Everything I need to know about romance, I learned from Tolkien (part I): Introduction

Map of Lothlorien
Looking for love? Consider a visit to fair Lothlórien. With undying grass, and elanor, and niphredil about the feet, who knows what fancies may arise in the heart?

When I was a boy I spent absurd amounts of time devouring the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. In those happy hours I learned much about Northern courage, eucatastrophe, the value of mercy, woodcraft, how to talk to dragons (riddling talk, don’t reveal your proper name, don’t make fun until you’re out of the dragon’s fire-breathing range) and the handiness of Elf-swords in tight spots. And, though I was too young to appreciate it, in those hours I also imbibed much – everything I needed to know, in fact – about romance.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Tolkien’s surface may have appeared curmudgeon-ish, but at heart he was a hopeless romantic. And Arda, Tolkien’s sub-creation, reflects the character of her sub-creator: romantic sensibilities run through the world like a strong river, no less strong for remaining mostly subterranean. Beren and Luthien are the central characters of the history of Middle-earth. And in Tolkien’s Letters you’ll find a passage where he calls his description of Cerin Amroth (Book II, ch. 4) the heart of The Lord of the Rings.[1] Cerin Amroth, of course, is where Aragorn and Arwen had “walked unshod on the undying grass with elanor and niphredil about their feet. And there upon that hill they looked east to the Shadow and west to the Twilight, and they plighted their troth and were glad.”[2]

What is surprising, given Tolkien’s generally antiquated principles, is just how contemporary his romantic notions are. You won’t find any good characters marrying for wealth or station anywhere in his works. His romantic heroes and heroines defy stodgy tut-tutting parents. And in Middle-earth you won’t find any of the rationalism that marks Austen’s romances: attachments in Arda form with astonishing speed. When Tolkien sends his characters someone to love, the goose goes from frozen to cooked faster than Cornelius Hackl can sing “It Only Takes a Moment.” And where Tolkien does diverge from contemporary sensibilities is a most welcome place: he places a high value on the constancy of attachments. So romantic attachments spring up in an instant, but they have enough root in themselves to last a whole lifetime, producing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. Pretty sweet, eh?

In short, in Tolkien we have a reliable guide for navigating what Ira Gershwin calls “the bumpy road to love.” Amazingly, though, scarcely anyone has noticed, and no one has published any kind of practical guide to help one unpack the riches of Tolkien on romance.

Until this month. For in this little corner of the blogosphere, from the same man who revolutionized Beowulf scholarship, invented multiple languages, and once uttered the phrase “Shadowfax will show her the meaning of haste,” you will learn everything you need to know about finding, winning, and keeping the love of your life . I don’t know how often the phrase “can’t-miss blogging” gets thrown about. But Tolkien on romance, my friends, is can’t-miss blogging waiting to happen.

* * *

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 221 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[2] Tolkien, The Return of the King 341 (Houghton Mifflin 1965). “Of course” – the story of Cerin Amroth is in an Appendix to The Lord of the Rings. So Tolkien liked hiding the “heart” of his works in appendices. We should know enough about him to search out the “heart” of his works there. Right?


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