Tolkien Speaks: The Secret to a Happy Marriage

Ronald_and_Edith_Tolkien_1966J.R.R. Tolkien was a romantic. When he met his future wife, Edith, at the age of 16, he was instantly smitten with her and immediately began an informal courtship, taking her to local tea houses on a regular basis. When the priest who acted as Tolkien’s guardian found out about his romance, however, he forbade him from having contact with Edith until the age of 21, so as not to distract from his studies. Tolkien reluctantly obeyed. For five long years, he waited for the one he knew was his soul mate. On the evening of his 21st birthday, he wrote a letter to Edith, declaring his love and asking for her hand in marriage. A week later, they were engaged to be married.

Throughout his life, Tolkien wrote love poems to his wife, and in his letters to friends, he writes glowingly about her. But perhaps his most famous and enduring tribute to his beloved bride was weaving his romance with her into the mythology of Middle Earth in the story of Beren and Luthien. A more moving tribute would be hard to find. He wrote to his son, Christopher:

I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.

Even in death, Tolkien would not leave his Edith. He is buried next to her under a single gravestone inscribed with the names Beren and Luthien. To use the popular phrase, Tolkien was very much “in love” with this wife.

Real Love Hurts

J.R.R. Tolkien was happily married for 55 years. In contrast, the modern divorce rate is shockingly high, and some are giving up on monogamous marriage altogether, claiming it simply isn’t possible or healthy. What did Tolkien have that many marriages do not? How did he make it work? The answer is simple: He understood that real love involves self-denial.

The modern notion of love is pure sentiment, and it is focused primarily on self. If someone excites you, if they get your pulse racing, if they affirm you and your desires, then you can say you are in love with them according to modern definitions.

While deeply attached to his wife, Tolkien rejected this shallow idea of love. He embraced instead the Catholic understanding of real love as focused on the other—something that requires a sacrifice of natural instincts and a determined act of the will.

To illustrate Tolkien’s profound view of married love, I want to share an excerpt from a letter to his son, Michael Tolkien. It is a different side of Tolkien that many are unfamiliar with. To those with an overly sentimental view of love, his words may be shocking, even offensive. Yet, he articulates truths that, if understood and embraced, bring true and lasting happiness to marriage. Here is a truncated version of his letter.

“There is No Escape”

Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic, according to faith and not the flesh. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called “self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriages entails that: great mortification.

For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state as it provides easements.

No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…

(Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

Love is a Battle

As I said, many might be offended by Tolkien’s straight talk about marriage. “If you really love someone,” they would argue, “it shouldn’t be hard to love them! It shouldn’t be a struggle. Marriage as mortification? How offensive! You must not really love your wife.”

This line of thinking misses the point, for real love is a fight against self-love. It is a struggle against our fallen and very selfish natures. It is a dying that gives life. And any man who is honest with himself will admit that Tolkien was right. The struggle for chastity and fidelity never ends, no matter how much you love your wife.

The essence of love is an act of the will. Feelings come and go in marriage. Those with happy marriages are those who choose—choose to love their wives more than themselves, who choose to sacrifice their short-term desires for long-term happiness, who choose to give instead of to take.

And you know what? When you choose to be faithful, happiness inevitably follows. So many give up when things become difficult—at the very moment when, if they would simply choose to be faithful and fight, they would find real happiness waiting at the end of the struggle. As another happily married Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote, “I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”

True joy and lasting happiness in marriage are possible. Countless marriages, including Tolkien’s, prove that fact. But we will never find this joy if we are focused on ourselves. The paradox is that you must forget yourself to find the happiness that you seek.

Men, if you want a faithful and happy marriage, you must die to yourself. You must put your wife first. You must love her through sacrifice and self-denial—the same way Christ loved his bride, the Church. This is the simple secret so many miss.

70 Responses to “Tolkien Speaks: The Secret to a Happy Marriage”

  1. Santiago Molina Reply

    Excellent!!! Thank you for sharing this from Tolkien and from your own heart and mind.

