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Tolkien—A Review

Alas, poor Tolkien the movie. The adjective “tepid” most accurately describes the critical response to this biopic, reverently directed by Dome Karukoski, which explores the early years of the author of The Hobbit (1937), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955), and countless other works of medievalist fantasy. The idea behind Tolkien is that nearly every key theme in these novels had its origins in some episode of the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life, first at the prestigious King Edward’s boys’ school in Birmingham (where, as the gifted son of a cultivated but impoverished widow, he had a scholarship), then at Oxford University (another scholarship), and above all, in the trenches of the Somme, where he was posted as a second lieutenant in 1916 and had ample opportunity to experience all the horrors of World War I before succumbing to trench fever carried by the lice that infested the cramped and filthy bunkers.

Tolkien in 1916 (wikicommons)

Thus, Tolkien, presented as a series of flashbacks playing inside the brain of the fever-stricken junior officer, trades heavily in one-on-one correspondence. Green and lovely Sarehole, the village in Worcestershire where Tolkien spent his early childhood, was, of course, the Shire. Extreme poverty after his father’s death in 1896 forced the family to move to smoke-blackened Birmingham—yes, Mordor. As a student at King Edward’s, young Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), a prodigy already displaying a phenomenal gift for languages real and invented, bonds with three other high-spirited, arty youths (quartet of hobbits, anyone?), all of whom patriotically enlist when war breaks out. The Somme trenches, where two of those three are killed by German fire, are more Mordor. Stumbling through no man’s land on a quest (hmmm) for former schoolmate Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), the delirious Tolkien experiences an early twentieth century Mount Doom: orcs and Ringwraiths in the form of gas-masked Hun, a fire-breathing dragon in a swirl of gunsmoke. All that’s missing is the Eye of Sauron. And yes, Tolkien has an adjutant named…Sam. When, toward the movie’s end, a thirty-something Tolkien, now a professor of Anglo-Saxon at his beloved Oxford, announces out of the blue to his children that he intends to write a book about a “fellowship,” I started to laugh. Or, as dismayed Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers put it, “Oh, brother.” The real-life Tolkien, who loathed trite allegory, would have cringed.

Travers is scarcely the only critic to have decried screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s effort to turn the young Tolkien into a human-size Frodo. The Tolkien estate refused to have anything to do with this project. Several critics have noted that Tolkien omits all reference to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, so intense and meaningful to him even as a young man that he persuaded his wife-to-be, Edith (a very elven Lily Collins in the movie), to convert—reluctantly—to Catholicism before the two married. Catholicism in Tolkien consists solely of Tolkien’s officious if well-meaning legal guardian, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a meddlesome priest who orders Tolkien to break up with the distracting Edith, at least until he reaches maturity. But the absence of any role in this film for Tolkien’s religiosity is more a symptom than a cause.

Tolkien tries its best to pay due respect to its protagonist’s gifts as a linguist and scholar of arcane medieval languages—a daunting task for a work in a fundamentally kinetic medium. We see young Tolkien in the classroom at King Edward’s astounding his classmates by reciting lines from Chaucer by heart after they have stolen his copy of the Canterbury Tales as a prank. Elsewhere, Gleeson and Beresford have him quote Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry from memory. At Oxford, he finds a mentor and father figure in the towering Germanic philologist Joseph Wright—although naturally the screenwriters can’t resist reminding us that Wright, played by a white-bearded Derek Jacobi, bears a striking resemblance to another white-bearded wizard whose name begins with a “G.” Lily Collins’s Edith—musically talented in her own right but a penniless orphan—dispenses the wisdom of Galadriel to her sweetheart. Elsewhere, she skirts perilously close to hectoring Virginia Woolf-style feminism, complaining about her lack of a room, or rather, a life of her own in a male-dominated intellectual world. But, mercifully, Gleeson and Beresford back off from this tiresome trope.

The problem with Tolkien isn’t that it depicts its subject incorporating his own experiences into his fiction; all writers do that. It’s that the film’s connect-the-dots literalism obscures and diminishes the daunting richness of creativity behind Tolkien’s construction of his Middle Earth fantasies. Long before he wrote The Hobbit in the mid-1930s, he had made his mark as one of the leading medievalists of the twentieth century. Oxford professor wasn’t just his day job. In 1929, Tolkein published his discovery—relied upon by scholars to this day—that a large array of seemingly unconnected medieval English religious texts dating from the early thirteenth century shared a common literary language with roots in the Anglo-Saxon English that was supposed to have been obliterated by the Norman Conquest. It was a language of Worcestershire in the West Midlands where Tolkien had spent his early childhood—so that the “men of the West” who resist Sauron in his Ring novels have a special allusive meaning. Starting in the 1920s, he also produced definitive critical editions and translations of numerous English literary works of the Middle Ages (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best-known), an endeavor that continued through the early 1960s when he was a best-selling author who didn’t need to make his living as a scholar.

