"Aldarion and Erendis" & Tolkien's Views of the Sacrament of Marriage

"There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even though they cause a fuss. Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out---or if worth a fight: just insist. Such matters may arise frequently--the glass of beer, the pipe, the non writing of letters, the other friend, etc. etc. If the other side's claims really are unreasonable (as they are at times between the dearest lovers and most loving married folk) they are much better met by above board refusal and 'fuss' than subterfuge."
--Letter to Michael Tolkien, 12 March 1941 (Biography 156-157)

"Still you are my flesh and blood, and carry on the name. It is something to be the father of a good solider. Can't you see why I care so much about you, and why all that you do concerns me so closely? Still, let us both take heart of hope and faith. The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it. There is a place called 'heaven' where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and hopes unfilled, are continued."
Letter to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941

Tolkien in a lengthy letter to his son Michael (6-8 March 1941) written in response to Michael's sudden possible engagement to Joan Griffiths, a nurse Michael had met while in the Worcester Royal Infirmary during his injury in WWII, set outs some of his observations and views about marriage:

  1. Sex should not be the sole way of dealing with one's wife. A true lover brings the sexual element into relationship with the other aspects of mind and body.
  2. Men should fear the dangers of concupiscence, especially under the guise of friendship with another woman. Tolkien is not at all convinced that cross-gender friendships are possible unless they occur later in life or perhaps between saints.
  3. The chivalric tradition made false gods out of Love and Lady, though it did mix with piety to combine a healthy devotion to Mary.
  4. The chivalric view of marriage has some positive elements, but it must not create a false reality where the sexual is unacknowledged.
  5. Women and romantic love are seeking other things than men, especially the desire to bear the "young man's children. " This often ignores the man's brief search for romantic titillation.
  6. Male vocation and friendship go on after marriage, as does female interest in establishing a home. Women are far less deceived about men, their faults, and sex in general.
  7. Monogamy is "for us men a piece of 'revealed' ethic," something requiring mortification and self-control in a fallen world. A Christian marriage requires men to take seriously the self-will involved with being faithful in this area.
  8. The claims of finding a soul-mate are a delusion to justify divorce. "[T]he 'real soul-mate' is the one you are actually married to." The ideal of a great love is seductive and dazzling, but mostly a crock. Life and circumstances are the means by which God shapes us in marriage.
  9. The Eucharist is at the center of what each person really wants from romance, fidelity, and so on. 

Tolkien also in a letter that he had apparently planned to send to C.S. Lewis, then never did, argued against Lewis' notion of the acceptable difference between a civil and an ecclesiastical marriage. He insisted that:

  1. The Christian view of marriage, "monogamous, permanent, rigidly 'faithful'" is true for all humanity, and not simply a Christian doctrine.
  2. "Toleration of divorce . . is toleration of a human abuse." Divorce injures the person, the spouse, and the community.
  3. This creates a situation where culture makes it increasingly hard to bring up Christian youth in Christian understandings of marriage and sex.
  4. Two sets of vows really implies that the true vows are civil and the the churchly vows are just private peccadilloes. 

Keeping in mind that a more complete picture of Tolkien's views of marriage and of family would need to account for his actual practice in both family and with female students and acquaintances, nonetheless what guidance can his views expressed here give to how we read his devastating portrait of a marriage turned bitter in "Aldarion and Erendis"?

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the nature of Aldarion and Erendis' separate characters? How does this give insight into both their attraction and their desire for different things?
  • What is the nature of Aldarion's relationship with his father, Meneldur?
  • How do various events in the story mirror the state of the Aldarion and Erendis' relationship?
  • What is Tolkien seeking to achieve through their elongated courtship?
  • Is there any truth to Núneth's counsel to Erendis? (cf. 191-192)
  • Is Aldarion's desire for the Sea adulterous? Why or why not?
  • Does Aldarion's political involvement in any way excuse his actions?
  • Should we be entirely sympathetic to Erendis' actions?
  • What truth is there in Meneldur's counsel concerning the nature of betrothment? (cf. 195-196)
  • How would you describe their treatment of their daughter? How does it impact her in the long run?
  • In theory, what advice would Tolkien give Aldarion and Erendis concerning their marriage?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding