With deep moral insight, Tolkien understood that those who give themselves most unreservedly to sexual pleasure will derive the least pleasure and fulfillment in the end. As author Joseph Pearce, one of Tolkien’s most insightful interpreters explains, sexual temperance is necessary “because man does not live on sex alone.” Temperance and restraint represent “the moderate path between prudishness and prurience, the two extremes of sexual obsession,” Pearce expands.

Explicit references to sexuality are virtually missing from Tolkien’s published works, allegories, fables, and stories. Nevertheless, sex is always in the background as part of the moral landscape. Joseph Pearce understands this clearly, arguing that Tolkien’s literary characters “are certainly not sexless in the sense of being asexual but, on the contrary, are archetypically and stereotypically sexual.” Pearce makes this claim, notwithstanding the fact that there is no sexual activity or overt sexual enticement found in Tolkien’s tales.

How is this possible? In a profound employment of the moral spirit, Tolkien presented his characters in terms of honor and virtue, with heroic men demonstrating classical masculine virtues and the heroines appearing as women of honor, valor, and purity.

Nevertheless, we would be hard pressed to understand Tolkien’s understanding of sex, marriage, and family if we did not have considerable access into the realities of Tolkien’s family and his role as both husband and father. Tolkien’s letters, especially those written to his three sons, show the loving concern of a devoted father, as well as the rare literary gift Tolkien both possessed and employed with such power.

The letter Tolkien wrote Michael in the year 1941–with the world exploding in war and civilization coming apart at its seams–is a model of fatherly concern, counsel, and instruction. We should be grateful that this letter is now accessible to the larger world, and to the rest of us.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, Tolkien will appear to many to be both out of step and out of tune with the sexual mores of our times. Tolkien would no doubt take this as a sincere, if unintended, compliment. He knew he was out of step, and he steadfastly refused to update his morality in order to pass the muster of the moderns.

Writing to Christopher, his youngest son, Tolkien explained this well. “We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water.” Thanks to these letters, we have more than an inkling of what Tolkien meant.


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This essay appeared in my book Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance. Reprinted here by request.

Publication date: March 11, 2014