In 1936, the year before the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien delivered a lecture (later published as an essay) on Beowulf that completely changed the direction of scholarship on that masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon narrative poetry. Until Tolkien’s lecture, scholars had admired Beowulf’s stirring imagery but found its subject matter—the hero’s slaying the giant Grendel and his giantess mother and a much later battle to the death with a gold-stealing dragon—primitive and childish compared to, say, that of the Iliad. Tolkien argued that, on the contrary, Beowulf deals with the most tragic paradox of human existence: that even the most heroic and virtuous of human beings will ultimately be defeated, just like everyone else. The ageing Beowulf manages to kill the dragon, but is mortally wounded, and the poem ends with the sight of his barrow tomb high above the sea. The theme of Beowulf, Tolkien wrote, is that “man, each man and all men and all their works shall die.” The Ring trilogy has a happy ending, but Tolkien assures us that its world of so many eons ago is already passing away.

Furthermore, as the vast universe of Tolkien fans know, The Hobbit and its “fellowship” were not the beginning of his embarkation into fantasy as the movie implies. He had begun constructing the Middle Earth “legendarium,” as he called it, years before, as he was convalescing from the Battle of the Somme. It was a vast compendium of stories and poems, lengthy histories and elaborate geographies and genealogies, some finished, some not, on which he continued to work throughout his lifetime and which never saw the light of publication until after his death. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were in fact comparatively small pieces of flotsam and jetsam washed up from the ocean of Tolkein’s imagination. His fervent Catholicism suffused the legendarium, but with exquisite subtlety; he hated allegory. He told a reporter during the 1960s that his aim had been to construct “myths” for the English, who, unlike the Welsh or the Irish or the Norse, had no pre-Christian mythology that survived into written memory.

I can’t blame Kurokoski and his screenwriters for missing all of this. The stock in trade of authors is virtual reality, not real reality, and the lives of most, except for a few flashy adulterers, are unspeakably dull. They spend their days…writing—sitting at their desks or propped up in bed like Proust or standing and pacing like Philip Roth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, after the loss of his parents in childhood and the nightmare of the Somme, was no exception. Now, there is a movie that could have been made: about four young friends, talented, idealistic, and inseparable, who went off to a war that was supposed to end all wars but actually ended forty million lives and all civilization as Europe knew it. Two of the four died in the trenches before their talents could mature, one survived to become a boys’ school headmaster and give his name to a son of the fourth, and one went on to become perhaps the greatest fantasy writer who ever lived. It would not have been a movie you could call Tolkien. It would have been, however, a movie about the fickleness of human destiny that Tolkien would have understood very well.

 

Charlotte Allen has a Ph.D. in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things. You can follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte

29 Comments

  1. Vivek Rao says

    Please fix the spelling of “Tolkien” in the title.

  2. John Ford says

    Hopefully, someone, someday, will bring the story of the Inkling’s to screen. Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Williams, among many others meeting regularly at the pub discussing and criticizing each others works while these classic were being born. And Charles WIlliams! Where are the film adaptations of The Place of the Lion or War in Heaven. Someday some Hollywood bookworm will pick up one of Williams’ works and realize that the forgotten genius of the Inkling’s triad has been too long overlooked.

    • Fred says

      The problem, John, is that they were all devoutly religious, and Hollywood doesn’t do religion unless it can make believers look like hypocrites and/or fools.

  3. Tom Shen says

    Question: What do you call a biographical movie that is factually correct?
    Answer: A documentary
    I saw “Tolkien”, having never read any of his books, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. I enjoyed the movie; it was a drama, so liberties were taken to make it more dramatic than real life. Of course it missed many nuances of Tolkien’s life, but to include them all would result in a movie days long.

    • Emma says

      It’s intellectual dishonesty to deliberately omit facts because you find them boring, even if those facts are incredibly influential to the subject’s life (i.e., the film omitted Tolkien’s Christianity). You can still make a biopic entertaining without compromising accuracy.

      • Tom Shen says

        Most any inclusion of Tolkien’s faith in this movie would result in knee-jerk accusations of the movie being “Christian propaganda” by atheists, even here on Quillette. Such accusations would hurt the movies’s box office, which judging by the movie press, a box office that needs every dollar they can get.

