I first saw the film Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski, back when it released in theaters. Back when theaters were still open and when the world wasn’t being held captive by a virus as fierce as any dragon from Tolkien’s mythology. I remember actually showing up to the theater intent on doing a double feature (with Aretha Franklin’s concert film, Amazing Grace), but being so affected by this film that I refunded my ticket to the second showing, downloaded the soundtrack, and just went for a drive into what was one of the coldest nights of that winter.
Since that moment, I have been hesitant to revisit this film out of fear that it would steal away from this memory. Yes, I know that sounds utterly silly. But when art impacts you in this way, it becomes something of a treasure. And so I came back to this film with some trepidation that it might not live up to my expectations, but also with a determination to pick up my pen and hash out of some my thoughts as I embarked on this now familiar journey back into the creation of Middle Earth. Imagine my surprise then to find a film that not only confirmed my experience, but also elevated it by speaking of art as a treasure to uncover, one of the dominant themes in the story.
This is what this film is and means to me, a treasure we are meant to uncover, an artform in which we are to find the language of our own inspiration, giving both the story of the film and our own story a voice and meaning against the backdrop of the darkness and struggles of our lives, be it war, be it loss, be it a virus, or be it times of struggle and depression that follow a world necessarily bound to a persistent and never ending lock down.
As the film develops, we gain glimpses of Tolkien’s upbringing, the people and home that gave him a sense of place, belonging, and imagination. Forced to move, the mother calls Tolkien to look around him and to carve these images into his memory as a way of protecting this sense of place, belonging and imagination in his heart, giving it a single world to recognize it by should he lose sight of it- happiness. Not circumstantial happiness, but deeply felt joy. This call is framed by the presence of a light, which then morphs into the light of the sun bursting through the trees, bridging night and day in a spectacularly connected cinematic expression. This shapes, visually speaking, as a constant journey from darkness to light, and light to dark, both of which form an essential part of the mothers story about a quest for the “treasure”. What the treasure is is the mystery they must uncover, for as she says, there is treasure, and there is TREASURE.
Here the light, in its cinematic expression, gives way once more to the dark where we encounter these magical moving images cast from the twirling lamp which is twisting shadows and light into a gloriously connected story about dragons, treasure and desire.
What I noticed this time around when watching the film was this intentional and constant movement from light to dark, dark to light, both on a narrative and cinematic level, allowing this to weave the narrative of Tolkien’s particular journey into one that must make sense of these two extremes living together, ultimately learning to imagine the world through his mother’s eyes, through that twisting lantern which becomes the reigning visual as it forms the backdrop of the final scene in which we witness Tolkien finally picking up a pen to write the first words of The Hobbit story.
The Director’s narrative vision towards this end is profound to me, with rarely a scene not fitting into the stories purpose and theme in a specific and illuminating way. Just consider how the early scenes from this point in the film are constructed and weaved together in such a poetic fashion.
Having moved from the light to the dark, we are given this image of Tolkien in the middle of the war lying in a pool of blood and mud. Having faced the loss of his mother and now put in the care of a family Priest, the war mimics the darkness of this moment, setting him in tension with the memory of the light he is supposed to hold close to his heart, the light the Priest now embodies in a complicated way. This then leads us back into the light of day and the emerging into the “Barrows”, which is referred to as a “Kingdom” and given a romanticized shine. Here we find the start of a friendship and a world that is formed through language, a language that is immediately entrenched in a vision of love and beauty as we meet a beautiful young woman (Edith) whom Tolkien discovers playing the piano.
As these two meet, this young man and young woman from different walks of life but also with a shared understanding of poverty, the film shifts back to the darkness and we find Edith employing language in order to describe their environment and to imagine another world in the light of the kingdom motif, one where poverty is not a constraint, where the light shines brighter than the darkness. This imagining once again cuts us back to the war, which sets the stage for this developing friendship between the brotherhood of four as another light in the darkness, bringing with it this proclamation that to die is not within our control, but to live is. The brotherhood become the soldiers, using their stories, their art, as their weapon to fight for good. Here both the beauty and the horror come together in a single but complex frame, one that is willing to sit in the tension that this creates for Tolkien.
A really compelling part of this scene for me this time around was finding the 4 boys sharing stories about this figurative “hell”, where hell is both the dangers (the darkness) but also the fiery and beautiful woman who they are drawn to. They face hell on both terms then and turn it into an adventure, which gives the whole light/dark motif an added layer of meaning. Not only this, but it also paves the way for the relationship between Tolkien and Edith to rise to the surface, something we now see being established as they sit down for a rather glorious dinner scene together.
