In the Catholic section of Oxfordshire’s Wolvercote graveyard is the last resting place of Oxford Professor of Anglo Saxon and creator of the Tales of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien. Inspired by the First World War, the changes of industrialization and its effects on the English countryside and the myths and legends of Faerie and the Anglo Saxons, Tolkien’s most famous Middle Earth sagas are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, the inspiration for the very first of his tales, Luthien and Beren, lies buried within the grave with him: his wife, Edith Bratt.
“I never called Edith Luthien,” Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1972, a year after Edith’s death, “but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion.” Tolkien began the tale in 1917, inspired to create Luthien after seeing Edith dancing and singing in a hemlock grove. However, Luthien and Beren’s love story finds other, perhaps unwitting echoes, in Tolkien’s and Edith’s relationship – which saw the couple undergo their trials and tests before they too could have their own happily ever after.
Tolkien’s tale of Beren and Luthien may have begun in 1917. However, the roots of his own love story go back as far as 1908 when Tolkien was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy. Edith Bratt was three years older than Tolkien. She had just finished her musical studies at boarding school and was living in a boarding house in Edgbaston in Birmingham while she decided what to do next. Tolkien and his brother who were both studying in Birmingham also became boarders, and Tolkien and Edith, in particular, became close friends. Soon, friendship became love.
However, as in the case of Beren and Luthien, there was opposition to their match. For Beren and Luthien that opposition came in the form of Luthien’s father, Thingol who was unhappy with his daughter falling in love with a human. For Edith and Tolkien, it came in the shape of Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s guardian since the death of his mother. Father Morgan opposed the relationship based on the age gap between the young couple- and on religious grounds. For Edith was a protestant and Tolkien Catholic.
In 1909, Father Francis ordered Tolkien not to see or write to Edith again until he was 21. Like Thingol, who set Beren the impossible task of retrieving one of the sacred Silmarils stolen by the dark lord Morgoth so that he could win Luthien, Father Morgan was hoping that by creating distance between the couple, he could permanently part them. Tolkien, somewhat un-heroically complied with his guardian.“[Morgan]Threatening to cut short my university career if I did not stop, “ Tolkien noted in his diary. “Means I cannot see E. Nor write at all. God help me. Saw E at midday but would be with her. I owe all to Fr Francis and so must obey, ”
True to his word, Tolkien did not write to Edith again until the evening of his 21st birthday when he declared his love for her and asked her to marry him. Edith, however, had moved on. She was living with friends of her family, the Jessop in Cheltenham. There Edith had carved out a new life, becoming a prominent member of the local church. She also had new friends. Convinced Tolkien’s silence meant he no longer cared for her; she had agreed to marry George Field, the brother of her friend Molly. So she refused Tolkien. However, she agreed to meet with him again.
On January 8, 1913, the couple reunited at Cheltenham station. After hours of talking, Edith finally agreed to marry Tolkien. Luthien had to give up her immortality, home and family to be with Beren. Edith also had to make sacrifices. By jilting George, she had lost her best friend. However, to marry Tolkien, Edith also had to give up her religion and become a Catholic. Once Edith made this decision, the staunchly anti-catholic Jessops asked her to leave their home and Edith settled in Warwickshire, waiting out the time between her engagement and marriage.