In 1974, my then English teacher Mr. Sweeting read out a long list of books from which we were supposed to select one to read over the coming weeks. He got to a book called ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and glanced up at the class, adding ‘…but none of you will be interested in that one.’ He may have had a point — I was at school in an Australian Outback town, and not many people in the class were particularly literate. But for me, something stood out about the name. I decided immediately that that was the book for me.
Tolkien himself had died a year earlier. On acquiring the book, though, I instantly began to feel that I might have known the man, or certainly that I knew his book. A brief scan of the chapter titles gave me the strange sensation of having read the book before: ‘In the House of Tom Bombadil’; ‘The Scouring of the Shire’; ‘The Grey Havens’ — these were all words that somehow resonated with me. It was as though I had been familiar with Tolkien’s work in an earlier life or something. What’s more, as I began reading, the sensation increased rather than diminished. The Lord of the Rings is one of the few books which has had an impact on my ‘real life’ — not because I believe in hobbits or wanted to be a wizard, but because the book taps into something hidden, something spiritual, something which is definitely counter-cultural and speaks to us from an earlier world.
Yesterday, I was finally able to complete watching the 2019 film Tolkien, which I had waited to view in the comfort of my own home, suspecting that it might either frustrate me or emotionally affect me. I am glad to say it had the latter rather than the former effect. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford along with the Finnish director Dome Karukoski have managed to piece together a film which gets the balance of several elements about right.
The film is about the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien, skilfully portrayed by Nicholas Hoult (with his even younger self also appearing played by Harry Gilby) an orphaned boy who endures hardship but manages to acquire a place at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he develops a brilliant facility for languages. Several major threads run through the film and are interwoven well: Tolkien’s passionate imagination and ability to absorb and reinvigorate ancient elements of fiction is conveyed largely through some deft use of lighting and subtle imagery; his sense of fellowship and tragedy is captured through his relationship with school friends, two of whom die in the First World War; while his love for the young woman at his boarding house, Edith Bratt (portrayed beautifully by Lily Collins) forms the backbone of the story. With a combination of flashbacks and connecting imagery, the tale is told of how Tolkien is compelled by his Catholic guardian into choosing between early marriage and going up to Oxford.
It’s a film which probably requires some foreknowledge of Tolkien’s work to achieve its full effect: premonitions of Tolkien’s future created world appear on the battlefield, and, at the Somme, he has a batman called Sam, (played by Craig Roberts) who demonstrates the kindness and loyalty that Tolkien was later to embody in the hobbits.
Before the war, young Tolkien underwent a profound and far-reaching conversion to the world of philology at Oxford. Derek Jacobi almost steals the show playing a caustic professor of philology, whose requirement that Tolkien write a 5,000-word essay on the Norse influence on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a few hours touches on both the rigours of academia and on Tolkien’s innate ability with language. But the most touching aspect of the film is its exploration of Tolkien’s relationship with his future wife Edith, a marriage which he came to embody poetically and romantically within his tales of Middle-earth. Edith is also an orphan, trapped in a world of ‘companionship’ and service, with little hope of ever achieving any kind of spiritual liberation — Tolkien affectively transforms her life, as she does his.
Director Karukoski also grew up fatherless and in poverty, and felt a strong connection to Tolkien —he had wanted to create a biopic about Tolkien since he was 12, and the fact that the film is a labour of love is evident.
Additionally, the music by Thomas Newman is both subtle and profound, drawing together the whole story effectively.
Falling in love, I used to muse, is much like following a treasure trail — one clue after another leads one deeper into another’s soul until one finds their heart, after which all questioning and options vanish. Such was my experience with this film — as it unfolded scene by scene I sensed a growing appropriateness for its subject matter and knew that it was quickly becoming one of my favourites. Well done to all concerned.