Tolkien, a biopic by Finnish director Dome Karukoski, focuses on the early life of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien. Heavily intercut, chronologically it begins with his late childhood in the idyllic village of Sarehole, and ends with his undergraduate years at Oxford and his experiences as a newly commissioned officer in the horror and mud of the Battle of the Somme. A brief final scene jumps to show Tolkien, now married and the father of four, writing the famous opening line to The Hobbit.
Having read a number of disparaging reviews, I was prepared for a mix of frustration and disappointment but instead found that I enjoyed Tolkien a good deal more than I had expected.
Stories That Stick with Us
It’s been said that when it comes to Middle-Earth, there is no middle ground. Readers are either great admirers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or they dislike them greatly. Those who admire them greatly are likely to have read several, perhaps many, reviews before this one, so I will not spend much time covering the usual ground.
Anyone looking for an extensive plot summary, a thorough evaluation of the cinematic elements, or a detailed account of the film’s historic accuracy can easily find these things elsewhere. My brief take is that the cinematic elements in Tolkien are quite impressive — particularly the casting, acting, and period design — and that the film is, for the most part, historically accurate, although these kinds of movies are usually intended to capture the emotional truth of events rather than the actual facts. For example, in the film we see Tolkien about to be shipped off to France just moments after he and Edith have been reunited. While this makes for great cinema, in reality they had been reunited for three years, and married for two months, before he was sent to the front.
Tolkien foresaw such embellishments. In chapter three of The Hobbit, the narrator points out, “Things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to.” Some good lives are not worth watching on the big screen, and yet, people tend to think authors of particularly interesting fiction must have led particularly interesting lives. If Tolkien’s life was not exactly the stuff Hollywood movies are made of, where is the appeal of a film that sets out to depict it? While there are a number of possible answers, I would suggest that the best one has to do with the unique quality of Tolkien’s fiction.
Daniel Taylor has written that there are certain, special stories that “receive us at birth, accompany us through the stages of life, and prepare us for death,” giving pattern to “otherwise chaotic experience, making it memorable and meaningful.” For countless readers, The Lord of the Rings is this kind of story, and for them seeing the author’s early years brought lovingly to life will be a rare delight. For others, Tolkien may serve merely as a moving tribute to the way that art — whether fiction, poetry, music, or painting — has the power, as we are told in the film, to change the world. And, of course, the power to change one person’s life as well.
The Glaring Absence
Notably missing from the film is much about Tolkien’s Christian faith, and it is missing in a certain way — not like a piece of a puzzle or a slice cut from a cake, but missing like an element that is, or would have been, part of everything.
We meet the Catholic priest who became Tolkien’s guardian, but we are never given much indication that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own — one that was a profound source of comfort in the trenches and later a critical factor in his writing. The film tries to show other elements that went into the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors — Tolkien’s lifelong enchantment with language, the short-lived fellowship of his friends in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, and Tolkien’s devotion to his first and only romantic love. We never see, however, the devotion that would later lead him to tell a correspondent seeking the really significant facts about him, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”
Early in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is told, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” Tolkien is filled with many moments of courage, the kind found on the battlefield as well as the kind found in the living of an ordinary life. It is clear that the makers of Tolkien approached their subject with a great deal of affection, understanding, and reverence. Although they extracted the heart from the man, we who have eyes to see can still benefit from the film.
One other point should be made. In a manner that fails to do justice to the creative process, the filmmakers take pains to show us Tolkien’s hallucinations of monsters, fire-breathing dragons, and knights on horseback who appear on the battlefield as well as a soldier named Sam who looks after the young Lieutenant — as though this is the way authors get their ideas.
In Sarehole we almost expect to see a birthday party taking place under a giant tree or, later as the bullets and shells begin flying, to hear someone repeat the words Gandalf says to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
A Magic Greater Than Grief
In The Fellowship of the Ring as the members of the quest approach the boundaries of Lothlorien, their guide, an elf named Haldir, observes that although the world is full of peril and many dark places, “Still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
As we travel through our own dark places, we take heart knowing that, as candles shine brightest in the darkness, the fireplace warms best on cold nights — love’s rays pierce the more beautifully through shadows of grief. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” said the apostle (2 Corinthians 6:10), and rejoicing the more heartily because of the sorrows, replies the Christian. Our laughter comes from deeper wells — wells Tolkien depicted well.
In Tolkien we also see this fallen world with its mingling of love and grief, joy and sorrow. Companionship, sacrifice, loss and heartache, laughter and tears take residence here where dragons aren’t wont to dwell. And yet, though no Morgul-blades stab or Nazgul roam, here too love grows beyond grief and becomes the greater of the two.