Tolkien, a movie review
“We are your friends, Frodo.” -J. R. R. Tolkien
“Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’” -C. S. Lewis
The influence of The Great War on J. R. R. Tolkien and, to a degree, his later mythopoeic work is well established. Tolkien, himself, relayed to his son Christopher, when the latter was serving in World War II, that it was the first war that generated early parts of Middle Earth in his imagination and that he wrote “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” Indeed, his later hobbit companion, Sam Gamgee, was a reflection of the “batmen I knew in the 1914 war,” and his experience at the Battle of Somme shaped his description of the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers.
Thus, what is remarkable about the new biopic, Tolkien (2019), is not the foreshadowing of Middle Earth from the trenches of France, even though creatively done, but rather the friendships that formed Tolkien and how Tolkien, too, was a friend. It is the people, not the myth, that make this film worthwhile.
While the film shuffles some of the details and order of events, Tolkien’s meeting his future wife, Edith Bratt, in 1908 marked the start of his most important friendship. The two teenage orphans would start spending more time together in 1909, often in teashop balconies where “they would sit and throw sugar-lumps into the hats of passers-by.” Soon they declared their love for one another and although they kept their feelings in secret, the relationship had a negative effect on Tolkien’s qualifying examinations for Oxford. This led to his guardian, Father Francis, to relocate Tolkien and forbade him to communicate with her until he turned 21.
The Fellowship of the TCBS
The Tea Club and Barrovian Society did not form until the summer of 1911, when Tolkien was 19 and serving as the school librarian at King Edward’s in Birmingham. Nevertheless, his friendships with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and Geoffrey Smith deepened as they encouraged each other in the pursuit of art, and to the admiration of many. One classmate later wrote, “As a boy you could not imagine how I looked up to you and admired and envied the wit of that select coterie.”
Tolkien’s TCBS fellowship occupied his energy during the years he was banned from Edith and would continue with him to university studies at Oxford. In those early college years, Tolkien would pursue social events over his studies, as marked by one occasion when he and Geoffrey Smith “captured a bus and drove it up to Cornmarket.” He would say later he “misspent a good deal of my first year” in part, because of missing Edith, but also due to his growing dissatisfaction of studying the classics.
Tolkien had a lifelong fascination with language. By the time he was 16, a friend had sold him a copy of Joseph Wright’s Primer of the Gothic Language. Upon reading it, Tolkien remarked that he had an experience similar to the poet Keats when Keats read the works of Homer in English for the first time and captured his feelings in the sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816). Tolkien expressed that “The contemplation of the vocabulary in A Primer of the Gothic Language was enough: a sensation at least as full of delight as first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Though I did not write a sonnet about it. I tried to invent Gothic words.” His invention of languages commenced and a love for the study of words, philology, developed.
On January 3, 1913, Tolkien turned 21 and just after midnight he wrote a letter to Edith having honored Father Francis’s three-year stipulation to the very hour. In the letter he declared his love and desire to marry Edith, but her reply conveyed that she was already engaged, though she left room for Tolkien to see he had an opportunity. Rather than wallow, Tolkien boarded a train on January 8 and when he arrived, Edith met him. After a day of walking and talking, Edith agreed to cancel her engagement and marry him.
At the time he tired of classics and was reunited with Edith, Tolkien had to sit for his mid-degree exams. He scored high enough to continue in his studies thanks to a high mark on a paper written on a topic related to philology. This led him to see a path toward graduation that allowed more focused study on language, majoring in English Literature. By this time his Classics Tutor, Lewis Farnell, was the administrator of his college and, thus, was able to facilitate the change and keep Tolkien’s scholarship. Perhaps the greatest blessing of this change arrived when Tolkien now had the opportunity to study formally with Joseph Wright, leading philologist and Tolkien’s academic hero.
Tolkien and the Great War
The TCBS waned some during these years, (Tolkien did not even mention Edith to them until late 1913) but did reunite and did so with importance in December 1914, given the start of the Great War. Termed the Council of London, all four TCBS members met at the home of Christopher Wiseman and the meetings had the effect of rejuvenating their friendship and initial purpose. Tolkien later wrote, “That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me:– I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.” Following the Council of London, Tolkien completed unfinished poems and started a literary output that did not cease until the end of his career.
