a while back I was in a Borders and thumbed through a new(ish) biography of John Mortimer,* the English writer best known as the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey. As is my wont in such cases, I turned to the index and looked to see if there were any references to J. R. R. Tolkien.

To my surprise, there weren't any entries for JRRT, but there were two for Christopher. Looking them up, I found that the first, in a passage regarding Mortimer's grudge against his parents for sending him off to The Dragon School in Oxford, gave a brief description of the school's history and noted that

"John [Mortimer]'s generation, like every other, produced alumni of distinction: the historian E. P. Thompson, the writer and publisher Richard Ollard, The Times's music critic William Mann, and J. R. R. Tolkien's son Christopher" [p.19]**

The second reference comes much later in the book, when discussing how Mortimer's son Jeremy applied to Oxford:

"He was interviewed for New College by Christopher Tolkien and John Bayley, who were eager to hear all about his co-ed schooling, and awarded him an exhibition to read English" [p. 274]

--Here we see Christopher very much the Oxford don, evaluating applicants for his college; the sort of administrative work we knew he must have done but which rarely surfaces in the public record. It's easy to forget that he was well on his way to establishing himself as a distinguished Middle English and Old Norse scholar in his own right between the late fifties and mid-seventies, when he left Oxford to devote himself to editing his father's manuscripts full-time.***

So, it's nice to see Christopher getting some of the credit he deserves independently of JRRT.

--John R.

*A VOYAGE ROUND JOHN MORTIMER, by Valerie Grove [2007]

**other, more recent, alumni include Humphrey Carpenter (whose father was after all the Bishop of Oxford) and Hugh Laurie; see

***His translation/edition of THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREKS THE WISE is my favorite saga. He also co-edited three Canterbury Tales in school editions with Nevill Coghill, and wrote an introduction to another edition of the same saga (this latter being one of the items I picked up in May at Kalamazoo). He also wrote a wonderful essay about the Goths and Huns for the Viking Society's SAGA-BOOK, which he was able to draw on just this year for his commentary in THE LEGEND OF SIGURD & GUDRUN.

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