Tolkien— The Back Story

Tolkien— The Back Story May 14, 2019

I must first say that this movie is a joy to watch. It’s very well done. Even the flashbacks are not off-putting. And the two main actors in the story are truly excellent, as is the supporting cast. Nicholas Holt as J.R.R. in his high school and college and war years, and beyond, is excellent, as is Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, his true love. Further, Professor Wright the philologist at Oxford, with whom Tolkien studied, is beautifully played by Derek Jacobi of Cadfael and Claudius fame. The movie is only 111 minutes and like most truly excellent movies– it left me wanting more. Though this film was not authorized by the Tolkien trust, I cannot imagine Christopher, the son who published the Silmarillion and other of Tolkien’s works and manages the estate, would be displeased with this fine offering. My only complaint is that the movie does not really deal at all with Tolkien’s Catholic faith, which is a pity since he was a very committed Catholic.

Here is the official summary about the film—-“TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt, until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.”

It is clear that Tolkien’s deeply disturbing experiences in WWI at the Somme deeply influenced the way he wrote about good and evil (see also the poetry of WWI chaplain Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, especially his poem ‘The Sorrow of God’), and the necessity to fight the latter.

Even those of us who’ve read almost everything Tolkien wrote, and his biography, and even have made the pilgrimage to Middle Earth, by which I mean the two great islands of New Zealand (including a visit to the official site of Hobbiton) learned much from this film. The film does not delve into the very early part of Tolkien’s life in Bloemfontein in South Africa, but rather begins with the family’s life in England in Birmingham, and does not explain what happened to Tolkien’s father. What it does explain, to the surprise of many, is that Tolkien and his brother were orphaned in their teenage years by the untimely death of their mother, and ended up in a large home where, Edith Bratt was also ‘under care’ as an orphan. The film focuses on their budding relationship, and also the friendship Tolkien made with three other young men before and after they went off to college (in Tolkien’s case Oxford). The movie is beautifully filmed, and has a lovely soundtrack as well from Thomas Newman.

I would heartily recommend this film to any and all lovers of the Inklings, as it fills in some gaps in our knowledge of what it was that prompted the remarkable Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels (partly influenced of course by Wagner’s Ring cycle). Fair warning— this movie will make you both laugh and cry, or at least it did me. Enjoy the pathos.

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