Tolkien’s Road: A Film (Friday Feature)

A reader tipped me off to this little piece. While documentaries on J.R.R. Tolkien abound, and there are adaptations of his fiction, there have been few who have attempted to capture the story of the Mythmaker himself on film.

Here is one, and a fairly recent project.

Directed by Nye Green, this indie film captures a few days in 1929 in the lives of the Inklings at Oxford. C.S. Lewis, in a supporting role, is on the edge of changing his thinking about faith and myth. At the same time, Tolkien is struggling with PTSD (shell shock) from his WWI experience. Two of the members of his pre-Inklings group, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS)–his early friends and fellows on the writing path–have fallen to war. In his struggle to deal with survivor’s guilt and his inability to save his friends, characters from Tolkien’s Lost Tales and Middle Earth Legendarium start appearing in his waking reality to help him focus on his true integrative task: writing his myth for others to read.

The film includes the prewriting conversations of Lewis and Tolkien, a little piece of Addison’s Walk, and among snatches of dialogue from Tolkien’s work, a bit of the “Mythopoiea” poem that encapsulates so well Tolkien’s mythmaking project.

Not everyone loves low budget independent films. I quite liked this piece, though I have no idea if The Hobbit and all the rest was really any sort of dealing with the past. The character of Lewis is weak, lacking in any irony and serving only as a solid landing point for Tolkien’s struggle to get his bearings. Lewis is called “Jack” but Tolkien is called “John” (instead of “Tollers”), which leads me to suspect there needed to be more research done. Yet the film is filled with these great bursts of sheer geekiness that it has to have emerged from a strong Tolkien fanbase. Lewis remains a dim figure to many Tolkien fans, so perhaps that’s why his is dim in this piece.

Tolkien_Road_hobbitQuibbles aside, I liked the character of Tolkien in this film. I don’t know why he sleeps in a different bedroom than his wife, and there were some minor pacing issues. But he captures a kind of imaginative quirkiness and mythopoeic passion that surely has to be part of Tolkien’s mental makeup–even if they were hidden within an Oxonian father shuffling around campus with parchments and examination papers stuffed under each arm.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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45 Responses to Tolkien’s Road: A Film (Friday Feature)

  1. Factcheck? Of the three other members of the TCBS two were killed in the War, but Tolkien Christopher Wiseman survived until 1987 — I corresponded with him in the ’70s and ’80s and John Rateliff looked him up in England in the ’80s. Tolkien was indeed known as Tollers to CSL, though John Ronald to the TCBS and Ronald to his family (and Lewis when he wasn’t indulging in the “Tollers” affectation — if that is what it was). It really does sound as though the film-maker lacked some relevant knowledge. Hope he got permission from the Tolkien Estate — hope he got the family’s approval — not to mention Doug Gresham’s and the Lewis Estate’s.

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  2. jaredlobdell says:

    should read Tolkien’s friend Christopher Wiseman

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for taking the time to post this edifying little film, Brenton. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rena says:

    Tolkien and his wife did sleep in different rooms because he snored and they kept very different hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, fair friend! Great news. I did not know that, and snoring is a great bed problem.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Different hours can be, too – Lewis had an outdoor staircase and door at its top fitted, so he could get to his bedroom without disturbing anyone, when returning when others were abed. When I was living there, the staircase had be taken away and the door opened into space – or, rather, happily never did, in my experience, though I can’t recall if it was ‘fixed’ or we were just cautious. Now it’s nicely restored with outdoor staircase, but I didn’t ask if the door opens…

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  5. Hannah says:

    Thanks for this Friday feature, with its rather Shakespearean beginning – seeing it on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death seems fitting.
    Even if the film might rather fit in the fiction category, I do think it gives a good picture of what they went through during and after WWI and how Tolkien’s imagination quite likely might have intertwined with reality. The bit of ‘Addison walk’ discussion between Tolkien and Lewis could have been made more of – no mentioning of ‘metaphor and myth’ …
    And are there any letters in which Tolkien hints to any sort of dealing with the past in the Hobbit?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always miss the Shakespearian connections!
      I think it is a good imagining of what someone with PTSD would go through trying to recover his writing. Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey is sort of like this.
      I too wish there was more on Addison’s walk, since they are doing it anyway.
      On the “past in the Hobbit” do you mean his own path, or the legendarium?

