My Father's 'Eviscerated' Work - Son Of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out
Christopher Tolkien gave his first ever press interview with Le Monde, shedding light on his father's vision and sharing his own deep dismay with Hobbit director Peter Jackson.
What follows is the first ever press interview of Christopher Tolkien, the official executor of J.R.R. Tolkien's estate, and the interpreter of his father's unpublished works. This original article and interview appeared in Le Monde on July 9, 2012. With the film version of the The Hobbit hitting theaters, we are publishing it for the first time here in English.
It's a rare, if not exceptional, case. In an era where most people would sell their souls to be talked about, Christopher Tolkien has not expressed himself in the media for 40 years. No interviews, no announcements, no meetings -- nothing.
It was a decision he made at the death of his father, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), British author of the hugely famous Lord of the Rings (three volumes published in 1954 and 1955), and one of the world's most-read writers, with some 150 million books sold and translations into 60 languages.
Was this long-held public silence simply a whim? Certainly not. The 87-year-old son of the great J.R.R. Tolkien is the calmest man imaginable. A distinguished Englishman with quite an upper class accent, who settled in the south of France in 1975 with his wife Baillie and their two children. Has he kept mum because he does not care? Even less likely. During all these years of silence, his life has been one of incessant, driven, almost Herculean work on the unpublished part of his father's oeuvre, of which he is the literary executor.
No, Christopher Tolkien's reserve has a very different explanation: the enormous gap, almost an abyss, which has been created between his father's writings and their commercial descendants -- work he does not recognize, especially since New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings, three phenomenally successful films, between 2001 and 2003. Over the years, a sort of parallel universe has formed around Tolkien's work, a world of sparkling images and of figurines, colored by the original books of the cult, but often very different from them, like a continent that has drifted far from its original land mass.
This commercial galaxy is now worth several billion dollars -- most of which does not go to Tolkien's heirs, and thus complicates the management of his heritage for his family, which is polarized not over the images or objects, but over the respect for Tolkien's words. Through a curious coincidence, the situation recalls the plot of Lord of the Rings, where everything starts with an inherited problem: Frodo Baggins, the hero, receives from the aging hero Bilbo the famous magic ring, whose possession attracts envy from every quarter, and ultimately provokes evil.
Awaiting the worldwide December release of a new Peter Jackson film, this time inspired by The Hobbit (1937), the Tolkiens were getting ready to deal with solicitations of every kind and with new excrescences of the work. "We will have to put up the barricades," says Tolkien's wife, Baillie, with a smile.
Before that, however, Christopher Tolkien agreed to speak with Le Monde about this legacy, a patrimony which has been his life's work, but which has also become the source of a certain "intellectual despair." For the posterity of J.R.R. Tolkien is both the story of an extraordinary literary transmission from a father to a son, and the story of a misunderstanding. The most well-known works, the ones that have obscured the rest, were only an epiphenomenon in the eyes of their author. They are a tiny corner of Tolkien's vast world, which he even abandoned, at least partly.
In 1969, the writer sold the movie rights, along with the rights for derived products, for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to United Artists for £100,000 sterling, a considerable sum at the time, but paltry when the current value is considered.
This amount was meant to allow the writer's children to pay their future inheritance taxes. Tolkien did it early because these taxes were very high under the UK's Labour government of that time. He also feared that changes in American copyright laws would damage his children's rights. But Lord of the Rings had immediately become a meteoric success, especially in the United States.
Except for Oxford, where his colleagues' criticisms affected the writer a great deal, the enthusiasm was general. "The Tolkien craze was much like that around Harry Potter," notes Vincent Ferré, professor at the University of Paris XIII, who has directed the publication of a Tolkien Dictionaryin French which will appear in the autumn. From the 1960s onward, The Lord of the Rings became a symbol of counter-culture, in particular in the United States. "The story of a group of people rebelling against oppression, with a background of fantasy, served as a standard for leftist militants, notably at Berkeley, in California."
At the time of the war in Vietnam, slogans such as "Gandalf for President" (after the old wizard in the novel) or "Frodo lives!" started to appear. One sign that shows the legend dies hard: during the second Iraq war, satiric stickers were printed that said "Frodo failed. Bush has the ring."
A retreat in France
But besides The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien published very little during his lifetime, certainly nothing to match the success of his two best-sellers. When he died in 1973, a gigantic share of his work remained unpublished.
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are actually only episodes in an imaginary history going on for millennia. Christopher Tolkien set out to bring this partly fragmented mythology to light, in a very unusual way. Rather than contenting himself with the books already published, he went to work on something that became a true passion, as becomes evident when he speaks of it: a labor of literary disinterment.
He receives the reporter with disarming kindness in his own house, in the midst of pines and olive trees. It is better hidden than a hobbit hole, and not an easy spot to find. Down a long ochre dirt road, you see a pink house between two dips. The bastide stands among wildflowers, ravishingly pretty and without any obvious signs that indicate large fortunes. A calm, timeless atmosphere reigns here, exactly in the image of its occupants.