What’s super interesting about this dinner scene is how it connects to a postscript offered at the end of the film where we learn that Tolkien’s and Edith’s tombs were ascribed with the descriptive “a mortal man who fell in love with an elvish princess.” Just as the brotherhood of four sit around the table sharing their own imaginations, passions and thoughts, now Tolkien and Edith sit around a table discussing the nature of a story, ruminating over how they fit into this unfolding narrative of treasure seeking, grand quests, conquest of dark and light, and adventure. As they are discussing the nature of language, at one point Tolkien accepts the challenge of Edith to place his love of language into the context of his story. As Edith proclaims, it is not language itself that is beautiful, but it is the marriage of sound and meaning that makes language, and things, beautiful. Therefore, Tolkien must learn to discover what it is that makes his words meaningful.
The word Tolkien has been throwing around here is the word celladoor, a word he has created. As he begins to weave it into a story, uncovering its possible meaning, we find him attaching it to a sense of place in a way that reaches back to the call of his mother to protect these images of his home in his heart. Image and meaning comes together. The trees, the water, the magic, all of this then imbues this word the notion of “seeing into the heart.”
It is this magic that brings in the other thoroughline in this narrative imagery, which is the people and forces that occupy his story. Here we see Tolkien talking about dragons much in the same way as the brotherhood was talking about hell, applying it as a slightly ambiguous fusion of both light and dark motifs. Later on in the film this causes Edith to wonder whether she is actually the dragon in this story as Tolkien quickly redirects her attempts to speak of a princess into the larger imagery that his word is now imagining in terms of their own relationship together. Tolkien takes the normal princess motif and turns it into something so much richer, which is where the girl as the dragon then merges with this image of the dragon cast against the war, once again returning us to the darkness on a cinematic level.
This scene from the war frames the proceeding scene back in time where Tolkien invites Edith to come with him to the meeting of the brotherhood, only to find himself torn by the darkness inside of him as Edith’s light begins to shine. In perfect, streamlined precision, and in character with the films narrative progression, the darkness inside of him gives way then to a scene of Edith likewise playing a dark tune on the piano, expressing the darkness inside of her, only to be asked to play something more cheerful, more happy. This single scene perfectly brings together the different threads of the film, including this notion of joy being something we must guard and protect, the themes of light and dark working together, the themes of dragons being both good and bad, the theme of Tolkien’s and Edith’s different backgrounds but shared understanding of what they have to overcome.
Throughout the film we find these parallel lines of the Tolkien and Edith relationship and his relationship with the brotherhood working together as well. In the billiard scene, a scene that is about loyalty, the script calls us back to his specific relationship with Geoffrey, which is brought upon by the both of them getting in trouble and Geoffrey’s father, who is also the headmaster, deciding to pair them up for the duration of the semester. Here the father’s lesson comes to fruition, with Geoffrey’s and Tolkien’s relationship forming an unbreakable bond based on trust, one which would later lead him straight across the battlefield, setting him face to face with the darkness that would come to shape him and help give his language meaning.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Tolkien takes Edith to the opera. Or attempts to. As Tolkien is trying to count out pennies and comes to realize he doesn’t have enough to pay for the only remaining seats (the more expensive ones), we see the both of them coming together around their shared reality of feeling like life and circumstance has them imprisoned, a prison they both want to escape from. This leads them to duck into a passageway underneath the auditorium in the hopes of finding a way to sneak in. With all the doors locked and once again feeling dejected and defeated, the music starts to play and the two of them suddenly come alive, acting out the play as if they are a part of the story, a story they are creating for themselves. The shot of the kiss is brilliantly captured, with the camera slowly panning out and moving backwards down the passageway, giving it the allusion of the path that Tolkien had described during their dinner together.
These kinds of visual touches and imaginative processing of the themes is what makes me love this movie so much. And yet, for as powerful as this moment is, we see them once again pulled out of their story as the Priest tells Tolkien, as his caregiver, that he is not allowed to see Edith anymore and needs to focus on his classes. This leads us back to the war and the shot of Tolkien still lying in a pool of blood. Here we find the question of hope being presented, and the call to not give up hope as we see Tolkien desperate to find Geoffrey, whom is also there with him somewhere on the battlefield. Back at home he is about to lose Edith, and here in the war he is about to lose Geoffrey. This sense of loss eventually leads to one of the more desperate moments of the film, finding Tolkien stumbling across the grounds of Oxford, where the Priest has sent him, drunk and speaking in his created language. It is like he is playing a role in his own story, but from a perspective of hoplessness. The darkness appears to have won. This becomes a pivotal moment for him, requiring him to answer the question, what story does he actually belong to and want to tell, with these working images of love intermixing with the images of war. With these two things seemingly competing for his attention and for his life, it once again comes down to the power of language to help bring these two ideas together in a meaningful way, the twirling images of shadow and light of the lamp in the beginning mixing with the image of the white horse standing in the blackness of the battlefield as its demons emerge.
