Christopher Tolkien's name is always qualified as "the son of J.R.R. Tolkien," which makes it easy to forget that we're talking about an 87-year-old man here. C. Tolkien has been the executor of the vast literary estate of his father for nearly four decades, and he goes about this prodigious work quietly. At his father's death in 1973, he decided to not speak with the media in any way, not directly or through press statements -- nothing. Which makes his recent interview with Le Monde especially fascinating. (Sedulia Scott happily translates from the French to English.)
Before we begin seeing what C. Tolkien has to say, let's take a minute: can you imagine being wholly responsible for the legacy of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarilion, and all the rest? All those poems and essays and research "on fairy-stories"? You will not be surprised to learn that J.R.R. left behind an enormous amount of unpublished material. To navigate translations, Hollywood, re-releases, special illustrated editions, permissions to reprint or excerpt ... and, my god, to feel that the stakes are so high if you made a poor judgment. C. Tolkien, my friends, has stepped up.
The wide-ranging Le Monde profile offers a picture of what it has been like for him.
C. Tolkien, the third of four children, was a professor of Old English at New College in Oxford when his father died. He resigned rather cheerfully, and turned his attention to the mammoth, messy archives left behind. Here's Le Monde:
However, in this unlikely jumble, there was a treasure, not only The Silmarillion, but very complete versions of all sorts of legends only just glimpsed in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings-- an almost submerged archipelago, of whose existence Christopher had been partly unaware. It was then that the work began a second life... and so did Christopher.
For eighteen years, he worked full speed on The History of Middle-Earth, the gigantic 12-volume edition that traces the evolution of Tolkien's world. "During all that time, I watched him type with three fingers on an old machine that had belonged to his father," observes his wife. "You could hear it all the way down the street!" It was a literary gold mine, but also a painstaking job and left Christopher exhausted, not to say depressed. But never mind, he would not stop there. In 2007, he published The Children of Húrin, a posthumous Tolkien novel recomposed from works that had appeared here and there. It sold 500,000 copies in English and has been translated into 20 languages.
Interestingly, the Le Monde article ties this into the context of the era -- namely, the rise of role-playing games, fan fiction, epic film like "Star Wars," and other forms of immersive fantasy. It also details the poisonous relationship the Tolkien family and estate have had with the wildly popular "Lord of the Rings" films. (Word came out recently that "The Hobbit" will be released as -- alas! -- a trilogy, and will include entirely new characters.) One of the sadder observations is that, "the book itself became less of a source of inspiration for the authors of fantasy than the film of the book was, then (sic) the games inspired by the film, and so on."
"I could write a book on the idiotic requests I have received," sighs Christopher Tolkien. He is trying to protect the literary work from the three-ring circus that has developed around it. In general, the Tolkien Estate refuses almost all requests. "Normally," explains Adam Tolkien (C. Tolkien's son), "the executors of the estate want to promote a work as much as they can. But we are just the opposite. We want to put the spotlight on what is not Lord of the Rings."
"Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time," Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. "The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away."