At the beginning of May I saw Disney/Fox Searchlight’s new film Tolkien. Unlike the fictional literary works produced by the film’s titular character, this movie is not an epic adventure of good versus evil, but rather a depiction of Tolkien’s youth through his time as a soldier in World War I. The movie does delve into the fantastical from time to time (see the trailer here), but only to portray the author’s imagination (or fever-dreams) at work. I doubt the film will have a large audience reach, but for me it was an inspiring and emotional tribute to the man who had the biggest impact on fantasy literature in the twentieth century.
When I watched the movie, two important points came to mind. The first was understanding the difference between influence and inspiration. In the film, there are numerous parallels between Tolkien’s time in WWI and Frodo and Sam’s quest in The Lord of the Rings: flame-wielding German soldiers become a fire-breathing dragon, a Balrog rises from the smoke of an explosion, wraiths hover over fallen British soldiers, and the battle-scarred WWI landscape becomes a Mordor-esque wasteland. I speculate that these parallels might generate some backlash among Tolkien loyalists, as in the prelude to The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkien states that he “cordially dislikes” allegory. He also denies that the story represents, in any way, “the war that began in 1939 or its sequels”. (Since Lord of the Rings was published near the end of WWII, there had previously been much speculation that the One Ring represented the atomic bomb.)
However, I do not think the scenes in Tolkien where the author’s real-world experiences are mingled with portrayals of Middle-Earth necessarily suggest that Tolkien’s fictional stories were inspired by the events of either World War I or World War II. Instead I think it rightfully shows that our imaginations are indeed shaped by our experiences. This is a gradual, incremental process, for as Tolkien also states, “an author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex.” Later in his introduction, he further points out that “it is also false…to suppose that the events of times common to both author and critic were necessarily the most powerful influences.” Influence is a subtle background force, working in our subconscious and manifesting itself in indirect ways, as opposed to inspiration, which involves a direct correlation between an event and an idea.
As for allegory, Tolkien also helps provide a key distinction here, when he writes “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” We learn about allegory in a ridiculously blunt fashion during our high school English classes, as our teachers query us on what the scarlet of Hester Prynne’s A “symbolizes”, or why John Proctor throwing salt into his soup should be an allegory for all that has gone wrong in Salem. Neither the coloration of the A nor the salt in the soup have nearly as much significance as we prescribed to them in class, but a brute-force assignment of symbolism and allegory to basic storytelling ingredients was necessary for our instructors to demonstrate a concept, to ask us to poke deeper beneath the surface elements of the “because this happened, this next thing happened” sequence that forms a linear plot. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the story does not have to be explicitly allegorical for it to be a valuable means of showing readers the horrors of war or the corruption of power.
The second element of the film that resonated with me is encapsulated in a scene where Tolkien takes Edith Bratt (his eventual wife) out for tea. He tells her that he is fascinated with language and invents a word on the spot: selladore. This is a wink toward Tolkien’s claim that the most beautiful phrase in the English language is “cellar door”. Tolkien and Bratt engage in wordplay over selladore, extrapolating upon the mysteries of what lie behind a fictional door in a fictional cellar. For me, this scene was the most important one in the film, because it zeroes in on the one element that separates good fiction from great fiction: language. Stephen King makes reference to this in the dedication of his book On Writing, when a friend of his encouraged him to write the book by telling him “no one ever asks about the language”. Prose and dialogue are the building blocks of fiction, the foundation upon which a story is built, and just like the foundation of a physical building, if the prose isn’t structurally sound then the whole thing will come crashing down. Tolkien was a linguist first and foremost, and the film devotes several key scenes to developing his relationship with Professor Joseph Wright, the linguist who tutored Tolkien at Oxford.
On a conscious level, most readers will associate the plot and characters of a story with how well they enjoy it, whereas a story’s prose works on the reader’s mind at a subconscious level. While it is not overtly noticeable, it also directly contributes to a story’s success. A contemporary criticism made of Lord of the Rings is that the writing is slow and tedious. That may be true by today’s standards for fiction—greatly influenced by television’s (in)famous standard for eight to ten minutes of programming prior to a commercial break, which rewired our brains for a shorter attention span—but at the time it was written, Tolkien’s style is exactly what captivated readers. His grand, descriptive prose transported readers to another time and place, rooting them there for the duration of the story, a sensory overload of the imagination which worked the same wonders as the colors in James Cameron’s Avatar. Writing styles, like all art forms, have evolved over time, so today’s successful fiction will be direct and minimalist, but this speaks more to how reader tastes have changed than it does to any lack of efficacy in Tolkien’s prose. Stephen King is a great example of a writer who has mastered contemporary language, and Lee Child is another (see my blog on Lee Child and Jack Reacher here). Tolkien’s language—his ability to understand what made selladore beautiful, and why readers would gravitate toward it—was the undercarriage to Lord of the Rings. The story would not have been the same, and likely would not have achieved the same level of success, without it.
The closing scene to the film is perhaps best of all, showing Tolkien (after time spent recuperating from the war and the loss of many of his friends) settling down to write at long last. In this scene, the ideas which have been swirling around his head culminate at last into the beginnings of a legend, one which will forever change the landscape of fantasy literature, as he sits down to write: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. I still remember the first time I read that sentence. That one line opened many new worlds up to me, and needless to say, when the credits rolled, I had a smile on my face.