There is a power sentiment that emerges from the film regarding this exploration of language. As he speaks with his professor, a master of languages, and shares his own stories and creations, he is reminded that language never steals. Language is shared. It is what we have in common. It is what allows us to define life together. In this way, the language we use is always influenced, and it always influences. We learn a word and it becomes ours. We give it a name that befits our experience, and embody it in a way that is meaningful to us. As the two of them, Tolkien and his professor, walk through the treed pathway, together they replay this idea of their story from the context of this movement of word to meaning to imagination, which ultimately leads back to a single truth emodied by a single sound (a word), but a sound that now holds and carries meaning, that holds history and understanding. A word without meaning is merely a sound. What moves it through this process, this history, is the push to define the word and give it meaning by locating it within our experience. In this sense, language isn’t merely about naming things, it is the life blood of a people, a culture.
This encounter with the professor gives Tolkien a way back into his story, this grand vision of Middle Earth that is unfolding in his context and with real meaning and attachment to his experience and his world and the persons that embody this world. But now the timeline of the film catches up with the war, being interrupted by its announcement. There is an amazingly captured scene here where, as the war is being announced and people are erupting in emotions, Tolkien keeps trying to tell his story, even as his words slowly fade amidst the greater reality.
It is a reuniting with Edith and the renewed expression of their love that brings these two frames, of light and dark, love and loss, together. In love, they must once again depart as he goes off to fight the war on the battlefield. Two dragons, one back at home, one he is about to face out there. One forming his darkness, one confronting his darkness and bringing it out. This is then twinned again with his relationship with Geoffrey, a narrative line that carries him through the war through Geoffrey’s death and his reuniting with Edith. The section that holds these two narrative lines together is a scene that finds him running helplessly through the battlefield, looking for the brotherhood but only finding tragedy, death, loss and horror. The film’s shooting of this scene brilliantly allows the chaos to gradually fade away, giving us an image of the Cross framed against all of the death around him, and ultimately leading him into the silence of what remains, alone with the demons of his imagination and his experience. All except for a single white horse that dots the battlefield, which contrasts with a rising figure cloaked in black. This is described by Edith as trench fever, the images given to someone scarred by what he has seen on the battlefield.
It is out of this then that the light is able to shine amidst the darkness, not by doing away with the darkness, but by placing it into context of the larger story. Life is both light and darkness which are constantly at war, both within us and around us. And it is our ability to give words to this reality, both hopeful and devastated, heartbroken and joyful, that allows us to enter into this as a story, one in which we find ourselves, and one in which we find ourselves in relationship to others and the world around us. As we walk through the final scenes of the film, we find that Tolkien is not just to be one voice, but rather the voice of the brotherhood. Death can make us loatheless and helpless as individuals, as Geoffrey says, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four, the stuff that gives such a word its meaning. As the Priest says surveying the darkness, he speaks the liturgy because there is a comfort in ancient things that lie beyond our comprehension, and the language of this liturgy then becomes the very thing that can speak meaning and beauty into the darkness, uncovering the light the lies within us, that is being protected in our hearts.
From out of the war we begin to gain a clearer picture of what it is that Tolkien has attached his words to, the stuff that gives him meaning. The pictures of the family by his bedside merge with the nighttime chat with his new family, the relationship with Edith and their now children. In another one of my favorite scenes, we find Edith challenging Tolkien as they sit on the steps under the night sky, the one who once wrote for pleasure and passion and now feels pointless and where language has lost its meaning, to decide what he wants from his stories, his writing. Find its meaning or abandon it. Here he returns to where the four of the brotherhood used to meet with Geoffrey’s unreleased poetry in hand. And then he returns home with Edith and his children, once again amidst nature, the images of the trees and the light that has been held captive and protected in his heart. As his family asks him what his story is about, Tolkien is finally ready to to attach his words to what is most meaningful to him. It is a story about treasure, and the treasure is love, companionship, friendship, light and dark weaved together to create something beautiful. It is a story about a quest and a journey, a fellowship, our fellowship with one another and with nature and with God.
In the final scene, it is out of the shadows that we once again see the lights dancing in the background as the pen writes the first words to the Hobbit, the words a “hole in the ground” reflecting the one he once lied in during the war, filled with blood, but also the hole he met in with the brotherhood, and the hole he now calls home with his most cherished loves, his family, God and nature. Darkness transformed into light, tragedy transformed into beauty, the stuff that every good and worthwhile story is built around.