Tolkien’s true love story and the legend it inspired

January was always a special month for Tolkien. He celebrated his own birthday on the 3rd and his wife Edith’s birthday on the 21st. It was also the month in which he was re-united with Edith in Cheltenham after a separation of three years. A separation which had been imposed on the young couple by Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, who was concerned that the love affair would interfere with his studies.

At the stroke of midnight on the 3rd January 1913, as Tolkien turned twenty-one, he wrote a long love letter to Edith breaking the silence of those years. Edith wrote back immediately but her response was not what he had hoped for: she was engaged to someone else. Having had no news from him for three years, and fearing that his life as a student at Oxford had driven away all thoughts of romance, she had settled for the brother of an old school-friend, George Field.

Tolkien was undeterred and travelled to Cheltenham a few days later to press his suit in person, certain that Edith was his one true love. By the end of that day their relationship had been renewed and they were engaged.

JRR Tolkien

The forthcoming exhibition, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, will highlight the importance of Tolkien’s love for Edith both in his personal life and in his literary work. They were married for fifty-five years and were devoted to each other and to their four children. Edith provided a loving family home for Tolkien but she also provided the inspiration for the great love story of Beren and Lúthien in his literary epic, The Silmarillion.

Lúthien Tinúviel was the Elven princess who fell in love with Beren, a mortal man. Her father, King Thingol, sought to thwart their love affair by tasking Beren to fetch a Silmaril from the crown of the Dark Lord, Morgoth, in exchange for Lúthien’s hand in marriage. Together Beren and Lúthien overcame many obstacles to achieve this seemingly impossible task. Their love even extended beyond death as Lúthien persuaded the gods to allow Beren a second span of life.

Key items on display will trace the story of Beren and Lúthien, linking it to the love affair of Tolkien and Edith. These include a handwritten page of the tale ‘Of Beren and Tinúviel’, written in the 1930s, in which the evil underling Sauron appears, and the intricately patterned heraldic devices for Lúthien and Beren, drawn by Tolkien in the 1960s. It can be seen that Edith’s inspiration for the beautiful and magical Lúthien permeated Tolkien’s writings throughout his life, as he explained to his son, Christopher, after Edith’s death, ‘She was (and knew she was) my Lúthien’.