Companions in Shipwreck: How JRR Tolkien Hitched His Waggon to a Guiding Star
Roger Echo-Hawk (June 2015)
JRR Tolkien populated his tales of Middle-earth with many fascinating women, but the fifteen primary characters of The Hobbit and the nine primary characters of The Lord of the Rings do not include any females. This situation has properly led to much critical discussion about his creative choices regarding gender. A common theme is that the near-total absence of women in The Hobbit and the secondary nature of the handful of female characters in The Lord of the Rings must signify a profound male-centered regard, perhaps rooted in some form of misogynistic worldview.
Seeking to counter this criticism, Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan collected a number of essays and published them in 2015, Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien. The stated goal of this collection is “to remedy perceptions that Tolkien’s works are bereft of female characters, are colored by anti-feminist tendencies, and have yielded little serious academic work on women’s issues.” A spectrum of valuable perspectives and analyses make this work indispensable for everyone who has a strongly held opinion about Tolkien and women.
Yet it is curious that so little attention is given in this collection to a lengthy and detailed letter that Tolkien wrote in 1941 on women, sex, and marriage. One would think that such a relevant document would provide for much useful analysis and contemplation in any volume pertaining to women and Tolkien. But skimming Perilous and Fair, only a few brief moments are given to that letter. In a fine paper on Tolkien’s relations with women in his early life and in academia, John Rateliff described the 1941 letter as “one of the most notorious things JRR Tolkien ever wrote…” This opinion does not seem a very promising characterization for those who would rescue Tolkien’s image from criticism on women’s issues.
It was just a few months after composing that 1941 letter when Tolkien invented Galadriel. And three years later he came up with another female character, a princess, Éowyn – in 1946 he at last sat down to tell her story. I would suggest that the 1941 letter and other aspects of Tolkien’s biography deserve to be considered when pondering Éowyn. In my argument below, I touch on just a few aspects of the 1941 letter.
John Garth’s excellent book, Tolkien and the Great War, describes Tolkien’s experience with what was then a mysterious and debilitating malady. In the spring of 1916 Tolkien married Edith Bratt; he soon thereafter set forth for the trenches of World War One. After just a few 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.” 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 far from the front lines of the war. Garth provides little insight as to Tolkien’s experiences at these hospitals, but it took several years for him 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.” 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 nursing staff was managed by Margaret (Pakenham) Strickland-Constable. She apparently spoke Swedish, Norwegian, German, French, and Danish. Given Tolkien’s interest in language, it would not be surprising if he had some kind of brief friendship with her. But according to researcher Dave Hanson (November 2012 blog comment), Strickland-Constable’s diaries do not mention Tolkien.
Several decades later Michael Tolkien, one of JRR’s sons, joined the British military and in 1941 found himself in a hospital, recovering from an accident. There he fell in love with a nurse named Joan Griffiths. They soon announced their intention to marry. Their first son – also named Michael – was born in 1943. Many years later, this son recalled that the union was not a source of joy to JRR and Edith Tolkien. Instead, they “disapproved of my father Michael’s hasty wartime marriage to my mother.” This opposition was due to “his lack of means and prospects” and to Joan’s “uncultured, lower middle class” status, as well as her religious background in the Church of England rather than the Catholic Church. This family conflict “took the form of irate and pompous letters on either side…”
Preparing one such letter in early March 1941, JRR offered a lengthy disquisition on “earthly relationships” (see an excerpt in The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter editor, JRR Tolkien letter to son Michael Tolkien, # 43, 6-8 March 1941, p. 48-54). 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. 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 (see p. 238) 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, 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 Éowyn, 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.” 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, 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 Éowyn” Tolkien began his explanation of Éowyn 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 Éowyn have been inspired in some part by a woman in Tolkien’s life? The least speculative inspiration might be to listen for another echo of Edith Tolkien in the character of Éowyn, as with “The Tale of Tinúviel.” A parallel is suggested in the way that Faramir and Éowyn fall in love in a hospital, and JRR and Edith conceived their first son while he was recovering from trench fever. But during Tolkien’s various hospitalizations in 1916 and 1917, while married to Edith, in that time “of great stress” it seems that he somehow discovered that it was “possible to love more than one person[.]” This is his own account, though it isn’t clear what he meant.
But this might explain certain aspects of 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, and one fascinating passage seems to radiate a strong yearning to share unspoken personal experiences. Tolkien begins with a theoretical “young woman” caught up in a sexual fervor, who then “may actually ‘fall in love.’” In such a case “things are going to happen: and they may be very painful and harmful, if things go wrong.” This seemingly represents an effort to share a bit of good advice, but it is followed with a peculiar apology: “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[.]” Tolkien then assures us that any such dalliance, if any such theoretical young man ever happened to get theoretically caught up in just such a theoretical scenario with a theoretical young woman, well, anyway, it was really “all quite innocent, of course, and worlds away from ‘seduction.’”
