Thursday, May 30, 2019

Tolkien (2019)

From Charlotte Allen at Quillette:
Travers is scarcely the only critic to have decried screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s effort to turn the young Tolkien into a human-size Frodo. The Tolkien estate refused to have anything to do with this project. Several critics have noted that Tolkien omits all reference to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, so intense and meaningful to him even as a young man that he persuaded his wife-to-be, Edith (a very elven Lily Collins in the movie), to convert—reluctantly—to Catholicism before the two married. Catholicism in Tolkien consists solely of Tolkien’s officious if well-meaning legal guardian, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a meddlesome priest who orders Tolkien to break up with the distracting Edith, at least until he reaches maturity. But the absence of any role in this film for Tolkien’s religiosity is more a symptom than a cause.

Tolkien tries its best to pay due respect to its protagonist’s gifts as a linguist and scholar of arcane medieval languages—a daunting task for a work in a fundamentally kinetic medium. We see young Tolkien in the classroom at King Edward’s astounding his classmates by reciting lines from Chaucer by heart after they have stolen his copy of the Canterbury Tales as a prank. Elsewhere, Gleeson and Beresford have him quote Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry from memory. At Oxford, he finds a mentor and father figure in the towering Germanic philologist Joseph Wright—although naturally the screenwriters can’t resist reminding us that Wright, played by a white-bearded Derek Jacobi, bears a striking resemblance to another white-bearded wizard whose name begins with a “G.” Lily Collins’s Edith—musically talented in her own right but a penniless orphan—dispenses the wisdom of Galadriel to her sweetheart. Elsewhere, she skirts perilously close to hectoring Virginia Woolf-style feminism, complaining about her lack of a room, or rather, a life of her own in a male-dominated intellectual world. But, mercifully, Gleeson and Beresford back off from this tiresome trope.

The problem with Tolkien isn’t that it depicts its subject incorporating his own experiences into his fiction; all writers do that. It’s that the film’s connect-the-dots literalism obscures and diminishes the daunting richness of creativity behind Tolkien’s construction of his Middle Earth fantasies. Long before he wrote The Hobbit in the mid-1930s, he had made his mark as one of the leading medievalists of the twentieth century. Oxford professor wasn’t just his day job. In 1929, Tolkein published his discovery—relied upon by scholars to this day—that a large array of seemingly unconnected medieval English religious texts dating from the early thirteenth century shared a common literary language with roots in the Anglo-Saxon English that was supposed to have been obliterated by the Norman Conquest. It was a language of Worcestershire in the West Midlands where Tolkien had spent his early childhood—so that the “men of the West” who resist Sauron in his Ring novels have a special allusive meaning. Starting in the 1920s, he also produced definitive critical editions and translations of numerous English literary works of the Middle Ages (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best-known), an endeavor that continued through the early 1960s when he was a best-selling author who didn’t need to make his living as a scholar. (Read more.)

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