Edith Tolkien

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Edith Mary Tolkien (21 January 1889 – 29 November 1971; née Bratt), was the wife and muse of novelist J. R. R. Tolkien. She is best known as the inspiration for his fictional characters Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Evenstar.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Edith Bratt was born in Gloucestershire, the daughter of Frances Bratt, an unmarried shoemaker's daughter. The name of Edith's father remains unknown. She was brought up in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham, by her mother and also her cousin, Jenny Grove (related to Sir George Grove).

By 1908 Edith, a talented pianist,[1] had become an orphan. She first met Tolkien in that year, when he and his younger brother Hilary moved into the same boarding house. At the time, Tolkien was 16 years old and Edith was 19. According to Humphrey Carpenter,

"Edith and Ronald took to frequenting Birmingham teashops, especially one which had a balcony overlooking the pavement. There they would sit and throw sugarlumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar bowl was empty. ...With two people of their personalities and in their position, romance was bound to flourish. Both were orphans in need of affection, and they found that they could give it to each other. During the summer of 1909, they decided that they were in love."[2]

However, before the end of the year the relationship had become known to Tolkien's guardian, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Viewing Edith as a distraction from Tolkien's schoolwork and bothered by her Anglican religion, he forbade any contact between them until Tolkien became a legal adult at twenty-one.[1]

Tolkien grudgingly obeyed this instruction to the letter while Father Morgan's guardianship lasted. However on the evening of his twenty-first birthday, Tolkien wrote a letter to Edith, who had since moved to Cheltenham.[3] It contained a declaration of his love and asked her to marry him. She replied saying that she was already engaged but subtly implied that she had become so out of a belief that Tolkien had forgotten her. Within a week, Tolkien had journeyed to Cheltenham[4] where Edith met him at the railway station. That day, Edith returned her ring and announced her engagement to Tolkien instead.[5]

Marriage[edit]

Following their engagement in January 1913, Edith announced that she was converting to the Roman Catholic Church at Tolkien's insistence. As she was heavily involved in her local Anglican parish, she resented Tolkien's demands. Despite her misgivings, her landlord, a staunch Protestant, was infuriated and instantly turned her out of the house.[6] They were married in the Catholic Church of St. Mary Immaculate[2] in Warwick, England, on Wednesday 22 March 1916.[7] Their week-long honeymoon was spent at Clevedon, in North Somerset, and included a visit to the Cheddar Caves.[7] Edith had four children, three sons and one daughter, born in 1917, 1920, 1924 and 1929 (below).

Soon after their wedding, Tolkien commenced a course at the British Army signals school at Otley, and Edith moved to be as close to his military camp as possible, moving with her cousin Jennie Grove to a cottage in the village of Great Haywood, where she lived from April 1916 to February 1917.[8] Due to their wedding occurring during Lent, only the Marriage Service and not the Nuptial Mass had been performed; the couple received a nuptial blessing at the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, in Great Haywood.[7]

World War I[edit]

Tolkien was subsequently transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force and arrived in France on 4 June 1916.[9] He later wrote:

Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death.[10]

Tolkien's service at the Battle of the Somme was very difficult for Edith, as she feared that every knock on the door might carry news of her husband's death. In order to get around the British Army's postal censorship, John Ronald and Edith arranged a means for his letters from the trenches to contain coded messages. By deciphering the code, Edith was able to track his movements on a map of the Front.

Homefront[edit]

After Tolkien's return from France, their first child, John Francis Reuel (16 November 1917–22 January 2003) was born in Cheltenham.

While Tolkien was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock:

We walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers.[11]

This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien, and Tolkien often referred to Edith as "my Lúthien."[12]

Post war[edit]

After World War I, they had three more children: Michael Hilary Reuel (October 1920 – 1984), Christopher John Reuel (1924–) and Priscilla Anne Reuel (1929–).

Professor's wife[edit]

Tolkien's professional career at the universities of Leeds and Oxford resulted in the family moving to these cities. According to Humphrey Carpenter, Edith was definitely not an intellectual and had a very difficult time functioning around her husband's colleagues and their families. As she often had no other companionship other than the children and the servants, Edith's loneliness frequently manifested itself as authoritarianism. Another result of her loneliness was her envy and resentment of her husband's close friendship with C.S. Lewis, whom she regarded as an intruder into her family.