This strange passage makes no sense as a flight of pure fancy. It could be read as an awkward skirting of Michael’s particular circumstances. But it does sound very much like a thinly veiled confession of some kind. It would be understandable if Tolkien felt some impulse to confide in his son Michael, to explain his life – and to then decide that whatever happened simply felt impossible. In any case, we are left glimpsing a mysterious “shipwreck of love,” as Tolkien put it.
In his own autobiographical Houses of Healing, Tolkien invited 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 Éowyn, it is speculative to suggest that Tolkien meant for her to preserve veiled references to any actual person. Yet he openly acknowledged the echoes of himself in Faramir. And I believe that he enjoyed inserting hidden puzzles into his legendarium.
If an actual person inspired some aspect of Éowyn, it would be reasonable to look for this unknown woman somewhere in Tolkien’s experience as a hospitalized soldier. It is interesting that Margaret Strickland-Constable was in charge of the nurses at Brooklands Officers’ Hospital. According to the The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the word “constable” refers to the “count (head officer) of the stable.” In The Peoples of Middle-earth Tolkien wrote (p. 53) that the name Éowyn contained the “element éo-“ which is “an old word meaning ‘horse.’”
Tolkien selected this name long before he invented her stint in the Minas Tirith Houses of Healing. But perhaps the name suggested this plot development to Tolkien – up until 1946 his outlines all had Éowyn getting killed in the course of battling the Witch-King. So the change in her fortunes and the invention of the Houses of Healing entered the tale at the same moment. Was this new plot development derived from remembrance of some young nurse at Brooklands? Explaining the secrets of womanhood to son Michael in his 1941 letter, Tolkien’s theory was that the “sexual impulse” made women “very sympathetic and understanding” with a “servient, helpmeet instinct” – echoing the very stereotype of a nurse. If Tolkien’s affections turned to just such a “temporary guiding star,” she is unknown now – or rather, she is only known to us through the romance of Faramir and Éowyn 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. The Tolkien family has not released either Tolkien’s private diaries or his correspondence with Edith. But the 1941 letter certainly leaves us with some 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 the full details. But it hints at a bittersweet voyage, with the tragedy of it memorialized in Tinúviel, and the sweetness of it commemorated in Éowyn’s healing. Beren came to a tragic end, but Faramir lived happily ever after. If all these narrative threads are woven together in some part from aspects of Tolkien’s inner world, perhaps it is best that we are given something that is merely glimpsed; a scene in the fading mist of a long-lost world. This is powerful magic.
A final point can be made about Tolkien’s Houses of Healing. His 1941 letter focused on “the romantic chivalric tradition… as a product of Christendom.” He regarded this religious element as “God’s way of refining so much of our gross manly natures and emotion”; and he explained his view that women are “instinctively… monogamous” whereas “Men just ain’t, not by their animal natures.” Self-denial and suffering provide paths to the highest ideals that males can achieve in “a fallen world.” In “The Houses of Healing” it is arguable that Tolkien has Aragorn embody the virtues of chivalric tradition. Éowyn suffers from a magical malady as debilitating as trench fever, and Aragorn summons her back from darkness, placing her hand in her brother’s hand as she awakens. With this action, Tolkien reveals Aragorn as virtuous and wise – a kingly figure who has overcome his male animalistic nature.
In a later chapter, Tolkien revisits the Houses of Healing to bring together Faramir and Éowyn in an equally decorous tale of romance. And it is interesting that Tolkien identified with Faramir. Both he and Faramir suffered in war. In their Houses of Healing they both found occasion to explore their sexual selves. So when we visit Tolkien’s fictional Houses of Healing, we find him pausing to consider model sexual behaviors for men. Faramir marries a princess equal to his own station in life, not a nurse eager to bear his children. We can only guess how Michael Tolkien read this story. He wrote a memoir about his life which his oldest son, also named Michael, termed “unpublishable” – an autobiography that attempted “to make sense of and to some extent idealise the conflicts and confusions of his childhood…”
As JRR Tolkien saw the matter, in the pre-Christian pre-Medieval realms of ancient Middle-earth, Aragorn and Faramir both prove unerring in adhering to ideals that echo chivalric tradition. And through them, Tolkien has a moral message for fallen animalistic males of the far future. With God and Christendom in hand, we men can indeed hope for some refinement of “our gross manly natures and emotion.” As Tolkien noted in his 1963 draft letter about Faramir and Éowyn, the story “does not deal with a period of ‘Courtly Love’ and its pretences; but with a culture more primitive (sc. less corrupt) and nobler.”
The mingling of biography with analysis of literary creativity is necessarily an art, not a science. In so doing, we must sometimes take journeys that wander beyond our familiar clarities – journeys to places that must first be glimpsed before they can be clearly seen. 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 at times Tolkien saw our love for one another and our human sexuality as a kind of hopeless shipwreck, for which we need divine intervention. But if so, this is only part of what he saw. Choosing to spend his life helping us all to voyage to magical realms, JRR Tolkien wished for hope in the world. And finding ourselves upon his distant quays, and boarding his magic ships to elsewhere, we encounter both sorrow and hope. But we can indeed do our best to learn better how to love one another; we can learn how to heal one another with love; we can keep on becoming whoever we become next in the journey.