Tolkien and Kevin O’brien on Chivalric Love

Read the whole thing. It is well worth it.

They speak of “shipwrecks” and “guiding stars.”  Men tend to look at women as guiding stars and women tend to think they can turn the men they love into knights in shining armor.  In reality, both men and women are “companions in shipwreck.”  Kevin points out that Tolkien’s view is both brutally realistic and at the same time wholly fair and charitable.

Here is Tolkien and Kevin (in bold):

Its centre was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity – of the old-fashioned ‘his divinity’ = the woman he loves – the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril. But combined and harmonized with religion (as long ago it was, producing much of that beautiful devotion to Our Lady that has been God’s way of refining so much our gross manly natures and emotions, and also of warming and colouring our hard, bitter, religion) it can be very noble. Then it produces what I suppose is still felt, among those who retain even vestigiary Christianity, to be the highest ideal of love between man and woman. Yet I still think it has dangers. It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

This is one of the most stunning and beautiful paragraphs Tolkien ever wrote.  In it, he manages to criticize the romantic notion of “The Lady” in a way that is so fair and comprehensive that one marvels at the wisdom and perspective of this man.  The chivalric tradition of “The Lady” and the romantic quest she moves us to, can both inspire a man to a nobility of love, and also fool him and hurt him (and others) badly.  For we poets tend to forget that women are “companions in shipwreck and not guiding stars“.  This can lead to cynicism on the one hand (there’s nothing more ugly and angry than a disappointed lover, whose ideals have proven to be bubbles that have popped) or to “the squalor of the divorce courts” on the other.  “My wife is not My Lady!  My Lady calls to me from afar!  My Lady is hot and sexy and understands me!  My wife is dumpy and crabby and knows me too well to adore me like her knight in shining armor that I long to be!  But my secretary understands me – or my dental hygenist does – or that young thing over there does!  Oh, stars!  Oh, fate!  Why do I have a wife and not My Lady!” (picks up phone, dials 1-800-DIVORCE).

I should add that what is said here can be applied to priests and their relationship with the Church.  Priest’s imaginations can be preoccupied with ladies other than their real bride, whether these fantasies are of an idealized Church, or a substitute for the Church.  Which reminds me of Pope Francis’ statement to priests:

If you don’t want Mary as a mother, she will become your mother-in-law.

Now that is something to think about.


2 thoughts on “Tolkien and Kevin O’brien on Chivalric Love

  1. I wonder how much Dante may have been part of the Inklings’ dscussions around the time of Tolkien’s March 1941 letter to his son, Michael, quoted here? Charles Williams published the pamphlet, “Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love” in 1941 (following Lucy Redpath’s “Dante and the Present War” in the same Dacre Press series, that same year), and followed it with The Figure of Beatrice (submitted to Eliot at Faber on 28 July 1942). The only reference to Dante in Tolkien’s Letters (No. 294), is largely positive, but very brief.

    The only sustained reference to courtly love that comes to my mind is Tolkien’s 1953 Ker Memorial Lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is well worth reading and re-reading on “the intersection of two different planes: of a real and permanent and an unreal and passing world of values: morals on the one hand, and on the other a code of honour” in a “story of how a pious knight resisted a temptation to adultery” made especially intense by “the properties of Fairy Story”.

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