Tolkien trailer reaction

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

A new trailer for Tolkien dropped yesterday. The forthcoming film was directed by FInnish director Dome Karukoski and stars Nicholas Hoult as a young JRR Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, his beloved future wife.

There was an earlier teaser that proved exactly that—a tease. That trailer featured almost nothing of consequence but did offer a taste. I watched it and worried that the movie would be pretty cheap looking. This new trailer has allayed that suspicion, featuring an impressive First World War battle scene on the Somme, some impressive Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy visuals—like a dragon in no-man’s-land—and what appears to be location shooting in Oxford.

I don’t have a post per se, but here are a few mostly unstructured thoughts based on the new trailer:

  • It looks like the movie will focus on Tolkien’s school days, his courtship of Edith, and his experiences in the trenches during World War I. I’m guessing the film will end with his demobilization and settlement back into Oxford life in the early 1920s.

  • Maybe we’ll get an Inklings sequel? One can only hope.

  • I’m not sold on Hoult as Tolkien. Hoult has a delicacy about him that I don’t get from seeing photos of or reading about Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine him belly-laughing with CS Lewis and Hugo Dyson over a pint and a pipe. But he is a fine actor—and I wasn’t originally sold on Gary Oldman as Churchill either—so I’m keeping an open mind.

  • The Middle Earth visuals imported into the landscapes of the war intrigue me. I’m curious to see how, exactly, they’ll incorporate them.

  • This film could be a good way to bring home the tragedy of the war to people. The group Tolkien is shown joining—”A fellowship,” he says, and one’s heart leaps—was called the TCBS and is seen by many as a schoolboy prototype of the Inklings. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman were the only members of the group to survive the war.

A few hopes and worries:

  • These were certainly formative, crucially important years for Tolkien, and had direct influence on his work (“The Dead Marshes,” he once wrote, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”), but I hope they don’t overplay it and suggest the kind of simplistic this-inspired-this, this-inspired-this biographical interpretation of his work that some biopics fall into.

  • While he doesn’t appear in the trailer, Colm Meaney is listed on IMDb as playing Father Francis Morgan, the guardian of Tolkien and his brother following their mother’s death. Morgan famously forbade Tolkien any contact with Edith until he was 21 because of a perceived bad influence on his schoolwork and because she wasn’t Catholic, a prohibition Tolkien obeyed. I hope Fr. Francis, whom Tolkien remembered with respect and affection, isn’t situated as a bad guy in the screenplay.

  • That raises two issues in my mind. First, I hope the filmmakers don’t Hollywoodize this romance too much. One of the things I love about the story of Tolkien and Edith is that they were two devout, honorable people who obeyed and waited for each other. Turning them into Romeo and Juliet rebels against the system would be a betrayal. It would also be boring. Who hasn’t seen that movie before?

  • Second, I also—most importantly—hope the filmmakers don’t strip the Christianity out of Tolkien’s story. He was devoutly Catholic in a time when anti-Catholicism was rife through English society, and the religious differences between himself and Edith played a crucial role in their romance.

Like I said, just a few initial thoughts upon watching this new trailer a few times. What do y’all think?

If you’re interested in some of this and don’t think you can wait for the movie, a couple good books covering this ground are Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography; Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth; and A Hobbit, a Wadrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte, for which you can read my review here.

Tolkien comes out May 10 in the US. I’ll be there. Watch the new trailer here or embedded in this post above.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, edited by Verlyn Flieger, is the latest Tolkien napkin doodle to get its own book.

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I'm being jocular, of course, and this Lay is a welcome edition to the available work of Tolkien, but when I turned it up online that was the first thing to cross my mind. Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien Estate have taken some flak for mining the master's unpublished papers, presumably as a cash grab.

Delving too greedily and too deep, if you will.

As it happens, I don't think this criticism is fair, and I'm glad that even slender volumes like this one (just 106 pages) and The Story of Kullervo continue to come out, for reasons I'll get into later.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is a 506-line poem based on Breton myth, particularly Celtic stories about witches and changelings. It's a lay, meaning a narrative poem longer than a ballad and shorter than an epic, composed in iambic tetrameter couplets, a format most famously used in the lais of Marie de France, a twelfth-century poet. Tolkien wrote this poem in 1930, apparently in the middle of writing The Lay of Leithian, which the editor has established thanks to Tolkien's own careful notations of the dates of completion of several different manuscripts. 

