He was named after his father's friend, Christopher Wiseman. He also sometimes uses his confirmation name, "John" as seen on his initials of maps of The Lord of the Rings, "CJRT". He was born in Leeds and raised in Oxford and went to the the Dragon School in Oxford and Oratory School in Caversham, Berkshire. Due to a heart ailment he was forced to stay at home and work with a private tutor. He enjoyed watching stars with a telescope as well as a passion for railways. As early as four and five, Christopher was concerned with the consistency of The Hobbit.
- "Last time, you said Bilbo's front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his hood, but you've just said that Bilbo's front door was green and that Thorin's hood was silver"
- ― Christopher Tolkien, foreword to The Hobbit
Christopher proved invaluable towards correcting The Hobbit and was paid twopence a correction.
In July of 1943 he entered the Royal Air Force and in 1944 he went to South Africa to train as a pilot. His absence did not however slow his contributions to his father's works as his father continually sent him parts of The Lord of the Rings to go over. In 1945 he returned to England and was stationed in Shropshire and later that year he returned to Oxford. On October 9th, 1945 his father informed him that the Inklings wished to consider him a permanent member. The task of reading The Lord of the Rings to the Inklings was passed on to Christopher and it was generally agreed that he was a better reader than his father.
In 1946 Christopher returned to Trinity College to resume his studies and reading English. For a while his tutor was none other than C.S. Lewis. His thesis was a translation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise and he received his B.A. in 1949. Christopher also became a lecturer in Old and Middle English as well as Old Icelandic at Oxford. He worked as an editor on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner's Tale, and the Nun's Priest's Tale. From 1963 to 1975 he was a Fellow of New College, Oxford but resigned when he began to devote his time to his father's literary affairs.
After his father's death
After his father's death, Christopher embarked on organizing the masses of his father's notes, some of them written on odd scraps of paper a half-century earlier. Much of the material was handwritten, frequently a fair draft was written over a half-erased first draft, and names of characters routinely changed between the beginning and end of the same draft. Deciphering this was an arduous task, and perhaps only someone with personal experience of J. R. R. and the evolution of his stories could have made any sense of it; even so, Christopher has admitted to having to occasionally guess at what his father intended.
With the help of Guy Gavriel Kay he managed to compile The Silmarillion in only four years. During this time he also edited is father's translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo. He also worked on the Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings which was first published in 1975 as Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings in A Tolkien Compass.
Christopher spent the years after continuing to study his father's works and taking the responsibilities of the Tolkien Estate. He recorded portions of The Silmarillion in 1977 and 1978 which was issued by Caedmon Records, New York. In 1979 he wrote about his father's illustrations and drawings for their publication in Tolkien calendars and Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. Through 1980 and 1983 Christopher edited Unfinished Tales, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and Critics and Other Essays, and The Book of Lost Tales Part 1 which was the first volume in his two volume series of The History of Middle-earth, the last of which was published in 1996. In 1998 he edited a new edition of Tree and Leaf including the poem Mythopoeia. His latest publication has been the editing of The Children of Húrin which was published in 2007.
Response to adaptations
- "...I recognize that this is a debatable and complex question of art, and the suggestions that have been made that I 'disapprove' of the films, whatever their cinematic quality, even to the extent of thinking ill of those with whom I may differ, are wholly without foundation."
- ― Christopher Tolkien
Christopher's first wife, Faith (1928) took an English degree at Oxford and they had one son, Simon Tolkien. A bust of Tolkien by Faith was exhibited at the Royal Academy, which Tolkien kindly paid for its casting in bronze.
Christopher's second wife, Baillie (1941), is the daughter of one of Tolkien's friends, Alan Klass and for a brief period she was Tolkien's secretary. She was responsible for the section on poetry in the 1965 index to The Lord of the Rings. She later edited The Father Christmas Letters. She and Christopher had two children, Adam Tolkien and Rachel Tolkien.