J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. Best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1945. He left this position in 1945 to take up the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, a position he held until 1959.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, led a rich intellectual and spiritual life, but one that was also complicated by love. In a 1941 correspondence to his son Michael, Tolkien revealed that he fell in love with Michael’s mother, Edith Bratt, when he was only 18 years of age.
Bratt was three years older than Tolkien and not Catholic. Tolkien’s guardian, a man who “had been a father to me,” insisted Tolkien drop the love affair until he was 21, believing it would interfere with Tolkien’s academic pursuits.
The ordeal, Tolkien admitted, “nearly produced a bad breakdown.” But he ultimately decided to heed his guardian’s wishes, severing all contact with Bratt.
“I don’t regret my decision, though it was very hard on my lover,” he wrote. “But that was not my fault. She was perfectly free and under no vow to me, and I should have had no just complaint (except according to the unreal romantic code) if she had got married to someone else.”
For nearly three years, Tolkien and Bratt did not communicate. That changed on Jan. 3, 1913. On that day, his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote her a letter. Five days later he went to see Bratt. He asked for her hand in marriage; she accepted. Tolkien and Bratt were married three years later, and they would remain so until Bratt’s death in 1971.
Tolkien learned some things about human nature, sex and love during and following his love affair with wife Edith. Here are eight observations he made.
1. “[Women] are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not …. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature.”
2. “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.”
3. “The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favorite subject. He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.”
4. “[Men] 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.”
5. “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.”
6. “[Women] 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.”
7. “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.”
8. “The dislocation of the sex instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall.”