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      • Hannah says:

        Yes, I love reading Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey books.
        On the “past in the Hobbit”: I was referring to your sentence “though I have no idea if The Hobbit and all the rest was really any sort of dealing with the past”, thinking you meant his own past – e.g. the battles being there because of, and not in spite of the WWI battles like at the Sommes (see comments in the previous blog); I have read about it somewhere, either in “The Company they keep”, or “The Fellowship” by the Zaleskjs.
        It would give a another dimension to the many battles with orcs and all those other awful creatures, helping him dealing with PTSD through externalizing those horrific dreams?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hannah says:

          Those comments were at the ’12 reason’ blog, underneath the quote “Mr Lewis says hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations.”…
          with this question: Is a story without conflict at all possible?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi Hannah, thanks for this. I know little of Tolkien’s biography–or a lot at little depth. I don’t know if he had dreams or nightmares, or to what degree it affected his writing. But he (and others) had the experience of war, and then wrote about war. What I like about Tolkien’s treatment is the cynical war of WWI (let’s just throw flesh at one another in the mud and see if continents move) and the ideological war of WWII do not seem to overwhelm the sense of providence and steely courage in LOTR’s wars.

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  6. ChrisC says:

    I didn’t know such a book existed. We’ll have to see what kind of a read that one has in store,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Back in the mid-sixties I listened to AM stations on a vacuum-tube radio and kept a log at night on a piece of cardboard. From Cincinnati I picked up an interview on a Philadelphia station with a Tolkien fan club. I’d never heard of J.R.R. but immediately became a convert on the strength of that single radio conversation. I bought the 1966 Ballantine issue of The Hobbit, the one that provided royalties. A super memory. Thanks for this great site!

    Like

  8. jubilare says:

    I am intrigued…

    Re: Tolkien and Lewis fans… I find the more I know of them both, the more I appreciate each one individually, both for their kinship and their great differences.

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Interim report (about 20 minutes along): Intriguing (and fun)! – in its depiction of shell shock playing, I presume, cinematically in part with A Beautiful Mind (2001) and perhaps An American Werewolf in London (1981), and, further, perhaps with Dorothy Sayers’ treatment of Lord Peter Wimsey (also as portrayed for television by Ian Carmichael?). But, nestling that in a treatment of the encounter with faerie, as recorded in all sorts of lore and literature (and films) – including Smith of Wootton Major, and The Book of Lost Tales! – with the way it can leave those who have passed into the Perilous Realm bewildered, befuddled, inspired. (Williams’s treatment of Broceliande in The Region of the Summer Stars also comes to my mind by way of comparison! – how this encounter of ‘works of art’ (to put it broadly) lets them illuminate each other!)

    It also makes me think of Carroll’s elaborate work in his two Sylvie and Bruno books (1889, 1893) – I wonder if you could tabulate its scenes the way Carroll does his passages, here:

    https://archive.org/stream/sylviebrunoconcl00carriala#page/xiv/mode/2up

    (This in turn makes me think how vague my knowledge of these books is, and blush to think that I have never yet caught up with Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie (2001), which I suspect may be quite relevant to this ‘Tolkien’s Road’.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • ChrisC says:

      Well, I can see how “A Beautiful Mind” is a natural reference, however I don’t know about “An American Werewolf in London.”

      On the other hand, “Smith of Wooten Major” seems a definite fit.

      I think Flieger’s “Question of Time” might also work as it’s main concern is with the portrayal and perception of time in fiction, and how this might relate to altered perceptions of consciousness in real life.

