Some time after the death of his wife Edith, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher:
I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire […]. In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing –and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
(Letters, № 340)
The story about one of the greatest loves in Middle-earth sprang from the greatest love of Tolkien’s life. Ronald and Edith’s tombstone in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford bears the names of Beren and Lúthien right under their real names, revealing to those familiar with the legend that the love of Ronald and Edith was not an ordinary one. Just like the story of the mortal Man Beren and the Elven maiden Lúthien, the story of Edith and Ronald was full of sacrifice and difficulties, but was deeply rooted in great love and affection which they managed to carry throughout their whole lives.
In the first minutes of January 3, 1913 — when J. R. R. Tolkien turned 21 — he sat down and wrote a letter to his sweetheart Edith Bratt. It was the letter to reunite them after a three-year separation imposed on the lovers by Tolkien’s guardian Father Francis. What followed was their meeting on January 8, 1913, Edith’s breaking her engagement with George Field and her eventual marriage to Tolkien in 1916.
Two orphans, Ronald and Edith were immediately drawn to each other when they first met in 1908. Ronald was 16 and Edith — 19, but the age difference did not matter. He — a perfect gentleman and she with her engaging manner quickly struck a friendship. Their long bicycle rides and endless talks from the windows of their respective rooms at Duchess Road in Birmingham, life circumstances and types of personalities contributed considerably to the flourish of romance between the two young people. But on learning about it, Tolkien’s legal guardian Father Francis demanded that the romance should stop until Ronald turned 21. When they were seen each other again, Father Francis imposed a ban on any kind of communication between Ronald and Edith altogether. That was to last for three years until Tolkien’s 21st birthday.
This separation only hardened Ronald’s wish to marry Edith. It was a test for his intentions, and during those years he nurtured his feelings on the memories of their time together. Three years is a long period, and having spent it in very different companies, in 1913 Ronald and Edith were very unlike their own selves of several years before. But love was stronger than the circumstances and Ronald was not the one to go back on his promise. Tolkien took the relationship between Edith and himself very seriously: he promised to wait for her and wait he did.
In a letter to his son Michael Tolkien wrote:
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, № 43)
Ronald and Edith’s marriage was not ideal from many points of view. They were very different in education and backgrounds, interests and views on life. Ronald was preoccupied with his work at university and creating his mythology, Edith was busy looking after the house and caring about their children. They often irritated each other: Ronald felt he had the right for the company of male intellectuals, while Edith felt ignored and even jealous, especially of Tolkien’s friendship with C. S. Lewis. She saw her husband was very different with his male friends when they visited him at home — the side he never showed to her, so her feelings were quite understandable.
However, Ronald and Edith were soulmates in many ways. The concept of having a strong family was very alive in both of them, as starting from a very young age neither of them had a real family to grow up in. United by great love for their children and later — grandchildren, Ronald and Edith centred their mutual interest around looking after them and keeping them happy. Their affection to each other showed in small everyday matters and everyone who knew the couple said that even despite all the differences, there was great love between them.
That is exactly what made greater displays of love in their lives possible. Their marriage involved considerable sacrifices on both sides and such are not made lightly. The first person to sacrifice was Edith. First she agreed to marry Ronald which turned her life upside down. The career of a music teacher or a concert pianist that she had intended to pursue was out of the question. After the marriage her main concern would be looking after her family and, besides, in those days a married middle-class woman in England did not usually work as it could question her husband’s ability to provide for his family. Edith was a talented pianist, but her marriage turned it into an interest which she pursued only in her spare time.
Another sacrifice was her conversion to Catholicism. Before her marriage to Ronald Edith had belonged to the Church of England and had been an active member of it. She had felt comfortable and at ease in those surroundings and had earned herself a good reputation in a church in Cheltenham where she had lived. Ronald persuaded her to join the Roman Catholic Church. Edith did so to the great wrath of her ‘Uncle’ Jessop that he ordered her to leave his house when she announced the news. Her conversion to Catholicism also put to naught everything she had done for the Church of England.
Marriage and change of religion divided Edith’s life into before and after, and in her new married state she had to build a big part of her life anew, adjust to the circumstances she was not used to, did not always like and, for that matter, she had to learn to lead an absolutely new life, the novelty not often connected with the duties of a married woman.
Ronald returned the favour in the very end of her life when Edith, suffering severely from arthritis, was in need of a change. The couple moved to Bournemouth where they bought a bungalow so that Edith did not have to climb the stairs and could look after the house the best she could in those days. Tolkien himself — a famous writer and a retired professor by that time — was not happy in Bournemouth as his friends and the intellectual company he preferred remained in Oxford and the society in Bournemouth was too trivial and shallow for his refined taste. Edith was happy, though. She belonged to that society as she had never done to the Oxford intellectual circles, where she had always felt awkward, uncomfortable and left out. In Bournemouth she was happy to talk with people of her class about her family and other things which Ronald might have found trivial, but he was glad to see her happy.
Edith’s death in 1971 was a severe blow for Tolkien, and in his remaining years he never fully recovered from the shock. His life-long companion and partner, Edith was with him through thick and thin and even though their marriage was not without problems, the couple showed that anything can be overcome if a relationship is firmly rooted in mutual love and respect.
This essay has been written in reply to Kenny Vaught’s suggestion on my Facebook page. Thank you, Kenny, for the idea, and I dedicate this essay to you. I am grateful for your reading and the support you show to Middle-earth Reflections!
- H. Carpenter – J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2016.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image: Alfred Wordsworth Thompson – Country Couple (Wikimedia Commons)