The Tolkien Film and the Problem of Beauty: Guest Blog at the Forefront Festival

I was very much struck by the recently released Tolkien biopic and tried to capture a few of my thoughts about it in my note from last week. I also received an invitation from the Forefront Festival blog to share my thoughts. As they are a kind of Christian arts collective, I decided to think about my Tolkien experience and the thinness of much Christian art. As I said to one of their leaders, there are certainly thousands of faithful artists faithfully doing beautiful work. But I remain disappointed with mainstream Christian art. Watching the Tolkien film made me wonder whether, when it comes to art, Christians have a disordered relationship with the three transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. I talk about it at the Forefront guest blog, where I also get to address my concern with Tolkien’s faith in the biopic in a roundabout way.


As a lover of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I have waited with wincing anticipation for the release of the new biopic. Honestly, I worried and fussed in all the days leading up to the screening of Tolkien.

On the one hand, I really wanted to love this film. I love biopics, where in the warp and weft of great filmmaking, a director weaves together the threads of a person’s biography into a work of fiction that is true in ways deeper than chronology and census registry. And, of course, I love his worlds: Tolkien’s work as a Christian artist and intellectual has shaped me in profound ways.

On the other hand….

Read more at the Forefront Festival blog, click here.

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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47 Responses to The Tolkien Film and the Problem of Beauty: Guest Blog at the Forefront Festival

  1. A Writer says:

    I really appreciate both your prior review and this one. It is a shame that we who love works that have a large fandom feel like we need to be cautious about expressing our “unpopular opinions” — what a loss for broader discourse.
    This passage was particularly convicting: “This film biography is missing one of Tolkien’s deepest loves because no model exists for addressing it that is not, quite frankly, bad art.” Ouch. Hopefully, as time goes on, Christian art, and Christian discourse surrounding all art, will become more nuanced and balanced again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for this nice note. The community has been strikingly supportive–including those who have disagreed.
      And yes, “ouch.” I know, it is easier to be an angry prophet than to make good art, but still. I do have hope, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dorothea says:

    Great specialized review. All things considered, I really want to see the movie now.
    Also, I like the note about your son in the biographical note. Wishing him luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this – I hope I’ll have something to say in response, before too much longer…

    But it has joined your two earlier posts, here, in getting me trying to think about biopics, and the Christian faith of their biographical subjects (or other characters) – where that is attested, and the possible relations of my enjoyment of movie to independent knowledge of its subject… and, especially recent ones (how recent, giving thought, too).

    Maybe you could consider a post where you and your readers list biopics for consideration.

    For examples that spring to my mind, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999), and Daens (1992), and also Andrei Rublev (1966 – which I did not see till decades later, but which IMDB tells me is still enjoying re-releases in different versions: e.g., “24 August 2018 (4K restoration)”). And, I remember enjoying The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) after encountering trailers for The 13th Day (2009) before it appeared (though I have never yet managed to catch up with it, when it was released).

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Another example that occurs to me is films about Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie and the other Christians involved in it, the only ones of which I’ve seen so far are Jo Baier’s Stauffenberg (2004) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008). I enjoyed both, but cannot immediately recall how much (if any) attention was given to people’s Christian faith being involved in the motives and conduct of the undertaking.

      Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The continuing discussion at Sunlit Fields brought me to think that it would be interesting to consider (and compare) (non-Biblical) historical/biographical ‘dramatic’ works by the Seven Wade authors, to see how they did it. What spring to my mind are Chesterton’s The Judgement of Dr. Johnson: A Comedy in three Acts (1927), Williams’s Myths of Shakespeare (1929) and Francis Bacon (1932), his Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936) and his Judgement at Chelmsford (1939), Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy House (1937) about William of Sens and The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle (1951) and Tolkien’s own The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (1953) – though only Beorhtnoth’s corpse appears in it. I wonder what examples I’m not (yet) thinking of…?

    The Williams and Sayers ones suggest that the Canterbury Festival plays and other analogous ones would provide an interesting field for other modern Christian authors’ works to broaden the comparisons. (T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry come immediately to mind, here.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Following on from Williams, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1954 for radio, 1957 for TV, 1960 for the stage, and 1966 as a movie!) and Vivat! Vivat Regina! (1971), State of Revolution (1977) and screenplay work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Red Tent (1969), Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), The Bounty (1984), The Mission (1986), and Without Warning: The James Brady Story (1991) variously suggest themselves. As far as I recall reading, he was not a Christian, so his very successful detailed ‘imaginative entry’ into the perspectives of historical Christians is especially worth considering in this context. His Wikipedia article reports that he also worked on “an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for Norman Lear” – that’s something I’d like to have seen! (I wonder if screenplay/script drafts survive anywhere?)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yewtree says:

    If you want good art with a Christian protagonist, I can heartily recommend the TV series of Chesterton’s “Father Brown”. And also the TV series “Rev”.