According to Carpenter,

"There was also the problem of Edith's attitude to Catholicism. Before they were married, Ronald had persuaded her to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic, and she had resented this a little at the time. During the subsequent years she had almost given up going to Mass. In the second decade of marriage her anti-Catholic feelings hardened, and by the time the family returned to Oxford in 1925 she was showing resentment of Ronald taking the children to church. In part, these feelings were due to Ronald's rigid, almost medieval, insistence upon frequent confession; and Edith had always hated confessing her sins to a priest. Nor could he discuss her feelings with her in a rational matter, certainly not with the lucidity he demonstrated in his theological arguments with Lewis: to Edith he presented only his emotional attachment to religion, of which she had little understanding. Occasionally, her smouldering anger about church going burst into a fury; but at last after one such outburst in 1940 there was true reconciliation between her and Ronald, in which she explained her feelings and even declared that she wished to resume the practice of her religion. In the event she did not return to regular church going, but for the rest of her life, she showed no resentment of Catholicism, and indeed delighted to take an interest in church affairs, so that it appeared even to friends who were Catholics that she was a regular church-goer."[13]

Later life[edit]

According to Humphrey Carpenter,

"Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other's health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other's birthday presents; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren."[14]

In a 1992 lecture, George Sayer recalled his friendship with the Tolkiens during the 1950s and '60s, "

"If I was there in the right time in the afternoon he would take me to have tea in the drawing room of the floor below, Edith Tolkien's room. The atmosphere was quite different, with hardly any papers and few books. She did most of the talking and it was not at all literary. Frequent subjects were the doings of the children, especially Christopher, the grandchildren, the garden in which I think Ronald enjoyed working, the iniquities of the Labour Party, the rising price of food, the changes for the worse in the Oxford shops and the difficulty in buying certain groceries. The road had deteriorated since they moved there. It used to be a quiet cul-de-sac. Now the lower end had been opened up and lorries and cars rushed through on their way to a building site or to the Oxford United's football ground. There were some very noisy people on the road. They even had as near neighbors an aspiring pop group. Ronald... told me that when she was younger Edith had been a fine pianist. Some of the conversation was about music. On one occasion she played to us on a very simple old-fashioned gramophone a record she had just bought. Her husband was relaxed and happy with this domesticity. Anyway, it was an important part of his life. Without a liking for the homely and domestic, he could not have written The Hobbit, or created Frodo and Sam Gamgee, characters that sustain quite convincingly the story of The Lord of the Rings, and link the high romance to the everyday and the ordinary."[15]

After his retirement during the 1960s, Ronald decided to move with Edith to a location near Bournemouth, which was then a resort town patronized by the British upper class. Although his status as a bestselling author gave them both easy entry into local society, Tolkien was never comfortable in Bournemouth and missed the company of his fellow intellectuals. Edith, however, was at last in her element as a society matron, which had been Tolkien's intention in selecting their new residence in the first place. Their grandson Simon Tolkien states on his website that Edith loved spending time at Bournemouth's Miramar Hotel.[16]

Death[edit]

The grave of J. R. R. and Edith Tolkien, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.

Edith Tolkien died on 29 November 1971 at the age of 82, and was buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien was buried with her when he died twenty-one months later.

Legacy[edit]

Below the names on their grave are the names of the characters of Beren and Lúthien: in Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. After Beren was captured by the forces of the dark lord Morgoth, Lúthien rode to his rescue upon the talking wolfhound Huan. Ultimately, when Beren was slain in battle against the demonic wolf Carcharoth, Lúthien, like Orpheus, approached the Valar gods and persuaded them to restore her beloved to life.

Shortly after his wife's death, Tolkien wrote the following in a letter to their son Christopher.

"I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos."[17]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b (Great War 2003, pg 12)
  2. ^ Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien; The Authorised Biography," page 44.
  3. ^ (Great War 2003, pg 29)
  4. ^ (Great War 2003, pg 29 & 43)
  5. ^ (Biography 1977, pg 67-69)
  6. ^ (Biography 1977, pg 73)
  7. ^ a b c (Great War 2003, pg 134)
  8. ^ (Great War 2003, pg 134 & 231)
  9. ^ Garth, John Tolkien and the Great War, Boston, Houghton Mifflin 2003, pp.89, 138, 147.
  10. ^ Quoted in John Garth, "Tolkien and the Great War," page 138.
  11. ^ Following rural English usage, Tolkien used the name "hemlock" for various plants with white flowers in umbels, resembling the poison hemlock; the flowers among which Edith danced were more probably cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota). See John Garth Tolkien and the Great War (Harper Collins/Houghton Mifflin 2003) and Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, & Edmund Weiner The Ring of Words (OUP 2006).
  12. ^ Cater, Bill (12 April 2001). "We talked of love, death, and fairy tales". UK Telegraph. Retrieved 2006-03-13. 
  13. ^ Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien; The Authorized Biography," page 157.
  14. ^ Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien: The Authorized Biography," page 158.
  15. ^ Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: A Celebration. Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Ignatius Press, 2001. Pages 15-16.
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^ Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 340, To Christopher Tolkien.

References[edit]