There and Back Again: Tolkien’s letter to his son

Just a few weekends ago, I completed my second Lord of the Rings marathon, marking the bagillionth time I’ve seen each movie. I would find it unusual for those who have also seen the movies (or read the books) multiple times to ever find them “old” or “boring”. The credit for my and many others’ continued infatuation can be credited to the author and literary mastermind, J.R.R. Tolkien, who artistically portrays a world pit between the forces of good and evil in a fantasy novel.

J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a brilliant fantasy novelist, but also an avid beer and tobacco enthusiast, a devout Catholic, and a loving father/husband. While a student at Oxford University, it was quite often that he found himself staying up late into the morning hours having good conversation and drinking beer (sounds like he would have enjoyed Catholic Beer Club very much!).

Although his novels and stories are phenomenal and I would highly recommend them to all CBCers, there is a particular insight you gain into this man’s life by reading his many letters written to his children. There are few things more profound than a loving father sharing his wisdom to his son. One of his letters in particular, written to his son Michael, exhibits this loving wisdom toward the ever important topics for every young adult: love, marriage, and human sexuality.     

Written March 6th, 1941, Tolkien writes as a father concerned not in particular for his physical, but the moral safety of his son. Amidst a world ravaged during the second world war, Tolkien looks beyond that and investigates a world in which young man seek a relationship that offers “innocent, and yet irresponsible” love. The trouble associated with this type of love, Tolkien continues, is that It seeks to “enjoy love for its own sake, without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony.” This is a love that replaces the Divine with the divinity of the woman whom he loves. This, of course, is a false love that lasts only until one finds a brighter “guiding star and divinity”.

The glamor of this type of relationship eventually wears off, and most are left thinking that they have made a mistake- that their soul-mate is still somewhere to be found. Too few are told, even those brought up within the Church, that marriage is not about ‘self-realization’, but rather self-denial and suffering. “For a Christian man, there is no escape… grace may help in the struggle, but the struggle remains.”  The solution that Tolkien offers his son is to continually exercise his will toward self-denial. “In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…”

Tolkien then goes on to relate his own youthful days in the courtship of his own wife. After three years of limited communication, and while in the midst of his schooling and of the first World War, Tolkien asked his wife to marry him. The first years of marriage could have been far from romantic, considering that Tolkien left his schooling to serve as a lowly Second Lieutenant in the infantry- a position with a low chance of survival. A year after getting married, they had their first son, John, who was carried during the U-boat blockade of Great Britain. If you’ve ever talked with grandparents or great grandparents who lived during this time, they will probably tell you as well that, during this time period, there was very little reason for hope and joy, especially as a newly married couple. Despite all of this, Tolkien and his wife saw themselves as “companions in shipwreck” who viewed the overarching struggles of the day as more efficacious than the passing joys.

Despite the constant battle against concupiscence and inevitable hardships within any relationship founded on love, Tolkien ends his letter by offering one final piece of wisdom into the nature of love and relationships:

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the Divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (and foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) can be maintained, or take on that complexity of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires…”



For those interested in reading Tolkien’s full letter to his son, here is the link (letter #43):

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