Rest in Peace, Christopher Tolkien

Christopher John Reuel Tolkien died on 16 January 2020, at the age of 95, in Draguignan, Var, France.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s third son Christopher passed on an year ago today.  He was his father’s literary executor and spent countless hours sorting, deciphering, interpreting, editing and publishing his father’s mountains of unpublished literary output.  With him, the person who was most closely connected with and most knowledgeable about his father’s work from an early age on left Middle Earth and sailed into the West.  Don’t even know where to start expressing our gratitude…  Maybe best to keep it simple:

Rest in Peace, Mr. Tolkien.  Thank you for all the work you have done.

In this video, published in 1992, Christopher Tolkien comes alive again.  Among others, you will also meet his father again, two of Christopher’s siblings (one of whom is still alive), and well-known scholars interested in the world of J.R.R.T. such as Tom Shippey.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Lent with Niggle

If you are looking for something to read in a meditative way during the next 40 days, try Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’.

There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.  He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.  He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

Of the short fiction J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and published, Leaf by Niggle is probably the most fitting for the upcoming time of Lent, if you are inclined towards such things.  Of all times of the year, this is when we consider this life and that which is to come.  Leaf by Niggle is undoubtedly autobiographical as well as an allegory, as can be seen right from the start.  In good Tolkien-ian manner, Leaf by Niggle begins by relating this, that is, his own story to the larger historical ‘cauldron of stories’.

Allegorical meaning is signaled at once by the first sentence: ‘There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.’  The reason for his journey is never explained, nor how he knows that he has to make one.  But there should be no doubt as to what this means.  The Old English poem ‘Bede’s Death-Song’ begins, in its original Northumbrian dialect, ‘Fore thaem neidfaerae’, ‘(Be)fore the need-fare’.  A ‘need-fare’, or ‘need-faring’, is a compulsory journey, a journey you have to take, and that journey, Bede declares, begins on one’s ‘deothdaege’ or ‘death-day’.  So the long journey the ‘little man’ Niggle has to make – which all men have to make – is death.  The image is at once ‘as old as the hills’, completely temporary, and totally familiar.  This is the easiest of the equations in the extended allegory.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Reconstructing

Here’s a more scholarly way of expressing how (and why) Tolkien saw himself as a discoverer of legends rather than an inventor of stories.

But Tolkien also thought – and this takes us back to the roots of his inventions – that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied.  He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one’s way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist.  (…) However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth was, he did not think he was ENTIRELY making it up.  He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had  very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Century.

IMG_2294 - Edited

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Copyists’ Ignorant Errors

‘Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

Balrogs owe a part of their existence to an editorial problem.  There is an Old English poem called EXODUS, like several Old English poems a paraphrase of a part of the Bible.  (…) [Tolkien] thought on linguistic grounds that it was older than BEOWULF, and he thought that like the BEOWULF-poet, the EXODUS-poet had known a good deal about the native pre-Christian mythology, which could with care be retrieved from his copyists’ ignorant errors.  In particular, the poet at several points mentions the SIGELWARA LAND, the ‘land of the Sigelware’.  In modern dictionaries and editions, these ‘Sigelware’ are invariably translated as ‘Ethiopians’.  Tolkien thought, as often, that that was a mistake.  He thought the name was another compound, (…) and that it should have been written *SIGEL-HEARWA.  Furthermore, he suggested (…) that a *SIGEL-HEARWA was a kind of fire-giant.  The first element in the compound meant both ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’; the second was related to the Latin CARBO, soot.  When an Anglo-Saxon from the pre-literate Dark Age said SIGELHEARWA, before any Englishman had ever heard of Ethiopia or the Book of Exodus, Tolkien believed that what he meant was ‘rather a son of Múspell [the Old Norse fire-giant who will bring on Ragarök] than of Ham, the ancestors of the Silhearwan with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks, with faces black as soot’.

The fusion of ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’ perhaps had something to do with Tolkien’s concept of the SILMARIL.  The idea of a fire-spirit re-emerges in the brief glimpse of the orc-chieftain who stabs Frodo, with his ‘swart’ face, red tongue and ‘eyes like coals’, but it also gave Tolkien Durin’s Bane, the Balrog. (…)  The clash of Gandalf and the Balrog produces (…) feelings of mystery: we hear of, but do not understand, the opposition between ‘the Secret Fire … the flame of Anor’, and ‘the dark fire … flame of Udûn’.  What Tolkien does in such passages is to satisfy the urge to know more (the urge he himself felt as an editor of texts so often infuriatingly incomplete), while retaining and even intensifying the counterbalancing pleasure of seeming always on the edge of a new discovery, looking into a world that seems far fuller than the little at present known.  If gold and greed and mastery are ‘the desire of the hearts of dwarves’, then words and links and inferences are the lust of philologists.  Tolkien had that lust as strongly as anyone ever has, but he felt it was one which could be strongly shared.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Century.

balrog and gandalf movie

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Dvergatal

In the original Old Norse, the Dvergatal contains rather more than sixty names, mostly strung together as a simple rhythmic list.

