Portraying the early years of one of the most famous writers in human history is a tall order, but Tolkien actually manages to pull it off. It is an enthralling biography of JRR Tolkien’s youth combined with the finer details of what inspired him to write The Lord of the Rings. Full of magic, beauty, emotion and allusions that will delight any Middle Earth fan, Tolkien takes audiences on an exquisite journey through the origins of one of the most beloved and influential stories of all time.
Much like The Lord of the Rings goes back and forth between Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor and the struggles of the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring, the film goes back and forth between Tolkien fighting in the horrific trench warfare of WWI and the events in his youth leading up to that point. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, grew up in a kind of genteel poverty. When his mother became ill and died, he and his brother were taken under the guardianship of their parish priest. Tolkien was eventually sent to King Edward’s school, where he befriends a group of other young men who are equally passionate about languages and the arts, though they’ve been steered away from pursuing them as a livelihood. Together, they form their own fraternity of sorts and dub it the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S. Through routine meetings after classes, they foster and encourage one another’s creative abilities. Their “fellowship” is eventually put to the ultimate test when World War I breaks out.
From the title character’s performance as a student to his passion for language to his relationship with his future wife Edith, Tolkien possesses delightful historical accuracy. It even dives into how Finnish was the foundation for one of the first languages he invented for his Middle Earth. The only major gap in this historical accuracy is what happens when WWI breaks out in the film. The next scenes are of Tolkien joining the military and saying goodbye to his friends as he goes off to fight. In reality, a significant amount of time elapsed between the outbreak of the war and Tolkien being shipped to the trenches of France, during which he finished his studies at Oxford and got married. To be fair, these accelerated timelines are not unusual in such biographical films and are often necessary to maintain the flow of the story.
Anyone who has read Tolkien’s books or seen the film adaptations will have a great time guessing which parts of his life depicted in the movie were the inspiration for which elements of the Middle Earth saga. The connections and allusions range from the architecture of King Edward’s school to the interactions with the school’s headmaster. It also takes a very intriguing dive into Tolkien’s exploration of language and how central that was to the complex world he created in Lord of the Rings. As he states in the movie, language is “the lifeblood of a culture.” Additionally, it touches on how he drew inspiration from classic works of literature such as St George and the Dragon.
But for Tolkien, it all comes back to the support and encouragement he drew from his friends in the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. They are so critical to his personal story and his work as a writer, it seems like they should also get credit for the creation of The Lord of the Rings and the Middle Earth universe. Much like the Fellowship of the Ring could never have succeeded in their quest without the contribution of each individual member, Tolkien wouldn’t have gotten far as a writer without the fellowship he formed with his friends and classmates.