Thursday, July 24, 2014

Parsing Tolkien's Letter on Love and Romance

Tolkien's amazing letter to his son Michael deserves a closer look.  Here it is again, with some commentary by me in boldface.  


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'). 

Tolkien is setting up here three possibilities in relations between men and women: 

1. A man can relate to a woman merely for the sake of physical pleasure (though really this can never happen, for we can never separate our bodies and our souls, and great harm of some sort comes to those men who try to do this; great harm also comes to the women involved)

2. A man can be "friends" with a woman (before old age, this is almost impossible on any intimate level without the complications of love or attraction, as he points out later)

3. Or a man can be a woman's "lover" - this love being something which engages his whole self, but which still tends to be primarily an emotional experience, "energized by sex".

This is stunningly perceptive stuff, loaded with common sense - as is the rest of the letter.  Read on!

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. 

What beautiful prose, right to the point and very evocative.  "The hard spirit of concupiscence" is our innate predilection to sin, especially sexual sin.

We will leave aside the 'immoral' results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. 'Friendship' then? 

He is giving advice to his son.  Michael does not want to give himself to "immoral" relationships with women (fornication).  But he's not called to "renunciation" (celibacy and the priesthood).  Is friendship then the only option left?

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'. 

This has to be qualified a bit, lest Tolkien sound too harsh and hypercritical.  

And the qualifier is this: of course, all of us have friends of the opposite sex.  But those are more acquaintances than examples of deep friendship, and the level of emotional and spiritual intimacy is generally tepid or restrained.  It has been my experience that any "friendship" I have with a woman is either

1. At a level of cordiality and restraint: a pleasant acquaintanceship of mutual affection and limited "sharing";

2. Or fraught with "erotic" complications (meaning complications of the love known as Eros, which is more than just sex) - where emotional and spiritual sharing, once past a certain level, invariably leads (quite naturally) not only to attraction but to the building up of mutual obligations, which must ultimately go unfulfilled and renounced by one or the other party - unless the friendship is a courtship building toward marriage.  This is true whether the "friends" add on "benefits" or not.  It's not so much sex that complicates such relationships, but Eros.

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.

So the problem is love.  How do we love without sin?  Quoting Chaucer leads Tolkien into a penetrating analysis of "courtly love".

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. 

Note that chivalry grew out of Christendom, but that chivalry is not the same thing as Christian ethics.  Tolkien proceeds to show how chivalry and "courtly love" differs from Christian ethics, and he gives a very mature and balanced treatment of the subject.  

One might wonder, "What does chivalry have to do with the modern world?  How does this affect a young man - or even a mature man - trying to love without sin?  Chivalry is dead, isn't it?  The times are inimical to it, as Tolkien said."  Well, no, chivalry is not dead; it lives on in the Romantic tradition of literature and art, and its notion of Romantic Love can be seen in every movie or novel of the modern age (except very recent pieces of trash like Hangover).  It's a tradition that tugs deeply at our souls, as it is very evocative of Eros and Agape - of our call to love with great passion, interest, devotion and surrender: it takes what Christ has revealed about love and applies it (imperfectly but very effectively) to the secular world.  It is love of God applied to the opposite sex - which has its problems, as Tolkien proceeds to point out.

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. 

The tradition of courtly love originally began as the building up of what might be called elaborate rules of adultery.  Later, it took on more dignity - but it originally focused on the problem of Eros for the married man or woman who was not finding Eros in his or her marriage.  

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 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 (as long ago it was, producing much of that beautiful devotion to Our Lady that has been God's way of refining so much our gross manly natures and emotions, and also of warming and colouring our hard, bitter, 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. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. 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).

This is one of the most stunning and beautiful paragraphs Tolkien ever wrote.  In it, he manages to criticize the romantic notion of "The Lady" in a way that is so fair and comprehensive that one marvels at the wisdom and perspective of this man.  The chivalric tradition of "The Lady" and the romantic quest she moves us to, can both inspire a man to a nobility of love, and also fool him and hurt him (and others) badly.  For we poets tend to forget that women are "companions in shipwreck and not guiding stars".  This can lead to cynicism on the one hand (there's nothing more ugly and angry than a disappointed lover, whose ideals have proven to be bubbles that have popped) or to "the squalor of the divorce courts" on the other.  "My wife is not My Lady!  My Lady calls to me from afar!  My Lady is hot and sexy and understands me!  My wife is dumpy and crabby and knows me too well to adore me like her knight in shining armor that I long to be!  But my secretary understands me - or my dental hygenist does - or that young thing over there does!  Oh, stars!  Oh, fate!  Why do I have a wife and not My Lady!" (picks up phone, dials 1-800-DIVORCE).