In 1915, Tolkien completed his studies and began his military training. He continued corresponding with his TCBS friends even after they were deployed to the front lines. Geoffrey Smith, sensing the worst wrote in February 1916, “May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such may be my lot.” In March, Tolkien and Edith married and in June Tolkien deployed for France.
On the day the Battle of Somme began, Rob Gilson died. Writing to Geoffrey Smith, Tolkien reflected on their friendship and the aim of the TCBS to achieve greatness:
The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands–a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things. The greatness which Rob has found is in no way smaller – for the greatness I meant and tremblingly hoped for as ours is valueless unless steeped with the same holiness of courage suffering and sacrifice – but is of a different kind. His greatness is in other words now a personal matter with us … but only touches the TCBS on that precise side which perhaps – it is possible – was the only one that Rob really felt – ‘Friendship to the Nth power’.
By November, Tolkien had contracted trench fever and was sent home. He would soon learn of Geoffrey Smith’s December death. Of the original TCBS members, only he and Christopher Wiseman survived. Tolkien later remarked, “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien honored Geoffrey Smith’s request and published Smith’s poems in a collection entitled A Spring Harvest, for which Tolkien wrote the foreword noting that Smith’s “The Burial of Sophocles,” was composed throughout the war and “sent to me from the trenches.” One poem tells the story of three friends remembering the death of their fourth,
Because a look, a word, a deed, a friend,
Are bound with cords that never a man may break,
Unto his heart for ever, until the end.
The Beginning of a Journey
By the conclusion of the War, Tolkien and Edith had their first child. By the 1920s, the Tolkiens would settle in Oxford for a lifelong professorship. In 1925 he wrote to his mentor, Joseph Wright, upon his retirement as a “grateful disciple … to whom you have shown since so many kindnesses” for “it was your works, that came into my hands by chance as a schoolboy, that first revealed to me the philology I love.”
Sometime prior to or during the Summer of 1930, while grading papers, Tolkien had an idea, a first line that would bring to life the world of Middle Earth to house his created language. “All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual tasked forced upon impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”
The film does not mention the importance and role of Tolkien’s Christian faith, yet, one cannot appreciate Tolkien’s literary contribution and his view of friendship without it. Writing to W. H. Auden, Tolkien explained, “I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story first with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.” Tolkien’s “intentions” can be seen in a myriad of events and characters, but perhaps most poignant in his deliberate selection of December 25 as the day the Fellowship set out on their quest and March 25 as the day evil was defeated. The former marking the incarnation and birth of Christ and the latter marking the date of his death, Good Friday. As Tom Shippey summarizes, “The main action of The Lord of the Rings takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ’s birth, and the crucifixion, Christ’s death.”
While the film ends shortly after Tolkien’s starting to write The Hobbit, Tolkien’s life and work did not. His marriage and friendship with Edith would last until her death in 1971. In addition, in 1926, Tolkien would make a new friend and start a new society. Meeting first at an English faculty meeting, Tolkien found that C. S. Lewis shared his interest in Norse literature. By 1929, their group expanded and met regularly and were known as the Inklings.
These friends would help each other in monumental ways, but here are just two examples. First, on September 19, 1931, Tolkien and Lewis were walking and talking on the grounds of Magdalen College wherein Tolkien explained his belief in the truth of the Christian “myth.” This led to an extended conversation into the early hours of September 20 where Lewis would relate later to a friend that “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity …. My long night talk with … Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
Second, as Tolkien was a noted perfectionist who had difficulty finishing a project, he needed constant encouragement to complete The Lord of the Rings. The chief encourager of the value and necessity of this project was C. S. Lewis. Writing after Lewis’s death, Tolkien said, “But for the encouragement of C. S. L. I do not think I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings.”
In that fateful year of 1916 when he lost two of his friends, Tolkien reflected further on what he had hoped for the TCBS:
“[The TCBS] was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down several lives in this war.”
Tolkien never lost sight of that vision. Indeed, Tolkien and Lewis shared fellowship and friendship to the nth power and, through their collective works, fulfilled and exceeded Tolkien’s original vision for his TCBS friends, for God and Truth for years to come.
Tolkien is a fine biopic that introduces a new audience to the formative years of the author of The Lord of the Rings. However, it is not the origin story of Middle Earth that is compelling, but the story of how often in history, it is the plan and providence of God to use friends as the means by which to accomplish greatness for his glory.
Editor's Note: This article appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.