  2. I have trouble believing Tolkien ever used the word ‘ain’t’. This is a good article, but could you please put the quotation from Tolkien in quote marks? Little confusing as is.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Gianna,

      I can understand your skepticism, but I warned you this was a side of Tolkien you had not seen before! You’d be surprised how informal he was in his letters.

      As proof, see the first line in this image: http://www.catholicgentleman.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/1-1.jpeg

  3. By the way, everyone, this is the very same letter in which he said this famous quote:

    “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

  4. It should also be mentioned that Tolkien wrote this, too:

    “The romantic chivalric tradition takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars.”

    Wives initiate about 70-75% of divorces in America, so clearly it’s not as simple as men=natural adulterers and women=naturally faithful.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=5NQQt7ZuZSgC&pg=PA104&lpg=PA104&dq=tolkien+companion+in+shipwreck&source=bl&ots=amzdV3__vr&sig=MSIODzLgDV8ZucgZVxusHUz6hnM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAmoVChMIyZz37KbZxgIVSTWICh2rqA4u#v=onepage&q=tolkien%20companion%20in%20shipwreck&f=false

  5. Thank you for sharing. Women experience the exact same struggle even though he was writing using a man’s point of view. Fidelity, commitment and chastity within marriage is a struggle that all face. May god bless all marriages!

    • Sorry Katie but this woman does not struggle with fidelity, commitment and chastity within my marriage. I know who I am. My husband however has struggled. Greatly. And it has been a great lesson in forgiveness, compassion and love for both of us. I would venture that if a woman is struggling, she does not know who she is within the context of her marriage relationship. And I would agree with Tolkein’s statement “Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature.” It takes three to make a marriage work…God, husband, wife. Without God’s presence and action within the relationship, it is impossible to maintain. The romantic feel-good love at the beginning of most marriages will fade and die and what is left cannot sustain itself without the presence of the Holy Ghost. Men and women need the third element. Without it we are not complete individually nor in the holy sacrament of marriage.

  6. “Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic, according to faith and not the flesh.”

    Very nice piece, but I’d take exception with this part of his thesis.

    From years of casual observation, while this point can be made, I think humans are monogamous by nature even while it’s something that humans obviously struggle with. Women particularly are, and if you are around younger women, no matter how “progressive” they may be, there’s an obvious strong desire to be married, and married only once. But that same desire is present with most men as well, even as the temptations that they naturally have also are. In some ways, even those who stray are, I think, rarely afflicted with a purely predatory sense of relationships with women, but are sort of shopping for something better even if they don’t realize it, or reflecting a sense of regret over a prior choice, or reflecting some wound. That doesn’t justify it, but I think it might explain it.

    FWIW, apparently in aboriginal societies that practice polygamy, generally as time goes on a polygamous male tends to basically attach to a single one of his wives, and often the oldest one he found first. A reflection of our higher natures.

  7. I get the self-sacrifice part. That goes for both sexes. And I hate to disagree with Tolkien on anything. But is this really true? All men struggle with being monogamous? Gee, I must have an unrealistic opinion of men if that’s the case. I guess a discussion with my husband is in order.

    • Connie,

      I don’t think he means it in a literal sense exactly. Tolkien simply means that our fallen nature leads us to be tempted to lust and selfishness. Because of our fallen nature our worldly desires and appetites come quite naturally to us and don’t require much effort to accept; the virtue of fidelity, on the other hand, must be fostered, developed, and constantly renewed. It’s easy to love fast food but a bit harder to develop a taste for green beans. Of course, once the virtue is developed, the idea of infidelity might begin to look repulsive in the same way fast food might look repulsive to a vegetarian. But the point is that the virtue doesn’t come naturally and requires effort.

      I imagine this isn’t restricted to men. Society certainly seems to accept male infidelity more readily, but I doubt women have an easy time with it. Not without grace and self-sacrifice anyway.

