I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit,” J.R.R. Tolkien once said of his epic mythological novel “The Lord of the Rings.” His writing process entailed immersing himself within the world of his creation so that a story would evolve just as legends develop from deep within a culture.
That first map had extra pages taped on to widen the boundaries of Middle-earth, along with a myriad of distance adjustments in terrain to account for his characters’ journeys. It is one of 30 maps created for “The Lord of the Rings,” archived today in the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Taken together, those maps represent just one aspect of Tolkien’s immersive process—he created languages, histories, interconnected tales and visual arts, disciplines that fed his imagination and breathed life into his mythologies.
The Bodleian recently displayed many treasures associated with Tolkien’s work in an exhibition that came to New York’s Morgan Library this spring before it heads to Paris for a final stop later this year. That exhibition has offered a rare glimpse of the extent of Tolkien’s immersion. One particular page Tolkien sent to his publisher shows his experimentation with Fire-writing, the elfish lettering carved into the “One Ring.” Another page shows how his creativity permeated his entire life and relationships. It’s a picture done in watercolor, ink, and colored pencil, a fantastical depiction of the Aurora Borealis drawn for his children as part of an ongoing correspondence from Father Christmas. Along with this picture, he sent a letter signed by Father Christmas, describing the antics of the mischievous North Polar Bear, who “turned on all the Northern Lights for two years in one go.”
Tolkien’s early paintings reveal a mind already preoccupied with his own mythology, and his paintings for “The Hobbit” show his ability to breathe life into a fictional world. His watercolor “The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water” evokes an idealized English countryside, a setting that served as inspiration for hobbiton and its inhabitants because he modeled hobbits after country folk.
Tolkien’s organic approach presents a fascination and a standard for artists of all mediums, one that elevates the significance of any biography about his life. Towards that end, the recently released biopic “Tolkien” focuses on his young adulthood in an attempt to highlight certain formative influences on his identity as an artist. Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, makes an early appearance in the film as the one who instilled within him an appreciation for learning and stories.
What the film misses is Mabel’s profound influence on Tolkien’s life of faith. An intellectual with a thirst for truth, she led their young family on a journey to become Catholic during a time in England when such conversions were widely frowned upon. This journey ostracized them from their extended family and cut them off from vital financial assistance in the aftermath of the death of Tolkien’s father.
A few years after they converted, when Tolkien was just 12 years old, his mother passed away as well, leaving him and his younger brother orphans. Though she died of diabetes, he considered her a martyr for the struggle she undertook to bring them into the faith. Her actions inspired Tolkien to see his own Catholicism as something worth fighting to keep amid the challenges that life invariably throws at such devotion. These experiences of loss, hardship, and spiritual journeying influenced Tolkien’s art and the idea of quests at the heart of his most important work, quests that reveal the deepest truths of human existence.
The film reduces the family’s Catholicism to a mere association that brought them assistance in the absence of their relatives’ support and, by doing so, misses the opportunity to show the essence of who Tolkien was as a writer. His immersive process stemmed from his life, learning and talents, along with the beliefs, rituals and history of his faith, enabling him to reflect these truths in stories that never seemed contrived. He could lose himself in creative work and trust that good would come of it precisely because he always brought his faith as a Catholic with him on that journey.
Tolkien once wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
By neglecting to share this most foundational aspect of his art, “Tolkien” the film merely dances around the margins of his story, offering incomplete glimpses of other influences on his life, such as his friendships, his experiences in World War I and his love for a young woman who was also an orphan and would become his wife. These elements of his biography prove compelling enough, combined with adept dramatization and acting, to produce an enjoyable exploration of a young man passionate about life, love, learning and creating great art. In that sense, the filmmakers found a way to allow Tolkien’s biography to speak to universal themes and many will find this meditation enjoyable and rewarding. But the film does not go deep enough to show the unique road Tolkien took to cultivate his creative genius, and so it does not accomplish what might be most hoped for in a biography of his life.
However, the real immersion many seek is not in Tolkien’s biography but in experiencing his work. Film has undeniably made a mark on how our culture encounters Tolkien, with many people’s first point of reference being the big-budget adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” That dynamic is sure to continue with Amazon’s upcoming series based on a trove of Tolkien’s stories not yet explored in film. Such an endeavor should ideally be less about making money than about creating an accurate rendering of Tolkien’s world. Adaptations of his work or biographical films about him succeed when they make his vision more accessible to viewers. They fail when they obscure his vision, making the quest for Tolkienesque immersion an ever more elusive journey reserved only for those humble enough to follow the path to adventure mapped in detail in his original works.