Tolkien’s Mysterious “Shipwreck of Love”

The mystical journeys that we take in The Lord of the Rings often cannot be clearly seen.  But whatever we know of our own inner realms, what do we understand of each other?  What are the bonds that bring us together as we really are?  To answer such questions in a way that affirms our sense of hope, we must often gaze into very personal ambiguities; we must seek the selves that wander beyond our familiar clarities.

In the Grey Havens Group meetings of August 8 and August 14, we spent much time discussing the vignette romance of Faramir and Eowyn in “The Steward and the King.”  And one late night between these meetings, studying what Tolkien wrote about this love story in Middle-earth, I suddenly wondered whether he might have drawn upon his own personal experience to write the tale.

To glimpse this story within the tale, I turned to John Garth’s excellent book, Tolkien and the Great War.  There I read how, not long before Tolkien left for the trenches of World War I, he married Edith Bratt in March 1916.  And in only a matter of months as a soldier on the brutal battlefields of France, he became stricken with trench fever.  At the end of October 1916 Tolkien “was transferred to an officers’ hospital a short distance from Beauval, at Gézaincourt” and then to “Le Touquet, and a bed at the Duchess of Westmorland Hospital” (Garth 2003:201).  Next he took passage on a hospital ship, Asturias.  By November 9 he found himself in a bed at the Birmingham First Southern General Hospital.

Tolkien spent the next year falling in and out of trench fever and flu and convalescing in hospitals in Britain – this kept him off the front lines of the war.  Garth provides little insight as to Tolkien’s experiences at these hospitals, but trench fever was a serious illness and it took several years for Tolkien to fully recover.

In 1917, racked by this intermittent illness, Tolkien wrote “The Tale of Tinúviel,” a tragedy of love that became a major piece of his evolving legendarium.  It is well-known that certain aspects of this story memorialize his relationship with his wife Edith, drawing particularly on a moment that happened in the spring of 1917.  After his initial recovery from trench fever, Tolkien was assigned duty at “an outpost of Humber Garrison near Thirtle Bridge at Roos… and Edith was able to live with him” (Garth 2003:238).  There she danced and sang among the hemlocks.  Tolkien wove this scene into his legendarium as a central enchantment in “The Tale of Tinúviel.”

Tolkien wrote his first version of this story while convalescing for nine weeks during the summer of 1917 at Brooklands Officers’ Hospital at Hull.  This hospital “was overseen by a woman glorying in the name of Mrs Strickland Constable” (Garth 2003:240).  This was Margaret (Pakenham) Strickland-Constable (1873-1961), and Garth’s evocative statement suggests that Tolkien was struck by her character in some fashion.  She apparently spoke Swedish, Norwegian, German, French, and Danish, and given his own interest in language, it would not be surprising if Tolkien had some kind of brief friendship with her.  She kept a diary of her time as a nurse at the hospital and it would be interesting to know whether she mentioned Tolkien.  If so, and if they struck up a friendship of some kind, we can guess that it didn’t turn out very well.

Preparing a letter in 1941 to his son Michael, Tolkien offers very detailed guidance about “earthly relationships”  (Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, 1981:48, # 43).  While it would be useful to contextualize some of his commentary in light of common cultural attitudes of the time, it has a disheartening and gloomy tone.

Tolkien felt that men and women could never be friends.  He asserted that friendship “is virtually impossible between man and woman.”  Writing that “‘friendship’ has often been tried” and whether men and women draw together “for generous romantic or tender motives” or via “baser or more animal ones” inevitably “one side or the other nearly always fails.”  “The devil,” Tolkien concluded, “is endlessly ingenious and sex is his favourite subject.”

These notions surely took shape early in his adult life and must have influenced his storytelling when it touched on matters of the heart.  This makes his first full-length love story especially interesting.

We do not have the original 1917 version of “The Tale of Tinúviel”; Tolkien erased it and wrote over the sheets of paper in ink several years later (Christopher Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, 1984:203; The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, 1984:3).  Whatever his original vision, it is a tale of peril and wonder.

Looking for Edith in the tale, we find Tinúviel described as “[s]lender and very dark of hair” and her dancing inspired “dreams and slumbers” and she danced “at night when the moon shone pale[.]”  John Garth quotes a 1971 letter that JRR wrote to son Christopher in which he similarly described Edith in her youth, the woman who inspired him to dream of Tinúviel: “In those days her hair was raven…”

Beyond Edith Tolkien’s dancing and singing in the springtime forest, she helped to shape “The Tale of Tinúviel” in another way.  As John Garth describes (2003:12), Tolkien met Edith in 1908 when he was sixteen and she was nineteen, and they soon fell in love.  Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, “got wind of the romance and banned Tolkien from seeing Edith.”  It took another eight years before they married.  And in “The Tale of Tinúviel” a smitten Beren is sent by Tinúviel’s father to achieve an impossible quest as a condition for marriage.  Beren succeeds, but it is a sad story.