        • Emma says

          And yet it would not be “Christian propaganda” because it’s not explicitly attempting to convert viewers, but to simply show the influence that Catholicism had on the writings of one of the greatest fantasy authors. Anyone who is sensitive enough to think it is indeed Christian propaganda has no business watching the movie or reading Tolkien for that matter. But I do understand where you’re coming from — highly amoral Hollywood is trying to pander to a secular audience.

          Had Tolkien been a Muslim writer, however, people would have raised no objections to the representation of Islam in the film. In fact, a failure to do so would have been likely dubbed “Islamophobic.” The hypocrisy is great, and of this I am nearly quite certain: Tolkien would’ve hated his own biopic.

        • Daniel says

          Tom Shen,
          “… which judging by the movie press, a box office that needs every dollar they can get.”
          especially since the majority of Tolkien’s fan base is Christian. With them disinterested in watching it, this is truly a flop in the making! So of course finances would be a concern.

          Movies can be categorized as art or entertainment, and they are properly approached differently. If you want to create art, you have to be honest. However, if you want to create entertainment, and can sacrifice honesty for the almighty dollar, why the heck would you choose a university professor of linguistics and Anglo-Saxon literature as a subject? If your goal is to make a buck, you’ve chosen the wrong horse. I think it’s reasonable to expect a movie of Tolkien to be art, rather than entertainment. Therefore, tell it like it was!

          Here’s a thought: if you’re telling a story of a historical figure, tell it how they would want it told. You’ll fully capture all the flaws, contradictions, idealizations etc. of the original character, and any objections could be written off as, “well, this is just the way he/she was…” To leave out Tolkien’s motivating force for life is as ridiculous as having a biography of William Wilberforce that doesn’t get around to mentioning slavery. The directors and producers couldn’t figure out how to include his faith without it seeming like Christian propaganda? Then they are obviously not cut out for the job — they obviously have some ingrained prejudices that prevent them from actually perceiving their subject as he was.

          Let’s imagine this for a second: one of the greatest creative minds of the past 100 years, with all the myriad complexities, delights, and absurdities of a brilliant but flawed human being; all united together — as he himself would justifiably claim — by his Catholic faith… and all the directors can see are Fox News talking points… What. On. Earth.

          If you are the director, and you find this happening to you, you can probably start identifying the limits of your professional abilities pretty clearly. You might decide that you are fully required for making infomercials for smutty postcards… but that might be it… That might be it…

        • Ivo says

          You do realize Tolkien’s faith is key to all his work, right?

    • Tom Shen says

      The big trend in the movie business is to appeal to the mostly non- Christian Asian market. The studio business types (simplistically if not condescendingly) consider this reason enough to downplay Christianity in the movie. Also this gives cover to the actual movie makers, who are if not atheist, at least non-Christian or CINOs. For a similar situation, look at the recent movie about the Moon landing. Complaints that the planting of the American flag on the surface of the moon was omitted was met with the idea that it would appear too jingoistic to the non-American audience.

      • Emma says

        As Daniel pointed out and I briefly implied, given that Hollywood cares more about appealing to a secular audience, they might have done well to look elsewhere for inspiration instead of choosing an Oxford professor and devout Catholic. When you deliberately ignore one of the most significant factors constituting Tolkien’s life lest you offend the atheists in the audience, you clearly have no business telling his story,

      • Daniel says

        Tom Shen,
        I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying they botched it. I’m also saying a Tolkien biography was only ever going to fit in a niche market, and by trying to make it palatable for the Endgame demographic, they missed its natural niche.

  4. charlie says

    The Labour Party has done it’s utmost to destroy schools such as King’s Edward. It is now fee paying but from 1945 to 1975 those who passed the 11 Plus entrance exam attended it for free. This enabled the poorest children to receive some of the finest education in the world with many going up to Oxbridge, Imperial and various medical schools. In order to prevent it becoming a comprehensive it reverted to a fee paying school. As many left wing teachers are opposed to the 11 plus exam it means that very few children attain the academic standards to be able to pass entrance exam. Many schools give means tested bursaries but poor pupils still have to pass the entrance exams . Nowadays ,many boys will have attended prep schools or the few good Church of England primary schools in leafy suburbs. Consequently, poor children and especially those from ethnic minorities living within the inner cities fail to achieve the academic ability to enter schools such as King Edwards and so social mobility has been reduced.

    Former Headmasters of King Edwards include those who have read Greats at Oxford (John Alan Claughton) and been county class cricketers. This combination of academic and sporting excellence tends to be found only in the grammar and public schools in Britain and not comprehensives. Tolkien went to school where headmasters wrote books such as

    Herodotus and the Persian Wars (Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts)
    Aristophanes: Clouds (Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama).

