Movie review: Tolkien
Movie review: Tolkien
20 July 2019
Author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien achieved something few writers might dare to hope for.
He not only wrote two of the most legendary novels of all time, he birthed an entire genre. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings effectively defined ‘science fantasy’.
But despite rising to legendary status in the literary world, John never believed he’d grown something out of nothing.
“After all,” he wrote to a publisher, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of truth.” That truth, which sustained him through his darkest hours, now serves as the unseen backbone for a new biopic named Tolkien.
Tolkien picks up its story in John’s childhood and focuses on his relationship with three school chums. John’s bookish nature earns him a fair amount of mockery, yet Robert, Geoffrey and Christopher come to respect his obsession of ancient myths, and together they form the T.C.B.S. – the Tea Club and Barrovian Society.
What emerges from their lofty ideals and daydreams is a friendship that embraces difference, conquers class and eventually provides the model for The Lord of the Rings’ closest companions.
And this friendship needs every strength it can muster when the fellowship of the T.C.B.S is tested by the horrors of World War One.
The film’s most obvious shortcoming, though, has to be its almost total neglect of Tolkien’s spiritual side. Tolkien was openly inspired by the sacrifice of Jesus and motivated to make him known.
But Tolkien's director Dome Karukoski says he made a conscious decision to leave out direct references to John’s faith because they did not play well with modern audiences.
However, while it is possible to eliminate direct references, the director hasn’t cut out the Christian themes that made The Lord of the Rings so appealing – especially, brotherly love. The English language seeks to crowd a lot of meaning into the single word ‘love’.
However, the writers who used ancient Greek to pen the majority of the New Testament had at least four words at their disposal.
There’s storge, which captures the empathy between parents and children; eros, for passionate sexual love; and agape, describing the selfsacrificing love God feels for his children. But their fourth ‘love’ is almost totally forgotten today.
The Greek word philia describes the intense admiration and loyalty that can exist between friends. In the 21st century, all forms of intense same-sex love have tended to be appropriated by the gay community.
Yet Tolkien manages to resurrect this ‘brotherly love’ through the members of John’s T.C.B.S.
So successfully, in fact, that audiences may find themselves longing for a lost century, rather than a fantasy realm.
The love John bears for his friends, and they for him, inspires the most herculean efforts, and the most heartfelt comforts.
No doubt many will exit the cinema wishing they could have such a relationship, but suspecting it’s the privilege of a very few or, worse, just a fiction to drive plots.
But the writers of the New Testament regularly used the word philia because they believed that thanks to the Gospel, this supportive, ennobling, do-or-die friendship is within everyone’s reach.
It is the same friendship Jesus still freely offers to any who come to him: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).