When Christopher inherited his father’s papers, he could have burnt the lot, including Tolkien’s diaries, letters and non-Middle-earth fiction, and his academic papers too. J.R.R. had given him leave to do so, when he made him his literary executor. None of us would have been any the wiser.This immediately reminded me of C.S. Lewis. Walter Hooper tells the story that in January, 1964, two months after Lewis died, his brother “Major Lewis, after setting aside those papers that had a special significance for him, began disposing of the others. Thus it was that a great many things which I was never able to identify found their way on to a bonfire which burned steadily for three days” [Preface to The Dark Tower]. The story continues that Hooper was tipped off by Lewis’s gardener, Fred Paxford, and arrived just in the nick of time to save “a great quantity of C.S. Lewis’s notebooks and papers”, which he has been publishing ever since.
But in fact, this probably never happened. In The C.S. Lewis Hoax (Multnomah Press, 1988), and in her subsequent books, Kathryn Lindskoog has pretty thoroughly debunked the bonfire story. Wendell Wagner sums it up for us in a letter to the editor of Mythprint (August, 1995): “Not only did Fred Paxford deny ever having burned any important papers of C.S. Lewis, but Lindskoog shows that Hooper’s time scheme for the bonfire is impossible. Hooper claims that the bonfire occurred in January of 1964 and that he brought the rescued papers back to his rooms at Keble College. (He also claims to have spent three weeks during that month working with Warren Lewis on C.S.Lewis’s letters.) But it’s clear from Warren’s letters that Warren and Hooper didn’t even meet until Warren returned from Ireland in February of 1964, by which time Hooper had moved from Keble to Wycliffe Hall. To place any credence in Hooper’s story, we would have to believe that he got the month of the bonfire and the place he was living at the time wrong and that Paxford had somehow forgotten the bonfire entirely. Lindskoog has also discovered that in a published interview in 1979 Hooper forgot the bonfire story and claimed that he found the manuscript when he and Douglas Gresham cleaned out Lewis’s rooms at Cambridge in the summer of 1963.”
But then my mind swam back to another story of the destruction of literary papers, some three decades earlier. I pulled the book off the shelf to refresh my memory. I hope you will indulge me in a lengthier quotation:
This final selection of A.E. Housman’s poems is published by his permission, not by his wish. His instructions, allowing them to appear, while committing other material to a less fortunate fate, were as follows:I am sure it is quite a disconsolation to Housman scholars that what they should be deprived of is some of the very material which would interest them most, that “showing the author’s method of composition”. Imagine how much these long-gone notebooks might have revealed about Housman’s working methods!
“I direct my brother, Laurence Housman, to destroy all my prose manuscripts in whatever language, and I permit him but do not enjoin him to select from my verse manuscript writing, and to publish, any poems which appear to him to be completed and not to be inferior to the average of my published poems; and I direct him to destroy all other poems and fragments of verse.”
The responsibility which has thus been laid on me is of a double character; for while I am anxious to include nothing that can do hurt to my brother’s literary reputation, I am most reluctant to deprive his lovers of any poems, however minor in character, which are not inferior to the others […].
It may be some consolation for those who regret this order for destruction, to know that there are no fragments or unfinished poems of outstanding quality. A few beautiful phrases, sometimes single verses, will have to go. […] All the rest is mainly work-shop material — chiefly of interest as showing the author’s method of composition — his many alterations of phrase or rhyme before finding the one which best satisfied him. [Preface to A.E. Housman, More Poems (Knopf, 1936)]
And now imagine if Christopher Tolkien had taken the same course, how much would have been lost. Indeed, the loss of native English mythology in the wake of the Norman Conquest that Tolkien so rued would in some ways have been repeated, a millennium later, almost to the year. It causes actual psychological pain to imagine it all consumed by fire. How easily paper burns! The Ring, when it was consumed by the Fire, took with it much that had been made through its power, or in resistance to it, and led to the changing of the Age and the passing of the Elves — but, perhaps most ironically, what survived the fire was a book. Or rather more than one.
Three beloved authors, three literary executors. One carried out his brother’s wishes and destroyed all but a tithe of his papers; one was rumored to have done so, but probably didn’t; and one has labored for decades to share nearly everything his father left behind. Consider that dedication for a moment and reflect: isn’t it the height of ingratitude for anyone to complain about what Christopher has done or what little he has declined to share? The fire would have greedily taken it all, until not a single page remained. We should try to be a little more grateful than that.