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PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2008 5:51 am 
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This is a long letter from JRR Tolkien to his son Michael, written on 6-8 March 1941. The following are some of the quotes that I found significant (it is a long letter) and I welcome your clarifications, thoughts, insights and connections that you'll make.

The letter begins with this statement:

[On the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes]

Quote:
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 engerized 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 reforms 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.


I find it most interesting that Tolkien is so very blunt regardless of what we feel about the shifts in beliefs on sex, reforms etc., the bottom line is sex has been an issue from the beginning of men through today, or the “hard spirit of concuplscence” has been and continues to be an issue in the world. I also agree that a relationship that is purely physical will cause damage to both parties soul and body because it is fleeting, unfulfilling and fails to accomplish anything long terms that is edifying to either person. Probably the most insightful is that Tolkien is aware of the sexual issues of his day and of humanity, and though his religious beliefs are evident, I think he is also practical.

Quote:
'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 favorite subject. He is 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 be 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."


Tolkien is saying that in his mind, it is impossible for a man and a woman to engage in a meaningful friendship because at some point for one or the other, they will ruin the friendship by taking or wanting to take the friendship to the next level by falling in love. Aragorn and Éowyn probably show this in LOTR since Aragorn respects her and offers friendship to her, and Éowyn wants more than that. Tolkien does state that later in life, when the sex drives cools, it may be possible then for a man and a woman to have this type of friendship. I agree with part of what Tolkien says and I disagree as well. I believe it is quite possible for a man and a woman to only be friends with no romantic interests at all, even at a younger age as long as there are no physical attractions. Are there times when one party to the friendship may want it to go elsewhere, yes, but I don’t think that always happens. Yet is sex always the driving force between the sexes?

Tolkien now goes on to explore the notion of courtly love or "the romantic chirvalric tradition." He states:

Quote:
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, honour, 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 centre was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity -- of the old-fashioned 'his divinity' = the woman he loves-the object or reason of his 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 its 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 woman as they are, as companions in a shipwreck not guiding stars. To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of 'true love', as a fire form 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 key statement here is that on romantic love Tolkien felt that it was not the highest form of love, but since its focus is not just on “physical pleasure” and enjoys fidelity, along with the traits of “self-denial, service, courtesy, honor, and courage” and if combined with religion, it can still be noble. The failing of this love is that it was not centered on the end goal of matrimony, but on experiencing love for love’s sake. He also fears that it sets up the “lady” as being on a pedestal and not seen as an equal partner, another fallen-human being. This can lead to seeing the woman not as a partner but as something more than she is, looking externally for love and when the image is shattered, the man will look for that love externally while leaving their former mate along. This shows Tolkien’s religious beliefs that the love in a marriage has to set on something eternal/internal for it to create something that is of a higher level.

We touched on this in another thread but I think this notion of not putting a woman on a pedestal is interesting as it relates to Galadriel. I know here he is talking of human relationships, but this notion of not putting a woman on a pedestal intrigues me. At the end of his life it is evident that Tolkien was beginning to put Galadriel on a pedestal, comparing her or transforming her into a Marian figures. Yet I love the fact that Galadriel was imperfect, prideful, wanting to rule her own kingdom and then refusing it when it is offered, and realizing her individual role in the scheme of life. Anyway, on to the next item.

Quote:
"Anyway women are in general much less romantic and more practical. Don't be misled by the fact that they are more 'sentimental' in words--freer with 'darling', and all that. They do not want a guiding star. They may idealize a plain young man into a hero; but they don't really need any such glamour either to fall in love or to remain in it. If they have any delusion it is that they can 'reform' men. . . They are, of course, much more realistic about the sexual relation. Unless perverted by bad contemporary fashions they do not as a rule talk 'bawdy'; not because they are purer than men (they are not) but because they don't find it funny. . . But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. men are not . . . . No good pretending. Men just ain't, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although is had 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."


Tolkien in discussing women, finds them more practical then romantic and I find that interesting because I have to agree with him. Later in the letter that I am not going to quote, as Tolkien describes his own love, marriage and early life, we see that in his mind, he was not a hero or a guiding star to Edith, if anything he was something of a rascal in terms of his first year of college. So much of what we read here I think is autobiographical.
Another interesting point is Tolkien’s expression that the only delusion women have is the notion that they can reform or change a man, though this goes both ways. No one can change another person or reform them, only an individual can choose to do that. They may influence, but in the end, even if married, I think we still choose to be who we are. Tolkien has some good insight at this point. I guess overall I find Tolkien’s insights on women intriguing. They are not more pure and holy then men, but equal partners with men in this journey we call life, imperfect with us. His point that woman find it easier to be monogamous versus, men, who are not by their nature, monogamous, but can be with a variety of women and produce children with them. The notion of men and monogamy I’ll cover in the next quote.

