By Minjie Su
As a student in medieval literature, I think it safe to say that many of us have had this phase of life when we aspire to be John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He gave those ancient tales a new life and showed us that a medievalist can be so much more than just an academic in an obscure field who spend their time sitting among piles of papers.
I have had this phase myself, but it has been cooled down for some time now, because I am too grown-up to be someone else and because I have realised that I can never conjure in my imagination what J.R.R. Tolkien did. The reason is very simple: I am not living his life; therefore, I cannot write his story.
The implication of this statement, of course, is that our writing or any other artistic creation is closely tied to our life experience. It means that, although the Middle-earth and the adventures of the four little hobbits resonate in us all, it is first of all very personal.
This is why I felt both very thrilled and scared when I learned that they had made a Tolkien biopic. Thrilled because someone has finally come along who recognises the narrative power of Tolkien’s life experience and is bold enough to make it into a film. Scared because things can go wrong very easily. After all, how can you cram what is a lifetime’s, ongoing creation into only a few stages of his life? How can you show to the audience the excitement that is mostly going on in someone’s mind?
Warning: mild spoilers ahead
It is no surprise that the film does not look promising review-wise, but, having watched it recently, I still found it quite enjoyable as a self-contained story about a character based on Tolkien but not necessary Tolkien himself. That said, it is not my intention to write what I thought about the film – I leave that to professional film critics – but what I thought because of the film.
There are a few scenes that I particularly loved (spoiler alert) as someone who pretends to be specialised in Old Norse literature, for they are all associated with Völsunga saga. A late 13th-century Icelandic fornaldarsaga (legendary saga), this saga recounts the rise and fall of the Völsungs, which extends over six generations, and then the fate of the Gjúkingar, or the Niflungs. The highlight – or the most renown part – is the story of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani, ‘Fafnir’s bane’, who slays the transformed dragon Fáfnir and takes possession of the accursed Rheingold along with Andvari’s gold-dripping ring. Then he wakes the enchanted Brynhildr and vows to come back to marry her. But during his stay with the Gunnarr Gjúkason and his family, he is tricked into drinking a magical potion that makes him forget Brynhildr, and falls in love with Guðrún, Gunnarr’s sister. To make things even worse, he woos Brynhildr for Gunnarr, having been magically transformed into Gunnarr’s appearance and leapt over the ring of fire that surrounds Brynhildr. As you can imagine, things do not go well once the headstrong ex-Valkyrie discovers that she has been tricked and betrayed.
In Tolkien, the story of Sigurðr plays an important role. In two scenes, two major redactions of Völsunga saga are read or performed. Before the young Tolkien is about to leave his idyllic Worcestershire home and move to the Isengard-like, industrial Birmingham, his mother reads him and his brother a passage from Volsunga saga: the story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, translated by William Morris and Eirík Magnússon. To be precise, it is the passage where Sigurðr, hidden in a pit, thrusts his sword into the dragon’s left shoulder and baths in the pouring blood. The main point here seems to be that, by transforming painful experience in real life into a monster, Tolkien is encouraged to view the difficult time to come as a ‘quest’, a keyword that is repeatedly brought up in the film.
But there is also an uncanny and sinister side to this otherwise heroic story, for the image of the bloody pit is re-invoked – and made visual this time – later in the film, when a feverish Tolkien finds shelter in an explosion crater, strewn with corpses and filled with knee-deep blood. One may still find life in a place of death just as the saga hero does, only that in real life, quests like this can be very nasty. And, more often than not, they leave scars.
In comparison, the other major Völsunga saga reference is much less intense, the moment the film chose to portray focuses on the romantic side of the story. Tolkien and Edith are queuing in the Birmingham Hippodrome to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle but eventually end up listening to the music in what resembles an under-stage costume room, having not been able to get affordable tickets. Here, again, Edith dances for Tolkien and performs what seems the meeting between Sigurðr and Brynhildr. This scene which may have never happened in real life not only recalls an earlier scene where Edith dances in falling leaves under a tree, but also brings three couples together: Sigurðr and Brynhildr, Tolkien and Edith, and Beren and Lúthien.
Despite the reviews, what this film interests me the most is the way – however simple and naïve – it ties three different worlds together: the world of medieval literature, the world of Tolkien (i.e. our world), and the Middle-earth. It is like the three-tiered world in Norse mythology, with our world being the ‘middle earth’; it is a present that bridges the past and the future, and a portal between the real and the imagined. The movie also makes me wonder what stories are for. Does it make things better if we transform pains and traumas into monsters and have them defeated by legendary heroes? Is this transformation – deliberately or unconsciously done – an act of remembering or forgetting?
Perhaps none of this really matters, for, quoting the 11th Doctor [Who], ‘we are all stories in the end.’
‘Just make it a good one, eh?’
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: Nicholas Hoult in Tolkien (2019) ©Fox Searchlight