Given the fact that Tolkien wrote this tragic love story in the course of his recovery from trench fever, it is notable that the most complete love story in The Lord of the Rings is that of Faramir and Eowyn, which unfolds in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith.  It is interesting for its contrast to the tragedy of Beren and Luthien.  But what is even more interesting is that of all his characters in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien identified most closely with Faramir.

In a footnote attached to an incomplete draft letter written in January 1956, Tolkien wrote, “As far as any character is ‘like me’ it is Faramir” (Carpenter, 1981:232, #180).  This letter also mentioned that Tolkien gave Faramir a dream that played a crucial role in the development of his legendarium: “…when Faramir speaks of his private vision of the Great Wave, he speaks for me.  That vision and that dream has been ever with me…”  It seems that Tolkien intended to articulate a clear connection to Faramir.

In a letter fragment composed sometime in 1963 (Carpenter, Letters 1981:323, #244), Tolkien spoke of Faramir as “motherless and sisterless” – like Tolkien himself – and of Faramir’s character as “modest, fair-minded and scrupulously just, and very merciful.”  And responding in this note to “[c]riticism of the speed of the relation or ‘love’ of Faramir and Eowyn” Tolkien began his explanation of Eowyn with this interesting observation: “It is possible to love more than one person (of the other sex) at the same time, but in different mode and intensity.”  He ends this letter with an insight drawn from his own life: “In my experience feelings and decisions ripen very quickly… in periods of great stress, and especially under the expectation of imminent death.”

This sounds more intriguingly personal than Tolkien probably intended.  But if Faramir is an echo of Tolkien, could Eowyn have been inspired by someone in Tolkien’s life?  The least speculative inspiration might be to listen for another echo of Edith Tolkien in the character of Eowyn, as with “The Tale of Tinúviel.”

But the problem is that Edith doesn’t fit the implicit circumstances that are suggested in Tolkien’s comments on Faramir and Eowyn.  The clues – if they are clues – might better point to someone else, an unknown woman.  During Tolkien’s various hospitalizations in 1916 and 1917, he was already married to Edith, and in that time “of great stress” he discovered that it was indeed “possible to love more than one person[.]”  This is his own account, though it may not be clear what he meant.

But this might explain his 1941 letter to son Michael.  It is a detailed missive warning about the dangers of associating with women.  The letter ends with autobiographical musings, but I get the impression that an earlier passage also references other more private experiences.  After explicating his ideas about the nature of women as having a special “gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized” by men, Tolkien summoned a scenario that seems to radiate a strong yearning to share unspoken personal experiences:

Before the young woman knows where she is (and while the romantic young man, when he exists, is still sighing) she may actually “fall in love.”  Which for her, an unspoiled natural young woman, means that she wants to become the mother of the young man’s children, even if that desire is by no means clear to her or explicit.  And then things are going to happen: and they may be very painful and harmful, if things go wrong.  Particularly if the young man only wanted a temporary guiding star and divinity (until he hitches his waggon to a brighter one), and was merely enjoying the flattery of sympathy nicely seasoned with a titillation of sex – all quite innocent, of course, and worlds away from “seduction.”

In his own autobiographical Houses of Healing, Tolkien permits us to hear a magical echo of Edith in “The Tale of Tinúviel.”  In this way he poetically affirmed their marriage, transforming it into a legend of the First Age of Middle-earth.  In the case of Eowyn, it would be speculative to suggest that Tolkien meant for her to preserve veiled references to an actual person.  Yet Tolkien openly acknowledged the echoes of himself in Faramir.  And Tolkien famously enjoyed inserting hidden puzzles into his legendarium.  If an actual person inspired some aspect of Eowyn, it would be reasonable to look for this unknown woman somewhere in Tolkien’s experience as a wounded soldier.  This means that he loved someone then, and she is unknown – or rather, she is only known to us through the romance of Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing.

Drawing upon the circumstances of his life to invent Middle-earth, Tolkien’s creativity flowed through the inward lens of his personal moral judgments.  To the extent that such introspections gazed upon the secrets of his love life, we really only know of his feelings for Edith.  But if this is all that Tolkien experienced, then his life with Edith surely does not suffice to explain his rather dark conclusions about love: “A man has a life-work, a career, (and male friends), all of which could (and do where he has any guts) survive the shipwreck of ‘love.’”

