Tolkien Speaks: The Secret to a Happy Marriage

J.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 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 is possible. Countless marriages, including Tolkien’s, prove that fact. But we will never find this joy it 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.

The post Tolkien Speaks: The Secret to a Happy Marriage appeared first on The Catholic Gentleman.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.


Sam Guzman is an author and editor of The Catholic Gentleman whose work has appeared in several publications. He resides in Wisconsin with his wife and two small boys where he is also the Communications Director for Pro-Life Wisconsin.

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  • Midwester

    Great reminder. Thanks.

  • AB

    Men aren’t monogamous by nature and women are hit over the head with that fact constantly, as I am hit over the head by this fact by many Catholic, male writers. It’s like if my husband doesn’t follow his desire to sleep around he is doing me (and himself) a favor. Do men not know how easily women would stray, too, left to their own devices? How a kind or powerful or rich man can turn a woman’s head when her husband has failed her in some way? The problem of monogamy is a two way street, and I am really tired of hearing it described as some special problem of masculinity.

  • jsper

    And actually it’s false to say that men by nature aren’t monogramous. Men and women by the result of the fall are prone to sin. To use the term “by nature” is confusing doctrinally speaking. Our nature – while sinful – is directed as it’s final end toward ultimate fidelity toward God – human monogamy participates in that final end as a foreshadowing. Our nature – which once was united to the grace of faith (fidelity) by a preternatural gift – now requires a supernatural gift in order to have that faith (fidelity) which it lost. So AB – for a variety of reasons I agree with you. It’s lazy writing to say men ‘just ain’t’. It’s lazy writing – even if tolkien wrote it.

  • Anthony Zarrella

    Remember, AB, Tolkien was not writing in the context of an editorial to embroil himself in some “war of the sexes”. He was writing a letter to his son on how to be a good man. So, talking only about the difficulties a man faces in a faithful marriage makes perfect sense. Were he writing to a daughter, perhaps he would have said similar things about the nature of women.

    To expect a private letter, made public, to show all the same careful balance and conscientious disclaimers as an article written for public consumption ought to is a bit silly.

  • AB

    I don’t know. I think it would do well for men to know when they read this stuff that their wife has a similar struggle. I think it will help them to take their wives for granted less, and to understand that while their problem is a masculine one, their wife struggles in a similar way

  • keith12345

    Of course, Tolkien, being a man, really can’t comment first-hand on the similar struggle of women. He doesn’t know how women feel/think. He can only relate his experience as a man.

  • AB

    Even if I grant the point that at that point in history, a man would not have known about this aspect of female nature, we could at least say that now at this point in history, in our pastoral and conversational treatments of this topic, an acknowledgment of these similar struggles would be beneficial. My original comment did not only refer to what I took to be Tolkein’s limitations on the topic (though I think as a mature and intelligent man who only died in ’73 he might have had more opportunities for insight into his wife’s feminine mind if he reflected on it), but also to what I took to be the limited intention of the article’s author. Also, I want to add, empathy doesn’t always require first-hand experience but rather closely related experiences. You can empathize with someone who lost a father when you have lost not your father, but your mother. What I am really suggesting is an expansion of masculine imagination on this topic more generally, a willingness to contemplate the analogous experience of their spouses and a reflection on how that makes them feel.

  • MyheartbelongstoDaddy

    That is not just a Catholic principle to marriage it is the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth Who gave us this principle. The Catholic church is just one of innumerable denominations but it is God Who, through His Word, tells us what marriage is about. And I say this having been married for virtually 47 years and a follower of Jesus for 40 of those years.

  • MyheartbelongstoDaddy

    HOw do you get to be monogramous?

  • MyheartbelongstoDaddy

    To be monogamous is what is required by God and my son and my daughter married their first girlfriend and boyfriend and were virgins when they married. Both they and their spouses have no been happily married for over 20 years, they love each other deeply, love the more intimate side of marriage but most of all they love Jesus even more. PS I am not a member of any denomination I am a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth our glorious Lord and Saviour.

  • mw006

    I believe you have fallen into the modern trap of supposing men and women should be the same. We are the same in that we are both fallen and share an ultimate destination. But men’s earthly and sexual natures are different. Men are very visual and variety oriented and why pornography is overwhelmingly consumed by men. Nothing good comes from denying the distinctive nature of male sexuality.

  • AB

    I think that jsper isn’t assuming that men and women are the same, but only pointing out that monogamy is a post-fall struggle for both sexes. You could say men and women are different by nature, and that their struggles with monogamy would be resultantly different (i.e. in a fallen world, both would experience temptations to non-monogamy, but these temptations take different form and are based on different modes of attraction). They are the same, though, in the sense that in a fallen world women and men both struggle with monogamous love.

  • mw006

    Your husband is doing you a favor, or more aptly put, practicing self-sacrificial love deserving of gratitude when he is sexually faithful. Why you and other women begrudge extending sensitivity and understanding to this fact of male nature is curious because it doesn’t necessarily mean men should be left off the hook.

