Tolkien movie taught me I've been saying Tolkien wrong all this time

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author was a master of languages, but not all of us are.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
2 min read
Enlarge Image

Nicholas Hoult as the legendary Lords of the Rings author in Tolkien.

Twentieth Century Fox

The new movie Tolkien, a biopic about Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, will tell you a few things you didn't already know about the famous author.

Including his name.

In theaters Friday, the film stars English actor Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien. English-American actress Lily Collins (yes, singer Phil Collins' daughter) plays his wife, Edith Tolkien. 

Described in CNET's review as a "slight but poignant biopic," the film explores the author's fascination with invented language, his close relationship with a group of friends, the horrors of World War I, and how all these elements inspired Tolkien's beloved and hugely influential books.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but from the moment I saw the trailer, I learned I've been pronouncing J.R.R. Tolkien's last name wrong my entire life.

I somehow was under the impression it was pronounced "Toll-KEY-en," or maybe even "Toll-KIN," and who knows how many times I've said it wrong out loud? But in the film, there's a scene where a young Tolkien clarifies that it's pronounced "Toll-KEEN." 

Showing great charity, Shaun Gunner, chair of The Tolkien Society, didn't laugh at me. In fact, he's heard it all before.

"It is very definitely tol-keen not tol-kin -- as is more common -- or tol-kee-en --which I only hear very occasionally," Gunner said in an email. "The name is of German origin, and in German ie has an ee sound."

The film covers Tolkien's young life and how his time as a soldier in World War I inspired the nightmarish fantasy visions of Lord of the Rings. Director Dome Karukoski has made a couple of films based on true stories, and speaking to CNET he admitted biopics are "always a battle between fact and fiction." But even if the facts are streamlined or adjusted, it's only to find the "emotional truth" of the story. 

Even while Tolkien was alive (he died in 1973), people mangled his name, Gunner says. In a letter to Richard Jeffery collected in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author writes that his name is "nearly always" misspelled as "Tolkein" (E before I).

"I do not know why, since it is pronounced by me always (as) keen," he writes.

But maybe you already knew that, just like you know that not all those who wander are lost. Did you also know how to pronounce the author's second middle name? The J.R.R. stands for "John Ronald Reuel," and while "John" and "Ronald" are pretty standard, "Reuel" isn't as simple.

"Reuel is a family name, believed to be a family friend of Tolkien's grandfather," Gunner told me. "It is pronounced ROO-el."

My late German grandmother is somewhere muttering, "Ach du lieber Himmel" at her dumb grandchild. I think that means, "Oh, for the love of heaven," but as I now realise, you probably shouldn't ask me.

2019 movies to geek out over

See all photos

Originally published March 11.  
Update, May 10: Adds quote from CNET review of the film.