Tolkien wrote the poem following a period of intense study of Celtic myth and legend, and the Lay is rooted in the stories of Brittany, a continental outpost of the Celtic Fringe. Gwyn Jones, familiar to anyone who has studied the Viking Age, published the Lay in Welsh Review in December 1945.

The Lay tells the story of a Breton king and queen who cannot have a child. The king eventually seeks out an enchantress who gives him a potion which, after he spikes his wife's drink with it, allows the couple to conceive and bear twin children. The witch accepts no payment—always a danger sign in this kind of story—and a short time later the king, pursuing a white deer to help satisfy a strange craving of his wife, stumbles upon the witch, who now demands payment. He refuses, insists he will be immune to her vengeful witchcraft, and slowly succumbs and dies over the next three days, after which his wife dies as well. 

The story is slight but evocative, and Tolkien's poetry is wonderful to read. Here's the king pursuing the deer (ll. 259-276), just before he encounters the witch for the second and final time:

Beneath the woodland's hanging eaves
a white doe startled under leaves;
strangely she glistered in the sun
as she leaped forth and turned to run.
Then reckless after her he spurred;
dim laughter in the woods he heard,
but heeded not, a longing strange
for deer that fair and fearless range
vexed him, for venison of the beast
whereon no mortal hunt shall feast,
for waters crystal-clear and cold
that never in holy fountain rolled.
He hunted her from the forest eaves
into the twilight under leaves;
the earth was shaken under hoof,
till the boughs were bent into a roof,
and the sun was woven in a snare;
and laughter still was on the air.

Beautiful, eerie, atmospheric, expressive of the king's character—his own desire to run down this deer is about to ensnare him—and not a little unsettling, with that laughter hanging in the air behind him as he unwittingly leaves the ordinary world behind.

The main text itself is about twenty pages long. The rest of the book is taken up with antecedents: two ballads, a fragment, and earlier handwritten and typescript versions of the final published poem. The ballads, which are thematically linked (Christopher Tolkien refers to them as a diptych), tell two stories of corrigans—female nature spirits that seek to replenish their dwindling ranks by either seducing mortal men or stealing human children. Here are the first three quatrains from The Corrigan I, in which a woman finds her child swapped for a changeling: 

'Mary on earth, why dost thou weep?' 
'My little child I could not keep:
A corrigan stole him in his sleep,
And I must weep.

To a well they went for water clear,
In cradle crooning they left him here,
And I found him not, my baby dear,
Returning here.

In the cradle a strange cry I heard.
Dark was his face like a wrinkled toad;
With hands he clawed, he mouthed and mowed,
But made no word.'

I particularly enjoyed the two ballads. They're short, atmospheric poems that evoke the dangerously blurry boundary between the everyday and supernatural worlds, a theme not so much running through as saturating Celtic myth.

The editor, Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, helpfully lays all this out in her introductory material, explanatory notes, and critical apparatus. By printing the published version of the Lay first and following it with the ballads and earlier drafts, Flieger shows how Tolkien dabbled with some ideas he had encountered in his reading of Celtic myth at the time and, gradually, reworked some Breton legends and made them his own. She offers particularly keen insights into the ways in which Tolkien, in the final version of the Lay, pitted pagan and Christian elements against each other—the witch's laughter versus hymns, the witch herself versus the Virgin—to shape a powerfully resonant but economical story. 

Which is why I appreciate works like The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun being made available. If you have an interest, like I do, in the ways writers and artists consider, rework, and riff off of their inspirations until something original emerges, books like these and the aforementioned Story of Kullervo—also edited by Flieger and also worth reading—are opportunities to see that artistic process in action.

Because what Tolkien did with the myths he loved was not simple regurgitation, which tends to be how people talk about his medieval influences. While a case can be made that the corrigan of the ballads or the fay or witch of the Lay proper are the literary grandmothers of a character like Galadriel, these poems are important on their own, not just as raw material for The Lord of the Rings. It is interesting in and of itself to see how Tolkien read voraciously—whether Celtic, Germanic, or Finnish legend—absorbed what he was interested in, and let it inform his creativity. His was a mind awake and open, endlessly curious, receptive to ancient storytelling traditions, and he didn't mind a lot of hard work.

As an aside: Ted Nasmith, the illustrator whose paintings graced the paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that I read in high school, has three works based on Aotrou and Itroun that you can look at on his website.

