'Tolkien: Lighting Up The Darkness' - Exploring the Youth of a Beloved Author

"Tolkien: Lighting Up The Darkness" by Will Duraffourg and artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo.

Will Duraffourg wanted to write about J. R. R. Tolkien's life, so with the help of artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo, he wrote the graphic novel "Tolkien: Lighting Up The Darkness".

Q&A with Will Duraffourg

What was the inspiration to develop a graphic novel on the life of J. R. R. Tolkien?

The comic was developed from an initial idea that germinated between 2014 and 2018. During these four years commemorating the centenary of the Great War in France and in Europe, we have had numerous ceremonies and moments of reflection, with numerous cross-border interactions with England and Germany.

My grandfather also fought at Verdun, and I remember his stories about the war and about the horror of the trenches. I remember him showing me his old uniform, the relics of that part of his life, and the shrapnel wound which left him with a walking stick in his hand for the rest of his life. I am also a history nerd. I visited the major sites of the First World War located in France: the Verdun memorial, the Somme remembrance circuit, and others such as the Hartmannswillerkopf mount in Alsace or the Nécropole Nationale Notre-dame De Lorette and the Memorial to the Battles of the Marne in Dormans. I am always impressed by the sheer amount of British visitors in these places of memory, and especially of course in the Somme. A century after the Great War, they still have a special place in their hearts to maintain the memory of all these young Englishmen swept away in battle. 

I wanted to write about it, about this massacre that was the Battle of the Somme, about this “lost generation” of English youngsters who came to fight and probably die in France, lords and factory workers alike. Among them were four friends, one of whom was called J. R. R. Tolkien. The tragedy of the Great War would play a major role in his destiny and in his work.

What can readers expect from your book? How is the life of Tolkien presented?

In any biographical story, there is the temptation to fictionalize, as if inventing would not do any harm and would give a little life or even value to an all too ordinary life. I think that, on the contrary, a good story inspired by real events should not move away from reality as we know it for the sake of making it more exciting. Writing about a life should be a pact signed with the reader or viewer: “I’m telling you a true story.” Otherwise, you might as well invent the whole thing entirely. So apart from the dream sequence and the dialogues, everything in this book comes from the different sources we have about his life. 

The book centers on Tolkien and his group of close high school and college friends. The kind of group most of us had when we were between 15–18 years old, at that age when we’re building the adult we will become, with our questions about commitment, creation, politics, unknowingly laying the foundations for our future life. This friendship which builds you and which will accompany you throughout your life even if you and your friends end up taking very different paths.

In the case of Tolkien, we are talking about extremely brilliant boys, promised to a great future and who will be picked up in the prime of their lives by the war. Yet their friendship, their love of writing, the letters they exchange, their art allows them to transcend this horrible experience. 

Tolkien, several decades later, would manage to give substance to his gigantic dream: to create a modern Anglo-Saxon mythology, based on dozens of imaginary peoples speaking different languages, all imagined by him, including their evolution through the centuries, the while transcending the Nordic mythological stories that he admired, creating strong, heroic, endearing characters, among which we would find the four hobbits, inspired by his group of Oxford friends.

How did you research his story? What was your creative process?

I read everything I could find about Tolkien's life, on the course of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme in particular, but also on the war efforts in Oxford and Cambridge, the relationships between people at that time, their way of behaving, the clothes and uniforms, weapons, etc. I tried not to leave anything to chance and wanted to recreate as faithfully as possible a reconstruction of this period and this part of Tolkien's life.

What did you learn about the life of Tolkien that surprised you as you wrote this story?

I already knew Tolkien's life well. I've been a big fan since I was a teenager, and I devoured everything that could have been written by him or about him. What I always find most surprising is his incredible intelligence, his great erudition. One thing in particular that strikes me is his ability when he was a child to create full languages just to have fun with his brother.

How do you think this biography complements Tolkien’s works like “Lord of the Rings”? Can you recommend the graphic novel to readers that are just discovering his books?

If you read about the lives of SF or fantasy authors, you’ll see that there is often a vision marked by the changes happening around them in the real world. An author does not live in a bubble. There is a man behind a work, and his life expresses itself through the pages he writes if you pay attention carefully to it breathing.

What's up next for you?

I am writing a graphic novel which will span several centuries of world history through the prism of a commodity being produced, sold, inspiring people’s thoughts. I hope it allows the reader to discover under a different light the evolving relationships between peoples, their trades, their wars, their religions, and how in the end, crafting and exchanging something help create a shared humanity in a lot of ways.

Q&A with artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo

How did you meet and work with writer Will Durafforg?

Will and I met in 2018 in Paris in the Soleil edition offices, where I had been placed in charge of creating Tolkien's book. It was a very productive meeting together with Jean Wacquet, the editor of the series. We immediately agreed on what Will wanted and what I wanted to achieve, and in the following months, Will was very generous with attention and advice, which I greatly appreciated.

What attracted you to this project and the life and work of J. R. R. Tolkien?

Honestly, at first I thought this was going to be a classic fantasy book inspired by Tolkien's stories, but it was with great surprise that I discovered that the script actually narrated the exploits of the young Tolkien, from his birth until the First World War. I love that historical period very much, the deeds and the great sacrifices of all those European soldiers who died in battle in a terrifying war, but the greatest surprise was to discover that on that experience and the bond with his poet friends, Tolkien founded the basis for his marvelous stories in subsequent years.

What is your background as a comic book and graphic novel artist?

As a teenager, I studied art and started drawing comics at the age of 21 for small Italian publishers. After a few years I began to collaborate with editor Sergio Bonelle, the most important Italian comics' publisher, and also collaborated with smaller publishers. As the years went by, my experience grew, and I had the opportunity to start working for French, Belgian, American, and Australian publishers. My work has continued to progress, and I still love what I do.

Did you view Tolkien’s work differently after working on this book?

Yes, of course. Despite not being a fan of fantasy literature, I discovered what an amazing storyteller and world builder he was: capable of telling stories and settings that not only have a fantasy connotation, but are grounded with a great sense of humanity that is rich in artistic, imaginary, and poetic references.


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