Romance, chivalry, and exaggerated notions of ‘true love’

LancelotandGuinevere_Draper
Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper (c.1890)

This is the second excerpt of a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes (see pt 1). In this portion Tolkien comments on the pros and cons of a cultural tradition of romantic chivalry.


 

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it. It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity, at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honor, and courage. Its weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game, a way of enjoying love for its own sake without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony. Its center was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity . . . the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril. But combined and harmonized with religion . . . it can be very noble. Then it produces what I suppose is still felt, among those who retain even vestigiary Christianity, to be the highest ideal of love between man and woman.

Yet I still think it has dangers. It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It 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 . . .  It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

Looking to save some money on Valentine’s Day?

Men, if you can win your wife to this spiritual perspective you stand to save thousands of dollars over the lifetime of your marriage.

It is easy to condemn those who marry for money or status, but a more insidious wrong motive has insinuated its way into our culture: romance. Romance has attached to itself a raft of benefits focused on self-fulfillment and the realization of dreams (notably the dream of ‘the right one for me’), but because this is not God’s purpose for marriage, it is a self-defeating goal. Besides, as Hauerwas nicely observes, even if we seek to marry ‘the right person’, in practice ‘we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change.’ Paradoxically, it is when we jointly embark on the endeavor of serving God in his world that romantic pleasure sometimes takes us by surprise. As a goal it evaporates, but as an unsought blessing it may be greeted with delight and thanksgiving.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p 219.