Christopher Tolkien: Master of Middle-Earth

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BY January 17, 2020

JRR Tolkien is often credited as the father of modern fantasy…because he is. There’s not a single fantasy book today that owes something The Lord of the Rings. Even the fantasy books that are “anti-Lord of the Rings” still can’t exist without what the former. Yet as much as JRR Tolkien’s stories changed the face of literature last century, his son Christopher Tolkien is the man responsible for turning Middle-Earth from a beloved fantasy work to a legacy of world-building and culture. If JRR Tolkien was the maker of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien was its master. Master in the sense of both a keeper of the house, and an architect of genius. And these are the most works that brought incredible depth to his father’s creation.

The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien Edits a Middle-Earth Bible (1977)

Christopher Tolkien, JRR Tolkien, Silmarillion, Middle-earth (image via Mariner Books)

This first work is also the most important piece that Christopher Tolkien in the entire Middle-Earth canon. The Silmarillion goes back to the beginning of Middle-Earth. As in, Genesis. Eru Ilúvatar, the “God” figure, creates Arda, the Heavens, and all sentient life. Through a song, no less. Song is a major theme of the book. Different Ainur, the powerful beings of Arda, add to the song and share in its melody. But then the most powerful of the Ainur, Melkor (who would become Morgoth) added discord, with chords. Some of the most amazing Middle-Earth stories follow this, such as Beren and Luthien, and The Children of Hurin. As the decades progressed, Christopher Tolkien expanded these Middle-Earth stories to books of their own too. But it would be decades before that happened.

The Books of Lost Tales: Middle-Earth Gets Its Myths (1983 and 1984)

JRR Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales (image via HarperCollins)

If The Silmarillion is the Bible of Middle-Earth, The Book of Lost Tales 1 and 2 are more like Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a book of mythology. Many of the stories are from The Silmarillion, but in the true fashion of variations to myths today, the stories aren’t exactly the same. They have a bit more depth too, but still written in a style that feels more akin to history than to fantasy (kind of Tolkien’s trademark style). These two books were also the start of the 12-volume Histories of Middle-Earth, all of which Christopher Tolkien edited.

The Lays of Beleriand: Christopher Tolkien Starts His Middle-earth Analysis (1985)

The Lays of Beleriand contain two epic poems JRR Tolkien started but never finished, and few smaller ones. The two big Middle-Earth Epics, which Christopher Tolkien would revisit a few more times, were The Children of Hurin and the

Lays of Beleriand, JRR Tolkien, Beren, Luthien (Image via Abe Books)

Lay of Leithian. However, what The Lays of Beleriand first offered readers was a peek into how JRR Tolkien worked. We’re essentially getting a behind the scenes look at how he created Middle-Earth, with drafts and commentary to help make sense of it.

The Shaping of Middle-Earth: Christopher Tolkien Starts Revealing More about Middle-earth (1986)

Shaping of Middle-Earth, Harper Collins, JRR Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (image via HarperCollins)

In this fourth book of The Histories of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien really shows us the shaping of Middle-Earth in two ways. First, it covers the Genesis stories and how Ilúvatar shaped Middle-Earth. But we also get a lot more detail about how JRR Tolkien shaped Middle-Earth. We see the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion, which JRR Tolkien labeled as the “sketch of the mythology.” And then more early drafts, such as the Annals of Valinor and Annals of Beleriand, which are the earliest stories of the First Age. For those who want to see how JRR Tolkien created such detailed mythology, this is essential reading.

The Lost Road and Other Writings: The Friendship Between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien Explored (1987)

Lost Road and other writings, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis (Image via HarperCollins)

CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were close friends throughout their careers. It would be like if JK Rowling and George RR Martin were BFFs today. And through their correspondence, we see them make a deal—they would each tackle science-fiction. They were already the two most important fantasy writers ever, so why not stake a claim on sci-fi too? CS Lewis fulfilled his end of the bargain with his Space Trilogy. Tolkien abandoned his project after four chapters. Tolkien’s idea for sci-fi included time travel through visions, ending in the Downfall of Númenor. Thanks to Christopher Tolkien, we see how CS Lewis also had a hand in shaping Middle-Earth too, and a glimpse at two friends playing a writing game. Lewis won.

