I have been a Tolkien geek for fifty-three years, since my Aunt Katherine, my very own Auntie Mame, linguist and world traveler and friend of science fiction writers,* handed fourteen-year-old me a stack of three fat paperbacks and wished me well on my travels into Middle-Earth.
Aunt K has gone into the uttermost West, but I am still here, still able to fall back into those pages and feel the power and pathos of the Tale of the One Ring and all that led up to, took place, and succeeded the quest to end the evil realm of Sauron forever.
The maker of that tale, the architect of Middle-Earth, dwindles, in the new Fox Searchlight biopic into a tensely obsessive brooder who covers his bedroom walls with pen-and-ink drawings of knights, twisted blackened trees, evil wraiths and hostile dragons (all of which resemble, somewhat unnervingly, the designs for Peter Jackson’s LoTR and Hobbit films).
The young Tolkien loses his mother, attains a mysterious priestly guardian who promptly sends him and his younger brother Hilary off to live in a boarding-house run by a severely corsetted matron, where he falls earnestly in love with a lovely young orphan. He makes earnest friends with a trio of equally earnest and self-consciously artistic young Tom-Brown-at-Rugby types at his prep school (in a nod to the primacy of Sport in British tradition, they even play Rugby). The young Tolkien has some restrained hijinks with this band of brothers, some restrained tiffs with authority figures (his guardian, a headmaster), and some restrained romance with Edith, and then heads off to the trenches of WWI.
There, he falls desperately ill while seeming to do very little in the way of actual fighting or lieutenant-ing, until, after clambering about in the misty blasted heath of Mordor–sorry, France–and having a vision of dragons belching flame over the wracked and tormented landscape, he slips, nearly comatose, full-length into a muddy shell crater, where he is anxiously tended by a small worried batman named Sam, before miraculously returning home to marriage, children, reunion with his one surviving friend, and a life of bucolic contentment. AND, of course, the prompt achievement of literary fame.
Not much of this is believable if one knows anything at all about John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (“Ronald” to family and friends).
I was afraid, when I heard of the biopic, that what would make it to the screen would be a pallid, formulaic, truncated unspooling of the usual film biography tropes: the poor orphan who is an odd sort, a very special kind of child in fact, though no one knows it or values it at first, who eventually finds kindred spirits and triumphs over adversity and achieves true love and attains his life’s calling despite global war and some romanticmisunderstandings, all in a noble and very Britishly cself-contained fashion, tastefully presented in proper costuming and with loose plot ends (mostly) tied up in a bow, in a bit less than two hours.
My fears have been realized.
Of course all biopics are slash-and-burn when it comes to truth. But still.
Today I learned that Tolkien’s estate has roundly dissociated itself from Tolkien, to which I say, good for you, and which will unfortunately do little to keep people away from the film. The ensuing confusion will no doubt make legitimate Tolkien scholars clutch their aching skulls with both hands and moan.
First, I wonder why the makers of this film chose to ignore the deepest current of their subject’s life and art? I refer to his devout religious faith, left out of the movie almost entirely.
its sole surviving remnant is Father Francis, played doggedly and with an out-of-period hairdo by Colm Meaney (whose long tenure on Star Trek: TNG did not, it seems, prepare him much for this particular role). Father Francis is presented as largely absent from daily life but draconian when he does deign to pop in. We see no evidence of his continued fatherly relationship with either Ronald or Hilary, except to bellow pompous platitudes at Ronald and forbid him to tarry on love’s sweet shores the while (“She isn’t even Catholic!”)–a ban which Ronald heroically refuses to obey.
The real story, which admittedly would be hard to film, is that Tolkien’s mother Mabel had in 1895 travelled back to England from South Africa with her two small boy, intending a long visit. Arthur, their father, had been planning to join his wife and children, but died of a fever back in Blomfontein, leaving Mabel to bring up young Ronald, then aged three, and Hilary, one, in England, where they lived on the bounty of Mabel’s family until 1900, when she converted to the Roman Catholic faith and had the boys baptized into that church as well. This enraged and affronted Mabel’s Baptist relations, and they threw the Tolkiens out on their collective ear without a penny to pinch.
(This is not the place to discuss it, but the conflict produced by the Tolkiens’ conversion offers a fascinating subtext to the glaring absence of any trappings of formal religion in LoTR–no clergy, no scriptures, no rites or services, no church buildings or altars, no prayers, no actual Deity as such, no tithes–there is in the work a deeply profound spirituality and a kind of suffused presence of a Creator and of a Creation, but it is buried pretty deeply in the Appendices and a few references to Elvish vaguely theological underpinnings, and the Silmarillion is not much help. The fact that neither Mabel’s family nor she and her boys were members of the Established Church, the Church of England, surely contributed to Ronald’s sense of himself as an outsider, a lonely bearer of Truth against a hostile world. “Romans” were firmly outside the Pale well into the 20th Century and even now are faintly infra dig.)
