Tolkien on Impossible Love

JRR Tolkien is well-known and beloved for his renowned Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fantasies. Tolkien is lesser known, however, for his non-fiction insights into human nature, and the philosophy of the human person. His prolific letter and academic writing dives into topics such as the nature of love, the meaning of personhood, salvation, and the function of language.

Much, if not all, of Tolkien's philosophy of life is rooted in his deeply held Christian convictions which, in broad strokes at least, could be characterized as Augustinian: civilization is constantly engaged in a war between the City of God and the City of Man; the human person is a fallen creature, totally lost without grace; the forces of evil are engaged in a cosmic battle for the souls of mankind; and the chief weapon Satan uses against people is the sin of lust.

Tolkien’s understanding of the supernatural origins of love means that he is, at the same time, highly conscious of the fallen person’s inability to navigate successfully the powerful forces of ‘concupiscence’ (sexual desire).

In a letter to his son Michael in 1941, Tolkien explains his attitude toward the ability of a man and woman to genuinely love each other in a platonic, selfless way. Such a selfless, divine love, might only be possible between two “saints”.

What follows is an excerpt from the letter and Tolkien’s explanation of the originary relationship between men and women:

“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'). 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. We will leave aside the 'immoral' results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. '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 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'. 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."

(c) October 2018: Rebus Institute & Rebus Education Services