A Love Story: J.R.R. Tolkien Proposed to His Wife By Mail, Not Knowing She Was Engaged to Another Man

By | July 2, 2017

By all accounts, famous writer John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his wife, Edith, had a close and happy marriage. They were married for 55 years, with Edith following Tolkien wherever his life took him.

The couple had four children: three sons and one daughter. Edith was J.R.R Tolkien's inspiration for the characters of Arwen Undomiel and Luthien from his books The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

There’s an interesting story to be told about the way Tolkien proposed to Edith.

The two met in 1908 when J.R.R. Tolkien was just 16 years old. Tolkien and his brother moved into a boarding house in Edgbaston, where Edith already lived. Both being orphans, Edith and Ronald could understand each other perfectly; They hang out a lot, taking walks and talking. One year later, the couple was officially in love. But this is when their problems began.

Tolkien in 1916

Tolkien was failing his exams and his legal guardian, Father Morgan, saw Edith as the reason for this. He wasn't thrilled that his protege was dating a Protestant woman who was three years older than him. With Tolkien being raised as a Catholic, Father Morgan forbade Tolkien to talk, meet, or have any kind of communication with Edith until he turned 21. The young student obeyed his guardian and ceased all contact with the woman he loved. He only sent her one letter, but his Father Morgan found out and threatened Tolkien that he would put a stop to his university career.

1892 Christmas card with a colored photo of the Tolkien family in Bloemfontein, sent to relatives in Birmingham, England

For five years Tolkien and Edith did not communicate. Meanwhile, the young woman moved to Cheltenham and lived with a family friend. But on the evening of his 21st birthday, Ronald wrote Edith a letter, declaring that his love towards her had never faltered and asking her to marry him.

He got an unexpected reply: Edith was already engaged to a man named George Field, the brother of one of her closest friends. However, she also added that she only agreed to marry Field because she was not sure about Tolkien’s love for her, as she hadn’t heard from him in a long time. That letter changed everything; Tolkien took the train to Cheltenham on January 8, 1913. Edith and Ronald met at the train station and spent the entire day together. After a long walk into the countryside and a lot of talking, Edith finally accepted Tolkien’s marriage proposal. She wrote a letter to her previous fiancee in which she broke the engagement and returned her ring. The Field family and George himself were insulted and angry, but Edith was finally with the man she loved.

Bust of Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford

The official engagement took place in Birmingham later in January. Edith converted to Catholicism as per Tolkien’s insistence. Edith Bratt and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien Tolkien got married three years later at the St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Warwick.

Very soon after the wedding, J.R.R. Tolkien applied for a course at the signal school of the British Army, based in Otley. He was later commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army and sent to France in June 1916 to take part in the First World War.

While her husband was on the battlefield, the couple were constantly in contact, communicating through coded letters, due to the postal censorship of the British Army. After she would decipher the code, Edith would know about the location of her husband. Tolkien was removed from the battlefront due to health problems and returned to England in November 1916. The couple had their first child in 1917.

In 1920, Roland finally left the Army and began his work on the Oxford English Dictionary, and later in the same year, he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds. In 1945, the Tolkiens moved to Oxford, where Ronald became a professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College. The writer retired in 1959 and received literary fame. With his books becoming bestsellers.

Edith passed away on November 29, 1971. Ronald had the name Luthien engraved on her tombstone. The following year, the famous writer was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. In the same year, he was honored by a Doctorate of Letters, given to him by the Oxford University. Tolkien died 21 months after his wife, on September 2, 1973. The writer of the iconic books The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion was 82 years old.

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

He was buried next to his wife, and the name Beren, Luthien’s love, was engraved on his tombstone. Tolkien’s love for his wife are best seen in his letter to his son Michael, sent in 1941. In the letter, he expressed his appreciation of Edith’s decision to marry a man with no money, no job, and with a big chance of being killed in the Great War.