Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Tolkien: Lighting Up the Darkness, Graphic Novel

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was the J.K. Rowling of his era—and his Lord of the Rings fantasy novels remain just as popular today. They are the gold standard by which all other epic fantasies are measured. His fantastical world was inspired by his scholarship of Old English and ancient Nordic languages and legends, but Christianity was also subtly baked into its DNA. Yet, his entire vision was colored by his military service during World War I. Writer Willy Duraffourg and artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo chronicle the beloved writer’s formative years at Oxford and in the trenches along the frontline in the graphic novel Tolkien: Lighting Up the Darkness, which goes on-sale today.

Due to his father’s early demise and his mother’s conversion to Roman Catholicism (which neither side of his family much approved of), Tolkien's childhood was quite difficult. Her own premature death left Tolkien and his brother Hilary in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who secured his studies in Oxford, where Tolkien really came into his own.

Duraffourg devotes a fair amount of time to the “T.C.B.S.,” or “Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” an informal debating club, poetry circle, and secret society that somewhat prefigured “The Inklings,” which is not mentioned at all, even though it included C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Aside from a brief epilogue,
Lighting Up the Darkness focuses exclusively on Tolkien-pre-fame years, culminating with the initial publication of The Hobbit. Yet, the most significant passages cover the horrors and tragedies of WWI.

There are several cool splash pages that represent the fantastical visions of Tolkien’s imagination and the ancient lore he studied. However, most of the panels have a very nostalgic vibe that pleasantly evokes memories of vintage “illustrated-classic” comics that not inappropriate for the subject matter.

Unfortunately, Duraffourg’s inelegant dialogue often feels expository rather than convincingly conversational. There is no sense of poetry or flow to their speech, just the loyal advancement of plot and information. On the other hand, he clearly did his homework. The excerpts he shrewdly incorporated from the poetry of Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of several T.C.B.S. members killed in action during the war, truly suggest he was a great talent taken from the world far too soon. Had he been a quarter of the writer Tolkien was, the loss is immeasurable.

Indeed, a great deal of thought and research clearly went into
Lighting Up the Darkness. It should satisfy every day, non-fanatical Lord of the Rings readers and viewers, even though there is no imagery from the beloved Middle-earth series, presumably for reasons of copyright. There are probably no revelations for Tolkien Society members, but more causal fans should glean some fresh insights and a greater appreciate of the master fantasist from its pages. Respectfully recommended, Tolkien: Lighting Up the Darkness is now available where comics and graphic novels are sold.