Thursday, January 10, 2013

Christopher Tolkien, Warren Hamilton Lewis, and Laurence Housman

Earlier this week, somebody called JPB posted a controversial op-ed on, “Concerning Christopher – An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision to Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work” (read it here). In addition to a lively discussion following the article (more than 200 comments so far), the op-ed inspired a thorough and spirited rebuttal from Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles, “A Commentary on ‘Concerning Christopher’” (read it here). Marcel’s piece, though long, is well worth reading, and I happen to agree with his point of view. Marcel shared his rebuttal on Facebook, where it touched off another animated discussion, in which one particular comment caught my eye (excerpted here):
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 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)]
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!

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.


  1. Did Marcel and I read the same essay? To me, JPB seems quite sympathetic to Christopher Tolkien's position. He concludes by thanking Christopher "for making sure all of us still have plenty of reasons to go back to the books, where a deeper joy awaits." Certainly Marcel can't mean to argue with that!

  2. I don’t think he does argue with that part of it, but I’ll let him speak for himself. And I think Marcel took some of the questions JPB asks as insulting to Christopher. He says we are left “still wondering if Christopher is doing the right thing” in declining to sell film rights to The Silmarillion, etc. I don’t wonder that at all. And I don’t think it’s my place to wonder that. And while some may, and I suppose that’s fine for them, I think Marcel took umbrage at the implied disrespect in questioning his judgment. I’m not saying we must never question Christopher’s choices, but I certainly think there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, as well as some areas where it may not even make sense to do it. And it can certainly imply a lack of gratitude to grouse about some of these things (in that respect, I am not thinking of JPB so much as of certain other groups).

  3. Time and time again I hear of rumors that there is more material of interest stashed away in Christopher Tolkien's attic (or bank vault). There are supposedly further Father Christmas Letters. There are supposedly grammars and vocabularly lists of his invented languages that are far more comprehensive and detailed than anything that has been seen so far. Of course nothing is better than a good story, so much of this should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. But there is certainly a case for withholding material from the market for future commercial reasons. I don't know much about Christopher personally, and how is commercial objectives rate with his scholarly ones. Do you believe there could be anything of significance out there (other than academic stuff) that is yet unpublished?

  4. Thank you, Jason for this enlightening comparison of three amazing writers and those who made their literary heritage possible (or not, as in this one particular case.)

    As Jason mentioned I have been extremely unhappy in the way the original article by JPB has been structured - it is well executed but by throwing up the question in the first place it shows a severe misunderstanding of Christopher's work and achievements.

    Note: I am in no way against proper literary criticism when it comes to the way Christopher has handled his father's literary heritage and yes, I would be happy to see the Tolkien Estate to be more open-minded in some respects but there can be no doubt as to him being the one person capable of doing this in a way nobody else could.

    However, a statement like this:

    "We want to know if Christopher is making the correct decision; we want know if it one we can or should support as the best decision; and we want to even voice an opinion as to whether we think Christopher has the ethical right to make the call (...)"

    is perfectly unacceptable on so many levels that it would need another article to explain all of the implications.

    I have been in contact with one of the writers at TORn on this and it has been made clear to me that the essay was meant as a defense against many of the negative voices who would like to see Christopher gone rather sooner than later because he is seen as the sole stumbling block for more films. If this was the original intention, indeed, this should have been noted - and my answer might have been different.

    However, I have tried to show in my article that there are quite a few misunderstandings out there and many writers including JPB wilfully misinterpret the 'Le Monde' article of July 7th, 2012, interviewing Christopher (and many others, by the way) and restricting his quotes on the film questions from both 'Letters' and other sources to fit the argument.

    It is highly disappointing to have to point out that there is one major logical flaw in the ongoing discussion - the family might have appreciated films which were done by someone else, with a different view of Middle-earth and with better understanding of it.

  5. @cirdan05 —

    Do you believe there could be anything of significance out there (other than academic stuff) that is yet unpublished?

    Most of the stuff we know about that remains unpublished is fairly small — some poems, a few stories, many more letters, lecture notes, etc. — though likely interesting and valuable to researchers. The chief exceptions are the Beowulf translations and The Fall of Arthur. The latter is now being published, and I would not be surprised if the Beowulf follows along sooner or later. Could there be something major of which we’ve heard nary a peep? Probably not. And it depends what you mean by “of significance”, of course, which was part of my point in quoting Laurence Housman’s comments about his brother’s notebooks. Naturally, there are Tolkien’s private diaries, and that would certainly be big news, but I can’t see these ever being published.

  6. I would love to see his translation of Beowulf! I hope that comes out one day.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)

  7. I'd also like to see Beowulf - and hopefully The Sellic Spell along with it!

    Also, that picture is almost painful to look at.

  8. I think we should all be thanking Christopher "for making sure all of us still have plenty of reasons to go back to the books, where a deeper joy awaits."
    I can not imagine why any one would question Christopher's decissions. I should think his father would have wanted him of all people controlling the fate of his work. All the work of creating the HOME volumes is incredible and where would Tolkien Scholarship be with out them?

  9. @Nelson, I hope those books in the picture are management and accountancy books.

  10. In the introduction (I think) to Sigurd and Gudrún Christopher Tolkien quotes from his father's lecture notes on the Völsunga Saga. I found these quotations intriguing, and they made me wonder if there might not be some valuable thoughts hidden in some of all these lecture notes.

  11. That’s right, Troels, extensively. And in my book, Thomas Honegger quotes from Tolkien’s unpublished lecture on the Goths. I’m trying to remember, but I think Elizabeth Solopova might also quote from those lectures in her book. Need to go look. I’m sure there are definitely plenty of interesting and unmined gems in all those lectures.