Tolkien’s Advice About Relationships: Writing Real Romance

J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith.

J.R.R. Tolkien had three sons and one daughter, and in a letter to his son Michael he discusses his views on women’s issues, marriage and the truth about men in relationships.  In this letter written in March 1941, Tolkien is very explicit, and very wise on the subject.

As a writer, we can glean from his ideas the truth about relationships and challenge ourselves to write romantic stories that are more realistic and much more complex in nature.

1.  Chivalry is Fantasy – Tolkien writes: “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.  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, honor, and courage… This is, of course, false and at best make-believe” (p. 48-49).  Tolkien believes that this type of love is best kept to the fantasy of fiction and is not possible in the real world.  It works great to make lovers swoon, and it is nice to dream about it, but he says that chivalric love makes a man forget a woman’s desires by placing her on a pedestal, idealizing her until she is not real.  “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” (p. 49).  It is the idealized woman on the cover of Cosmo who is airbrushed until she is a Barbie doll.  Lately, as in the case of the Twilight novels, this ideal is reversed so that the female places the male on the pedestal.  Edward is the perfect guy who does not exist.  Tolkien says that what this does is “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” (p. 49).  It can only lead to disaster.  Should our fiction teach our young the truth or lead them down a path of fantasy that destroys any hope of a true relationship in the future?  I say tell the truth.

2.  Observations About Women – Tolkien writes: “The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or especially 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… 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…It is their natural avenue to love” (p. 49).  According to Tolkien, women are unique from men in that they have the innate ability to love regardless of the situation or how many times they have been hurt by the one they love.  They are more forgiving than men in this regard, and it is in their nature to not strike back and that women only do so because the men in their lives have warped this natural nature.  He says that “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” (p. 50).  He does not blame the woman for her “unnatural” behavior, but her surroundings.  Women naturally love.

3.  Tolkien as Feminist – The most interesting thing he has to say about women is this: “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 end on the rocks.  Anyway, women are much less romantic and much more practical…They do not want a guiding star.  They may idealize a plain young man into a hero; but they do not really need any such glamour either to fall in love or remain in it.  It they have any delusion it is that they can ‘reform’ men” (p. 50).  The first idea is feminist in that it shows that he sees women who are successful in the business world as still working in a patriarchal society according to the roles that men have defined for them.  He seems to use a disdainful tone toward women’s roles being defined by the men in a male dominated society.

4.  Observations About Men – Tolkien writes: “No man, however truly he loved his betrothed as 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… 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” (p. 51).  Men are driven by one thing (and we all know what that is) and it is a struggle for a man to stay with one woman his entire life.  I can say that from experience it is the love for my wife as a person that has kept me with her these 14 years.  I suppose there is a little of the chivalric within me, but the reason I stay faithful to my wife and fight the natural desire of looking at other women is because she and I have formed not just a relationship of lovers but a relationship along the nature of what a best friend would be.  It is no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce.  Men are naturally prone to wander.  Tolkien continues: “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” (p. 51).  Men need to realize that the person they married is indeed someone who is perfect for them if the reasons they married them are pure and not merely sexual.  The problem with marriage today is that people do not marry their best friend, but their best sex partner.  If we all married our best friend, our marriages would work out much better.

5.  Real Relationships Hurt – There is an element of risk in any relationship, but our society has put padding on all things that could hurt us, and so we automatically think that our relationships should be the same.  Tolkien writes: “…the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering” (p. 52).  We have as our guides only “prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will” (p. 52).  I cannot count the times that my wife and I have had difficult moments in our relationship of 15 years.  We always manage to work it out.  If our relationship was purely sexual, it would have died out a long time ago.  I love my wife because she loves me and cares deeply about me.  I love my wife because she is at the core my best friend on this earth.  The things that have been struggles for us have indeed made us stronger.  We do not hold grudges, do not let the sun go down until we have made up, and try our best to forgive one another when we fall down.

What this means for writers:  Good relationships in fiction, relationships that will make readers want to read on, are relationships that understand the true nature of men and women, sprinkled with an element of romance (enough to make it interesting yet not unrealistic) and will have an aspect of pain and discomfort that will be that much more wonderful when those in the relationship figure out how to make it work, how to forgive one another, and how to work together.  If we steer ourselves away from the desire as writers to please our audiences with nonsense fantasy relationships in favor of what is really necessary in the real world for these connections to work, we will not only be telling the truth, but we will be doing our world a service as well.

All quotations taken from:

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

More of “Tolkien’s Tips”:

Tolkien’s 5 Tips for Writing to an Audience

Tolkien’s Tips for Creating Complex Heroes

Tolkien’s Tips for Creating Epic Heroes

Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

5 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Advice About Relationships: Writing Real Romance

  1. Awesome post, Roger! Not only was Tolkien a wonderful writer; he was also a very wise man. I love the photo of him and his wife. 🙂

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