      • You may be right that he didn’t mean it literally. I would say this is largely an issue of temperament. While men in general would be more prone to promiscuity than women (after all, women are intimately connected with any offspring that may come in a way that men are not), some men are much more likely to be tempted by this sin than others. And some women would be more likely than others. Yes, for some of us, fidelity is easy. The thought of even marrying again after a spouse dies seems like betrayal. We are tempted to other sins instead. Not everyone struggles with the same vices. But we are each selfish in our own way, so the self-sacrifice necessary for a successful marriage is a challenge for everyone.

    • This is why so many powerful men ruin their lives and the lives of those around them.

      It is that powerful an urge Connie.

      Most days I’m fine but if a girl starts to flirt I avoid her like the plague and have found myself in the past praying over and over all day to the Blessed Mother for chastity….and I think I’m still less interested in that type of thing than 90% of men 🙂

      I don’t care how awesome your husband is…pray for him everyday like he’s not awesome in the least 🙂

  8. “For five long years, he waited for the one he knew was his soul mate.” Just to clarify, are you saying that finding one’s soul mate was his goal, is possible, and is a Christian understanding of marriage? i.e. Disney, “Someday my prince will come.”

    • I think Dan brings up a good point. This passage seems to contradict the rest of the essay, in which Tolkien states that we choose our soul-mate, rather than having a single soul-mate predestined for us.

      • A bit of a statement of “do not do as I did just because you’re told to, but only if it’s actually the right choice for you” on Tolkein’s part. He made his choice early and never regretted it. That doesn’t mean that everyone would benefit from doing the same.

  9. So, truly loving someone is to wish for their good above your own. What if your partner is prone to self-centeredness and cannot (or will not) do the same for you? Should you still fight for that person or cut them loose? Assuming you are not yet married to them, of course.

    • You are not truly doing someone good if you indulge their selfishness, instead of helping them to challenge and overcome it. You are simply avoiding confrontation, out of fear that they will leave you. That is the one fear that, if a healthy relationship is to remain healthy, must never be indulged.

  10. Leonor S. Quinones Reply

    I think what Tolkien is saying is that we have to choose what is important from what is tempting. By nature, men are visual and they easily get attracted. But it is by choice, by self denial that one is spared from pain. To transcend human nature of “curiosity” and being “playful” liberates and paves the fulfillment of higher being. That is precisely God equipped us with intellect and will.

  11. Mary Alice Sanchez Reply

    Thank you for sharing. I needed to hear this message today. Praying for my marriage.

  12. Both Men and Women aren’t monogamous in evolutionary terms. I take some issues within this otherwise great article. First the writer describes lust when he first tries the description of love. And later exalts a non-sequitur in the form of “catholic understanding of real love.” And Tolkien’s description of Catholic denial of the human urge. Why can’t he see the key has nothing to do with Catholicism? Why can’t it be humanism that fuels the denial of our more animal urges of non-monogamy? Adds nothing to tag on Christianity as progenitor of these ideals. Monogamy is a societal invention created for distinction. That, “Man still bears the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

  13. Robert Gotcher Reply

    The Dexeter, Yes, it is a human reality, not Catholic revealed dogma that he is talking about. He knows that. The Church believes in natural law and monogamy is a tenet of the natural law. The impulse to polygamy (serial or not) is a result of the fall. He is writing to a Catholic privately and is using shorthand an informed Catholic would understand. Catholics would not say the natural law has nothing to do with Catholicism since it is part of Catholicism to affirm the natural law.

  14. You missed the best part of this letter from Tolkien to his son and a bit of the context.

    In the end he concludes to find true romance, adventure, fidelity, etc.(ie: the true deepest longings of your heart) you will only find it in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament 🙂

  15. This is a lovely piece of writing but after reading it I feel like crying. I am only too aware of the importance of self-sacrifice in a marriage. I have been putting my husband first for 15 years. He too, has been putting himself first. He, an alcoholic who is often emotionally and verbally abusive, is more self-centered and childish now than when we were married. Where does that leave me? I have sacrificed my life to this man, I have been sweet and submissive, I have worked hard to help him follow his dreams, and still I get nothing from him but anger and scorn and broken promises. This idea of self-sacrifice only works if BOTH spouses are willing to put the other first. One person, no matter how loving, cannot make a marriage happy on her own if the other one only cares for himself and his own sensual indulgence.