    A biopic that I very much want to watch, but haven’t yet, is the one about Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the Unitarian couple who started the Unitarian Service Committee (now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee) and rescued many Jewish people from the Nazis).

    I was thinking about whether Pagan novels and films have the same issue you describe. I don’t think they do, because Pagans are trying to persuade people to love Nature, not necessarily to become Pagans. One of my favourite Pagan novels is “The Fifth Sacred Thing” by Starhawk.

    I do have an issue with a lot of Pagan art being heterocentric, but that’s a different problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yewtree says:

      Oh and I think one of the reasons that Tolkien is so successful is that he’s not trying to convert people to Christianity but to a sacramental view of the world.

      Lewis succeeds in so far as this is true of his work, and fails when he gets too evangelical, in my opinion.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve just restarted The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and was struck, this time, by Tolkien’s note about distinctive features of the retelling of “the present poet” (himself, in fact – but perhaps playing with the idea of him as a translator of a variant ancient version?). It seemed as if he was using typology in a way similar to that of, e.g., The Lord of the Rings (with the destruction of the Ring on 25 March, the ‘future’ Feast of the Annunciation). So, I would say, there is often a subtle deliberate ‘Evangelization’ going on… I wonder if he ever discusses this, in detail, anywhere (which I don’t know yet, or even, still unpublished)? I found what he says about Cynewulf in comparison to, and contrast with, ‘the Beowulf poet’ in the lecture note selections-as-commentary in the Beowulf volume (2014) probably relevant to this ‘matter’ – and tantalizing: I wonder how much more about Cynewulf there is in surviving but unpublished lecture notes? (!) I also wonder how this may relate to part of Tolkien’s reported discomfort with Narnia – did he, perhaps, find Lewis being unsubtle, or ‘indecorous’, or insufficiently reverent…?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yewtree says:

          One of the things that annoyed Tolkien about Narnia was the appearance of Father Christmas. If Aslan is the manifestation of Christ in that universe, then there can’t be Christmas as it exists in our universe. It’s illogical.

          Yes Tolkien’s evangelism is much more subtle (and I think he’s trying to promote a sacramental worldview rather than a Christian one; same applies to Charles Williams, who cheerfully includes Muslim mystics in “Many Dimensions”).

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I’d argue for a pre-Incarnational sacramental Christian worldview in Tolkien’s Middle-earth material. I think Williams is even bolder in various ways in the poem, ‘The Death of Palomides’, but in both is doing something like relating Islam to Christianity as a praeparatio Evangelica. (I’m about to embark on Aren Roukema’s recent book on Williams’s fiction…)

            I’d also make a case for the logic of Father Christmas in Narnia as a ‘post-Ascension universe’, though it’s interesting to ponder what the average Talking Animal may think of F.Ch. – but I should probably be working on a booklet, to do so…

            Liked by 2 people

            • Yewtree says:

              Yes, I think Tolkien actually said somewhere that the LoTR world was pre-incarnational (and must be by definition if it’s intended to be the pre-history of our world).

              Father Christmas in Narnia confused me as a child. Still confuses me, but I see what you mean, and it fits in with the comments about the stable in the Last Battle (a stable having held something bigger than itself in our world too). But that’s one of those moments where Lewis over-eggs the evangelical pudding and I wanted him to stop.

              I do like the bit about Emeth though.

              Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                We had a jolly talk from Tom Shippey at the Oxford Lewis Soc in which, among other things, he provocatively broached whether or not Lewis was being heretical in his treatment of Emeth… (I wonder if he – or anyone – has published (much) on that…)

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Well the doctrine of apocatastasis was declared anathema in the 4th century, more’s the pity, and universal salvation seems only to have been popular with Christian Universalists and General Baptists, both of which groups ended up joining up with the Unitarians (see part 2 of Earl Morse Wilbur’s epic two volume history of Unitarianism).

                So yes, probably heretical, but a glorious, golden, compassionate heresy. Yay for universalism and apocatastasis.

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                The Inkings, MacDonald, et al. enjoying Father Aidan’s blog is very interesting in this context:

                https://afkimel.wordpress.com/

                Liked by 1 person

              • About once a week someone recommends that site to me!

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Latest Dutch Tolkien Soc journal just arrived – with notice of a new book, Tolkien the Pagan?: Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens, Proceedings of The Tolkien Society Seminar, ed. Anna Milton (Luna Press).

                Liked by 2 people

              • I like the “something bigger” bit meself. I think the Last Battle is such a book that you either give into it, or you don’t. I feel the 3rd volume of Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the same. The first time I read it, it was jilty and bent in its anti-Narnian perspective. The 2nd time was better, when I just enjoyed the text.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Books always need to be about something bigger. But I prefer it if the “something bigger” is something that I can get behind.

                I felt that Pullman was trying to push his atheist agenda, but was able to set it aside and enjoy the story, mostly because there was so much else in it to enjoy. The bits where he pushed his views about the afterlife still annoyed me, though. I thought the parody of the Catholic Church was largely justified.

                Lewis’s Christian agenda was so obvious to me as a child who was immersed in Christianity, that it was the Pagan stuff that really shone through, as I mentioned in my guest post.

                But I find reading The Last Battle uncomfortable as I don’t like the idea of Narnia being destroyed — even if the new heavenly Narnia is still there, it’s not the same lived-in Narnia with all the history. I never liked the Book if Revelations as a child either. Still don’t like it.

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                It’s a striking feature of the Narnia Chronicles – the cosmology of the world of Charn, in The Magician’s Nephew, with its old sun (I haven’t paused to look up if ‘we’ are given an idea of just how old Charn and its cosmos are), and then the end of Narnia at (I think) a comparatively ‘young’ age – given mutability, if any of the worlds through any of the other pools are unfallen, would they still have to end in whatever their present forms are? Here, compare the planetary worlds of Malacandra and Perelandra – there is no (late-)antique/mediaeval-style superlunary moving-but-not-mutable part of the Field of Arbol…

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                I thought Charn was falling apart because Jadis had uttered the Deplorable Word. (How did she know it was “Trump” — or possibly “Brexit”?)

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I should reread chapter 5 carefully again – or the whole Magician’s Nephew (or listen to our jolly Kenneth Branagh audiobook – or both!). Browsing reveals it is Digory who “felt at once that it [“a great, red sun, far bigger than our own sun”] was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down on that world.” How Jadis’ use of the Deplorable Word and the destruction of “all living things except the one who spoke it” and her own ‘suspended animation’ fit into that chronology I don’t remember if we are told… (Lots of interesting stuff, here – e.g., contrast Merlin – and compare the aspirations of NICE – in That Hideous Strength; the possibility that Digory is somehow on the cutting-edge of astronomy – Wikipedia notes, “One of the earliest uses of the term ‘red dwarf’ was in 1915, used simply to contrast ‘red’ dwarf stars from hotter ‘blue’ dwarf stars”, with a footnote to Lindemann, F. A. (1915). “The age of the Earth”. The Observatory. 38: 299 while “The terms giant and dwarf were coined for stars of quite different luminosity despite similar temperature or spectral type by Ejnar Hertzsprung about 1905”; that the idea of destructiveness of the D.W. was published only five years after Leo Szilard’s “radio talk on February 26, 1950, that sufficiently big thermonuclear bomb rigged with specific but common materials, might annihilate mankind” (Wikip.) and nine years before the Doomsday Machine of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (and three years before “The conception of neutron bombs […] generally credited to Samuel T. Cohen of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who developed the concept in 1958” (Wikip.) .) I’d say, rearrangements of the interrelations of ‘Western Democracies’ pale by comparison. (The satanists’ aspired use of the Graal in War in Heaven, however, suggests itself for a more fascinating comparison even than What Went Wrong with the Tarot Cards in The Greater Trumps, or with Berringer’s ‘contemplation’ in The Place of the Lion.)

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Also interesting – is “a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down on that world” mere personification, or something more like the Narnian stars as encountered in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

                Liked by 2 people

              • Yewtree says:

                The latter, I should think. After all, a sun is a star.

                “I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys of the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as a child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising once again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
                “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
                “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

                Liked by 2 people

      • Something I haven’t resolved in my mind is why we feel resentment for certain kinds of evangelistic art, but not others (not that you said that of Lewis, but many have felt resentment; I’m reading Laura Miller’s book on Narnia, and she describes that feeling of betrayal). I don’t feel resentment about Margaret Atwood’s feminist writings, but there was one book, maybe Walk to the End of the Earth, where I felt resentment when there was a suddenly revealed secret: men suck, women are the keepers of goodness. I guess I felt resentment at Phil Pullman’s anti-God trilogy His Dark Materials for two reasons: 1) The plug at the magisterium was too easy and too cartoonish; 2) the resolution of Lyra’s character did not seem organic to the character and too bent toward being an anti-Susan moment. I felt resentment at Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses–not because I had sympathy with what he was up against. I don’t know, really.
        I’m just talking about feeling. I don’t know the answer, but I feel resentment when I read fiction that turns out to be just a plug for environmentalism or political thought–even if I am in league with them. Yet of the moralistic writers–some of the greats that I’ve read are Lewis, Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Maya Angelou, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf–I don’t feel that resentment. Of course, the ones I listed are largely ones I resonate with.
        So maybe it’s just bias. But I think it is something more, honestly. I think there is an interplay of bias with dominant and resistant culture, combined with the degree to which there is a story that serves a moral, or a moral emergent from a story.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yewtree says:

          Excellent points. I felt resentment towards Philip Pullman over the resolution of the story and the way he beats the reader over the head with his notion that all religions are coercive. There’s another trilogy I read that concludes that all men are bad and everyone should be a vegetarian which annoyed the heck out of me, despite having some really interesting ideas in it. It’s the one with La’adan, the women’s language, in it. I also get annoyed with overly simplistic depictions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in SF. So you’re right, it’s not just over-egged Christian evangelism that’s annoying.

          Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’m not sure how relevant it is, but I am reminded of John Keats’ observation in his letter of 3 February 1818 to J.H. Reynolds: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!'”

          Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I really like the Alec Guinness Father Brown movie, and have enjoyed the old Kenneth More television series – and lately a BBC radio series with Andrew Sachs (and, for that matter the German ones with Heinz Rühmann).

      Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I had not heard of the Sharp biopic – thanks!

      When I was trying to think of biopics I’d enjoyed and checking the release dates something I looked up (I can’t remember what!) suggested The Scarlet and the Black (1983), about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and his work “hiding downed pilots, escaped prisoners of war, and Italian Resistance families” (which, indeed, I once enjoyed as far as I got on YouTube, and then got distracted and then found it had been hunted down and removed…), while the short television movie, Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John (1973), about Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) working to save Jewish people from the Nazis, had already come to mind. There must be handy lists (or even interesting overviews) of such movies as a biopic genre, somewhere, but I’m not sure how to look for them…

      Liked by 2 people

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Another film in this genre I remember receiving a lot of criticism, but which I also remember thinking unpretentiously well-done, when I finally caught up with it, is The Hiding Place (1975), though the book adapted – and others by Corrie ten Boom – are more powerful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know, it’s funny, but given the nature of that film–Christians walking alongside Jews in persecution–I would want to see more accuracy than, say, the inventor of bubble gum, or the person who thought of putting glass in road paint to reflect at night.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        This invites pondering – the interrelations of gravity of subject matter and accuracy of depiction…

        Like

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In this discussion of dramatized biopics and documentaries (where, e.g., I see Tom Hanks becomes the voice of Waitstill Sharp in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War), Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) probably deserves mention – though I cannot do more than ‘mention’, not having caught up with it, yet!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      After saying which, another relevant history-based film springs to mind, which I remember largely thinking well of: Joyeux Noël (2006: also often with translated title, Merry Christmas – not to be confused with yet another (WW II) film possibly relevant here, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)!).

      Liked by 2 people

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just encountered this, which among other things set me wondering about the depiction of chaplains in historical(-based) war films, and whether there are any military-chaplain biopics:

    http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/d-days-enduring-memory-heroic-chaplains-remembered-on-75th-anniversary

    And, there’s a book by old Wade Director, Lyle Dorsett, I somehow missed until now!

    I went to IMDB to see if any of the Saving Private Ryan characters were clearly based on Father Sampson – and did not find any immediately, but did find this, under ” Trivia”:

    The man that saved Fritz Niland, the real-life “Private Ryan,” was Catholic chaplain Father Francis L. Sampson (1912-1996). It was he who was ordered by military authorities to find Niland, who had lost his three brothers a few days earlier on D-Day.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. Blue Ice-Tea says:

    I actually thought it made sense not to talk too much about Tolkien’s Catholicism, given that the movie covers his younger years when he might not be thinking too deeply about religion. However, I agree in principle that there is a dearth of good Christian art. I struggle to think of movies with really good representations of Christians or Christianity in them. Chariots of Fire, maybe? Or is that too much in the corny-inspirational category? I appreciate Dogma for being humourous and irreverent while still advancing a sincere Christian message. Calvary arguably does a good job of combining the “good” (Father James is a genuinely good man), the “true” (the world he lives in is a dark and troubled place), and the “beautiful” (the film looks lovely). But movies like these are few and far between, and even they have their issues.

    Anyway, I really like what you said about truth, beauty, and goodness in art. I think that’s a very useful way to think about it, and I may quote you on it in the future! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this note. The Catholicism is under-played, even for the period, especially as (John Garth argues that) the words of Tolkien’s invented languages of the period are deeply invested in religious ideas and symbols.
      The examples are good. I am watching a TV show right now where the religious stereotypes are boring repetitions of the same things rather than interesting, complex ideas about faith folk. This one has a slight twist which I like, but it gets tiresome after a while.
      I am actually quite sad about the dearth of Christian art. I am pleased, though, about lots of good local Christian art and good writing here and there.

      Liked by 2 people

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