The man who lives here is the third of J.R.R. Tolkien's four children and, with his sister Priscilla, the last survivor. Christopher is the executor of his father's will and the general director of the Tolkien Estate, the English enterprise that manages the estate and distributes the royalties from copyright to the heirs: Priscilla and Christopher, six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Estate company is of modest size, with only three employees, one of whom is Christopher and Baillie's son, Adam, and is assisted in Oxford by a law office. It also includes a charity branch, the Tolkien Trust, which is mainly concerned with educational and humanitarian projects.
But it is from his French retreat that Christopher Tolkien has been working on the books and answering solicitations. The interior is simple and warm, with books and rugs, comfortable armchairs, and family photos. In one of the images is J.R.R. Tolkien, his two older sons, his wife, and a little baby named Christopher in his mother's arms. From the beginning, no doubt, he was the most receptive audience for his father's work; and the most upset, later, by its evolution.
An extraordinary imagination
The misunderstanding started with The Hobbit, in the middle of the 1930s. Until then, Tolkien had published only one renowned essay on Beowulf, the great epic poem, peopled with monsters that was written in the Middle Ages. His fiction, begun during World War II, remained invisible.
Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, a specialist in Old English, a professor at Oxford and endowed with an extraordinary imagination. His passion was for languages, and he had invented several of them, then built a world to shelter them. By "world" is meant not only stories, but history, geography, customs; in short an entire universe which would serve as a background for his tales.
In 1937, as soon as it was published, The Hobbit immediately became a critical and popular success, to the point where its then publisher, Allen and Unwin, demanded a sequel urgently. Tolkien, though, did not wish to continue in the same vein. He had instead almost finished a narrative of the most ancient times of his universe, which he called The Silmarillion. Too difficult, decreed the publisher, who continued to harass him. The writer, a bit half-heartedly, accepted the project of writing a new story. In fact, he was about to set in place the first stone of what would become The Lord of the Rings.
But he did not forget about The Silmarillion, nor did his son. Christopher Tolkien's oldest memories were attached to the story of the beginnings, which his father would share with the children. "As strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created," he explains. "For me, the cities of The Silmarillion are more real than Babylon."
On a shelf in the living room, not far from the handsome wooden armchair in which Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, there is a small footstool covered in worn needlepoint. This is where Christopher sat, age 6 or 7, to listen to his father's stories. "My father could not afford to pay a secretary," he says. "I was the one who typed and drew the maps after he did the sketches."
Little by little, starting in the late 1930s, The Lord of the Rings took shape. Enlisted in the Royal Air Force, Christopher left for a South African air base in 1943, where every week he received a long letter from his father, as well as the episodes of the novel that was under way. "I was a fighter pilot. When I landed, I would read a chapter," he says, amused, showing a letter in which his father asks his advice on the formation of a proper noun.
The first thing he remembers feeling after his father's death was a sense of heavy responsibility. In the last years of his life, Tolkien had started working again on The Silmarillion, trying in vain to bring some order to the narrative, as the writing of Lord of the Rings, which borrowed elements from the earlier mythology, had caused some anachronisms and discrepancies in The Silmarillion.
"Tolkien could not do it," Baillie notes. For a time she had worked as the writer's assistant, and later edited one of his collections, called The Father Christmas Letters. "He was bogged down in chronological details, he rewrote everything, it became more and more complicated." Between father and son, it was understood that Christopher would take up the task if the writer died without having finished.
A hidden treasure
He also received his father's papers after the death: 70 boxes of archives, each stuffed with thousands of unpublished pages. Narratives, tales, lectures, poems of 4,000 lines more or less complete, letters and more letters, all in a frightening disorder. Almost nothing was dated or numbered, just stuffed higgledy-piggledy into the boxes.
"He had the habit of traveling between Oxford and Bournemouth, where he often stayed," Baillie Tolkien recounts. "When he left, he would put armfuls of papers into a suitcase which he always kept with him. When he arrived, he would sometimes pull out any sheet at random and start with that one!" On top of all this, the handwritten manuscripts were almost indecipherable because his handwriting was so cramped.
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. He resigned from New College at Oxford, where he had also become professor of Old English, and threw himself into editing his father's work. He left the university with no regrets, going so far (at the memory, his eyes sparkle) as to throw into the bushes the key each professor received, which was supposed to be exhibited at the end of the year in a ritual ceremony.
First in England, then in France, he reassembled the parts of The Silmarillion, making it more coherent, added padding here and there, and published the book in 1977, with some remorse. "Right away I thought that the book was good, but a little false, in the sense that I had had to invent some passages," he explains. At the time, he even had a worrying dream. "I was in my father's office at Oxford. He came in and started looking for something with great anxiety. Then I realized in horror that it was The Silmarillion, and I was terrified at the thought that he would discover what I had done."
Meanwhile, most of the manuscripts that he had brought to France, piled in the back of his car, had to go back to Oxford. At the request of the rest of the family, nervous at this migration, the papers went back the way they had arrived, to the Bodleian Library, where they are currently kept and are now being digitized. Therefore, Christopher had to undertake his work with photocopies, which was a great deal of trouble. It was impossible, for example, to go by the ink color or the texture of the paper when trying to date the documents. "But I had his voice in my ear," says Christopher Tolkien. This time, he would become, he says, "the historian of the work, its interpreter."
