You might assume, when watching Tolkien, that the love story between J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt (Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins) has been made more dramatic for the screen. But while the real Tolkien and his wife didn't quite look like movie stars, it turns out they did have a pretty epic love story in real life. In fact, looking at their saga, it makes sense that their was the kind of love that inspires a guy to write some seriously epic, fantastical books we now know as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Take a look.
Edith Bratt & JRR Tolkien Both Grew Up With Tragedy
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (known as Ronald) and his younger brother, Hilary, spent their early years in South Africa until their father died when Ronald was three. Their mother then raised them in Birmingham, England. But when Ronald was 12 and his brother 10, she too died, leaving the orphan boys under the guardianship of a priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan.
Edith Bratt’s early life was just as tragic. She was the illegitimate daughter of a governess, who died when Edith was just 14. Bratt studied music in boarding school, and when she graduated she moved to a boarding house in Birmingham.
How Bratt & Tolkien First Met
The Tolkien boys moved into that same boarding house, run by a Mrs. Faulkner, when Ronald was 16 and Edith was 19. All three orphans became friends, and according to biographers, Ronald and Edith fell in love in that next year. They would smuggle food into Edith's room for picnics, speak to each other from their windows (his room was right above hers), and sit together at a tea shop balcony and make a game of throwing sugar lumps onto the hats of people who walked by. The whole thing sounds unbearably sweet, especially when you read this excerpt of a letter he later wrote to her (from Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography):
"And our goodnights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown, and our absurd long window talks; and how we watched the sun come up over town through the mist and Big Ben toll hour after hour, and the moths almost used to frighten you away — and our whistle-call — and our cycle-rides — and the fire talks — and the three great kisses."
But Edith & Ronald's Love Was Forbidden
Sadly, Father Francis was not a fan of this young love. He disapproved of Edith, who wasn't Catholic, and thought she was distracting Ronald from studying for his entrance exams for Oxford. When Ronald failed to get a high enough score for a scholarship on his first try, Father Francis made the boy break off his romance. Eventually, the priest even decided that his ward could not even write to Edith until he turned 21. Talk about star-crossed.
They Had A Dramatic Reunion
As he waited those three agonizing years, Tolkien did finally get his scholarship to Exeter College in Oxford. Finally, he wrote to Edith on his 21st birthday in 1913. She had actually given up on him and was engaged to the brother of a school friend at the time, but agreed to meet Tolkien a few days later. They walked and talked all day, and by the evening, she accepted his proposal and returned the ring to the other guy. She even agreed to convert to Catholicism for him, and they married three years later in 1916.
Edith Literally Inspired Tolkien's Lore
Just after their marriage, Tolkien was sent to France to fight in World War I. Within months, it wasn't a bullet or a bomb that sent him home but something called trench fever. The fever made him unfit for regular service, but he was stationed in Yorkshire, England and could spend time with his wife and their first son, John. Amid that war and illness, the couple took a walk in the woods that eventually became legendary. "In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing — and dance," he wrote in a letter to his youngest son, Christopher, after Edith's death.
Edith did some kind of magical dance for her husband in the woods that day, and the image was so imprinted on his mind, he constructed an entire mythology around it. It was the story of a human soldier named Beren who fell in love with Lúthien, the daughter of an elf king. The king tells Beren he can marry his daughter if he completes a mission to retrieve a jewel from his enemy's crown. When Beren dies on this mission, and the formerly immortal Lúthien dies of a broken heart, Mandos, the judge of death, brings them both back to life. This story is told in Lord of the Rings, and the posthumously published The Silmarillion and 2017's Beren and Lúthien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
A Fairy-Tale Ending?
Biographers note that, like Lúthien, Edith may have felt like she gave up her own world to join her husband's. She was supposedly neither happy with Catholicism nor comfortable with the social life academia they joined when he became a professor after the war. To make it up to her, he eventually retired, and they moved to a resort town, where they lived peacefully until her death in 1971 and his two years later. "Lúthien" is inscribed under her name on their gravestone, "Beren" under his.