    If all cities had schools of the standard of King Edwards with primary schools teaching to high enough standards so that their pupils could pass the entrance exams, it would greatly increase social mobility.

    • Daniel says

      charlie,
      I stand and applaud. Students will regularly meet the expectations of them (for better and worse). The dumbing-down of the school systems, accompanied by the politically correct curriculum, is serving only the activists (mostly childless, I might add).
      I recall talking to an incredibly successful teacher, who was teaching a full load of high-achieving students. I asked him how he’d do things differently if he didn’t have smart kids.
      “Oh, we make them smart,” he replied in mild surprise. He told me he had all the students in the school with a history of discipline problems, and all the students with IEPs (Individual Education Program – a formal plan for addressing learning disabilities). These students were often unsuccessful in previous schools, with previous teachers, and they rapidly become some of the top achievers in the school in the year in which he teaches them. One of the many things he does well is to expect brilliance.

  5. John Gorentz says

    “…which explores the early years of the author of The Hobbit (1937)…”

    A film is not an exploration. It’s a portrayal. It is to be hoped that some exploration (research) was done before producing the film, but whatever is produced is a portrayal, not an exploration.

  6. Pingback: Another Tolkien biopic review « The Spyders of Burslem

  7. Merina Smith says

    I’m glad I didn’t read this review last week. We saw the movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. Every biopic simplifies some things, often to make the story flow better, because reality is very messy. But we loved the depiction of his early life, his friendship with the boys from school, the love story, the trauma of WWI, his whimsical meeting with his mentor, the whole thing. It’s just a lovely, quiet little picture. Please, find a way to see it and just let yourself forget what all the critics have said so you can enjoy it.

    • Emma says

      The review isn’t wrong. The movie got some things right, yes, but it did omit the influence of Catholicism on Tolkien, which was a huge part of his life. If you’re a hardcore Tolkien fan (I’m not sure if you are), you’ll see why the movie fell short of expectations. You simply cannot talk about Tolkien without mentioning that Catholicism was his main source of inspiration.

      If you focus on other things in the movie, such as the acting, then, yes, I’ll concede it was good. I also liked the chemistry among the actors playing members of the T.C.B.S.

  8. dirk says

    Tolkein and Beowluf, my favorite boreal stories and mystifications! Love them.

  9. Jean Levant says

    Very interesting article about a not at all interesting movie. I never managed to read a single Tolkien’s book to the end, far from it, for no reason I can guess, but I’ll give him another try.

  10. Aylwin says

    “He told a reporter during the 1960s that his aim had been to construct “myths” for the English, who, unlike the Welsh or the Irish or the Norse, had no pre-Christian mythology that survived into written memory.” Damned Christianity. I’ve never understood how external mythology invades and hijacks indigenous culture (although the hijacking of the pagan festivals was sinister and methodical in the case of Christianity in England). Half the world is following one of the faiths that have come out of the tiny piece of land in the Middle East. Ok, no doubt there is a progression from animism and pantheism to monotheism (and, ultimately, atheism) And no doubt there’s an seduction of the exotic. And of course there’s the persecution and enforcement… Ok, maybe I do understand. It’s just a tragedy that e.g. the English mythology was lost. Thankfully we still have the seasons based festivals that are all but shorn of their supernatural baggage. (My favourite is Christmas [ugh, a polluted name – I’ll call it Midwinter] with its communal warmth, and a festival in which everyone could feel they belong – the hunkering down, with family and friends, against the Northern hemisphere winter, the bringing of the outside indoors with evergreens and the light of flames, the kindness to others in the a time of historical want, and the looking to a renewal, can have as much meaning as you could wish for – something Tolkien would certainly have appreciated with or without his supernatural beliefs).

  11. D-Rex says

    Haven’t seen the movie and probably wont but I’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the rings somewhere between 10 and 20 times and have several variations of the book(s) in my collection. Stopped reading once the movies came out and now binge watch them every year instead. You may conclude from this that I’m a fan and you would be correct. Nevertheless, although I was aware of Tolkien’s faith and am myself a christian, it is not a defining issue for me and probably would not be a deciding factor in whether or not I liked the movie. I just love the books.

