Theme: The Marriage of Word and Meaning
For: Kellen Hand and Keller Cox
Fox Searchlights 2019 release, Tolkien, is a biographical drama on the life of J.R.R. Tolkien the famous author of the beloved Hobbit and its legendary sequel, Lord of the Rings. The problem for a movie like Tolkien isn’t with the movie itself, it is with the audience. Often those most likely to see Tolkien; film critics, LOR fans, Tolkien scholars and Christians (Catholic and Protestant), come to the movie with their own parti pris. Sadly the temptation to dissect and debate the film for say its cinematic style, historical accuracy, or adherence to religion can, and often does, make this type of viewer miss the forest for the trees. Tolkien is an epic narrative woven through powerful flashbacks, encompassing the deepest longings of the human heart while subversively revealing transcendent truth. Beautifully written (David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford), and imaginatively directed (Dome Karukoski), it is sure to please and inspire those who come, present themselves, and allow the story to works its own magic.¹
The Marriage of Word and Meaning
The main theme of Tolkien is quite simply the marriage of a word with its meaning. Early in the story Ronald takes Edith Bratt to tea and shares with her words from the language he has invented. He is quite caught up with the sound of a word to which Edith demurs, telling him what makes a word important is its meaning. Words are beautiful because of what they are associated with, not just because of their sound.
Later in the film, Professor Wright the Oxford philologist elaborates on this theme. Language is meaning . . . yes, words without meaning are merely sounds . . . true; but then going one step further, he takes Tolkien on a linguistic history of the word oak skillfully demonstrating that words (sounds) and their meanings (embodiments) are set in the context of narrative . . . they tell a story.
The movie Tolkien is thus a series of words with their meanings embodied in the lives of the characters woven together in the most famous story of all, the Hero Journey.²
The movie opens on the battlefield of the Somme in France in World War I. Tolkien behind the lines suffering from trench fever receives a letter which compels him to return to the front in search of a friend. A faithful private, Sam Hodges, insists on accompanying him on the long journey. Why this letter and person are so important to Tolkien is told in a series of flashbacks with the two journeys: the one which brought him to this place and the one he is about to embark on running parallel throughout the film.
The first word is orphan. After the death of their father, Ronald and his brother live with their mother in a small cottage in Saremole Hill, England. She home schools the boys firing their imaginations with her love of language, myth, nature, and faith. Falling on hard times, the family is forced to leave their home and “the Shire” and move to rooms the Catholic Church has provided in crowded Birmingham. Not long after their mother Mabel dies leaving the boys as wards of Father Francis Morgan. The priest secures for the boys scholarships to King Edwards School and finds them a room in the home of a benefactress. There Ronald meets another orphan, Edith Bratt, who tells him she cannot wait to be set free from being the poor orphan. She wants to dress like nobility, be greeted, appreciated, and welcomed.
Orphan means loss of family, belonging and roots. It means being poor, cast out, and dependent on others charity. It means shame, poverty, rejection, and fear. Orphan leaves scars. It is the condition of humanity in its exile from God.
What an orphan needs is to be restored (re-storied) to a place of belonging in a community of peers . . . to a fellowship (word #2). After a rocky start at King Edwards School, Ronald is invited to tea with three other chaps who admire his character and cleverness. The invitation extended to him by a handshake from Geoffrey B. Smith forms a life long bond of love and friendship.
Tolkien, Smith, Robert Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman form the TCBS club dedicated at first to their common desire to change the world through the arts, but developing over the years into a “brotherhood”, and “invincible alliance” and one that “death cannot dissolve”, all defining what the word fellowship means.
Two women play the role of muse (source of artistic inspiration) in Tolkien’s life: his mother Mabel andEdith Bratt. Falling in love with Edith at such a young age causes consternation for Tolkien’s legal guardian. After fumbling an entrance exam for Oxford, Father Morgan forbids Ronald’s relationship with Miss Bratt, reminding him of his mother’s sacrifice (word #3). In order to fulfill his duty and honor the woman he first loved, he has to sacrifice his relationship with the woman he now loves.
Sacrifice means surrender, foregoing, loss, abdication, yielding, renunciation and . . . heart break.
Upon receiving a letter from Edith informing him of her engagement to another man, Tolkien gets staggering drunk and wanders into the courtyard of the professor’s quarters. Yelling in his own language,he awakens several of the dons including Professor Wright.
Geoffrey comes to Ronald’s rescue and the next day delivers some of the most beautiful lines in the movie . . . to love (word #4) someone can be painful, especially unrequited love . . . however, his poetic heart sees a beauty to love that has never been tainted . . . it is as fierce and beautiful as the day it began.
Love means ‘to will the good of the other’. Such a love never fails and never dies.³
The two parallel journeys of Tolkien now come together in one word (word #5), war. The fellowship (TCBS) gathers for a photograph and a toast to future meetings with the unspoken knowledge that itmay never happen again in this life.
Edith comes to the ship to see Ronald and for onemoment their love is restored. In the journey to the front, Private Sam comes to tell Tolkien he has at last found his friend. However, just as Geoffrey departed to the ship before Ronald, now they discover he has gone over the top into battle. Needing to find his friend, he follows calling Geoffrey’s name and hearing Geoffrey calling for him. For a split second their eyes connect and then in a flash Geoffrey is gone.
What follows are scenes of Mordor: dragon, fire, Balrog, and Nazgul. These aren’t figments of Tolkien’s imaginations; these are the spiritual realities behind those words (Revelation 12:7-9). War is Hell on earth. It means the loss of all goodness, truth, beauty and justice. It is the abode of Death, the design of Satan.
The climax of the movie lasts only a few seconds and some viewers may miss it entirely. It is the point where all the words . . . orphan, fellowship, sacrifice, love, war, converge and find their true meaning. In the midst of Hell/Mordor appears the Cross with Jesus the Crucified Christ.
Like a stake in the heart of the dragon, the cross defeats death and reveals the heart of God. The Son who knew no sin, whose love was pure and untainted was given as a sacrifice to bring all the lost orphans back into fellowship with God the Father and end the war begun in Eden. (John 3:16)
How can one know what the word God means unless that word is embodied, lived, known, revealed? The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John1:14)
Months after his return from war, Father Morgan gives Ronald a letter from Geoffrey written in his last days . . . What we dreamed (TCBS) death cannot dissolve, it can’t put an end to immortal souls . . . may you say the things I tried to say.
Ronald first honors his friend by restoring the dead son to his mother (Malachi 4:6) and getting Geoffrey’s poetry published. Then he sits down to write one of the most famous first lines in literary history . . .”In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. This is followed by what is considered the greatest book of the 20th century, Lord of the Rings,thus fulfilling the quest of the TCBS to change the world through art.
1. “A work of art can be either received or used. When we receive it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we useit we treat it as assistance for our own activities.” An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
2. The Hero Journey or Monomyth is a pattern of story in all cultures at all times. The stages of the journey are: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing the Threshold, Tests, Central Ordeal, Road Back, Resurrection, Return with Elixir. See The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
3. Quote from Thomas Aquinas; see also I Corinthians 13:4-8