Uproot evil in the fields you know

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Alan Jacobs, a scholar and writer I particularly admire, has an interesting post on Tolkien and the possibility—nay, inevitability—of healing in his works. In discussing the way that "all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary . . . and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits," Jacobs quotes Gandalf from near the end of The Lord of the Rings

 
Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
— Gandalf in The Return of the King
 

This is a frank, humble assessment of what people can do about evil. This has been on my mind a lot recently, both for longstanding reasons of my own and as I've been working over a post on the resilience of Marxism as an ideology despite its body count. Even beyond Marxism or leftism generally, people of all political persuasions tend to take concrete political or legal problems and abstract and universalize them immediately—as step one of the debate. All problems therefore become existential problems. All mistakes or disagreements become signs of fatal bad faith. All problems become problems that threaten the very fabric of the universe. You don't have to look far to find examples.

Gandalf's words here also happen to harmonize with a theme I've been mulling over for a work-in-progress: a novel about guilt and original sin, "a story with no good guy" as I've described it to a friend. What do to about evil—not just "systemic" evil, the activist concern du jour, or evil as it exists in the whole world, but evil in my own life? That's uncomfortably close. But a humble recognition that we can't solve all problems is the first step to solving some of them. Rather than aiming high, at unachievable universalist goals, find an evil in your neighborhood, something you can actually do something about, and face it. Or, as Admiral McRaven and Jordan Peterson have put it recently, "Make your bed" and "Clean your room."

Finally, also harmonizing with Gandalf, is this challenge from St. Paul that has goaded and bothered me since I rediscovered it last fall:

 
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
— I Thessalonians 4:11-12
 

Jacobs concludes his post by reflecting on how "tricky" Gandalf's vision is: "neither . . . succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather . . . live, simply, in hope." If there's a more necessary countercultural message today than "lead a quiet life," "mind your own business," "uproot evil in the fields you know," and "live in hope," I don't know what it is.

John Ronald's Dragons

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Saturday morning I took my kids to the library. My daughter insisted on finding a picture book "bout dragons," so I went to the catalog computer, and once I had narrowed the search to that particular branch of the library and its kids' collection, I found this gem: John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Caroline McAlister with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler. 

John Ronald's Dragons is a children's picture book biography of the first half of Tolkien's life, and it's wonderful. The story follows young John Ronald from his youth in the Midlands to school, his move after his mother's death when he was twelve, his meeting and courtship of Edith, his experience in World War I, and finally his professorship at Oxford where, one day while grading exams, he came across a blank sheet of paper and scribbled "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The theme throughout is Tolkien's love of dragons, and the illustrations bring out the inspirations for his dragons in his everyday landscape.

The story is well told and a good jumping off point for your kids. I'm a bit of a nerd about Tolkien and his life, and so I would have liked more detail on, for instance, his remarkable courtship of Edith (when his guardian worried that she would interfere with his studies and forbade him to see her until he was twenty-one, Tolkien obeyed; he sent her a proposal the day of his twenty-first birthday), but this is a succinct and warm retelling that kids will enjoy. My daughter certainly does. We've read it five or six times in two days.

The illustrations are beautiful—far and away the best feature, and the best I've seen in a picture book in quite a while. The pictures include many real places, especially Oxford locations like the Hertford Bridge and the Eagle and Child, with a cameo by C.S. Lewis. Illustrator's notes at the end of the book point out some nice details tucked away in some of the pictures: a fountain pen that Edith gave John Ronald for his birthday, a copy of Beowulf hidden in his study, distinctly hobbit-like neighbors from Tolkien's childhood in the background of a landscape scene. 

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Perhaps my favorite—or at least the most evocative, to me—shows Tolkien huddled in a trench, hard at work on Quenya, as tanks breathe fire in a treeless no-man's-land above.

The climax of the book is a trip through two-page landscapes from The Hobbit, in which John Ronald follows Bilbo and a troupe of dwarves through the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and across the Long Lake to find "his dragon," a lavishly illustrated Smaug hulking above a mountain of gold. Sharp eyes will note a golden cup and the Arkenstone among the pile of treasure.

As a geek bonus, the end matter includes a list of dragons from Tolkien's work, including Glaurung, Smaug, and the underappreciated Chrysophylax, and quotations from several of his essays and lectures on dragons. Good stuff.

John Ronald's Dragons is a beautiful picture book and I highly recommend it. It's a double treat in that I can read my daughter a book about one of my favorite authors and both of us enjoy it.

Visit the publisher's page for some full-page samples of the gorgeous illustrations.