Father Francis had been Mabel’s and the boys’ prop and stay throughout, and when Mabel died he took on the guardianship of her two boys, at no little cost to himself in funds and time. Both boys were devout, and Ronald seems to have been particularly dutiful, until he met Edith Bratt and feel deeply in love. Father Francis did forbid the relationship–that much in the film is true–but, far from defying him, Ronald did not even write to Edith (with one exception) until he had turned twenty-one and was no longer bound to obey. Edith did become engaged to another man, and who could blame her? But she relented, after the ban was lifted. She converted to Catholicism, and they actually were married before he went off to France in 1916.
Also, the film omits another significant set of events: war broke out while Ronald was still at Oxford. Contrary to what we see on screen, with Ronald in uniform and off to join his mates almost before the ink is dry on the formal declaration of hostilities, Ronald in reality refused to enlist until he had completed his degree. He knew that if he did not do so, he would never have the opportunity again, and, having won Edith’s consent at last, he desperately needed to finish so that he would be able to support a wife and family with an academic position after the war. He was publicly reviled as a coward for not being in uniform. Now THAT would have made a great scene in a biopic. But in this particular one, there isn’t any place for such an ambiguous–and ambivalent–representation.
In terms of on-screen passion, Ronald’s love for Edith is far more decorously expressed than the devotion of TCBS for one another and for Art. The Tolkien movie works very hard to show the depth and shared artistic passions of the Fellowship of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Tolkien and his three best boyhood friends were in fact close, but the film seeks to establish the boys’ bond as the basis for that other Fellowship of which Tolkien would write so mesmerizingly, decades later. For this viewer, the film falls short of establishing any such thing.
I don’t doubt the TCBS was formative, nor do I doubt the impact on LoTR of the men under Lieutenant Tolkien’s command–briefly alluded to in the presence of that small, furrowed-browed batman. Tolkien himself would latter attest (as Andrew Liptak and other Tolkien scholars have pointed out) that his hobbits, including most clearly Sam, had their origins in the often physically small and under-nourished young farmers and village boys who made up the bulk of the Other Ranks, including the regiment he commanded, in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Not incidentally, the real Tolkien had too often to send these troops to their certain deaths. He remarked their willingness and loyalty and devotion to himself, to King and country, and was humbled by it. The fact that Sam Gamgee is felt by many readers to be the true hero of LoTR is a tribute to their sacrifice, indeed, and to Tolkien’s perception.
But Sam & Co. came along much, much later. It would be nearly fifteen years before Professor Tolkien, during a session of marking students’ essays, would write the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and kick off the 20th century’s singular sensation in the realm of fantasy, and The Hobbit did not appear in print until 1937; Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, in Lord of the Rings, not until 1954-55.
Finally: some possibly trivial but still keenly-felt annoyances about the movie:
Mabel Tolkien died at 34, of diabetes, a death sentence in the days before the discovery of insulin. The film gives the impression that her death was a surprise to everyone, which would not have been so. Her disease was diagnosed years earlier. Does the story gain any actual value in drama by having her suddenly collapse for no apparent reason?
And what the hell happened to Hilary? He’s there, then not. Was he eaten by wolves? No, he actually wasn’t there, at least not after 1910, because he was living with his and Ronald’s Aunt Jane in Nottinghamshire and helping to run her farm.
Also: In a restaurant scene, Edith bemoans the fact that she hasn’t got a hat. We see every other woman in the place lurking under a mammoth sofa cushion of Edwardian headgear, while Edith’s head is just–bare. Well, that would NOT have happened. No respectable English (or American) woman past fourteen would have gone out to a public place hatless. It just Was Not Done. You might just as well have pranced in barefoot. Or naked.
Last quibble: the scene where Edith dances under the trees for Ronald did take place, but after their marriage, and I wish the film could have done something with that image to link it, as Tolkien did later, to the story of Beren and Luthien, who are mentioned so briefly as hardly to register on the viewer. Those are, after all, the names on the shared tombstone of John Ronald Ruel (Beren) and Edith Mary Bratt (Luthien). The story, as related in Tolkien’s Legendarium and briefly summarized in LoTR, could have provided more resonance for the Ronald-Edith romance and also linked it to his lasting contributions to the genre of high fantasy.
Well, a biopic is not a biography. There are some good ones:
Tolkien: A Biography. Humphrey Carter. Allen and Unwin, 1977. This is a good one to begin with.
Tolkien and the Great War. John Garth. HarperCollins, 2002. Excellent for what really went on out there on the Somme, and elsewhere, in Tolkien’s experiences.
Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England. Jane Chance. University Press of Lexington, Kentucky. 2001. For the serious enthusiast.
Online, The Tolkien Society provides many useful resources at www.tolkiensociety.org; the biography on the site is excellent.
Writer/ editor/ scholar Andrew Liptak’s work appears on The Verge and at www.andrewliptak.com. In 2014, 2015, and 2019 he participated in the Tolkien in Vermont Conference at the University of Vermont.
And at least we all know how to pronounce “TOLL-KEEN” now.
*I was thirteen years old and sitting at Aunt Katherine’s dinner table in northern New Jersey when John Campbell told the assembly the story of Cleve Cartmill and the story “Deadline,” a legendary affair in sci-fi circles. Cartmill had just passed away, and Campbell invested the saga with compelling drama, you may be sure. (There were lots of sci-fi folk around that table. I remember that, some years earlier, Lester del Rey helped me cut up my lamb chop.)