Raise your hand if you’re a Lord of the Rings Kid. Y’all raisin’ em? Good–I figured I had a few of you in my audience! Yes, guys and gals, we are the Lord of the Rings Kids, the millennials who grew up watching Peter Jackson’s iconic films*, playing with action figures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, spending bagoodles of money on even more figures at Target, devouring the original novels* (multiple times), and impressing everyone else with our burgeoning Elvish vocabularies. We are awesome, and we are blessed, because our imaginations were truly well-fed and well-formed between the years of 2001 and 2003.
But here’s the question: do we, as Lord of the Rings Kids, take these stories–and the man who wrote them–for granted?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a creative genius. Not only did he write an entire mythology, he invented multiple languages for that mythology. Not only that, but these languages are so well-developed, you can hold entire conversations in them. This is common knowledge at this point, of course; we’ve all eavesdropped on Aragorn and Arwen’s sweet nothings, and we all know the password for Moria’s front door. But I think we’ve forgotten, through the curse of familiarity, just how unusual this is…and how absolutely wild you’d have to be about languages in order to undertake such a project.
Thankfully, the new biopic Tolkien* chips away at our forgetfulness until we’re wide-awake all over again. Watch Tolkien and you’ll find yourself laughing in breathless amazement at the way this beloved author’s mind and heart worked in sync…and the way he found inspiration in both his personal life and his passions.
If you’ve assumed this film follows the writing of his famous trilogy, think again. It actually follows his formative years: his impoverished boyhood, the friendships he formed at boarding school, his courtship with the beautiful Edith Bratt, and his life-changing experiences in World War I. Hints and whispers of The Lord of the Rings are everywhere, from Tolkien and Edith’s humorous brainstorming over the Elvish-sounding phrase “Cellar door” to his feverish whispers of “Hail Eärendil” in the trenches of the Somme. But not until the final scene, when he pens the famous opening lines of The Hobbit, does it all come together.
And that’s what so clever about this film: we expect it to be about The Lord of the Rings, but in reality it’s about everything that leads UP to Tolkien’s magnum opus.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. I think I can speak for writers everywhere when I say that we don’t just come up with random ideas: we’re inspired by what we see around us, what we love, and what we experience and endure. Consider Tolkien’s own life. His is the story of:
- an orphan whose mother, before she died, nourished him with tales of dragon-slayers
- a nature-loving schoolboy who, with three of his schoolmates, formed a fellowship that would be broken only by death
- an aspiring linguist who invented languages of his own…just for fun
- a young soldier and the love of his life who defied social boundaries and the objections of their guardians until they finally got their happily-ever-after.
These features of Tolkien’s life all ended up in his life’s work, and are major plot points of the biopic. Black-clad riders galloping through the trenches of his feverish imagination were a fine touch of artistic license, of course…but it isn’t much of a stretch to assume that Tolkien found inspiration in the utter despair and darkness he experienced in World War I.
Unfortunately, the most influential element doesn’t get much focus in the biopic: Tolkien’s deeply personal, devoutly Catholic faith. This was the most common complaint I’d heard about the movie before seeing it, and I will readily admit it’s a valid criticism. Tolkien’s Christianity motivated his writing (something I’m keenly aware right now as I re-read The Silmarillion), yet in a glaring omission, the film barely touches on it.
Nevertheless, I do consider Tolkien* a worthwhile film. Not only is a fairly accurate portrayal of his first forty years or so, but it’s simply beautiful. Tolkien took great delight in the beauty of the earth and the power of stories, and the filmmakers went to great lengths to show this. Yes, they did him a disservice by giving his faith little to no credit. But his story and his character are, for the most part, left intact…and for us Lord of the Rings Kids, it’s a lovely glimpse into the life of our most beloved storyteller.