From Father to Son: J.R.R. Tolkien on Sex
- Tuesday, March 11, 2014
As any reader of Tolkien’s works understands, Tolkien was a romantic at heart. He celebrated the fact that “in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition [is] still strong,” though he recognized that “the times are inimical to it.” Even so, as a concerned father, Tolkien warned Michael to avoid allowing his romantic instinct to lead him astray, fooled by “the flattery of sympathy nicely seasoned with a titillation of sex.”
Beyond this, Tolkien demonstrated a profound understanding of male sexuality and the need for boundaries and restraint. Even as he was often criticized for having an overly negative understanding of male sexuality, Tolkien presented an honest assessment of the sex drive in a fallen world. He argued that men are not naturally monogamous. “Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh.” In his own times, Tolkien had seen the binding power of cultural custom and moral tradition recede into the historical memory. With the “sexual revolution” already visible on the horizon, Tolkien believed that Christianity’s revealed sex ethic would be the only force adequate to restrain the unbridled sexuality of fallen man. “Each of us could healthfully beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process,” Tolkien admonished his son. Nevertheless, the joys and satisfactions of monogamous marriage provide the only true context for sexuality without shame. Furthermore, Tolkien was confident that Christianity’s understanding of sex and marriage pointed to eternal, as well as temporal pleasures.
Even as he celebrated the integrity of Christian marriage, Tolkien advised Michael that true faithfulness in marriage would require a continual exercise of the will. Even in marriage, there remains a demand for denial, he insisted. “Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him–as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.”
Tolkien traced unhappiness in marriage, especially on the part of the husband, to the Church’s failure to teach these truths and to speak of marriage honestly. Those who see marriage as nothing more than the arena of ecstatic and romantic love will be disappointed, Tolkien understood. “When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along.”
With these words, Tolkien advised his middle son that marriage is an objective reality that is honorable in the eyes of God. Thus, marriage defines its own satisfactions. The integrity of Christian marriage requires a man to exercise his will even in the arena of love and to commit all of his sexual energy and passion to the honorable estate of marriage, refusing himself even the imagination of violating his marital vows.
In a letter to his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien advised: “Christian marriage is not a prohibition of sexual intercourse, but the correct way of sexual temperance–in fact probably the best way of getting the most satisfying sexual pleasure . . . .” In the face of a world increasingly committed to sexual anarchy, Tolkien understood that sex must be respected as a volatile and complex gift, bearing potential for great pleasure and even greater pain.
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