Where did that shipwreck come from?  We may never know.  But it hints at a bittersweet voyage, with the tragedy of it memorialized in Tinúviel, and the sweetness of it commemorated in Eowyn’s healing.  Beren came to a tragic end, but Faramir lived happily ever after.  This is powerful magic.  Perhaps this version of Tolkien’s inner world is something that is best glimpsed; a scene in the fading mist of a long-lost world.

Secret paths of selfhood take us to the very edge of what we can know of ourselves, to whisper the far-off spells of selfhood.  For keepers of secrets, clarity must seem dark, foreboding.  Perhaps Tolkien saw our love for one another and our human sexuality as a kind of hopeless shipwreck, for which we need divine intervention.  But this is only part of what he saw.

Choosing to spend his life helping us all to voyage to magical realms, Tolkien wished for hope in the world.  And finding ourselves upon his distant quays, and boarding his magic ships to elsewhere, we can indeed do our best to learn better how to love one another, to heal one another with love, and to become whoever we become next in the journey.

8 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Mysterious “Shipwreck of Love”

  1. Wow…I had never considered this before. Great post. I will have to pay closer attention to this the next time I reread LotR.

  2. Great post. And fascinating. Isn’t it a sad read when opinions about friendship between men and women surface from an earlier era. There are such huge cultural gaps between the genders, amost as if we were different spieces and not humans and humans. Nietzsche wrote a lot about interaction between the genders too, and it can be quite depressive reading, I came to think of that when I read your quote on Tolkien, because Nietzsche actually writes too that woman is not capable of friendship, only love. And yet, he actually had a female friend in Louise von Salome for many years.
    I personally wonder how Tolkien’s view on women changed after he had a daughter, if it did.

  3. I have often thought that biographies must reveal much less about a person than we know. Think of how much richer your own inner life is than anyone suspects. This is a speculation but it is a vivid and plausible one. Most of all, I think that The Inklings concerned themselves with love in all of its nuanced forms. Thank you for reminding us of that.

  4. To Ilverai, Reodwyn, and Badgaladriel: Thank you for your thoughtful and generous comments. A very lively discussion occurred at the August 14 meeting of the Grey Havens Group when I set forth some of the information that appears in this post. I always feel energized by our lively exchanges and the swift whirl of observations and opinions that carry us off into the night, and on that evening perhaps half of the eleven other attending members spoke up to express interest in this topic. We take on a special burden when we delve into private biography, and while I suspect that Tolkien would not appreciate my efforts above, I think we sometimes learn very important and inexplicable things when we delve into the secret essences that encircle the deep places where we go to become ourselves. Tolkien’s unknown inner life, whatever it involved, surely felt both beautiful and painful to him, and it is impossible for any outside observer to capture the mysterious and momentous spirit of that world. But in the end, if Tolkien’s outward creative works matter to us, then his inward world also matters, even if we must guess at what happened there.

  5. I was interested in your comments about Mary Strickland-Constable and Tolkien. I have recently read her diaries ( they are in the archives in Beverley East Yorkshire – they are written in a series of exercise books), as I was doing research about military hospitals in Hull and I’m afraid there is no mention of Tolkien in them, though I agree it would have been nice if there had been.

    • Thanks for the note, Dave! Had Tolkien gotten to know Mrs. Strickland-Constable, it makes sense to think they would have found some common interests. I appreciate your clarification about her diaries. I guess it seems most likely that if Tolkien struck up some kind of friendship with a member of the staff, it would have more likely been a younger nurse or medical aide of some kind — a young woman who worked at Brooklands under Mrs. Strickland-Constable. But this possibility remains speculative. Thank you for writing to share what you have learned in your research! If you ever get a chance to look at any of Tolkien’s papers that mention his time at Brooklands, please give some thought to writing something for us about it.

      • I studied Margaret Strickland-Constable’s diaries last week, and can confirm there is no mention of Tolkien in them. However, they paint a vivid picture of the Zeppelin raids in the area, and there is at least one tragic case of a young soldier she was nursing, who died in painful circumstances.

  6. I recently came across some information that will interest you, Talelmarhazad. Scull and Hammond’s JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology contains a brief entry on the March 1941 letter you quote, written by Tolkien to his son Michael. This letter was written in reference to Michael’s circumstance as a soldier recovering in the Worchester Royal Infirmary. Michael formed what Scull and Hammond refer to as an “attachment” with Joan Griffiths, a nurse at the hospital, and they married on November 11, 1941. The March 1941 letter is interesting for many reasons, but the portion you quote is not necessarily relevant in any direct way to Tolkien’s own personal history as a wounded soldier in World War I.

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