When I first heard about a new film about J.R.R. Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult (X-Men, Mad Max: Fury Road) as Tolkien, I immediately checked IMDB to see if the film’s cast included any actors portraying other Inklings: C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and so forth. As an undergraduate at Wheaton College I worked at the Wade Center, a research library focusing on several of the Oxford Inklings. After college I worked for the C.S. Lewis Foundation and spent time in Oxford, frequenting The Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings met regularly to discuss each other’s writing. I have long dreamed about a film about the Inklings.
Alas, Tolkien is not that film. Directed by Finland’s Dome Karukoski and written by Irish playwright David Gleeson, the film is set in Tolkien’s boyhood and young adulthood—years before he met Lewis, befriended him, and proved pivotal in his conversion to Christianity. But even if the Inklings are absent in Tolkien, their spirit is there.
Even if the Inklings are absent in ‘Tolkien,’ their spirit is there.
Though oddly not endorsed by the Tolkien family, Tolkien is a beautiful, refreshing ode to the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors. The film keenly observes the specific circumstantial alchemy that gave rise to the languages, landscapes, and longings of Middle Earth. But it also observes the general human need for kindred spirits, comrades-in-arms, cohorts to spur passion and purpose, friends to live and love and die alongside.
In short: it’s a film about fellowship.
The Fellowship Before ‘The Fellowship’
Artistic genius doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. Behind every great creation is a web of relationships that helped form the person who formed the masterpiece. For J.R.R. Tolkien, that web included his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), who died when he was only 12. Mabel homeschooled young J.R.R. and his brother, reading him stories like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book, provoking his young mind to begin cultivating imaginary worlds. Also prominent in Tolkien’s formational web is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the muse he first met at 16 but, because of various obstacles, couldn’t marry for another eight years.
Tolkien renders Ronald and Edith’s romance beautifully, often in ways that foreshadow Tolkien’s future literary legacy (a key scene finds Tolkien taking Edith on a date to see the Birmingham Symphony perform Wagner’s Ring cycle, one of Edith’s favorites). It’s lovely to watch the pair develop chemistry while talking about untranslatable German words (Drachenfutter!) and phonaesthetics, namely the unparalleled beauty of the word “cellar door.”
But as much as these women proved crucial influences on the man who gave the world The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien focuses mostly on the formative influences of male fellowship; namely, a group of mates he met in adolescence who formed a proto-Inklings literary society: The T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). This group consisted of four friends who attended Birmingham’s King Edward’s School together: Tolkien/“Tollers” (aspiring philologist), Robert Gilson (aspiring painter and son the school’s strict headmaster), Christopher Wiseman (aspiring classical composer), and Geoffrey Smith (aspiring poet who was perhaps Tolkien’s dearest and most loyal friend—the “Samwise” to his Frodo).
This fellowship of four comrades (doubtless an inspiration for the “fellowship” of Rings) played rugby together and talked about Norse mythology while drinking tea. They encouraged and pushed each other in their creative pursuits—painting, music, literature, poetry—as well as their relational and romantic struggles. For young Ronald—having grown up fatherless (Arthur Tolkien died when J.R.R. was only 3) and orphaned by age 12—such a brotherhood was a godsend.
Meeting in the schools’ library and Birmingham’s Barrows Stores (hence the “Barrovian Society” name), the boys found solidarity in their shared desire to “change the world through the power of art.” Their concept of masculinity saw no paradox in getting muddy on the rugby field together one day and talking about Chaucer and Beowulf over tea the next. Theirs was a gentlemanly fellowship rooted in virtue and classics and poetic gallantry. It’s a refreshing vision for young men today, whose presentist world—defined by the ephemera of Snapchat and the cheap pleasures of pornography—does more to dull their senses and coddle them than awaken them to beauty and prepare them for bravery.
Not so for the T.C.B.S. Their group mantra was “Helheimr!”—a Norse word that came to be a “seize the moment, do hard things” call to arms for them. Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men. They went to Oxford together and then to battle together, fighting in the trenches of the Great War. All four faught. Only two (Tolkien and Wiseman) returned. Gilson and Smith died in the bloody Battle of the Somme.
Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men.
Old Light in the World
The Great War marked the end of the T.C.B.S. brotherhood, even as it ignited Tolkien’s imagination and catalyzed him to carry on the fellowship’s mission to “change the world through the power of art.” As it does in Lord of the Rings, the pastoral joy of fellowship is broken by the destruction of war. But the mission continues. The memory and longing for healing, for everything sad to come untrue, for a reunion of the fellowship somewhere, someday, motivates Tolkien in his art-making. As it did for so many (Lewis included), Tolkien channeled his post-war pain in his literary creations—inventing other languages, other worlds, other endings to help process his own.
Though the T.C.B.S. was, in the end, a short-lived fellowship, its mission motivated Tolkien for the rest of his life. After receiving news of the death of Rob Gilson, Tolkien wrote a 1916 letter to Smith (who himself would soon fall on the battlefield). In the letter, Tolkien described the T.C.B.S. as something destined to “rekindle an old light in the world . . . to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.”
For Tolkien, a soldier’s sacrifice is noble, but the greater war—the one he and his comrades waged over tea at Barrows—was the fight to preserve the good, the forgotten ways, the “old light in the world.” Tolkien’s enduring contribution is precisely this wisdom—that in a world obsessed with the new, the industrial, and the pragmatic, preservation of the ancient ways, and the beauty that seems superfluous, takes on a radical importance. We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human. As Tolkien wrote in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
This is why, after the death of his dear friend Geoffrey Smith, Tolkien works to get Smith’s poems published. A scene in Tolkien shows him meeting with his late friend’s mother, who thinks it a silly and useless thing to publish her dead son’s poems. “What good can poetry do in times like these?” she ponders. Tolkien responds: “I cannot think of anything more necessary, especially at a time like this.”
We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human.
Bearing Witness to a Creator
As much as Tolkien gets right about the vitality of friendship and fellowship for creativity and general human flourishing, the film largely neglects the spiritual fellowship Tolkien had with God, through Christ. Apart from the presence of a priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who serves as the legal guardian to the orphaned Tolkien brothers, and a brief scene of the boys singing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” at school, Christianity is absent in the film. Following the troubling trend of recent films, like Disney’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which erased any shred of Christian influence, Tolkien presents a story of enchantment devoid of the ultimate source of enchantment: God.
The film’s closest brush with faith comes in a scene where Father Francis describes his response to families grieving loved ones lost in WWI: “Words are useless; modern words anyway. I speak the liturgy. There’s a comfort, I think, in distance.” But even here, the “liturgy” is valued mostly for its enduring linguistic stability; not necessarily for the transcendent realities and spiritual truths it describes.
And yet even as the filmmakers noticeably omit God from Tolkien’s story, what remains—the existential necessity of fellowship, the power of art to both preserve the “old light” and pine for the perfect Light—bears witness to spiritual truth, even if accidentally. By showing the beauty Tolkien made out of brokenness—his lost West Midlands childhood becoming the eschatological Shire, the horrors of the Somme becoming the vanquished wastelands of Mordor, a lost quartet of schoolboys becoming a fellowship of hobbits—the film bears witness to the Creator God and the resurrected Christ, whose words reverberate in the hearts of every orphan, every widow, every shell-shocked-veteran-turned-fantasy-writer: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).