Tolkien The Relationship between Biography and Fiction
By Patrick Malone
(I will be quite nonchalant about discussing spoilers for Tolkien, so should you rather discover the film’s outcome by actually watching it, caveat lector.)
Tolkien, the recent biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, most famously, is less concerned with merely portraying the life of J.R.R. Tolkien than with explaining how he became the man who wrote the stories of Middle Earth, to the point of proposing a method by which an audience can understand those stories: by depicting how elements of those stories can best be understood with reference to his biography. A few such examples: while on the battlefield of the Somme, Tolkien has feverish hallucinations of flamethrowers as dragons and soldiers amidst poison gas as black riders; he has a faithful helper named Sam; he tries to attend a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle; he reads Norse mythology; and he has a group of friends referred to as a brotherhood, if not a fellowship. These are all parallels to elements of the stories he later wrote. The unavoidable effect is for the audience to draw one-to-one comparisons between biography and fiction.
Questions of historicity aside, that philosophy of literary interpretation is the film’s greatest flaw. It runs the danger of reducing the practice of reading to merely decoding a novel in order to find how the author’s biography is hidden within it, while not noticing or considering whatever moral vision that story might present. The novel itself is no longer an independent work, and is probably redundant, as who needs a fictional story when the biography already exists?
The problem is especially pronounced in Tolkien, as images of horrific black riders will have infinitely more significance to an audience familiar with the Nazgûl Tolkien would create, but when the character has these hallucinations in the film, he has not yet created the Nazgûl. The imagery is nigh on arbitrary for Tolkien the character, but too loaded for an audience to do anything but see the film as telling them where the Nazgûl came from, and drawing a one-to-one comparison between the fear the Nazgûl spread and poison gas. This is at the expense of the moral significance of the Nazgûl in Tolkien’s work; there is no understanding of their temptation and fall, and of the consequent unmaking of their humanity. Instead, they come across as a random image Tolkien latched on to, as a mere illustration of violence, denuded of any meaningful moral vision.
Tolkien furthermore actively avoids concrete questions of Tolkien the historical figure’s moral vision; namely, his Catholic faith. If one were to be drawing one-to-one comparisons between biography and fiction, the Eucharist might serve as rather an obvious inspiration for the Elven lembas bread, for instance. Questions of how the Catholic understanding of Creation and the Fall inform Tolkien’s creation myth, of eucatstrophe being unlooked-for grace in the face of evil, and of eschatological hope in the face of worldly defeat are all ignored. Similarly, in the film, characters discuss how language carries the stories and self-understandings of a culture. Surely this would apply to Tolkien as a member of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, attending Mass in Latin, learning prayers in Latin, and Latin being the language which unites and forms individual Catholics. The film nods at this when Tolkien’s guardian, Fr. Francis, declares modern words to be useless in the face of evil, preferring instead the words of the liturgy, but Tolkien’s relationship with this particular language remains benightedly underdeveloped.
I want to avoid the error of saying that because Tolkien personally had a strong Catholic faith, his works will automatically reflect that faith, without performing any specific analysis of the works themselves. Having said that, if Tolkien the film wants to answer the question of how Tolkien the person came to create Middle Earth, the answer is incomplete without acknowledging that aspect of his life. I dislike the film’s tendency to simply understand Tolkien’s fiction in terms of his biography, but if the film is to take that route, it should at least do so properly, lest it become an act of revisionism, whether deliberately or incompetently. If the film’s goal is to explain Tolkien, it must be candid about his history, rather than selective, otherwise it fails at that goal.
Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and is shortly to receive a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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