Tolkien, by Albert W. Vogt III

One of my favorite parts of the Easter Season (the period between Easter and Pentecost for my non-Catholic readers) is how one of our daily readings at Mass is from the Acts of the Apostles. Obviously, without God sending His only Son into the world, there would be no Christianity. And everything in the Bible, from Genesis all the way to the Epistles point to God being active in our lives, whether leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt or bringing forth the Messiah. What I love about Acts, though, is how we see the mission being given to the Apostles by Jesus and carried forward. I bring this up because of a moment in today’s film, Tolkien (2019), where a young J. R. R. Tolkien (Harry Gilby) and his group of school friends from the Tea Club and Borrovian Society (TCBS) vow to change the world with their art. I see a certain parallel between this and the Apostles. What makes it more real is when you remember that Tolkien was a pretty staunch Catholic, a point the movie unfortunately only lightly touches on. Nonetheless, this is where The Legionnaire comes in handy to help you remember such influences, even if they are not overtly mentioned in the film.

Tolkien is a biopic of the title author’s life, though much of it is told in flashback. It starts with the grown up Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as a British officer in the trenches of World War I. He sets off with one of his sergeants to search for a friend also serving in the British Army who he has not heard from in some time. Apparently in the world of this film, soldiers could simply abandon their post whenever it struck their fancy, but I digress. This friend is Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), a fellow member of TCBS. However, as we see in Tolkien’s reminisces while on his quest, fellowship was not always easy between them. By the way, remember those words “quest” and “fellowship.” This movie is about the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings, after all. When Tolkien was much younger, first his father (not pictured) and then his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), died leaving him and his brother Hilary (Guillermo Bedward) orphans. They are taken under the guidance of Father Francis (Colm Meaney), who arranges for their foster care with Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris). We see Father Francis only two more times the rest of the film, and they stand as the only direct references to Tolkien’s Catholicism. The school Mrs. Faulkner enrolls the Tolkien boys in is where our title author meets Geoffrey. Actually, he first runs into Robert Gilson (Albie Marber). I mean that literally because after upstaging Robert by reciting a section of Chaucer from memory, Tolkien gets roughly tackled by Robert while playing rugby. This results in a fight and being sent to the headmaster’s (basically principal) office, who also happens to be Robert’s father (Owen Teale). Tolkien tries to play off the brawl as nothing serious, and because they are actually impressed with Tolkien’s knowledge, Robert then ends up inviting Tolkien to be a part of his friend group. This is how the TCBS is formed, the Borrovian part being named for the Barrow’s Store where they congregated for their daily brew up and chat. The other significant person to come along in Tolkien’s life at this time is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). She works as a companion for Mrs. Faulkner, and as they grow older a strong bond begins to form between Tolkien and Edith. When Tolkien finally admits to Father Francis that he is in love with Edith, the priest does not immediately approve. The film makes far too big a deal of Father Francis’ disapproval than what happens in real life, having him actually protest her protestantism, but the main thing he wants to see is Tolkien get a good education. This takes place at Oxford, and it puts his relationship with Edith in a tricky place. When he learns that she has agreed to marry someone else, he is distraught and does not apply himself to his studies. Late one night, in a drunken stupor, he begins orating in a language he invented. His actions bring the attention of Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi), a teacher of ancient languages who agrees to take Tolkien on as a student, which saves him from having to leave the school entirely. What (temporarily, as it turns out) interrupts his blossoming career as an Oxford scholar is World War I. As he is about to leave for the Western Front (and the two parts of our narrative finally catch up with each other), Edith comes to see him. They admit that they still love each other. Thus, even though he does not end up finding Geoffrey (he died), he is able to return from the war to his true love. In the brief time left in the film from this point on, we see Tolkien struggling to make sense of the things he had seen and experienced with his friends and in war. This forms the basis for his first book, The Hobbit, and it concludes with him penning the first line.

Tolkien is a solid movie, though the parts it skirts are the most frustrating. Yes, this includes the scene where Father Francis forces Tolkien to choose between the protestant Edith and his education. Father Francis, and by extension the Catholic Church, have been Tolkien’s patron throughout his early life. While watching this, I could not help but think that this was a far easier situation than what it was being made of it. While some do successfully wed before they enter college and start a good career, the standard is usually to wait. However, Father Francis’ initial disapproval speaks to an actual event that is not mentioned in the film, which is a little puzzling as well. In reality, Tolkien insisted that Edith convert to Catholicism, which she did before they were married. Their union also came before Tolkien went away to serve. While the film does eventually show Father Francis declaring his approval of Edith, the fact that we have this shifts the burden of insistence on dogma from Tolkien as it actually was to the Church. The Church is always the bad guy. Yet, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and admitted that The Lord of the Rings, his seminal work and one of the reasons we have this movie at all, was influenced by his Faith. In his review of The Unholy, Cameron talks about religious appropriation and how it is used by Hollywood whenever it is convenient. It works well in horror films because the Church is such a visual institution and can be used in ways that immediately signal to the viewer things with which they are familiar. For films like Tolkien about an author that is so widely beloved, they cannot have their main character caring so much about an Faith that they seem to believe is complicit with evil.

Overall, my taking Tolkien to task about not being more forthright about the fact that the author was a practicing Catholic is a minor quibble. I enjoyed it in the main, though there were parts that could have been done better. It is not a terribly exciting film, though I feel like scenes of the Battle of the Somme were better than much of what you see in 1917 (2020). Because there are some pretty violent moments during the World War I parts, I would caution against showing this to little ones. Still, even though I do not count myself as a fan of Tolkien, I enjoyed the experience of the film. If nothing else, it beats watching any of the movies based on his books.

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