Tolkien Gateway

Letter 43

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 43
RecipientMichael Tolkien
Date6-8 March 1941
Subject(s)On the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes.

Letter 43 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien considered three ways by which men dealt with women: purely physical relationships, friendly relationships, and loving relationships. A purely physical relationship does not really exist; it can only be partially realized by a man refusing to take other aspects into account, harming both individuals’ souls and bodies. Since this is a fallen world the sex-instinct has been dislocated and is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall. A friendship between a man and a woman is virtually impossible – only the elderly, saints, and very rare ordinary couples may achieve it. Almost certainly one or the other will fall in love and let their partner down. Young men may claim that they only want “friendship” but in reality they do want love.

Tolkien then discusses the romantic chivalric tradition. On the positive side it takes in more than physical pleasure and is concerned with fidelity, self-denial, service, courtesy, honor, and courage. On the negative side it began as an artificial courtly game as a way to enjoy love unconnected with matrimony. The center was not God but Love and the Lady, which are false deities. When combined with religion, it became God’s way of refining our gross manly natures and warming our hard, bitter religion. Yet Tolkien thought it still dangerous because it was not perfectly theocentric. The tradition also produced exaggerated notions of “true love” unrelated to the real world.

Women really have little part in the chivalric tradition. The sexual impulse makes women very sympathetic and understanding, and willing to enter into all the interests of the young men they are attracted to. They do not intend to deceive but are driven by their servient, helpmeet instinct, warmed by desire. Women can achieve remarkable insight and understanding, even of things outside of their range, because they are gifted in being receptive and stimulated by males. Under male tutelage women can quickly be taught and grasp male ideas, but rarely can go further when they have ceased to take a personal interest in the teaching male. Tolkien warned that while the male may still be enjoying the flattery of sympathy seasoned with a titillation of sex the female often falls in love, which may produce suffering if things go wrong.

Tolkien said that Michael may meet flighty or even wanton women, but that these are abnormalities; women’s natural instincts have not changed. A man has his life-work, career, and male friends, all of which can survive the shipwreck of “love”. A woman though, even one economically independent, begins to dream of a home almost at once in a relationship. Women generally are less romantic and more practical than men; they really do not need glamor to fall in love or remain in it. If they have one delusion it is that they can reform men and they will even marry a rotter and go on loving him when the delusion fails. They are also more realistic about the sexual relation. Naturally they have to be more careful in sexual relations since mistakes are damaging physically, socially, and matrimonially. Thus they are instinctively monogamous while men are not. Monogamy for men is a “revealed” ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh.

The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment or “self-realization” (another name for self-indulgence) but by denial and suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails great mortification. A Christian man cannot escape this. Marriage helps to sanctify and direct his sexual desires and its grace helps him in the struggle, but the struggle remains. He will not be satisfied; marriage offers as many difficulties as it provides easements to purity. No man has lived faithful to his wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will. When the glamor wears off or thins out men think they have made a mistake and that they are missing their true soul-mates. The “soul-mate” often proves to be the next sexually attractive person to come along, whom they might have profitably married if only—which leads to divorce. As a rule men in this situation are right because only a very wise man at the end of this life could make a sound judgment as to who would have made his best partner. Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes because both partners might have found better mates. But the “real soul-mate” is the one you marry. There is very little choosing: life and circumstances do most of it (which if there is a God they are His instruments).

Tolkien calls his own history so wrong and imprudent in nearly every point that it made it difficult for him to counsel prudence. He then gives some autobiographical details. He fell in love with Michael’s mother at age 18. She was older than him and not a Catholic, which was viewed as unfortunate by his guardian, Father Francis Xavier Morgan. It was unfortunate, said Tolkien, because it was nervously exhausting at the time he was working for an Oxford scholarship. He nearly had a bad breakdown. He muffed exams and only by the skin of his teeth landed an exhibition of sixty pounds at Exeter. He did admit that part of the problem was not just being in love; he was also studying Gothic which was not part of his regular studies. He had to decide to either hide his love-affair from his guardian or to drop the matter until he was 21. For nearly three years he did not see or write to his lover, which was painful and bitter. The separation though hardened his will and on the night of his 21st birthday he wrote to Edith Bratt. Five days later they became engaged. Soon, while still unmarried, he joined the army after the start of World War I. They did marry on March 22, 1916, but then in May Tolkien went off to the carnage of the Somme.

Tolkien pointed out the precariousness of their situation: He was young, with a moderate degree, very little savings, no prospects, and was serving as a Second Lieutenant with an expected low chance of survival. He then recommended the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.