Sam Guzman writes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of his wife, and on his letter to his son on true and lasting happiness in marriage:
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:
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)
I was speaking with a man I trust recently about love. I asked him how a man can properly love his wife. He pointed to a crucifix, and said, “Be prepared to do that, every day.”