      In fact, Flieger’s book actually does sort of gibe with that Carroll passage. Speaking of Carroll, the one film “Tolkien’s Road” reminds me of more than anything is Dennis Potter’s “Dreamchild”. That, and perhaps maybe a bit of Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I was wondering about Dreamchild – I remember enjoying it, but am very fuzzy about the details (!). American Werewolf: the horribly real bit turning out to be a dream (here, the battle-horror gets weirder as some troops turn orc-like, which is a contrast: though the non-human faces aspect by itself seemed similar, too).

        I saw Dark Crystal, but have never yet caught up with Labyrinth… (here’s hoping, someday!).

        Out of Mind (1998), which I enjoy no end, would be interesting to juxtapose, for comparing and contrasting.

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        • ChrisC says:

          Dreamchild is one of those interesting anomalies that could only have emerged during a brief span of artistic history from maybe the 60s to the tail end of the 80s.

          It tells a slightly fictionalized story of a real life journey to America made by Carrol’s real life inspiration/muse, Alice Liddell. The plot follows the half-real/half-imaginary Alice, now an 80-something old widow as she travels to America to celebrate Carroll’s centenary. Along the way she has to come to terms with Carrol and her place in his legacy. This often happens by her engaging in mental conversations with the Wonderland characters (brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop).

          Labyrinth follows a similar, yet different track. If I had to say what the latter film is “really” about, then it would be about learning to accept life’s responsibilities, while also learning about the proper and improper uses of imagination.

          I’ll have to check the “Out of Mind” film soon enough.

          Liked by 1 person

          • There are things here I must check out!

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Dreamchild has the added interest of Ian Holm – Frodo in the BBC Radio Sibley-Bakewell, Bilbo in the Jackson LotR – as Dodgson/Carroll. (I’d probably give anything with him a try, I’ve enjoyed him in such many and varied things!)

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              • I am hoping to watch Dreamchild this summer. Is it 11 year old appropriate?

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I can’t remember! (In VHS days, I used to pre-screen, making timing notes of where to stop the tape to fast-forward over which variously unsuitable bits, but it got tricky once or twice when I skipped that mistakenly thinking I remembered the film, and was wrong – or when viewers just had very different ideas of what was nightmarish.)

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I wonder if I were computer-savvier, I could make my own ‘cuts’ of movies (like they used to do on local television when I was growing up)?

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              • I tried that once, taking out the curse words in a movie for a youth community. When I saved the edit, it was a few seconds off in the audio and was an epic fail. I was on a lot of cold medicine at the time.

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  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of Tolkien, and Tolkien-related films, John Garth posted earlier this month about a new documentary about one of Tolkien’s closest friends, killed in the War, made by two more recent former pupils of their old school, Elliot and Zander Weaver, who also made one two years ago called Tolkien’s Great War, which is linked at the school’s website:

    http://www.kes.org.uk/tolkien-great-war.html

    The brothers work together as Elliander Pictures, and a little searching around has turned up lots of interesting-looking things about – and by – them (via the Elliander Pictures link on the film in John Garth’s post, for instance). We’ve only started to try an Apollo 17 documentary so far, but are enjoying it!

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    • Thanks for this link. I’ll take a look at the film. I’ve gotten to hear a couple of John Garth’s lectures.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Lucky fellow! I think the first thing of his I read was his interview with Alan Garner (when I thought, ‘lucky fellow’ of him), and I’m really delighted to have caught up with Tolkien and the Great War (which beckoned attractively for years before I finally made sure I got it and read it) and his Tolkien at Exeter College and his ‘“The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-earth in 1914’, in Tolkien Studies 11, ed. David Bratman, Michael D.C. Drout, and Verlyn Flieger (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2014), and his various blog posts – wow!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Great job–I just reposted this. Awesome.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      (Turns out we were watching another Apollo 17 docu with similar title – interesting, but I need to pursue the Weaver one, too..)

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  11. Pingback: “Tolkien’s Great War”: A Film by Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  12. Pingback: A Brace of Tolkien Posts (125th Birthday Week) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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