“In the beginning was the Word…”
John, I, 1.
Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Although we begin with what is the opening of the Christian New Testament’s Book of John, the word here stands not for anything religious, although it might be spiritual. Rather, it is the approach we want to take for something we’ve been thinking about for some time and which we’ve chosen as the theme for this, our 300th posting.
In May, 2019, Fox Searchlight released Tolkien, a film about the early life of JRRT. Reviews were very mixed. Some people saw it as a rather over-fanciful depiction, and criticized it as such. A few were very negative. And some praised certain aspects of it. We are in the latter category, in that we saw it as an honest attempt to do something very difficult: to tell the external story of a complex, highly-creative man while, at the same time, suggesting something of his internal story.
We are always interested in movie posters and here are three which suggest to us different approaches with which the writers and director tried to present to us thematic material which would both hold the story together and hold our attention, as well.
shows us Nicholas Hoult, who played Tolkien, as a rather serious young man in his 20s. The likeness between him and JRRT is not particularly strong,
but that, to us, was of no matter: what we wanted to see was how he acted, not who the actor was. What really caught our eye was the scene just below his image. It’s small, but it appears to be of two medievalish mounted figures who look like they’re about to engage in combat. All right, we thought—a suggestion of the medieval world of Middle-earth, but, at the moment, more medieval than Middle-earth, which could suggest the world in which Tolkien would spend his academic life, once he realized that Classics was not for him. Telling, however, is the background to this small scene: blasted trees. And we know where we’ve seen this—
So—in this approach, we see a young Tolkien set above a world which combines knights and the No Man’s Land of his experience in the Great War.
Our second poster
retains the image of Tolkien, and of those medievalish figures, but includes two more elements. Within a picture frame are, first, four schoolboys, and we know, from the film, that they represent JRRT’s best friends at King Edward’s School in Manchester, which he attended from 1900-1902 and 1903-1911.
Their position in Tolkien’s early life is underlined by the slogan above the frame: “A Life of Love, Courage & Fellowship”. Love certainly existed among Tolkien and his friends, but the other figure within the frame signifies another kind of love, the romantic variety, in the form of Lily Collins, who plays Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s one-time sweetheart and eventual wife.
Here, we think that the director came closer to a resemblance, if we put the two together.
So, in this approach, we retain the suggestion of the medieval and the Great War, but add to it Tolkien’s early friendship (with the suggestion, at least in the poster, of “fellowship”), and his romantic life.
The third poster tries to bring this all together,
suggesting, perhaps, that all these parts: friendship, love, medievalism, and the Great War, swirl around inside JRRT’s head. Although Tolkien himself fought shy on a regular basis of the idea that works like The Lord of the Rings were somehow cloaked versions of actual events in some way, all writers carry their experiences with them and those experiences may inspire creative work, even if somewhat indirectly. Thinking of Tolkien’s long separation from Edith, for example, might we see a suggestion of the many years in which Arwen and Aragorn waited for each other?
So far, then, we see the film using the actual events of JRRT’s life, more or less in their historical order, with a certain amount of embellishment, presumably to give that life a bit more “drama”. But this isn’t all which the film attempts and, for us, this extra—but crucial–level is the most interesting—and the most daring. Tolkien is known for having written that: “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (Letters, 219)
There are two moments when the director and writers try to include this idea that language is key and, for us, they are our favorite moments in the film. The first involves a statement taken from a 1955 lecture, “English and Welsh”, in which Tolken writes: “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). “ (JRR Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, Hammersmith: HarperCollins, 2006, 190)
Its sense, for JRRT, would probably have been something like this—
By “its spelling”, we wonder if what he actually means is its pronunciation. In certain areas of England, the Rs at the end of both words would be pronounced as the alphabetic sound R, a bit of a growl in the back of the throat, but in what is called RS—“received standard” (British) English, those Rs almost disappear, making the words sound more like “selladaw” (this is a bit crude as a key to pronunciation—but we have a better way of demonstrating it which will appear in just a moment).
In the film, this remark is brought to life in an interesting way. Tolkien and Edith are at tea in a rather swanky place and she challenges him to tell her a story, using “selladaw”. He takes up the challenge, groping for meaning, and quickly changes her suggestion—that it’s a person—to it being a place name. Here’s the LINK to a clip: https://annasmol.net/2019/04/13/tolkiens-cellar-door/
which we found on a website we encourage you to visit at: https://annasmol.net/
In the clip, you’ll hear the RS pronunciation, as well as see something the director and writers also wanted to bring out: that Edith sparked something poetic in Tolkien, truly being Luthien to his Beren. (If this story is unfamiliar to you, it’s in the Silmarillion, and also might have been suggested, in part, by Tolkien’s long waiting for Edith. Here’s a LINK to the Wiki article on the subject, which is very useful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beren_and_L%C3%BAthien )
The second moment is not so dramatic (or romantic), but it tries to provide some sense of that pure love of language, its history and creation, which was so vital to what stood behind Tolkien’s massive world of Middle-earth, but it’s not something which Tolkien says. Rather, it’s spoken by one of Tolkien’s professors, Joseph Wright (1855-1930), at Oxford.
Wright was a remarkable man in himself, having risen from poverty in Yorkshire, where he began by leading donkey carts at mines,
then worked changing the bobbins of thread in a factory,
all the while teaching himself to become a scholar, which, eventually he did, his specialty being Germanic languages—as in this volume on one of the ancestors of such languages, Gothic.
(If you’d like your own copy of this work, here’s a LINK: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.272068 )
In the film, he’s played by the wonderful English actor, Derrick Jacobi,
and, at one point, he is walking with Tolkien and they pass a tree. Wright/Jacobi then speaks:
“A child points,
and is taught a word.
Later, he learns
to distinguish this tree
from all the others.
He learns its particular name.
He plays under the tree.
He dances around it.
Stands beneath its branches,
for shade or shelter.
He kisses under it,
he sleeps under it,
he weds under it.
He marches past it
on his way to war,and
limps back past it
on his journey home.
A king is said to have
hidden in this tree.
A spirit may dwell
within its bark.
Its distinctive leaves
are carved onto the tombs and
monuments of his landlords.
Its wood might have built
that saved his ancestors
And all this,
the general and the specific,
the national and the personal,
and summons, somehow,
with the utterance
of a single sound.
(Here’s a LINK to the text, if you’d like to read more:
So what would we say, ultimately, about this film? Being people who teach and write about Tolkien, we were predisposed to like it, if nothing else because it was, as we said, an honest attempt to show us something of the life of a person we much admire. If it takes liberties here and there as to how to tell that story, we never feel that it falsifies Tolkien’s life as old-fashioned so-called “biopics” usually did. As well, it gave us moments—like the two we’ve discussed above—where we saw a bit more and thought a bit more about JRRT, his life, and his work and that is certainly a gift for which director and writers should be thanked.
And thank you, for reading, as always. With our next posting, number 301, we’ll be close to finishing our 6th year of publishing, which will be #312. So, as we always write,
There is another famous Joseph Wright, an amazing 18th-century English painter (usually called “Joseph Wright of Derby”, 1734-1797). Here are two of his works—he paints a wide variety of subjects, including early scientific and industrial themes. Google Images will give you more—and we recommend that you have a look.
Here’s a LINK to a museum specializing in his work: https://www.derbymuseums.org/joseph-wright-derby