Tolkien on the Heresy of Soulmates

I have a lot of favorite blogs that I don’t read every day, but that I tend to explore every month or two. Video Meliora is one of them. I should read him more often, especially since he’s an Ohio blogger and thus has a lot of relevance to my immediate concerns. But I’m a slacker by nature, so I get my fun in widely separated doses.

Anyway, he pointed out a Time magazine essay that included some thought-provoking quotes from Tolkien.

“Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married,” Tolkien wrote. “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.”

Tolkien blamed our “soul mates” obsession on the Romantic chivalric tradition: “Its weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game, a way of enjoying love for its own sake. . . . It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are” — that is, “companions in shipwreck not guiding stars.”

Our old notion of soul mates is not helpful. “The ‘real soul-mate,’” Tolkien wrote, “is the one you are actually married to.”

The desert monks used to teach that anybody you happen to be living around or working with is someone God has sent to you. Okay, sometimes as a penance… but sometimes to learn from, to teach, to pray alongside. Married people obviously have a pretty serious connection. Even if the initial connection was a mistake, people shouldn’t waste time looking for a redo. They should make things better where they are. (Unless you’re actually in a situation of danger, of course.)

We fans tend to get caught up in the romance of young John and Edith Tolkien’s persistence against the odds, and of course the whole Luthien and Beren motif. But we forget that there was a lot of nitty-gritty living between them, for years and years after they were young. Romance only counts if you do something lasting with it — and they did.

There is a lot of sense in the idea of a joint sainthood cause for John and Edith, and this is why. There are a lot of saints who became great individually; but usually people come from families of saints and communities of saints. Mother Teresa learned almsgiving out of poverty at her impoverished widowed mother’s side, not in India.

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