“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” might be my favorite introductory line for a novel.
It’s simple and direct, but still has enough information to spark your curiosity. What is a hobbit? And what sort of “hole” do they live in? (A very comfortable and cozy one, it turns out!)
The narrative that develops from these 10 initial words encompasses “The Hobbit” and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the greatest stories of our time.
I already knew a quite a bit of background about the storyteller behind this story (in high school I loved the Lord of the Rings series so much that I did a report about author J.R.R. Tolkien). Still, I was particularly intrigued by the trailer for the new biopic “Tolkien,” since it looked like some magical elements would be incorporated into the cinematography, highlighting Tolkien’s vivid imagination.
It’s interesting that this movie is receiving mixed reviews from critics, because I personally really enjoyed it and found it rather moving. I’m not always a fan of biopics as a genre, because they often wind up feeling formulaic. It’s also difficult to strike a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and also telling an effective story (real people’s lives are messy and meandering, and don’t always fit into the standard narrative we’re used to seeing in fiction).
However, “Tolkien” seems to find a happy middle ground, and I would say it mostly aligns with what I remember from the past biography I read about Tolkien (although it has been a long time since high school…longer than I’m willing to admit).
“Tolkien” sticks to the author’s childhood and young adult years. Instead of showing how he writes “The Hobbit” and the Lord of the Rings books, it shows us the life experiences that later inspired him to write these stories.
Tolkien’s early life was marked by tragedy. He lost his father and mother at a young age, and was sent away to a school where he didn’t necessarily fit in at first. He does eventually make some friends — Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher — who are all bound by their love for art and literature, and form a group called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS for short. Tolkien also finds a muse in Edith Bratt, who ignites his imagination and his heart.
This spell of camaraderie is shattered when World War I breaks out. Some of Tolkien’s classmates at Oxford celebrate this news, assuming war will be a grand adventure.
It isn’t. In fact, World War I is one of the most awful, bloody, and heartbreaking conflicts in human history. As a companion piece to “Tolkien,” I highly recommend the documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Directed by Peter Jackson, the film painstakingly restores old WWI footage and makes it real in a way that it may not have been before to modern audiences.
It’s hard to find hope down in the trenches, particularly as Tolkien learns of friends who have gone missing in action. Too many soldiers do not come home. The smoke, the mud, the gunfire, and the senseless violence are more than enough to crush the last little bits of goodness and light flickering inside oneself.
Yet Tolkien continues clinging to them, desperately, and these seeds eventually develop into the fantasy tales that are now loved by so many.
Understanding Tolkien’s involvement in WWI — and his love for languages — is key to understanding the themes in his fictional works. The darkness he saw in war can be seen in the darkness of villains like Sauron and Saruman. Yet the warmth of his deep and genuine friendship with the TCBS members no doubt inspired the bond between the members of the Fellowship of the Ring.
Even though “Tolkien” received so-so reviews from critics, this film genuinely moved me, and it reminded me why I fell in love with Lord of the Rings in the first place. We live in a world that is plagued by darkness and violence and hate, but as Sam tells Frodo in “The Two Towers” film, “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”