    If left to their own devices, women will not as easily stray as men because they are by nature (and I know there are exceptions, I am talking about what has generally been true always and everywhere) more security-oriented and less susceptible to visual stimulation and less variety-oriented. This is why you see such high rates of promiscuity with male homosexuality as opposed to Lesbianism. The love of a woman and marriage is what tames the male sexual instinct.

    Yes, a wife who is emotionally unfulfilled will be romantically attracted to that kind or powerful rich man but precisely because he is kind or powerful or rich. Few unhappily married husbands will be equally romantically attracted to a kind and powerful rich woman unless she is also physically appealing.
    Men would be better off with prayers than resentment.

  • AB

    This is the precise attitude I have a problem with. It is not a special, masculine favor to fight this fight (though men are completely in their rights to fight this fight in a particularly masculine way, with masculine comrades). It is a favor spouses extend to one another. Women struggle with impulses against monogamy, just in a different way. You are right to imagine we are more security inclined, but in a marriage a woman clearly sees where her husband struggles, fails, and sometimes, lacks the capacity for provision. It is easier for women to stray than you think…Just as men may be inclined to look at other women and desire them, and to become tired of the same “fare” day in and day out, in intimacy and daily experience women can also become tired if they don’t fight the good fight. I don’t begrudge my husband sensitivity toward his struggle, but this dialog is less about him and more about a pastoral problem. This dialog is always dominated by the perspective that it is a uniquely male problem, and that keeping it under control is as you said “a favor”. It seems more appropriate to think of it as an obligation that a woman and man share toward one another – the obligation to guard your heart for the sake of your spouse. Surely, it is good for my spouse that I guard my heart, but it is also a favor to myself. You assumed a lot about my motivations in this, and I don’t really think you thought the comment through.

  • mw006

    I am agreement with much of what you say about mutual obligations. But to insist that monogamy, defined as sexual fidelity, and what the article was quoting Tolkien on, is equally difficult for women is just not true. You cite the example of lesbian relationship instability to further your point but lesbians don’t have sexual encounters with dozens if not hundreds of partners and with complete strangers like a sizeable percentage of male homosexuals do. And when they do seek out a new partner, the need is more for emotional fulfillment than sexual gratification.

    Second, you keep attributing to me the term “favor” when you were the first to use it in your post and I explicitly said that a more apt term for “favor” would be an act of self-sacrificial love.

    Finally, permit me to end on a lighter note. There is a story I have heard from several sources about a tour of a farm that was given to President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady. Every man I know (many strong, good Catholic husbands) who have heard this story have howled with self-recognition. It goes like this.

    The First Lady was being shown the chickens and she asked the farmer giving her the tour if it was true that a rooster copulates several times a day. The farmer replied, “Yes, Madam First lady, that is true.” The First Lady replied, “Please tell that to President Coolidge when you see him.”

    Later when President Coolidge was touring the chickens the farmer, as requested by the First Lady, mentioned to the President. “By the way, the First Lady asked me to tell you that a rooster copulates several times a day.” President Coolidge immediately asked, “Same hen?” “No, Mr. President,” the farmer replied. President Coolidge shot back, “Tell THAT to the First Lady.”

  • disqus_ln0rd5Sq38

    Haha, that is a funny anecdote. I do think it encapsulates the male struggle well. And I think we are just missing each other…I know that the intensity of sexual desire is different for men than women, but what I am saying is that the longing that women have for love and recognition is deeply felt and similarly intense (though for a woman the situation of following her desires wouldn’t look like polygamy, it would look like serial monogamy). We have to go through great lengths of heroic virtue to reign this in as well, but for some reason, this idea is abhorrent to husbands, and is also not internalized when they think of their own struggles. You are right to say that for lesbian women, it isn’t about multiple sexual encounters, but it is about intense emotional connections that are ditched when found wanting. Why do you think women file for divorce 70% of the time, on the grounds that they are just not fulfilled or not happy?

    My goal isn’t just to make a “tit-for-tat argument”. Clearly, if women are willing to leave longstanding marriages or relationships in search of personal and emotional fulfillment, this is a pastoral issue and a threat to monogamy that pastors in the church should be thinking about. Also, it’s something husbands should be thinking about as they work through their own struggles with “natural” desire, both for the sake of greater empathy, as well as for a clearer and more longterm understanding of what the real threats to the marriage are.

  • mw006

    You are an intelligent women with a good sense of humor, and I see no point in crossing swords any longer. You are correct that men find it hard to appreciate the need for being attentive and considerate of the emotional needs of their wives on a regular basis and why women file for more divorce than men. It simply won’t do to say, “Honey, I told you on the day we were married that I loved you, and if anything changes I’ll get back to you.”

    Blessings and all the best.

  • disqus_ln0rd5Sq38

    Thank you! I really learned a lot from you!