    If anyone who is reading this cares to, I would greatly appreciate prayers that my husband’s heart would be changed. I feel that my soul is being crushed under the weight of being married to this unloving, self-serving man.

    • Jeanne- prayers from me, too. Hopefully, Tolkien did not mean by putting your spouse first, you become a doormat.

    • Jeanne, I hope you were able to get help with this. I would strongly suggest joining an Al-anon group to help gain perspective and to have the wisdom and strength a support group can offer. Putting your husband first does not mean that you should be sweet and submissive or be subjected to abuse of any sort. Please get support for yourself. I’ll keep you in prayer, and your husband as well.

  16. My wife is dead to herself — the only important things to her are her children and job. I tried to keep up the romance for a long time but got nowhere. Now I’m dead to myself too. I don’t love her or anyone and hope I die soon.

    • Has she been reminded that it’s essential for a husband and wife to model a good relationship for their children? I’m sorry to hear this. You’ll be in my prayers.

  17. Sam,
    Nice post, but I think you should put the Tolkien quote near the end in quotation marks or set it off visually somehow (indented in italics would work). I too was taken aback by the use of “ain’t”.

  18. Thanks so much!!! I love this site, and Tolkien is my personal hero!!!! 😀
    I’ve read LOTR and the Silmarillion at least 1000 times!!!!!!!!!! He is such a great example of manhood!! I think his Catholicism is too frequently overlooked…

  19. Very good words from J.R.R. Tolkien. But according to the catholic faith I have to criticize 2 issues in his text:

    >> 1. Men are not monogamous. Monogamy is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic, according to faith and not the flesh <> 2. Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. <<

    Even in our fallen world, if you choose a partner for marriage in accordance to the will of god and the divine providence, it is the perfect and best partner for you, even if of course the partner is not perfect as a person. And so I never would name this a mistake, because it is part of the divine providence, which never make mistakes.

    Of cause if one do not choose his partner according to gods will, this is or could be a mistake, and a better partner is somewhere else.
    But after a catholic marriage even such a marriage gets graces out of the sacrament and maybe the partners have to fight more for their happiness.

  20. Text above was not complete, so I add my reply for issue 1 here: I think men are not polygamous by their nature; maybe only if they are following only their fallen nature, but with Gods grace every man can stay monogamous

    • This fails at the first hurdle of describing human relationships: it assumes that men are *all the same*.

      The great strength of humanity is our diversity. We are not all the same. We are not always even similar. And it is always a mistake to generalise.

      I know men who are *utterly* monogamous by nature, who simply have no desire for other partners. And I know men who are utterly polyamorous by nature, to the point where jealousy is simply incomprehensible to them, and who could never be satisfied restricting their love to only one person.

      If the modern world requires anything from us, it’s the willingness to embrace nuance.

  21. I love knowing a little more about Tolkien as a husband and father. It is nice to hear a fresh perspective on Marriage. But one additional note to the man above without hope for his marriage and his life – I ask him to find a way to serve, care and improve the lives of others in need- to continue to find opportunities to share his life and love with others. Later, after doing this work see if he feels the same???

  22. It’s that doing word again. Love is not something that “happens to you” but something you actively do. And we are called to love…
    In marriage that means our husband or wife in particular… And there is suffering and giving… but it’s worth it..

    gramswisewords.blogspot.com

  23. This is beaitiful. I have been with my love for five years and we are planning a wedding. From the beginning we have both had marriage in mind. I grew up thinking (and I still believe) that marriage is a lifelong commitment, he’ll or high water. That it is made of respect, love, and understanding the humanity of each other. I am also a huge Tolkien fan. This article really speaks to me and I hope I can apply its lessons.

  24. Inasmuch as men are not monogamous and he must accept them as such, women must be feminist. Any woman must be prepared at any time to stand on her own, probably with children clinging to her, and this is what modern society has accepted. If a man would love his wife as Christ has loved the church, he would free her from much that would make them incompatible.