For 18 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, which 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.
As this new literary geography rose from his old typewriter, Tolkien's universe also proliferated in the outside world, completely independently. After Tolkien's death, the power of his imagination soon gave birth to new, and sometimes turbulent, works. "The flexibility of these books explains their success," remarks Vincent Ferré. "It is an oeuvre that creates a world, where readers can enter and become actors in their own right."
The writer's influence in the literary domain was first felt in fantasy, where his creations had reactivated a genre that dated to the 19th century. Beginning in the 1970s and especially 1980s, a heroic fantasy genre developed, steeped in Tolkienism, with legendary backgrounds, elves and dragons, magic, and struggle against the powers of evil.
His world, "like that of the Grimms' fairy tales of the previous century, has become part of the mental furniture of the western world," writes Englishman Thomas Alan Shippey in an essay dedicated to Tolkien.
In France and other countries, many publishers have invested in this particularly lucrative market. More than four million books were sold in 2008 alone. Among other sagas that came out during the 1970s were The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant(1977) by Stephen R. Donaldson.
First in the United States, then throughout Europe and even in Asia, the genre became an enormous industry, soon including comic books, role-playing games, video games, films, and even music, with progressive rock. In the 2000s, "fan fiction" arrived on the internet, each contributor populating Tolkien's world in his or her own way.
The Lord of the Rings metamorphosed into a sort of autonomous entity, living its own life. It inspired George Lucas, author of the Star Wars series, whose first film came out in 1977. Or the rock group Led Zeppelin, which incorporated references to the book in several songs, including "The Battle of Evermore."
But none of this bothered the family until Peter Jackson's films. It was the release of the first film of the trilogy, in 2001, that changed the nature of things. First, it had a prodigious effect on book sales.
"In three years, from 2001 to 2003, 25 million copies of Lord of the Rings were sold -- 15 million in English and 10 million in other languages. In the United Kingdom, sales went up by 1000% after the release of the first movie in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring," says David Brawn, Tolkien's publisher at HarperCollins, which retains the English-speaking rights, except for the United States.
Rather quickly, however, the film's vision, conceived in New Zealand by well-known illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, threatened to engulf the literary work. Their iconography inspires most of the video games and merchandising. Soon, by a contagious effect, the book itself became less of a source of inspiration for the authors of fantasy than the film, and then the games inspired by the film, and so on.
The frenzy pushed the Tolkien family's lawyers to take another look at their contract, which stipulated that the Tolkien Estate must receive a percentage of the profits if the films were profitable. With the incredible box office figures, the lawyers for the family shook the dust off the contract and demanded their share of the pie from New Line, the American producer of the films, who had bought the movie rights for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And surprise! Cathleen Blackburn, lawyer for the Tolkien Estate in Oxford, recounts ironically, "These hugely popular films apparently did not make any profit! We were receiving statements saying that the producers did not owe the Tolkien Estate a dime."
The affair lasted from 2003 to 2006, and then things became more poisonous. The lawyers for the Tolkien Estate, those of the Tolkien Trust, and Tolkien's publisher HarperCollins demanded $150 million in damages, as well as observers' rights on the next adaptations of Tolkien's work. A lawsuit was necessary before an agreement was reached in 2009. The producers paid 7.5% of their profits to the Tolkien Estate, but the lawyer, who refuses to give a number, adds that "it is too early to say how much that will be in the future."
However, the Tolkien Estate cannot do anything about the way New Line adapts the books. In the new Hobbit movie, for example, the audience will discover characters Tolkien never put in, especially women. The same is true for the merchandise, which ranges from tea towels to boxes of nuggets, with an infinite variety of toys, stationery, t-shirts, games, etc. Not only the titles of the books themselves, but also the names of their characters have been trademarked.
"We are in the back seat," Cathleen Blackburn comments. In other words, the Estate can do little but watch the scenery, except in extreme cases-- for example, preventing the use of the name Lord of the Rings on Las Vegas slot machines, or for amusement parks. "We were able to prove that nothing in the original contract dealt with that sort of exploitation."
"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, the executors of the estate want to promote a work as much as they can," notes Adam Tolkien, the son of Christopher and Baillie. "But we are just the opposite. We want to put the spotlight on that which is not Lord of the Rings."
The Tolkien Estate was not able to prevent an American cartoon called Lord of the Beans, but a comic-strip version of it was halted. This policy, however, has not protected the family from the reality that the work now belongs to a gigantic audience, culturally far removed from the writer who conceived it.
Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? "They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25," Christopher says regretfully. "And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film."
This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. "Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into 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 overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."
It is hard to say who has won this silent battle between popularity and respect for the text. Nor who, finally, has the Ring. One thing is certain: from father to son, a great part of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien has now emerged from its boxes, thanks to the infinite perseverance of his son.