Women really have not much part in all this, though they may use the language of romantic love, since it is so entwined in all our idioms. The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or specially desirous of being so (or seeming so), and very ready to enter into all the interests, as far as they can, from ties to religion, of the young man they are attracted to. No intent necessarily to deceive: sheer instinct: the servient, helpmeet instinct, generously warmed by desire and young blood. Under this impulse they can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things otherwise outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that. How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point – and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. But this is their natural avenue to love. Before the young woman knows where she is (and while the romantic young man, when he exists, is still sighing) she may actually 'fall in love'. Which for her, an unspoiled natural young woman, means that she wants to become the mother of the young man's children, even if that desire is by no means clear to her or explicit. And then things are going to happen: and they may be very painful and harmful, if things go wrong. Particularly if the young man only wanted a temporary guiding star and divinity (until he hitches his waggon to a brighter one), and was merely enjoying the flattery of sympathy nicely seasoned with a titillation of sex – all quite innocent, of course, and worlds away from 'seduction'.


It's politically incorrect these days to assert that men and women are different in any way (even physically).  But Tolkien nails it.

As to women's natural desire - I can only think of Lola Heatherton whose showbiz catch phrase was, "I want to bear your children!"  

But back to Tolkien ...

You may meet in life (as in literature) women who are flighty, or even plain wanton — I don't refer to mere flirtatiousness, the sparring practice for the real combat, but to women who are too silly to take even love seriously, or are actually so depraved as to enjoy 'conquests', or even enjoy the giving of pain – but these are abnormalities, even though false teaching, bad upbringing, and corrupt fashions may encourage them. Much though modern conditions have changed feminine circumstances, and the detail of what is considered propriety, they have not changed natural instinct. A man has a life-work, a career, (and male friends), all of which could (and do where he has any guts) survive the shipwreck of 'love'. A young woman, even one 'economically independent', as they say now (it usually really means economic subservience to male commercial employers instead of to a father or a family), begins to think of the 'bottom drawer' and dream of a home, almost at once. If she really falls in love, the shipwreck may really end on the rocks. 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. 

Guys like me who tend to be poets and idealists find this hard to imagine, but it's very very true.  Women are much more practical than men.  Their thoughts tend to hearth and home (unless they're simply vixens, as Tolkien notes above - and vixens themselves are so twisted that they are quite unhappy with who they are, as a rule).  A woman can be idealistic in her own way, but it's usually not regarding love and romance.  Even women who have affairs usually do so to find attention, not to find the ideal man.  Thus the tendency of women to "settle", to marry men who meet minimum standards (like breathing and showing an interest in them).  It's the woman's job to "settle" - to settle down, something that does not come naturally to men.  

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 will take a rotter open-eyed, and even when the delusion of reforming him fails, go on loving him. 

Maybe this is why they "settle".  A man believes he can always find the ideal "out there"; a woman believe she can always achieve the ideal "in here".  

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. I have known those who pretended to, but it is a pretence. It may be intriguing, interesting, absorbing (even a great deal too absorbing) to them: but it is just plumb natural, a serious, obvious interest; where is the joke?

This opens up a great mystery.  Sex is always something ridiculous to a man, no matter how obsessed he is with it; thus men are bawdy and enjoy being bawdy.  A man always finds sex somehow humiliating or humbling and therefore funny.  Women take sex much more seriously.  There's no tension between the natural function of sex and the spiritual desires of a woman; in men there is.  Sex is somehow incongruous to us: we love it, but it's not exactly who we are - which is often the source of humor.  Women don't get that joke.

They 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 glamour 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. 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 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.....

Note a few things about this man and his writing.

1. His worldview is profoundly Christian - utterly and totally Christian (i. e., Catholic).

2. He has a clear-eyed even-handed vision of the reality of things as they are: fallen humanity, the workings of the Incarnation in a sinful world.

3. And yet he never loses sight of the ideal.  He is able to look at things realistically without denigrating the ideal that things invariably fall shy of.  And he is very fair to both.

... and from this fairness, one sees immense Charity.


Tolkien's letter continues with the story of his courtship of Michael's mother, and ends with his famous acclamation of the glories of the Blessed Sacrament.

