Another review of the new Tolkien biopic has landed, and this time it’s a long one that’s not behind a paywall. Tolkien — A Review is pithy and very well-written take, whose summary line might well be…
the film’s connect-the-dots literalism obscures and diminishes the daunting richness of creativity behind Tolkien’s construction of his Middle Earth fantasies
The reviewer sees not just a minimization of his Catholic faith, as some other reviews have suggested without specifics, but an outright blanking of it. I guess this might have seemed to the scriptwriter to be somewhat justified by the historical record, since the practice of his faith (if not his actual faith) does seem to have been rather lost in the initial boisterous phase of his encounter with Oxford. Specifically he was somewhat cursory or hasty in observance, from October 1911 until very early in 1913. Carpenter’s biography states that Tolkien said his first years at Oxford saw… “practically none or very little practice of religion”. This does not mean that faith had died in him, since in early 1913 Tolkien required that Edith become a Catholic for him, but rather that his observance and church attendance was probably minimal or cursory at that time.
It is also true that Tolkien’s very late letter to his son Michael (Letters, No. 250, 1963) recalled that throughout the busy 1920s he “almost ceased to practice” Catholicism. But letting one’s formal practice lapse is of course not quite the same as letting one’s belief lapse. Nor does it indicate that he ceased to cherish the various church rituals in his memory and on special occasions such as Easter. But here is another indication that during the early and formative period of the legendarium he was not always as suffused with a burning nimbus of Catholicism as some modern adherents of the faith might now wish him to have been. Interestingly, this implies that Tolkien, at periods during the 1910s and 1920s, may thus have been more open to playfully holding in his mind certain textual pagan concepts and alluring ‘tricksy lights’ emanating from rare pagan perhaps-survivals, the better to try to get at the nub of the language and the meanings involved.
But back to the review, which bluntly notes that the portrayal of his wife-to-be Edith… “skirts perilously close to hectoring Virginia Woolf-style feminism”. A portrayal which, so far as I’m aware, goes against her real character.
The reviewer stresses the Worcestershire angle a couple of times, in a rather boosterish way — but appears unaware of the tight conjunction of several county lines as they enter Birmingham, and the local patriotism that set Birmingham above county origin. My guess is this is perhaps a function of the movie having apparently set up a sharp and dramatic dichotomy between a Mordor-like urban Birmingham and its Shire-like rural fringes, and as such may be an example of the way that a film can skew one’s perceptions of the topography of a place. Perhaps it’s also a function of trying to map the elder Tolkien’s understanding of his family and place-histories in 1941 (“any corner of that county…”) back onto what the teenage Tolkien would have understood of the same. Again one senses a subtle distortion perhaps induced by Tolkien-promoters, this time the ‘it was all inspired by Moseley’ brigade.
The reviewer also rather lumpenly suggests an intended conflation of Gandalf’s “Stand, men of the West!” with the folk of the West Midlands. Ouch. What was that you were saying about “connect-the-dots literalism”?
Still, it’s another useful and thoughtful review and in a high-quality journal.