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Letter 49

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 49
RecipientC.S. Lewis
DateUnsent, 1943
Subject(s)Response to Lewis’s Christian Behaviour

Letter 49 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Lewis had made the suggestion in Christian Behaviour that there ought to be two kinds of marriage: Christian and contracts solemnized only by the state. This draft of Tolkien's response was found in Tolkien's copy of Lewis's booklet.

Tolkien began by stating that he had never been happy about Lewis's view of Christian "policy" regarding divorce, although he could not before say why. He did not want to argue if the policy was right but wanted to point out that Lewis’s opinion was based on an argument revealing a confusion of thought to be found in his booklet.

Lewis had said he would be angry if Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. Tolkien agreed, saying that beyond mere interference they would be guilty of injustice by depriving others of the universal human right to use wine in a temperate way. However, on other pages Lewis showed commitment to the view that Christian marriage is the truth about sexual behaviour for all humanity, the only road to total health for all men and women. This did not match men's sex-psychology, which Lewis thought was an instinct gone wrong. Tolkien said that the Mohammedans argument was a stinking red-herring, and his policy was unsupportable because it gave away the foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is the correct way of "running the human machine" whereas Lewis's argument reduced to a way of getting more mileage out of a few selected machines.

Tolkien said that the majority of all practicing Christians (with whom Lewis disagreed) found divorce a horror, the horror of good machines ruined by misuse. Toleration of divorce is toleration of human abuse, only to be tolerated as a matter of mere expedient policy. Tolkien said that under his limitation of space Lewis did not have the opportunity to expand upon his policy of tolerating abuse.

Lewis's two-marriage system was not, Tolkien observed, offered as merely expedient policy but presented as if related to Christian charity. But Tolkien thought that he could only defend it as an expedient. A Christian of Lewis's view would see those who practiced divorce as misusing the human machine as certainly as those who got drunk. This wrong behaviour would keeps sliding from "not very good" to third-rate to bad and then to abominable. Lewis showed that he himself suspected that the break-down of sex-reticence had made matters worse. Anyone, said Tolkien, could see that the ease of divorce in present times had done great social harm, a promiscuity barely restrained by legalities wherein law and social custom was encouraging inconstancy. It was a situation that made the raising of Christian youth in Christian sexual morals intolerably hard. Tolkien challenged Lewis: On what grounds do you party with Christians who resist attempts to extend and make divorce easier? Tolkien only agreed on one piece of his argument, that extending the law to all classes was just (if you can have justice in evil). Also, on what grounds did Lewis base his "two-marriage" system? From a biological-sociological point of view monogamy is probably beneficial to a community. On that plane permanence and rigid fidelity do not appear at first to be essential; all that is required would seem to be a high degree of sexual continence. But this has never been and can never be achieved without "sanctions" or religio-legal ordinance investing the marriage contract with "awe".

The last marriage Tolkien had attended was held under Lewis's system. The bridal pair married before a priest using one set of formulas, vowing lifelong fidelity (and obedience for the woman). Then they married again before a registrar (with in Tolkien's view the added impropriety of the official being a woman) using another set of formulas with no vow of fidelity or obedience. It was abominable and ridiculous, said Tolkien, since the first set of vows included the latter as the lesser. The implication was that the state did not recognize the existence of their church, found their vows foolishness, and regarded the limited and impermanent contract all that was necessary for citizens. Lewis's sharp division was a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.