Tolkien in Love: Biblical Love through the lens of middle-earth

“It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment… 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 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. 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 that 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 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…”

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,  51-52

Tolkien in Love

In this short letter written to his son, Tolkien expresses an understanding of love firmly rooted in his Catholic worldview. He recognizes alongside the Church that love requires self-denial, self-mastery, and an unwavering desire for sanctification of self and other. He writes honestly and openly about marriage and love, unapologetically bringing to light the realities of our human nature. 

Tolkien recognizes how foreign his understanding of love is to the secular world. "Those outside {the Church} seem seldom to have heard it". Our culture has moved so far from the truth that they don't even recognize it when they catch a glimpse. Like Gollum upon hearing the name Smeagol, it is puzzling, perhaps haunting, but distant and unknown and uncomfortable. 

Our world is shouting a different "love", something that couldn't be farther from the truth. 

Six Lies about Love

  • Love is merely feeling, which can be fleeting. Falling “out of love” can happen as quickly as falling “in love”. As it is a feeling, it cannot be held to any commitment (such as fidelity or marriage).  
  • Love equals sex. Love cannot exist without sexual "chemistry", intimacy, or immediate availability; or, sex is the only expression of love.  
  • Love is self-serving or will result in personal gain (pleasure, wealth, status, happiness). 
  • Love is the result of finding a perfect match or “soul-mate”. Unhappiness in marriage is the result of being paired with the “wrong” spouse.
  • Love should come easily. If it's “right”, it will fall into place. If it encounters difficulties, it isn't "right". 
  • To love a person is to accept and celebrate their every choice or action; it is unloving to desire for a person to live according to Christian virtue. 

Biblical Truth

The Catholic understanding of love is contrary to nearly everything our culture believes. The "culture of death", as Saint John Paul II called it, has taken the truth, shattered it, and tried to piece together a messy mosaic they call love, twisted by relativism and infused in a sex-obsessed culture. The lies our culture shouts about love are rooted in the truth, but their roots run so deep and now the world stands at the surface unable to see or know them on our own. 

But even in this darkness, there are glimpses of light seeking to redeem and restore the culture of life. In this short letter, Tolkien passes along this wisdom to his son and, as his letters and works were published, he presented these truths to the world. 

We know from Scripture that God is love.

And God is good, pure, always seeking to bring us into His glory.

Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:8

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his  Summa Theologiae, described love as the will for the good of another.

He wrote, “An act of love always tends towards two things; to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it: since to love a person is to wish that person good.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 20: God’s Love)

As Christians, we have been blessed to understand love in this beautiful light.

We know that love brings about joy, but it is not only in receiving but in giving love that we find it. 

From this, we are able to come to a much deeper understanding of what it is to love or to be loved. It is to encounter something entirely of God - to encounter God Himself.

Every act of self-denial, of patience, of willing the good for another is rooted in God’s love.

"We love because He first loved us." 1 John 4:19

in Middle-Earth

Throughout The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien allows his Christian philosophy of love to shine through a Middle-Earth shaped lens, We watch the principles of love come to life as we walk alongside four pairs of characters in particular: Frodo and Sam, Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, and Gandalf and Bilbo.

Frodo and Sam

In Frodo and Sam, we see not a romantic love but a true brotherly love for one another and a sacrificial love for all life. They set off toward Mount Doom together for the sake of the world, knowingly forfeiting their own lives in hope of preserving Middle-Earth for the rest of her inhabitants. Sam gives himself entirely to the cause of Frodo’s task, even going so far as to carry Frodo up Mount Doom when he has completely lost his strength. While these hobbits are not allegorical in the formal sense, in their characters we see a shadow of Christ and his disciples on the journey to the Cross.

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." John 15:13

Beren and Luthien + Aragorn and Arwen

Tolkien also writes of a romantic love in the tales of Beren and Luthien, which are also echoed in the love story of Aragorn and Arwen. In both stories, self-sacrifice, patience, and commitment are at the forefront. Beren and Aragorn must embark on dangerous quests before being united with their loves; both Luthien and Arwen forsake their immortality in order to dwell with their mortal loves. In both cases, the lovers willingly give up an aspect of their lives to choose to be with one another. 

Gandalf and Bilbo

In the friendship of Gandalf and Bilbo, we experience the love which guides and corrects. Gandalf recognizes the gravity of Bilbo’s attachment to the Ring and urges him to leave it behind. Trusting in his friend, Bilbo eventually lets go of the Ring and in turn frees himself of the power it held over him.  Gandalf counsels Bilbo many times, always for the sake of his safety or well-being. 

"No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor." 1 Corinthians 10:24

Love Through the Lens of Middle-Earth

Through Tolkien’s faerie tales, we see the Christian understanding and philosophy of love brought to life. We hear echoes of God’s eternal love, particularly of Christ’s willingness to die on the Cross, in the self-sacrificing quest to destroy the Ring. And we witness purity, patience, and a love that never fails in the stories of Beren and Luthien, and Aragorn and Arwen.

Love requires the death of ourselves - our ambitions, our desires, our lives - for the good of another. This is the love Christ showed us on the Cross, and this is the love we are called to show to others. We even go as far as to say - when a person is willing to sacrifice themselves for another, they are loving as Christ. This is true love. 

"Live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us..." Ephesians 5:2