Tolkien found the dwarf-names in the poem ‘Völuspá’, ‘The Sybil’s Vision’, one section of which is called the ‘Dvergatal’, ‘the Tally of the Dwarves’.  (…)  Tolkien did not just copy ‘the Tally of the Dwarves”, or quarry it for names.  He must rather have looked at it, refused to see it, as most scholars do, as a meaningless or no longer comprehensible rigmarole, and instead asked himself a string of questions about it.  What, for instance, is ‘Gandálfr’ doing in the list, when the second element is quite clearly ‘álfr’, elf, a creature in all tradition quite distinguished from a dwarf? (…)


In early drafts of ‘The Hobbit’ Gandalf was the name given to the chief dwarf, while in the first edition what Bilbo sees that first morning is just ‘a little old man’.  Even in the first edition, the little old man’s staff soon comes into the story, while by the third edition (…) Gandalf has become ‘an old man with a staff‘ (…).  This seems highly suitable.  Even now the ‘magic wand’ is the common property of the stage-magician, while in all popular and learned literary tradition, from Shakespeare’s Prospero to Milton’s Comus or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the staff is the distinguishing mark of the wizard.  It looks as if Tolkien sooner or later interpreted the first element of ‘Gandálfr’, quite plausibly, as ‘wand’ or ‘staff’, while the second element, as said above, obviously means ‘elf’.  Now Gandalf in Tolkien is definitely not an elf, but then it turns out that he is not just an ‘old man’ either; one can see that to those who knew no better (people like Éomer in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ much later on) he might well seem distinctly ‘elvish’.  Tolkien seems to have concluded at some point that ‘Gandálfr’ means ‘staff-elf’, and that this must be a name for a wizard.  And yet the name is there in the ‘Dvergatal’, so that the wizard must in some way have been mixed up with dwarves.  Could it be that the reason the ‘Dvergatal’ had been preserved was that it was the last fading record of something that once had happened, some great event in a non-human mythology, an ‘Odyssey’ of the dwarves?  This is, anyway, what Tolkien makes of it.  ‘The Hobbit’, one might say, is the story that lies behind and makes sense of the ‘Dvergatal’, and much more indirectly gives a kind of context even to ‘Snow White’ and the half-ruined fairy-tales of the brothers Grimm.

~ Tom Shippey:  J.R.R. Tolkien. Author of the Century.

entering Mirkwood

Our Own Dear John Ronald: The Energy of Old Words

“Tolkien was almost excessively ‘tough-minded’: (…) all drove him to work out from single words, or cruxes, or kernels, or nuggets.”

[Philological curiosity] was the natural state, [and Tolkien’s success went] far to proving his point about the naturalness of philology and the appeal of names, words and linguistic styles; and in the wider sense of philology as that branch of learning which ‘presented to lovers of poetry and history fragments of a noble past that without it would have remained for ever dead and dark’ (from Tolkien’s Essays), he showed that its appeal too was not confined to antiquity.  I do not see how Tolkien can be denied the tribute of having enlarged his readers’ apprehensions (of language), or their human sympathies (with the disciplined, or the heroic, or the addicted, or the self-sacrificing).  But most of all I think his utility for the lover of literature lies in the way he showed creativity arising from the ramifications of words: unpredictable, certainly, but not chaotic or senseless, and carrying within themselves very strong suggestions of ‘the reality of history’ and ‘the reality of human nature’, and how people react to their world.  (…)  Words, ancient words, do not have to be hooked together to make something.  They have their own energy and struggle towards their own connections.  Observing this impulse and co-operating with it is as good a guide for an artist as turning within oneself to the inarticulate.

Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: Afterward.

the addicted
I do not see how Tolkien can be denied the tribute of having enlarged his readers’ human sympathies (with the disciplined – like Sam -, or the addicted – like Gollum -, or the self-sacrificing – like Frodo).

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Tolkien’s Heresy

“There is an ancient myth in this feature, that of the ‘true language’, the tongue in which there is a thing for each word and a word for each thing, and in which signifier then naturally has power over signified.”

‘Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,’ said Aragorn.  ‘Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.’

‘Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,’ said Legolas, ‘and but a little while does that seem to us.’

‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time.  Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’  Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and the Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.

‘That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,’ said Legolas; ‘for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains.  But I cannot guess what it means, safe that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.’

