The film Tolkien is about fellowship—between Tolkien and his close friends from youth—and his teenage sweetheart who later became his wife. Regardless of what one makes of the connections the film develops between Tolkien’s life and The Lord of the Rings book trilogy, the film does highlight the importance of fellowship for Tolkien, who with his younger brother was orphaned in his youth. It is a rare person who has the literary gifting that Tolkien had. Perhaps even more rare, or at least even more valuable, are the relationships the movie depicts Tolkien having.
I will return to this theme later. For now, I will consider what the film does not convey before proceeding to discuss what the film does capture.
Interestingly, the film does not draw attention to The Inklings, the literary group made up of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others at Oxford. This point is not a criticism, as the film primarily focused on Tolkien’s younger years and early development up through his university studies and participation in WWI. Still, the lack of attention to The Inklings made me hope for a sequel focusing on this particular ring of fellowship.
While the acting is very good, the film did not capture Tolkien’s genius or creativity either. For example, the World War I battle field allusions to his literary masterpiece did not do justice to Tolkien’s literary creativity and imagination. No doubt, this would be hard to do no matter the biographical sketch. What was perhaps most interesting was the scene of a young Tolkien dancing with Edith Bratt (his future wife) during the performance of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung,” which has often been claimed as an inspiration for Tolkien’s own “Ring” epic, to Tolkien’s chagrin. According to a New Yorker analysis of the two epics, Tolkien said this of any comparison between his “Ring” and Wagner’s “Ring”: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.” No doubt, Tolkien would have rejected the film’s direct connections between life circumstances (such as his Oxford circle of friends and WWI) and his literary work, just as he rejected any developed association with Wagner’s masterpiece. Based on what I read in various reviews of the film, Tolkien’s estate has also disavowed the film (even prior to watching it). More generally, readers may find instructive the reviews of Tolkien by The Washington Post, National Review, and Los Angeles Times.
What the film does capture, I believe, was Tolkien’s longing for fellowship and friendship. We marvel at his genius. May we also marvel at the film’s depiction of how much he is portrayed as cherishing his wife and friends. Perhaps it was due to losing his father and mother at a young age. Who knows? But whether in real life or in his Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien had a very keen sense of the importance of friendship and companionship. The film portrays Tolkien as willing to risk his life to find one of his old friends (Geoffrey Bache Smith) on the battlefield and hold out for the woman he loved (Edith) from whom he was separated during his university studies. In reflecting on the movie Tolkien’s emphasis on friendship and fellowship, I was reminded of what Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics: “without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods.”
Here I depart from the Tolkien film to reflect on Tolkien’s literary works in comparison with Aristotle. Where Tolkien’s emphasis on friendship in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit volumes as well as films differ from Aristotle’s own corpus is that Tolkien did not give primacy of place to noble, virtuous friends, but to the virtue of the simple and unassuming creatures of the Shire—hobbits. Yes, there is a sense in which the hobbits like Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, for example, were virtuous, but they were not made of the sophisticated substance of the elves or warriors like Aragorn, or the wizard Gandalf. The hobbits were hardly the stuff of Tolkien’s Oxford. Moreover, unlike Aristotle, Tolkien makes room even for Gollum. I still remember the line in the film trilogy where Gandalf exhorts Frodo to have compassion on Gollum rather than write him off. Perhaps such gracious intervention on the part of Gandalf is reflective of Tolkien’s Catholic upbringing, which the film Tolkien highlights.Here I contrast what Aristotle writes with what commentators note in comparing Aristotle with the New Testament on virtue and friendship. First, let’s consider Aristotle:
But complete friendship is the friendship of those who are good and alike in point of virtue. For such people wish in similar fashion for the good things for each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves. But those who wish for the good things for their friends, for their friends’ sake, are friends most of all, since they are disposed in this way in themselves and not incidentally. Their friendship continues, then, while they are good, and virtue is a stable thing. Each person involved is good simply and for the friend, since good people are good simply and beneficial to one another. So too are they pleasant, for the good are both pleasant simply and pleasant to one another. To each person, his own actions and those like them accord with his pleasure, and the actions of those who are good are the same or similar.
Now let’s consider the comparison of Aristotle and the New Testament:
Aristotle is far from ignorant of the importance of human love; indeed, he devotes two whole books (NE VIII and IX) to the topic of friendship…And he notes that there is a sense in which one should love oneself, namely wishing for the very best for oneself (1168b30). But friendship (philia) is, on Aristotle’s conception, only possible with a few people; moreover, it can really exist only between good people. In contrast, the New Testament conception of love (agape, formerly translated as “charity”) is supposed to be universal and unconditional. It involves more, I take it, than Aristotle’s “good will” (NE1166b30). The ideal it puts before us is first that we should be loving or compassionate to all our fellow human beings, regardless of sex, race, class, ethnicity, or nationality. And, second, that our love or compassion should not depend on good behavior or individual talents, so that a change of heart and forgiveness should always be seen as possible. This twin ideal is almost impossibly demanding on our frail human nature. But we may feel that there is something missing from an ethic that does not even set it before us.
In our day, where market forces rather than virtue or grace drive value, Aristotle and even more importantly, the New Testament help us reconsider where we should look to find worth and significance. Friendship and fellowship are rare qualities, especially involving those whose character reflects Tolkien’s hobbits. Those hobbits like Frodo and Sam were loyal to a fault and had no lust for power. When coupled with Gandalf’s exhortation to Frodo to have compassion on the creature Gollum, which Frodo in turn did, we find qualities bound up with friendship that are more important than any ring of power or pleasure this world can offer. Regardless of what the critics make of the film Tolkien, I am grateful for how the various actors and plot caused me to reflect upon the priceless quality we find in the ring of noble and gracious fellowship and friendship.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Book VIII, chapter 3, page 163.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, page 168.
Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Theories of Human Nature, pages 113-114.