You can read that part of it - indeed the whole thing - here.  


Chris said...

This is something we need to hear these days. It is unfortunate that so many Catholics, even the "conservative" ones, think it is old fashioned/outdated or prudish, to suggest caution about male-female friendships. They may even simultaneously complain when they are confused as to whether their socializing with the opposite sex was just a friendly outing or a possible date; or are surprised or frustrated that their friendship turns into romantic attraction and the problem it can then present!

This is even more poignant today with the new forms of communication: we often don't seem to realize how e-mail, texting, or even the phone, can be a significant form of intimate interaction, even though people may not physically interact and thus think they are on safe ground.

Paul Stilwell said...

When women sleep around they are being thoroughly wicked vixens.

When men sleep around it's because they are wired to bed as many women as they can, propagating hundreds of babies - the big sweet dummies.

Ah, chivalry!


Just as our age suffers from the extreme imbalance of blurring the lines between the sexes, socially, culturally, and "scientifically", so there can be an alternative imbalance in the direction of absolutist segregation - not culturally and socially, but as a kind of Platonic theory of forms serving as a substitute religion. Another "code-breaker". A silver bullet. Save the sexes, save the world.

Not saying Tolkien remotely fell in that direction. In fact, he makes that clear in his letter. What I'm saying is that this tendency seems a little easy to take up in reaction to our age's transexualism, the likes of which Tolkien hardly foresaw - and at what speed it has happened! Literally, overnight!

In other words, just remember the particular equality of woundedness between the sexes today, our age, in which the sexless have sexless sex in a cultural and social vacuum that's traveling at light speed into a spiritual darkness worse than the old paganism.

In other words, let's try to keep in mind that we are not speaking to Tolkien's son when we're talking to the lost children today, alright?

Because if we do, all what they are going to hear is this:

"When women sleep around they are being thoroughly wicked vixens.

When men sleep around it's because they are wired to bed as many women as they can, propagating hundreds of babies - the big sweet dummies.

Ah, chivalry!"

And our hypocrisy won't draw them towards the Blessed Sacrament in the least.

Micha Elyi said...

"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..."

Tolkien is describing gynolatry.

Gynolatry in its many forms is preached by Catholics and other Christians. To mention but one common example, despite the highly evidenced fact that most divorces are initiated by females for frivolous reasons ("I love him but I'm not in love with him any more", "I'm bored", "I don't feel fulfilled", "I'm not happy"), you'll hear from pulpits and Christian media that divorce is the man's fault. Always. That is, after all, the message from the priest, apologist, or preacher whose only examples of marriages in trouble are beaten on or cheated on wives. (The equal violence of females against men and female adultery is ignored just as the much higher propensity of females to kill a marriage for flighty reasons is blanked-out, ignored. Can't speak ill of the goddess! Fr. Pacwa, Ray Guarendi--boys, I'm looking at you.)

Also, consider Tolkien's claim that the female sex is the more practical in light of the explosion of out-of-wedlock motherhood. One must conclude that this is more the result of intentional, aggressive sperm-soliciting by the practical sex than happenstance behavior of the romantically-deluded sex. But gynolatry clouds the intellect so Blame the Man is the common response.

Dan Lawlis said...

Wow! Tolkien goes right to the core. The truth of his letter strikes at you in such a way that you get a quick glimpse at what it must feel like to be at the receiving end of Gandalf’s sword (or maybe even klunked over the head with Gimli’s axe).

Funny thing is, part of this letter reminds me of that scene in “When Harry met Sally”, when Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal have that discussion about men and women not being able to be friends.

Seriously though,Tolkien lays out and exposes the very nature of men’s sexuality. He even seems to have a take on what women see. Most men can understand men, but understanding women is truly something. I see my flawed self exposed and revealed in Tolkien’s wisdom. Even decent married chaps like myself can’t escape his scrutiny. He finds us all.

I think this letter shows how the pure Christian idealism is the only idealism that has a fighting chance against the diabolical nature of male sexuality (even the idealized romantic devotional kind). That is, to see women as walking churches containing the Holy Spirit, rather than the way women were seen in society before Christianity, as property to be bought and sold in a meat market.

The sad legacy is, that as western society’s reject Christian culture more, we get the misery of the sexual revolution in which any bar or nightclub is called a meat market (which is precisely what it is).

Excellent blog Kevin! Your comments helped me see some of Tolkien’s words I glossed over in the reading, and bringing them to my attention, has given them a much greater appreciation.