‘It runs thus in the Common Speech,’ said Aragorn, ‘as near as I can make it.

Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses.  So men still sing in the evening.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall


This was Tolkien’s major linguistic heresy.  He thought that people could feel history in words, could recognize language ‘styles’, could extract sense (of sorts) from sound alone, could moreover make aesthetic judgments based on phonology.  He said the sound of ‘cellar door’ was more beautiful than the sound of ‘beautiful’.  He clearly believed that UNTRANSLATED elvish would do a job that English could not.

Could he have been right?  (…) Tolkien wrote the fiction to present the languages, and he did that because he loved them and thought them intrinsically beautiful.

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: A Cartographic Plot.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: March 25th

“How do I feel? Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel, I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”

‘Noon?’ said Sam, trying to calculate.  ‘Noon of what day?’

‘The fourteenth day of the New Year,’ said Gandalf; ‘or, if you like, the eighth day of April in Shire reckoning.  But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell (…).’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.


No one any longer celebrates the twenty-fifth of March, and Tolkien’s point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended.  He inserted it only as a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety.  However, as he knew perfectly well, in old English tradition, 25th March is the date of the Crucifixion, of the first Good Friday.  (…)  In Gondor, the New Year will always begin on 25th March, and the same is true for England, in a sadly altered fashion.  When the Julian Calendar gave way to the Gregorian in 1752, there was an eleven day discrepancy between them, so that the 25th of March jumped to being the 6th of April.  And in England the new year still DOES start on the 6th of April.  But only the tax year (…).

25th March remains a date deeply embedded in the Christian calendar.  In old tradition, again, it is the date of the Annunciation and the conception of Christ – naturally, nine months exactly before Christmas, 25th December.  It is also the date of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the FELIX CULPA whose disastrous effects the Annunciation and Crucifixion were to annul or repair.  One might note that in the calendar of dates which Tolkien so carefully wrote out in Appendix B, December 25th is the day on which the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell.  The main action of THE LORD OF THE RINGS takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ’s birth, and the Crucifixion, Christ’s death.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

I might add that March 25th forms a sort of bracket around the ‘earthly’ mysteries of the rosary, with the Annunciation being the First of the Joyful Mysteries, and the Crucifixion the last of the Sorrowful Mysteries.

I might also add that March 25th coincides with the time of the Vernal Equinox.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Gold Galdre Bewunden

The old hoard the Night shall keep, / while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

The Hoard

When the moon was new and the sun young
of silver and gold the gods sung:
in the green grass they silver spilled,
and the white waters they with gold filled.
Ere the pit was dug or Hell yawned,
ere dwarf was bred or dragon spawned,
there were Elves of old, and strong spells
under green hills in hollow dells
they sang as they wrought many fair things,
and the bright crowns of the Elf-kings.
But their doom fell, and their song waned,
by iron hewn and by steel chained.
Greed that sang not, nor with mouth smiled,
in dark holes their wealth piled,
graven silver and carven gold:
over Elvenhome the shadow rolled.

There was an old dwarf in a dark cave,
to silver and gold his fingers clave;
with hammer and tongs and anvil-stone
he worked his hands to the hard bone.
and coins he made, and strings of rings,
and thought to buy the power of kings.
But his eyes grew dim and his ears dull
and the skin yellow on his old skull;
through his bony claw with a pale sheen
the stony jewels slipped unseen.
No feet he heard, though the earth quaked.
when the young dragon his thirst slaked.
and the stream smoked at his dark door.
The flames hissed on the dank floor,
and he died alone in the red fire;
his bones were ashes in the hot mire.

There was an old dragon under grey stone;
his red eyes blinked as he lay alone.
His joy was dead and his youth spent,
he was knobbed and wrinkled, and his limbs bent
in the long years to his gold chained;
in his heart’s furnace the fire waned.
To his belly’s slime gems stuck thick,
silver and gold he would snuff and lick:
he knew the place of the least ring
beneath the shadow of his black wing.
Of thieves he thought on his hard bed,
and dreamed that on their flesh he fed,
their bones crushed, and their blood drank:
his ears drooped and his breath sank.
Mail-rings rang. He heard them not.
A voice echoed in his deep grot:
a young warrior with a bright sword
called him forth to defend his hoard.
His teeth were knives, and of horn his hide,
but iron tore him, and his flame died.

There was an old king on a high throne:
his white beard lay on knees of bone;
his mouth savoured neither meat nor drink,
nor his ears song; he could only think
of his huge chest with carven lid
where pale gems and gold lay hid
in secret treasury in the dark ground;
its strong doors were iron-bound.
The swords of his thanes were dull with rust,
his glory fallen, his rule unjust,
his halls hollow, and his bowers cold,
but king he was of elvish gold.
He heard not the horns in the mountain-pass,
he smelt not the blood on the trodden grass,
but his halls were burned, his kingdom lost;
in a cold pit his bones were tossed.