The History of the Lord of the Rings: The Making of an Epic (1988-1992)

History of the Lord of the Rings, Return of the Shadow, Treason of Isengard, War of the Ring, Sauron Defeated (image via Abe Books)

This should be 4 different posts, as The History of the Lord of the Rings is four books. Each book takes a deep dive into JRR Tolkien’s writing process for his famous trilogy. Even the titles of the books are alternative titles to the books in the series:

We learn some weird things in these books. Strider, who is revealed to be Aragorn, the heir of the Gondor? He was originally a hobbit! Christopher Tolkien notes that his father would get caught up in a “spider’s web of argumentation” when writing the Middle-Earth epic. For instance, Odo, Frodo, Folco, Faramond, Peregrin, Hamilcar, Fredegar, and Olo were all names for Pippin at different points. And those last words of the trilogy, Sam’s “Well, I’m back.” That’s not where it ended. Tolkien kept going. No other books show the inside of a writer’s head better than The History of the Lord of the Rings.

Morgoth’s Ring (1993) and The War of the Jewels (1994): More Silmarillion History

Morgoth's Ring, Christopher Tolkien, Middle-earth (Image via HarperCollins)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien went back to the Silmarillion. In these books, we see the same process he took in The History of the Lord of the Rings. But even with as much as Christopher Tolkien edited the works pertaining to Middle-Earth mythology, we still learn more in these books and even meet new characters.

The Peoples of Middle-Earth: The Last History of Middle-Earth (1996)

Peoples of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien, the New Shadow (image via YouTube)

Here we come to the end of The Histories of Middle-Earth, looking at the last few drafts left for Christopher Tolkien to cover. This has a little bit of everything. Early stories from the Lost Tales era. Notes and drafts on the Appendices in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and a few small things. But, most notably, we get a look at what JRR Tolkien had in mind for a sequel to The Lord of the Rings: The New Shadow. He wrote several versions of the first chapters of King Eldarion, Aragorn’s son, but abandoned the idea. There’s also a few drafts of Tel-Elmar, which explored the Númenóreans colonizing Middle-Earth, from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, the “wild men.” It’s a fascinating book of could-have-beens.

The Children of Hurin: The First New Novel of Middle-Earth from Christopher Tolkien (2007)

Children of Hurin, JRR Tolkien, Middle-Earth, Christopher Tolkien (image via HarperCollins)

Though JRR Tolkien’s name is in grand letters on the cover, and Christopher Tolkien in the small “edited by” under script, The Children of Hurin should say “By JRR and Christopher Tolkien.” Christopher Tolkien painstakingly pieced together the various fragments of this Middle-Earth legend, originally told in summary in The Silmarillion, and filled in the gaps. The result is a beautiful novel that has serves as the Greek tragedy of Middle-Earth. Want a real treat? Christopher Lee—Saruman himself—reads the audiobook version.

Beren and Lúthien: The Middle-Earth Love Story (2017)

Beren and Luthien, JRR Tolkien, Harper Collins (Image via HarperCollins)

The second new novel of Middle-Earth that Christopher Tolkien pieced together might be the most personal one for him. Beren and Lúthien are Christopher Tolkien’s parents, JRR and Edith. The characters’ names are on his parents’ tombstones. In editing and essentially co-authoring Beren and Lúthien, Christopher Tolkien is telling the story of his parents…only set in the fantasy realm of Middle-Earth.

The Fall of Gondolin: The End of an Era for Middle-Earth (2018)

Fall of Gondolin, JRR Tolkien, Morgoth, Middle-Earth, Christopher Tolkien (Image via HarperCollins)

JRR Tolkien first started writing The Fall of Gondolin while in the trenches of World War One, 1917. We would see snippets and shortened versions of the epic over the next hundred years, but in 2018, Christopher Tolkien released this final Middle-Earth novel, and in many ways, it’s the most important. It was the most decisive battle of the First Age, one that would make Morgoth incredibly powerful until his eventual fall.

And So Much More

Beowulf, JRR Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (image via HarperCollins)

Beyond his father’s Middle-Earth texts, Christopher Tolkien also edited his translations of Beowulf, The Fall of King Arthur, The Story of Kullervo, and many others. He satiated the fans’ need for more Middle-Earth stories for nearly 50 years after his father’s passing. It’s hard to imagine that he left anymore behind to edit, but without Christopher Tolkien, what would new Middle-Earth books even look like? S

tattoos Yes, I have Lord of the Rings tattoos on each arm. (Tattoos from Sacred Space Tattoo Studio)

(Featured Image via Quora)

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Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.

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