Death is a truly strange thing. It has touched each of us, to be sure, by visiting loved ones. Yet, sometimes, it seems just unbelievably relentless. Death has already taken so many greats in the first half of January 2020—Neil Peart on January 7; Sir Roger Scruton on January 12; and Christopher Tolkien on January 15. I am more than certain that God has His own reasons for bringing these men home, but I am also more than a bit overwhelmed by these absences from this earth.
Dear God, I am nothing but a humble servant, but I would ask for some reprieve on this whole death business. Yours, Brad. Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?
Back from momentary silliness. . . . Each of these men meant a great deal to me.
Let me start with the last, Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020). Granted, he was 95, and he had led an amazing life, so it’s hard to be too sad about his death. Yet, it is still a loss for the world. The third son of J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher was the most like his dad of the four Tolkien children. From an early age, he embraced everything his father was trying to tell him in the stories. From Tom Bombadil to Bilbo Baggins to Frodo Baggins, Christopher was there. And, he was not just there, but he was really there! That is, he became the most important member of J.R.R. Tolkien’s audience. When Tolkien needed advice on this or that aspect of The Lord of the Rings, he turned to Christopher. When he needed a good map of Middle-earth, he also turned to Christopher. When he attempted a novel dealing with time travel in the second half of the 1930s, The Lost Road, he turned, not surprisingly, to his relationship with Christopher as the model of the father and son relationships in the story. Prior to and during the Second World War, J.R.R. Tolkien turned constantly to his son, especially in all things regarding the Middle-earth mythology. Indeed, Tolkien’s letters to Christopher are some of the best Christian humanist letters of the era, full of ideas about faith, about family, about mythology, and about society. Where else could one as brilliant as Tolkien rail against the insanity of Hitler as well as that of Stalin while also discussing some aspect of Elvish grammar?
When the father passed away in September 1973, Christopher not only resigned from his position teaching Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, but he also completely and utterly and freely accepted his father’s request that he become the literary heir of all things related to the greater mythology, a mythology that had begun sometime in 1913 and has yet to be finished. Diligently and with never an expectation of profit, Christopher continued to edit his father’s unpublished works: The Silmarillion; Pictures; Unfinished Tales; The Monsters and the Critics (a compilation of academic essays and speeches); the History of Middle-earth (12 volumes); The Children of Húrin; The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún; The Fall of Arthur; Beowulf; Beren and Lúthien; and The Fall of Gondolin.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s corpus almost certainly still remains unpublished in its entirety, even after all of Christopher’s labors. That’s how vast J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination was. Yet, it also reveals just how important Christopher as editor was.
Then, of course, there’s the death of Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020). Sadly, his end in this world came all too suddenly, after only months of his struggle with cancer. Of the three men who have just died, he’s the only one I ever met. I met him briefly in the late summer of 2002 while on a glorious ISI honor’s trip to England. Dedra (my wife) and I were both there to meet him. He was brilliant, but very quiet and soft spoken. I must admit, at the time we met him, I never guessed that he would become as important to us as he did. Really, at that point, I had only read his criticism of Richard Wagner, but I was much taken with it.
As it turns out, Scruton was simply brilliant, and his insights ranged far and wide, dealing with everything from economics to politics to culture to religion. From my perspective, especially in 2020, he was the most important and thoughtful conservative living after Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet.
Our loss of Scruton goes well beyond the personal. As with Tolkien, our loss of him is a huge wound in the side of western civilization (or what remains of it).
Finally, there is the loss of Neil Peart (1952-2020), drummer for the Canadian rock band, Rush. Over at The American Conservative, I had the chance to write an obituary of him, labeling him “Homeric.” One commentator there (and, believe me, I rarely, if ever, read comments on internet sites) mocked me for the label. He’s just a drummer, the commenter claimed. Yet, Neil Peart was so much more than just a drummer. Yes, it’s true, he was a drummer, but he was also one of the best-read men of modern times in Canada, having read everything from Mark Twain to John Dos Passos to Camille Paglia. He also wrote and published several highly acclaimed books, usually dealing—in one way or another—with his vast and fascinating travels.
Additionally, Peart went through hell after the loss of his 19-year old daughter (due to a car wreck) in 1997 and the loss of his wife (from cancer and heart break) a year later. The two most important persons in his life gone, he rode his motorcycle throughout North America for well over a year, trying to re-find himself. His Penelope long gone, Peart, amazingly enough, found himself on these travels as well as finding his true love, Carrie Nuttall.
I first encountered the drumming as well as the lyrics of Peart back in the spring of 1981, my seventh-grade year, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Given all the hell that was home and school in 1981, I can state with absolute honesty that I would not be here, now, without the inspiration, words, and witness of Peart. Yes, simply put, I would not be here.
So, what is it about that death that is so jarring? Clearly and critically, death comes to us all. Yet, the death of the great reminds us of, at least, two things. First, it reminds us all of our own immortality. Second, it prompts us to do our very best in all things, knowing that our time, too, is short and precious. Life, it seems, is neither for the timid nor for the casual.
Christopher Tolkien, Sir Roger Scruton, and Neil Peart, RIP.
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The featured image is “Andromache Mourning Over Body of Hector” (1783) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.