In this final excerpt (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3) Tolkien presents his son with wisdom sorely needed today: you almost certainly made a mistake when you married your partner who is, in fact, your real soul-mate. This is my favorite part of the letter and I suspect it will soon find its way into my pre-marital counseling.
Have a great V-Day weekend!
. . . Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to 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. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances). It is notorious that in fact happy marriages are more common where the ‘choosing’ by the young persons is even more limited, by parental or family authority, as long as there is a social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity.
But even in countries where the romantic tradition has so far affected social arrangements as to make people believe that the choosing of a mate is solely the concern of the young, only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. 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. . . .
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’
In this third excerpt (see pt 1 and pt 2) Tolkien explains why monogamy entails suffering for a Christian husband and begins to address the popular notion of finding a “soul-mate.”
[Women] have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not. . . . . 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 to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.
However, 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 marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & 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 glamor wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think 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. . .
–The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’
In honor of Valentine’s week here is the first in a series of excerpts from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son. The paternal counsel is a rarity: decidedly counter-cultural but not, I suspect, counter-intuitive. Tolkien’s depiction of the innate differences between the sexes rings true to me but I’d be interested in hearing what the rest of you think.
A man’s dealings with women can be purely physical (they cannot really, of course: but I mean he can refuse to take other things into account, to the great damage of his soul (and body) and theirs); or ‘friendly’; or he can be a ‘lover’ (engaging and blending all his affections and powers of mind and body in a complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by ‘sex’).
This is a fallen world. The dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall. The world has been ‘going to the bad’ all down the ages. The various social forms shift, and each new mode has its special dangers: but the ‘hard spirit of concupiscence’ has walked down every street, and sat leering in every house, since Adam fell.
We will leave aside the ‘immoral’ results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. ‘Friendship’ then? In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman. The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject. He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.
This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may by accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by falling in love.
But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. There are plenty of young men (as a rule). He wants love: innocent, and yet irresponsible perhaps. Allas! Allas! that ever love was sinne! as Chaucer says. Then if he is a Christian and is aware that there is such a thing as sin, he wants to know what to do about it.
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 Mar 1941’
We have no shortage of opinion when it comes to a Christian perspective on the arts. In recent memory the most prominent case study was found in the fanfare & furor generated by the Harry Potter series and the prominent place given to magic & wizardry. In light of the biblical injunctions against divination & sorcery all Christians recognize the concern raised by such subject matter even if we arrive at different conclusions.
We return here to the charge that Harry Potter books are evil because they contain magic, witches, wizards, spells, and the like. As we have seen, the same criticisms have been made of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s books, even though both of these authors are known by the critics to have been committed Christians. Because magic is a part of the Potter books, the Narnia books, and The Lord of the Rings, some claim that these books may have the effect of interesting children in the occult.
…None of these books encourages occult practice. The magic is simply a part of the imaginative worlds that Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling have created. In such an imaginary world, people can become invisible, animals talk, mythical creatures like unicorns and centaurs exist, and rings and spells work wonders. In all of these books the magic serves to help us see the battle between good and evil more clearly. Magic is simply a device to unveil the world of virtue and vice to us.[p 135-136, emphasis added]