“If you really want to know what Middle Earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.”—J. R. R. Tolkien.
This partial life of writer J. R. R. Tolkien is more than a biography; it is a love letter from readers of his Lord of the Rings trilogy (and other works) to the author. The storyline deals with Tolkien’s life from childhood through the beginning of his writing career, dwelling mainly on his youth, at Oxford and as a soldier in WWI. Coming from a turbulent childhood of intermittent poverty, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is orphaned but, through assistance from his church, is able to continue his education, and is received at Oxford. He is influenced during this time by his relationship with a gifted but impoverished young woman named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), whom he will eventually marry; and by a close friendship with a group of fellow students, all writers and artists, who offer mutual encouragement under the fanciful name of The TCBS (Tea Club/Barrovian Society). We also see Tolkien, along with countless others, endure the horrors of the Great War, particularly their experience at the Battle of the Somme, going on to recover, establish himself as an instructor at Oxford, and overcome various impediments to finally marry his beloved Edith.
The biography is well told, in a way that goes beyond the superficial facts and makes the account of Tolkien’s life into something of a mythology, appropriately enough. The often mundane details of his daily life are seen through the filter of Tolkien’s own rather fantastical, idealistic perspective, giving these events the emotional or symbolic significance, and the artistic beauty, Tolkien himself, and those closest to him, would have bestowed on them. This approach gives a fairy-tale quality and an intensity to the simplest incidents, and a feeling of triumph or calamity to the more significant, maintaining a nice balance between the realistic and the theatrical.
But the factual life of Tolkien is only half the story. The secondary, between-the-lines plot, aimed at readers of his fantasies, reveals the development of the ideas, images, and concepts which would, over many years, eventually come together in the form of his best-known works of fiction. As each life event is portrayed, we are also shown, unobtrusively but very clearly, how it contributed to what would become the Lord of the Rings, beginning with his mother’s nightly practice of reading, and providing lively enactments, from mythology to Tolkein and his younger brother. Connections range from his description of his students’ group as a ‘fellowship’, to his love of linguistics leading to an invented language (later used for the fairies of Middle Earth), to a glimpse of a ruined battlefield which is a clear parallel to the desolate wasteland leading to Sauron’s kingdom, the sun through a haze of smoke and gas representing the sinister Eye. Some connections are made not through the script directly, but through the camerawork, which subtly conveys Tolkien’s feelings for certain places, or for the beauties of nature which often inspired him. The connections are continuous, and obvious to anyone familiar with the famous trilogy, yet manage not to be overt or to interfere in the baseline story of Tolkien’s youthful struggles.
Nicholas Hoult manages to capture Tolkien’s romanticism and emotional intensity, as well as his passion for language, without becoming hyperbolic or losing the reality of the ordinary, rather restrained man in the process. Lily Collins as Edith, a young woman without conventional glamour but naturally vivacious and appealing, and a match for his unusual outlook, provides a perfect counterpoint to his character. It is in their romance, and in the close, rather grandiose comradeship of Tolkien and his band of friends, that the film allows myth and reality to combine freely, demonstrating both the importance of these relationships in Tolkien’s life, and their influence on his later writing. The film imitates Tolkien’s own writing to the extent that it elevates common places and events into something beautiful and folkloric, showing us Tolkien’s early life, to some extent, as he might have seen it and written it.
To Tolkien’s readers, the film may feel like a prequel, only loosely connected to the main feature but chock-full of foreshadowing – although it presents incidents likely of great importance to Tolkien himself. What admirers may see as the central event of his life, the actual writing of the beloved stories, only begins in the concluding moments of the film, which are a parting gift to his devotees. The final line, as Tolkien writes (in a careful imitation of the author’s familiar, calligraphic handwriting) “In a hole in the ground there lived a…” is Tolkien choosing a name for his invented beings, and saying aloud, “Hobbit.” The film can safely conclude at this point, as the rest, of course, is well known to generations of readers.