  12. Pingback: Me for Quillette: The new Tolkien biopic skips everything that was interesting about Tolkien in real life | Stupid Girl

  13. Asenath Waite says

    This looked like the most generic biopic imaginable. No interest even though I am a huge Tolkien fan. I hate the concept of taking someone’s actual life and forcing it to fit into some cliched character arc. The only biopic I have liked in the past decade was Mr. Turner, which was actually interesting and didn’t feel like it had an artificially imposed structure. The Imitation Game was horrendous and I didn’t even bother with the Stephen Hawking one. I will not bother with this one, either.

  14. Azathoth says

    See, I read this–

    “David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s effort to turn the young Tolkien into a human-size Frodo.”

    and all I can think is that it SAYS ‘Beren’ on his grave. Beren. Not Frodo.

    Beren and Luthien.

  15. Most of the audiences for whom this film was made do not give a damn about Catholicism, or what it once meant. They want to see what is relevant to them, which is an author dramatized into the context of the drama of his work, which is why they have come to watch the film.

    Tolkien is only interesting because of the fascinating quasi legendarism that he left us. So for we the audience, his life and deeds need to be and becomes a narrative of splicing the two together.

    His medievalist scholarship is at best a peg, or several of them, to hang the myths he wove The genuine historian was just a intellectual prop to give us what has endeared him to us; stories that we could read to our children who would enjoy them as much we did, of other, densely and richly caparisoned worlds of a ‘historical’ imagination, desperate struggle against evil, the courage and moral integrity to face it and the drama of how that plays out.

    Once we die, whatever we leave behind becomes the property of others to reconstruct for their narratives, as long as whatever it is, is still of interest at all.

    At some point, Tolkien’s life may become interesting for other reasons and other narratives which are as yet unknowable. A memory, if it is a memorable one, will be recycled for generations; each one rebuilding it for themselves.

    Today, we want to see a journey of our literary hero as in some sense, a character in his own scenarios; if you like, a myth within a myth that we have already absorbed.

    And whether he might have ‘liked’ the current rendition of him or not is irrelevant. He’s dead and we are the living. And we have the all too fleeting privilege of seeing our hero our way.

    Even with ‘real’ history, every generation rewrites it as if this time it is the final word, which it never is, for exactly the same reasons as the above. Our interests, agenda and their accompanying narratives constantly shift.

    I keep saying this to libertarian humanist acquaintances of mine who cannot resist the temptation to pretend that their vision of the world, their modelling of reality and their values are timeless, universal and unaffected by the forces of history. I try to remind them of the uncomfortable likelihood that nothing is timeless and their turn to drop through the gallows of history will come soon enough, leaving it to others to put their ideological stamp on how the world is perceived, supposed to be and its memory constructed.

  16. mcswell says

    This reminds me of what C.S. Lewis–of course a good friend of Tolkien–said about a form of literary criticism (biblical criticism, in fact) which claimed to reconstruct how and why a document had been written. I trust I will be forgiven if I quote it at length.

    “I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why – and when – he did everything.

    “Now I must first record my impression; then, distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 percent failure.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the friends Lewis alludes to was Tolkien. If so, prophetic.

    • Well Mcswell, 100% is a big call for which Lewis adduces no evidence. It sounds little more than a literary declamation over a pint…or five.

      Yes he might have been a friend of Tolkien, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he had the ultimate inside dope as to what ‘really’ was or was not the case.

      How T might have seen himself could only be a very partial take. Others would see him then, and all the rest of us now, quite differently from how he saw himself and we see ourselves, depending on the external observers’ points of view, prejudices and the histories that inform them.

      Every one of us is having our social production constantly removed into other people’s agendas. And when we die, we lose all say and become the property of different worlds with sometimes totally different narrative paths.

      But even at the creative interface of mind and media, what the meaning of the creative product and underlying forces that conducted that mind were, after the fact, is opaque, and a matter of speculation, even for the creator. As T S Eliot rather famously said about one of his poems, ‘When I wrote it, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows’.

      That is why history is a constantly shifting kalaedoscope of modeling perspective and perception that just happen to tick the boxes at the time.

  17. Steve F says

    The problem with almost every movie about history is they reflect the present thinking binary values the writing and production team wish to signal rather than make any effort to report pragmatically actual events. Thus they are mostly terrible and mostly not true. I’ve been reading several biographies of people who lived through the early 20th century. They all rewrite their own history but what they casually say about the environment they lived in and how they say it tells you much more about the reality of the time than any movie I’ve ever seen. The running down and “accidental” burning down of country houses, early deaths of relatives, borrowing against inheritances, the collapse in family sizes, the disappearance of governesses, nannies, maids and servants. If it ever actually really lived the British empire was dead well before WW1. It just took 50 years to sign all the paperwork and burn through the assets to realise it.

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