There is an old hoard in a dark rock,
forgotten behind doors none can unlock;
that grim gate no man can pass.
On the mound grows the green grass;
there sheep feed and the larks soar,
and the wind blows from the sea-shore.
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1970

gold galde bewunden.png

In 1923 Tolkien published a poem called IUMONNA GOLD GALDE BEWUNDEN, the first version of what was to become in 1970 THE HOARD.  The first title is better, though, for it means ‘the gold of ancient men, wound round with magic’, it is line 3052 of BEOWULF, and it points to a notorious difficulty in that poem over the hero’s motives.  When he went to fight HIS dragon he appeared to do so for the best of reasons, i.e. to protect his people.  On the other hand he also showed a keen interest in the treasure, which the dragon was only trying to guard, having been provoked by the theft of a cup by a passing runaway (or ‘burglar’).  At one point indeed (…) the poet seems to say that there was a curse on the gold, so that the man who plundered it ‘should be guilty of sin, be shut up in devil’s haunts, bound in hell-bands and tormented grievously.’ (…)  Maybe the dragon-curse is (…) avarice.  So Tolkien suggested in the 1923 poem, tracing in successive stanzas the transmission of a treasure from elf to dwarf to dragon to hero and ending with the picture of an old and miserly king overthrown by his rivals and leaving his gold to oblivion.  All the characters in it are the same: they begin with vitality, mirth and courage, they end in age, wealth and squalor.  Their decline is caused by gold.  Could their progress also be a kind of analogue of human history, beginning in heroic endeavor and ending in ‘commercialism’, ‘materialism’, ‘industrialism’, that whole series of distinctive modern concepts which nevertheless centre if not on gold, on that ‘idolatry of artefacts’, which C.S Lewis called, in evident agreement with Tolkien, the ‘great corporate sin of our own civilization’?

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: The Bewilderment of Smaug.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Power Corrupts

‘True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted.’ (…) ‘I am too strong for you, halfling’.

‘Alas, no,’ said Elrond.  ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring.  That we now know too well.  It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.  Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.  But for them it holds an even deadlier peril.  The very desire of it corrupts the heart.  Consider Saruman.  If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne and yet another Dark Lord would appear.  And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise.  For nothing is evil in the beginning.  Even Sauron was not so.  I fear to take the Ring to hide it.  I will not take the Ring to wield it.’

‘Nor I,’ said Gandalf.  (…)

‘I pass the test,’ Galadriel said.  ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings.  Book 2

Tom Shippey

At the heart of THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the assertions which Gandalf makes in Book 1/2, his long conversation with Frodo. (…)  First, Gandalf says that the Ring is immensely powerful, in the right or the wrong hands. (…) Second, though, Gandalf insists that the Ring is deadly dangerous to all its possessors: it will take them over, ‘devour’ them, ‘possess’ them.  But finally, and this third point is one which Gandalf has to re-emphasize strongly and against opposition in the ‘Council of Elrond’, the Ring cannot simply be left unused, put aside, thrown away: it has to be destroyed, and the only place where it can be destroyed is the place of its fabrication, Orodruin, the Cracks of Doom.

This assertion determines the story. (…) One might point out that (…) Gandalf’s postulates might take a bit of swallowing.  Why should we believe them?  However, while critics have found fault with almost everything about THE LORD OF THE RINGS, on one pretext or another, no one to my knowledge has ever quibbled with what Gandalf says about the Ring.  It is far too plausible, and too recognizable.  It would not have been so before the many bitter experiences of the twentieth century.

If one fits together the many points which Gandalf makes in this early chapter, it would be a dull mind, nowadays, which did not reflect ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  This was first stated (…) in 1887. (…)  I do not think many people would have agreed (…) much before 1887.  The medieval world had its saints’ lives, in which the saints used their immense and indeed miraculous power entirely for good purposes; while there is no shortage of evil kings in medieval story, there is rarely any sign that they became evil by becoming kings (though there are some hints to that effect in BEOWULF). (…) The nearest thing (…) in Old English is the proverb (…) ‘A man does as he is when he can do what he wants’, and what this means is that power REVEALS character, not that it alters it.  Why have opinions changed?  (…)

The major disillusionment of the twentieth century has been over political good intentions, which have led only to gulags and killing fields.  That is why what Gandalf says rings true to virtually everyone who reads it – though it is, I repeat, yet one more anachronism in Middle-earth, and the greatest of them, an entirely modern conviction.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Maybe here lies one of the reasons for Beowulf’s undying popularity.

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