By Devan Coggan
May 10, 2019 at 03:39 PM EDT
Fox Searchlight; Pierre Vinet/New Line

There are no magic rings, wizards, or Hobbits in Tolkien. Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the renowned British author focuses on his early life, long before he put pen to paper and wrote The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or The Silmarillion.

But as Tolkien follows his path from orphan to Oxford professor, certain events, characters, and themes will seem familiar to readers who’ve spent time in Middle-earth. Even when writing about distant lands and strange creatures, J.R.R. Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult in the film) always rooted his work in real emotions and human relationships, often drawing from his own experiences. There are traces of Tolkien in everyone from Frodo Baggins (the orphan who leaves home and witnesses the horrors of war firsthand) to Aragorn (the noble hero trying to find a way to be with the woman he loves).

Here, we break down how Tolkien’s real-world experiences and friends helped inspire Middle-earth.

Forbidden love

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INSPIRATION: Tolkien’s closest relationship was with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan he met as a teenager. After the pair grew close, Tolkien’s Catholic guardian forbade him from seeing the Anglican Edith, warning that she might distract him from his studies. The pair married anyway and remained together for 55 years.

FICTIONAL VERSION: Edith inspired many of Middle-earth’s brave and kind women. There are echoes of their forbidden romance in The Lord of the Rings’ Arwen and Aragorn, and The Silmarillion’s Beren and Lúthien — tales of a mortal man and an immortal Elf woman falling in love.

“Edith was a very strong-willed woman,” Collins previously told EW. “She didn’t go off to war, but she fought for what she believed in. Similarly, “a lot of [Tolkien’s] women are very strong-willed and capable of physical combat, but their main strengths are their wits, their intellect, and their ability to stand firm amongst the turmoil.”

Four foolhardy friends

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INSPIRATION: As a young student, Tolkien formed a fellowship of his own with three classmates. The four aspiring writers and artists called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society — until they were all forced to enlist as soldiers in the British army after war broke out.

FICTIONAL VERSION: Four young friends setting out for adventure and facing the horrors of war shares a major connection with LOTR’s Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry.

A loyal companion

INSPIRATION: Much of Tolkien follows the author and a fellow World War I soldier named Sam (Craig Roberts) as they journey through the trenches to try and locate a friend.

FICTIONAL VERSION: A young man named Sam joins our hero on a dangerous quest through treacherous conditions? Sounds a lot like a certain Gamgee gardener from the Shire.

A white-haired mentor

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INSPIRATION: An elderly Oxford professor (Derek Jacobi) encourages Tolkien to pursue his language studies, setting him on the journey to becoming a teacher and author.

FICTIONAL VERSION: Gandalf showed up at Bilbo Baggins’ door in The Hobbit and gave him the push to journey to Lonely Mountain.

An arboreal influence

INSPIRATION: In Tolkien, many of the writer’s happiest moments occur beneath trees: exploring the woods as a child and watching leaves fall with Edith.

FICTIONAL VERSION: Tolkien elevates trees to an almost sacred position in his work, as symbols of purity and goodness — like the emblem of Gondor or the Ents, Middle-earth’s ancient tree guardians.

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