Quote:
"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 marriages 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… 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.


The notion of self-denial and suffering to obtain the best is not a new message in Christianity, and in many ways I agree with the concept of self-denial, because I think you have to self-deny in order to obtain the “best” of whatever you want (that and know when to indulge). Are men more sexually attracted, even if married to women while married women find it easier to be monogamous? Yes and no. Our world is a different world then the one Tolkien lived in, though in many ways the same desires exist. I’ve seen several studies that show the rate of infidelity has actually remained pretty constant with men cheat more than women. In those studies for men who are faithful it is because the woman is the love of their life, and they are serious about the commitment they make. What I haven’t seen is what the percent is of men who have had the idea or notion to cheat arise in their mind and then they dismiss it because of their commitment, love of spouse and family etc.? I’ll be interested to see what women think of this issue as well.

Quote:
"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 profitibly 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 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 there is a God and there must be His instruments, or His appearances).


I agree with the point that both partners in any marriage could have found prior to the marriage someone who was probably more suitable, but the reality is your spouse that you are married to is your soul mate because of the nature of the relationship and how it grows, changes and adapts over time. Perhaps the more time we put into something, the more we tend to value it. The grass is not always greener on the other side is another thought I had here.

Quote:
On the notion of destined love Tolkien states "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 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).'

Through this whole letter we are able to view more Tolkien the man, versus Tolkien the author. We see some of these thoughts reflected in his written work. We see the nobility of love and marriage in the union of Beren and Lúthien, of Arwen and Aragorn, even self-denial in terms of putting off the marriage until requirements are met, which implies also the denial of their sex drive (in terms of Beren and Aragorn), and the arrival of children to their unions.
A thought I may have to explore is how Aragorn in some ways reflect Tolkien’s own experience. Aragorn like Tolkien denies himself of his beloved, only Aragorn does it longer (perhaps the 3 years felt like 38 that Aragorn and Arwen waited for Tolkien). Both had to deny themselves of their sexual desires and the ability to create a family, and in the case of both, neither had the means to support (though I guess you could argue that Aragorn could have supported a wife, but definitely not Arwen in the circumsances Elrond laid down). One could argue that Aragorn did put Arwen on a pedestal by comparing her to and calling her Lúthien. However, Aragorn accepted Arwen for who she was and understood her also as shown in the tale of Arwen and Aragorn. By examining Éowyn and Aragorn, we see that Aragorn does hold true to his inner commitment to Arwen because he had made the decision when he plotted his troth with Arwen.
I know I’ve made connections with his written work, and in many ways his words on the relations of the sexes may not fit with his Middle Earth world, but what is your take of Tolkien’s view on the nature of the relation between the sexes?

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2008 4:20 pm 
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I guess I am not going to say much in this thread since I am sure from the soles of my feet that I would start a major row.

I think his beliefs and opinions on sex, women, and love are precisely what one would expect of a man like him brought up as he was. I think, further, that those opinions and beliefs are tragically mistaken and that he and uncounted generations of men and women suffered horribly as a result.

I think Tolkien expresses perfectly what he perfectly was and I can still enjoy reading what he wrote, so I'm out of here.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2008 4:27 pm 
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vison, you should certainly feel free to express your opinions. I may not agree with them, but I am quite sure that I will find them interesting. :) (And I may well agree with quite a few of them.)

AJ, there is a lot here to think about. I'll be back!

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2008 4:38 pm 
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I'll be back, too, eventually, but here's another vote for vison to say what she thinks. And not just because a lot of it is probably what I think, too.

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“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2008 8:47 pm 
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A bit of context: this letter in particular needs to be understood, at least in great part, as Tolkien's honest attempt to dissuade Michael from a marriage his father thought hasty and ill-considered (he fell in love with his nurse while recovering from wounds. Ironically the marriage lasted until Joan's death forty years later).


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 12, 2008 4:37 am 
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I agree with soli that it is important to keep the context that the letter was written in mind. However, the fact that the marriage that Tolkien was warning against was apparently a success says something too.
ArathornJax wrote:
This is a long letter from JRR Tolkien to his son Michael, written on 6-8 March 1941. The following are some of the quotes that I found significant (it is a long letter) and I welcome your clarifications, thoughts, insights and connections that you'll make.

The letter begins with this statement:

[On the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes]

Quote:
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 engerized 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 reforms 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.


