Famous Wills: JRR Tolkien

The will of JRR Tolkien 23 July 1973

The first in a series of articles on the wills of famous people

People often overlook the fact that a probated will is a public document. When a will is made and executed it remains private, but when it is admitted to probate all confidentiality is lost.

This means that any will which has been submitted to the Probate Registry in England and Wales can be accessed by the public and a copy obtained.

Wills made by the great and the good can sometimes be revealing. They allow an insight into the private lives and financial affairs of their historic authors.

Take the will of John Ronald Reul Tolkien, CBE, of Merton College Oxford; or JRR Tolkien as he is better known to those who have fallen under the spell of works such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Tolkien died on 2 February 1973, leaving a will dated 23 July 1973. Probate was granted on 20 December 1973, with the writer’s net estate recorded as having a value of just £144,159.29. In today’s money that now equates to around £1.7m, but it is still a surprisingly modest sum given the lasting popularity of Tolkien’s work. The Peter Jackson films alone have taken an estimated $5,886,273,810 at the box office, putting Tolkien fifth in the list of Highest-Grossing Movie Franchises of All Time.

Sadly for fans of Tolkien’s mystical worlds his will contains few surprises. There is no mention of a ring among his chattels, no legacy for anyone by the name of Baggins, no bequest for Gandolf and no residuary gift for a dark lord. Tolkien did however acknowledge the pivotal role that Oxford University played in his life. Among the pecuniary legacies contained in his will was a generous donation of £500 to his old college to ‘be used to help an undergraduate … who finds himself in financial difficulties.’ Other colleges received bequests to enable them to purchase an item for their senior common rooms.

Tolkien’s library and manuscripts were left on trust, with his son and collaborator, Christopher, named as Literary Executor and given the specific power to destroy any of his work that was unpublished at the date of his death.

It is no secret that Tolkien had little time for Walt Disney. For him Disney trivialised, dumbed down and commercialised themes he considered culturally important. He described Disney himself as being hopelessly corrupted by the profit motive and was disgusted by his films. But despite his ‘heartfelt loathing’, there is no explicit wish contained within his will that his works be kept free from the Disney treatment. He merely specifies a desire that copyright in his works be retained by his family.

Tolkien was a deeply private and reserved individual, detached from and slightly at odds with the twentieth century world around him. Despite living what appears to have been an unremarkable, some might say dull existence among his fellow Oxford dons, anyone familiar with the landscapes and creatures of Middle Earth will appreciate that his imagination knew no bounds. Yet Tolkien’s will provides no real clues to Tolkien the man. It’s largely routine testamentary stuff, giving very little away about the mind that brought us some of the most enduring tales of English literature.