Here at the blog we celebrate some dates and anniversaries in our quirky way. The seasons, DNA Day, Bitcoin Pizza Day, Bitcoin’s Birthday, and in today’s post the anniversary of the marriage of J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien. Every year we honor some of these moments with a few words, and for this year’s Tolkien anniversary Hazel Anna Rogers has the podium. Take it Hazel!
– Carl Kruse
The year is 1908, and Edith Mary Bratt, aged 19, is living in boarding house situated in Edgbaston, an affluent suburb in southwest Birmingham. She came here alone, parentless, having spent the last few years of her life at another boarding school in Evesham, Worcestershire, after her mother died in 1903. She doesn’t know who her father is.
Two boys move to the boarding house in 1908. They are orphans too, and their names are Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Hilary is 14, and Ronald is 16.
The three orphans quickly form a tight bond, and, the next year, Ronald and Edith fall deeply in love, a young, vibrant love that was to endure the brutal tests of time. They are bound to secrecy by the Roman Catholics that reign over their lives; Father Francis, guardian of the two Tolkien boys, and Mrs Faulkner, an avid member of the local parish, and owner of the boarding house. But these arbitrary religious boundaries cannot stop them.
The two lovers spend their evenings talking through their windows, which stand one on top of the other, and regularly pinch various treats and morsels of food on which to picnic on in Edith’s room. They meet together at a nearby teashop and sit laughing on the balcony together, throwing sugar lumps on unsuspecting city walkers below.
Their naïve and joyous secret affair does not survive the year undetected. Father Francis, upon discovering the passions of the young folk, forbids their love on the grounds that Edith, as an Anglican, could lead the boy astray both religiously and academically. Spurred on in his quest to destroy this bond as a result of Ronald’s failure to acquire a scholarship for Oxford, Father Francis proceeds to prohibit any contact, including letter-writing, between Ronald and Edith until Ronald turned 21. Ronald and Hilary are moved to different lodgings.
Three long years did Ronald spend dreaming of Edith, of her wonderful voice, her gentle touch, and the delightful moments they had spent together. He did eventually achieve a scholarship to Exeter College in Oxford, where he would soon begin writing.
The year is 1913, and the fervor of war is in the air. The day is the 3rd of January, and it is Ronald’s 21st birthday. He has just sat down to write a letter to Edith, requesting a meeting. He cannot get the words right, for how could he possibly translate those years of hardship away from her in the space of a page? After much deliberation, the letter is completed, and Edith receives it the next day.
Edith, during this time, has all but given up on Ronald. The nights she spent alone, weeping on his memory, were over. She was engaged to another, and Ronald’s letter took her by surprise, but she agreed to meet within in a few days.
Oh! To meet again, when one thought love was dead!
The day that Ronald and Edith met was a day without time. None who crossed their path that day could distract them from each other, and they walked and talked until their shadows lengthened and blended with the dark of evening. That evening, Edith accepts Ronald’s proposal for marriage, and cuts off her prior engagement without remorse. They marry three years later, in 1916.
Early images of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien.
World War One, 1914. The boys and men of England have departed, leaving their sisters, their mothers, their loves.
Days after the wondrous union of Ronald and Edith, Ronald is sent to war in France, leaving Edith pregnant with their first son, John Francis Reuel. Mere months did he spend in service, having quickly become plagued with trench fever which rendered him useless in battle. His waking hours were spent in a state of dizziness, weakness, shooting bodily pains and piercing headaches. Declared unfit, Ronald returns to Kingston-Upon-Hull, Yorkshire, where he was stationed by the military. Edith soon gives birth, and John is born on the 16th of November, 1917.
A certain walk taken by the two lovers during this time is often spoken of as the catalyst for Ronald’s foray into the fantastical and mythical worlds that would soon dominate his writing. This walk took place near their Yorkshire home, in the woods of Roos. As they walked, Edith began dancing for Ronald amidst the trees and lethal hemlock that grew from the forest floor. Inspired by this sacred occasion, Ronald wrote the Song of Beren and Lúthien, a story of a mortal man and an Elven maiden that would enchant readers for years to come. After Edith died, Ronald wrote on that fated event in a letter to one of his sons, Christopher:
‘In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.’
The story of Edith and Ronald goes on; more children are had, more books are written, more laughs are laughed. Such a tale seems almost too much like a fairy tale to be true, and perhaps that is why this love story has been celebrated for so long. Through all the trials and tribulations of life, two people stood together, while everything and everyone around them changed.
J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien in Oxford, 1961
It is interesting to think on the personal life of a writer, when all one knows of them are the words of their books. For I, growing up with tomes of Tolkien on my bedside, his name was cursory to the fantasy worlds I climbed into, worlds carefully crafted by his pen. It is strange to learn of a human behind these books, for in the past I saw but the books, not the man who created them. But, if anything, learning of Tolkien’s loves and losses has merely enriched his work for me. Now, in the character of Lúthien, found in the Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, The War of the Jewels, and other titles, I see Edith, and in the ethereal images that Tolkien fashions of her, I bear witness to his everlasting love. It is a love that binds them together still, under gravestones where they lay side by side. Beneath their respective names, their fictional pseudonyms are engraved: Beren and Lúthien.
Happy Anniversary to them both.
The Carl Kruse blog home page is at https://www.carlkruse.com
Contact: carl at carlkruse DOT com
For another take on the relationship between J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien see here.
Hazel Anna Rogers’ last article for the blog was Writing in Winter.