I watched the film Tolkien, a film that I failed to see on the big screen last year. And very few people did see it! Even the critics took little notice of it – and those critics who did see it hardly had much praise for it. It amazes me how such nonsense as the Avengers movie could make so much money and be reviewed by practically every movie critic on the planet while the film Tolkien was almost totally ignored. Perhaps part of the reason was that the Tolkien Estate and family disapproved of the film. A pity, because it is a truly fine film about the early years of one of the most popular writers of the 20th century, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – usually written as J.R.R. Tolkien. Like all films about real people it takes liberties for dramatic purposes, but it succeeds in bringing to life the world of Tolkien’s youth and his own deeply feeling spirit. It is a beautiful, mostly quiet film about art, music, love and friendship. But it is also about war.
Tolkien and his three close friends all fought in the First World War. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman came back. Geoffrey Smith and Robert Gilson died in the Battle of the Somme in France, in 1916. In the most harrowing scenes of the film, Tolkien struggles through the hellish landscape of trench warfare to find Geoffrey. The film shows them calling each other’s name – or maybe Tolkien thought he could hear Geoffrey calling out Tolkien’s name. Tolkien did not find his friend. But in that hellish landscape, Tolkien sees visions of apocalyptic battle between forces of good and evil and in the climax of the scene he briefly sees an image that would become the Dark Lord Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
What struck me about the scenes in the battle of the Somme is that Tolkien seems to have seen the darkness behind the darkness. The battle and the landscape were hellish enough by themselves. But Tolkien in his vivid imagination saw even deeper darkness behind what was in front of him, which took the lives of his two closest friends and which almost took his own life. And indeed, the war was the most direct inspiration for his great fantasy novels. Out of that great darkness emerged his own literary achievements. Not only that, but he also created a whole world with its own language in order to give depth of reality and meaning to the stories he crafted.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us how Jesus began his ministry after his baptism. He called people to repent, to change their way of thinking – which is what metanoia (meta-nous) actually means. In other words, change the way you see life and the world – and if possible, change it, make it a new world…because the kingdom of the heavens is at hand (ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). But in setting the scene for the beginning of Christ’s work, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah – “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
The Gospel message: out of darkness light dawns and a new world – because the kingdom of the heavens is near. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and undoubtedly the message of darkness and light that we find in the New Testament influenced his own literary vision.
Most of the film is devoted to the fellowship of the four friends, and Edith, the future wife of Tolkien. The four friends had a word that motivated all their actions and motivations: Helheimr, an Old Norse name for the realm of the dead. This word became their battle cry for honor as they set out to change the world. War prevented them from changing the world. Two of them died in battle, the third lived on to an old age but war took a different toll on him. Only Tolkien went on to create marvelous works of literature and imagination. But Tolkien did convince Geoffrey’s mother to publish the poetry of her son, and Tolkien wrote the preface to the published book, A Spring Harvest. The last poem in the book was perhaps the last Geoffrey Smith wrote in the battle of the Somme before his death:
So we lay down the pen,
So we forbear the building of the rime,
And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time
Till ends the strife, and then,
When the New Age is verily begun,
God grant that we may do the things undone.
God grant that we may do the things undone. What a hopeful, life-affirming message, written in the depths of war’s hell. Out of a different hell happening right now in Australia I heard a lamentation about the 1 billion animals that have already been destroyed by fires and whole species that are facing extinction. In speaking of these animals and insects, the speaker attributed to them “a purpose and a majesty entwined with our own.” There is a darkness behind the darkness that we see, but in the darkness lie messages to enlighten us and to draw us nearer to vision of a new world, a world that echoes the words of Jesus – Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. A world that echoes and prays the final words written by Tolkien’s friend Geoffrey Smith: God grant that we may do the things undone.
I preached this to my congregation on Sunday, January 12th.