I find it most interesting that Tolkien is so very blunt regardless of what we feel about the shifts in beliefs on sex, reforms etc., the bottom line is sex has been an issue from the beginning of men through today, or the “hard spirit of concuplscence” has been and continues to be an issue in the world. I also agree that a relationship that is purely physical will cause damage to both parties soul and body because it is fleeting, unfulfilling and fails to accomplish anything long terms that is edifying to either person. Probably the most insightful is that Tolkien is aware of the sexual issues of his day and of humanity, and though his religious beliefs are evident, I think he is also practical.


Very interesting indeed that Tolkien would be so blunt. I can't help but wonder what this says about the specific relationship he was talking about. Did he think that Joan was using purely physical wiles to entrap his son? Hard to say.

Quote:
Quote:
'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 favorite subject. He is 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 be 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."


Tolkien is saying that in his mind, it is impossible for a man and a woman to engage in a meaningful friendship because at some point for one or the other, they will ruin the friendship by taking or wanting to take the friendship to the next level by falling in love. Aragorn and Éowyn probably show this in LOTR since Aragorn respects her and offers friendship to her, and Éowyn wants more than that. Tolkien does state that later in life, when the sex drives cools, it may be possible then for a man and a woman to have this type of friendship. I agree with part of what Tolkien says and I disagree as well. I believe it is quite possible for a man and a woman to only be friends with no romantic interests at all, even at a younger age as long as there are no physical attractions. Are there times when one party to the friendship may want it to go elsewhere, yes, but I don’t think that always happens. Yet is sex always the driving force between the sexes?


I thought this was the most interesting part of the letter. Because it is quite apparent throughout his letters and from what I know of his history that he DID have a remarkable about of (apparently) platonic friendships with women. He seemed to have quite a healthy respect for their opinions. Indeed the one thing that we know about the "friend" who advised him not to go forward with the reconfiguration of The Hobbit that he began in 1960 to bring it more in line in tone with LOTR is that she was a woman.

Tolkien now goes on to explore the notion of courtly love or "the romantic chirvalric tradition." He states:

Quote:
Quote:
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, honour, 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 centre was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity -- of the old-fashioned 'his divinity' = the woman he loves-the object or reason of his 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 its 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 woman as they are, as companions in a shipwreck not guiding stars. To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of 'true love', as a fire form 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 key statement here is that on romantic love Tolkien felt that it was not the highest form of love, but since its focus is not just on “physical pleasure” and enjoys fidelity, along with the traits of “self-denial, service, courtesy, honor, and courage” and if combined with religion, it can still be noble. The failing of this love is that it was not centered on the end goal of matrimony, but on experiencing love for love’s sake. He also fears that it sets up the “lady” as being on a pedestal and not seen as an equal partner, another fallen-human being. This can lead to seeing the woman not as a partner but as something more than she is, looking externally for love and when the image is shattered, the man will look for that love externally while leaving their former mate along. This shows Tolkien’s religious beliefs that the love in a marriage has to set on something eternal/internal for it to create something that is of a higher level.


Actually, I think the key here is Tolkien's acknowledgment and understanding that any relationship requires constant work in order for it to survive and flourish, something that was certainly true of his relationship with Edith. Idealized love is well and good for stories, but real life relationships are hard work indeed!

I'll address the rest of the letter later. That's quite enough for now!

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 26, 2009 8:44 pm 
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Apparently, the students who sat front and center in his lectures were all women. Also, as a married man, he was considered 'safe' to act as a tutor for women, while it would have been a bit scandalous for an unmarried man to do so.

That being said, he did live very much in a man's world. His guardian was a priest and he was himself an Oxford professor.

What is the quote, about each new generation thinking they've invented sex? I don't see anything surprising about his frankness, but then...I've read medieval literature ;). We tend to have this mistaken notion that everything before the sexual revolution of the '60s was a Victorian novel where the 'fade to black' around any discussion of sex was so prevalent that it was hard to tell anything had happened. (I can't remember if my sister was complaining about 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' or 'The Scarlet Letter'...)

Anyway, yes, society changes, and the way situations are dealt with change, but the human condition? That is pretty much what it has always been. I would venture a guess that his views come more from his faith than from reading the Kalevala or Sir Gawain, but of course he'd read them, too.

As a woman, I have to say that the part about trying to 'change' people sounds pretty accurate. As well as the danger of idealizing the other person (women do that, too).


Trying to caution someone not to leap into marriage hastily is almost always good advice. If the relationship is going to weather all storms, surely waiting another 6 months won't kill it dead. My sister almost got herself thrown out of the house for 'secretly' getting engaged to her boyfriend (they were both 19). Six years later, she married him, and my family did not have nearly the reservations at that point.


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