Monday, January 04, 2010

Tolkien and Marriage

I mentioned in The Fire-Tender that we sometimes expect to receive non-challenging information from a book, but find that it prompts us to further thought. In Tolkien’s long letter to his son Michael, who seems to have had what we now call PTSD from his wartime experiences (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, # 43, dated 6-8 March 1941), he writes about marriage:
…And of course as a rule they are quite right. They did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst all the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! 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 imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances).

I never thought of it that way. Only a very wise man at the end of his life…

Yet it is never going to happen that way, so God’s design must not be putting this particular wisdom at the absolute top of the list. We try to be as wise as we can, of course. But it is inevitable than none are completely wise in their choice, and many will be quite unwise. Most important, it has always been that way and always will be. Cultures that arrange marriages make a different set of mistakes – they have a different unwisdom – but the situation remains essentially the same. Through most of history the pool of available mates for anyone is quite small – a few dozen. Even in our wide-circle, meet-many culture, the list of people a young person might realistically consider for marriage can’t be more than a few hundred, even over a decade’s time. One might go to a college, or work in a company that has thousands of people, but you won’t have opportunity to know many of them.

So. Many, perhaps even most people end up marrying the “wrong” person. When I have thought of the subject at all, it is to breathe a sigh of relief at unsuitable attachments that were avoided. * But surely, there are people unhappy enough to have replayed their possibilities in their minds many times? Easy to delude ourselves with such thoughts, I’ll warrant.

Yet God, knowing that many (all?) will marry the wrong person, sets down rules for conduct that never hint that such a consideration is even slightly relevant. If we accept that we, the individuals, are what are important eternally - institutions such as marriage are ephemeral (Mark 12:25), why are we asked to sacrifice ourselves to this set of rules? The inevitable conclusion is that some other lesson is more important, a lesson hidden in the meaning of vows, and fidelity, and servanthood.

I tread on dangerous ground here. My mother divorced my father, and I long ago pronounced that the right decision (though noting that the cost was much higher than estimated). I know divorced people who were treated very, very badly, even criminally, by their previous spouses, and can hardly think it is kind or charitable of me to even hint they should not have left. Yet here we are. If one starts from the premise that nearly no one will marry their soul-mate, yet marriage is still a good thing, the whole picture looks different.

*And for those with children, the idea of the non-existence of any of your progeny, even under the theory of “you would have loved those other children just as much” is simply horrible to consider. Even their premature death is better than their nonexistence.


james said...

Suppose we were perfect and lived in a perfect world. It would not necessarily follow that there was a unique perfect mate. There could be a pool of different but equally good candidates, each leading to equally good but different lives and children. It is not obvious (to me) that the set of potential mates/marriages needs to be well-ordered. (*)

In our fallen battleground we will obviously find no perfect mates, and again it is not obvious that there is a best mate within the pool of local candidates (there are some obviously bad choices, though). And Tolkien is right to suggest that youth won't have a clear idea about what is truly good. If you had told me before my wedding what married life would have been like, with three of our children having Aspergers and needing support for the long term, I'd have fled. I'd have been wrong--it has been a good life.

If God made us for relationships, we aren't going to fulfull our purposes if we say that "I can't find a perfect spouse, and an imperfect one would be a mistake." With all respect to Tolkien's skill as a writer, I think he used the wrong word here. Some marriages are clearly mistakes, but most are merely imperfect.

And of course there's the problem that if you spend an additional few years hunting for your "ideal" spouse in city and village, that represents so many fewer years with your "nearly ideal" spouse nearby.

(*) A vector pointing (1,0,0) and one pointing (0,-1,0) are the same length but different directions. If longer is "better," neither is better than the other.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james, I think Tolkien would largely agree. In another part of the letter, he puts the word mistake in quotes.