Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Christopher's Masterpiece

So, I've been thinking back over Christopher Tolkien's extraordinary achievements and wondering which was the most exceptional.

A strong case can be made for the 1977 SILMARILLION. In retrospect, now that all the component pieces of that work have seen the light in the HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH series we can see just how difficult his task was, and how comprehensively he mastered it. Special mention shd be made of one of the few passages of that work which we know Christopher himself wrote, rather than extracted from some manuscript of his father: the death of Thingol down in the dark beneath Menegroth, looking at the light of the Silmaril. Had Christopher not told us so, I don't think any of us cd have guessed that this deeply evocative and memorable scene was written by CT rather than JRRT himself.

And then of course there's THE HISTORY OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS (HME. VI, VII, VIII, IXa, & XII), the part of his massive manuscript publication project that I suspect is for many people the most deeply interesting, offering as it does a scrupulously detailed behind the scenes look at a great author creating his greatest  work.

A personal favorite of mine is THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREKS THE WISE. This was the first book of Christopher's I ever came across (in the library at Southern State College), the first saga I ever read (and hence my introduction to that whole world of Icelandic myth and legend). It's also a model of clarity and editorial restraint.

And finally there's a volume I cd wish for that we're never likely to see: SELECTED LETTERS of CT. I think he must have been the greatest letter writer I've ever known -- always to the point, occasionally cutting, with a special kind of deftness whereby just the right word seemed to appear just when he needed it.  The only writer I can think to compare him to stylistically wd be P. G. Wodehouse, with the wit but not the whimsey.

So those wd be my choices, but thanks to Christopher's being so prolific and diligent there are plenty more to choose from.*

--John R.
current reading: THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW



Paul W said...

Completely agree about the death of Thingol. I wish he had trusted himself more with the great tales. I believe he he could have produced a Fall of Gondolin that would have done his father proud.

I would suggest the History of Middle Earth series, all 12 volumes, as his magnum opus. Kinda cheating, I admit.

His reading of Beren & Luthian and the Tolkien audio cassette collection was also masterful.

Bill said...

And finally there's a volume I cd wish for that we're never likely to see: SELECTED LETTERS of CT.

I wonder about that. It would be a worthy volume, and it is a shame that his lapidary epistles will likely never see the light of day, but I suppose it would be difficult to persuade a publisher of its commercial viability.

Phil Dutré said...

We indeed owe a lot to CT. A few years ago I started a Tolkien reading club with some like-minded enthusiasts, and we gather every 3 months or so to discuss selected chapters of the various books. RIght now we are working through The Silmarillion, and only when consulting The Histories as well, one can truly appreciate the depth of the work.

Doug Kane said...

I don't want to be a killjoy, and I completely agree about how much we owe to Christopher's tireless work, but I have often wondered how much the work on the Fall of Doriath was his own, and how much was done by Guy Kay.

I agree with Paul that the full History of Middle-earth was his greatest achievement. And I think few can appreciate just how much work went into that achievement as much as you, given your own work on the History of The Hobbit.

Paul W said...

I've read a little of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry and the style is so different that I am convinced the Thingol writing is primarily Christopher Tolkien's. I could, of course, be wrong, I am but a novice amongst Tolkien scholars, but lacking significant evidence otherwise...

Formendacil said...

One would think, in a world where just about any Tolkien scholarship can find a publisher, that a Selected Letters of CT could readily find publication--perhaps not at a HarperCollins mega-level, but absolutely there are smaller publishers (Walking Tree, for example) where that is practically their raison d'etre. In the course of his long stewardship, the editor of the Silmarillion and other works must have written many insightful things about that the rest of us would love to have a chance to read.

But, of course, we should then need Christopher to have his own Humphrey Carpenter (and his own CT!) But I don't believe we know if he left a literary executor for his own work. Do we even know who replaces him as his father's?

Doug Kane said...

Paul, yes the style in Kay's Fionavor Tapestry is significantly different than Tolkien's, but at the time that he assisted Christopher he was a graduate student who had not written (or at least published) any works of fiction of his own. He has, however, certainly gone on to demonstrate a great facility for drafting original imaginative works of high fantasy. Christopher, on the other hand, never once demonstrated over the course of his very long career any such facility, or any interest in doing so (whereas he demonstrated an unmatched ability at textual analysis). In any event, it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure. Over the course of all of the volumes of HoMe, the only specific comment that Christopher made about Kay's contribution was that Kay suggested including the short fragment of The Lay of Leithian that is included in the chapter Of Beren and Luthien. And to the best of my knowledge, the only specific comment that Kay has ever made about his own contribution is that it was his suggestion that Christopher change from his original plan of presenting multiple texts with scholarly analysis (a mini-HoMe, essentially) and instead construct a single text from different sources. He has, to the best of my knowledge, refused to make any other comments on the matter.

Bill said...

Actually, Kay did give an account of his work with Christopher Oct 1974-June 1975. He delivered it at Conspiracy '87; and although it was not recorded Charles Noad took notes and wrote a report which was printed in Amon Hen.

"Kay would proceed one chapter ahead of Christopher Tolkien, proposing solutions to various textual problems and the like. The latter would then go over the result critically and change it as he thought fit, and then type the initial draft of the chapter. All this was conducted in near silence, but then would come some intense dialogue across the large table before the final form was reached. By February 1st, 1975, the first draft of The Silmarillion was completed."

That of course doesn't provide a firm answer, but it does impl;y that CT was the actual writer, subject to whatever suggestions of GK he liked. Note also the date: the "first draft" was done in February 1975, but it would be another two and a half years before it was published.

Read into that what you will; myself, I think that the connective material in The Children of Hurin is so seamless and so much in keeping with JRRT's prose style that I have no problem seeing CT as the author of the Doriath chapter.

Paul W said...

I just think it more likely to primarily be Christopher's work, because he lived in his father's world for so long. I acknowledge your points, but I think CRRT's intense knowledge of the text more then makes up for his lack of interest in producing his own fictional works.

But it sounds like we will never really know.

Anonymous said...

Bill, it was in that talk by Kay that in which he stated that it was his suggestion to compose a single narrative, which I mentioned above. And I should have mentioned earlier that it was actually in a comment by Charles Noad himself, in his review of my book at the dearly departed LOTR Plaza Scholars forum, that I first heard the suggestion that it was likely Kay who composed the Of the Ruin of Doriath chapter, for the same reason that I advanced above (I wish I had kept a copy of that review).