  25. I went to adoration tonight and complained about everything Tolkien wrote about in his letter. I prayed a rosary and listened, but God seemed not to answer. I wanted strength to be unhurt in our relationship. The homily at Mass helped some by reminding me of our Father’s love. The surprise was your post on Facebook. He did answer me, by reminding me of all things learned but forgotten. Thank you and Thank God, perfect providence

  26. There are good things here. But not the celebration of what was an odd early relationship (a nineteen year old with a sixteen year old???) and Tolkien’s rebellion against what turned out to be very good advice should be changed. Gentlemen listen to wiser older men. They don’t run off infatuated with the first girl to strike their fancy.

  27. This is probably the best article I have read on the true meaning of love in a sacramental marriage.

  28. @GKchesterton,
    From the context of the article, it appears that Tolkien and his bride-to-be were the same age(16) and that he *did* follow the older gentleman’s advice, waiting the full five years until he was 21.

  29. Actually I think Tolkien was sexist, which certainly is not something that Catholicism condones in any way. He also certainly wasn’t a romantic, in fact he was the opposite. I think his view of male sexuality isn’t universal, but rather, he is taking his own shortcomings and saying they accurately describe all of mankind. It seems to me he had a problem with lust, and possibly he didn’t know how to really relate to and love a woman. He barely knew his wife when he married her, and he married someone with whom he had a teenage infatuation. He describes women in a way that’s totally inaccurate, saying they are incapable of having interests and passions of their own apart from a man. I’m a woman so I know for sure he’s totally wrong about woman’s nature. So if he has no idea that a woman is a human being fully equal to him in every way, how could he love a woman? Instead he stayed with his wife because of his religion, however he was hypocritical because he was unfaithful to her inside his mind and heart. Our Lord said that looking at another woman with lust was adultery. For a man to experience marriage as a profound mortification, shows that for all his talk about it he really didn’t know what love was. It’s almost like he stayed with his wife out of willpower, and did the right things outwardly, but inwardly he wasn’t faithful to her.
    If he were my husband and I read that letter I would have been totally heartbroken, knowing he wanted to sleep with so many women and he had to force himself to stay with me out of principal. I would think that he never loved me at all.
    If a man loves his wife, there’s no way he could say he would be happy to father 100 children with all different women. That’s a rather heartless thing to say, and I wonder why people think it’s a profound teaching on the nature of love between a man and a woman. I think that Tolkein’s mistake is this: to take his own personal failings and universalise them. God knows we all have our failings. However it doesn’t mean that that is the fundamental nature of all human beings.
    I can’t see anything good about his view of love and marriage except for the idea that one should stick to ones principles. But I don’t think he really knew what love was which is sad.

  30. Kimberly Beaty Reply

    The above comment by Jane would be interesting to put before Tolkein’s wife, were she alive to read It. 😊

    Tolkien and Edith developed a strong friendship over the course of two years prior to his being forbidden to continue for three more years until he came of age at 21. (He was 16, she 19 upon meeting) He obeyed the rules, but promptly returned to pursuing their relationship on his 21st birthday in 1913. They married in 1916. It seems rather presumptuous, therefore, to claim knowledge on how much he did not know her over the course of 6-7 years. 😊

    I do not believe in the slightest he was saying he and all men must simply endure the agonies of fidelity. On the contrary, because of his great love for his wife, he was willingly dying to the cursed lusts of the flesh that do seek to destroy a man. His love for Edith was a willed love, not a fickle, feelings-based, temporary fling which men *are* generally more prone to entertain.

    “My life for yours” THAT is what Tolkien was talking about. THAT is what genuine marital love is – a committed, continual act of the will “as long as we both shall live.” not “as long as we both shall feel in love.”

    Tolkein is talking about a self-denying, sacrificial will surrendered for the good of another. Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church.”

    Therefore, contrary to Jane, I believe he had an excellent understanding of what genuine love really is.

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