What is Love?

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-9)

The Bible gives the quintessential definition of love, as quoted above.  No doubt Tolkien would have been very familiar with this passage, particularly in writing his great parable of love: The Tale of Tinúviel or as it came to be told The Tale of Beren and Lúthien.

If there was ever a moment of allegory in Tolkien’s work, this tale is it; for it is the reflection of his life-long love affair with his wife, Edith Bratt.  Tolkien met his future wife when he was sixteen, and she nineteen.  At the time, he and his brother were under the care of Father Francis, who demanded that the romance stop.  Tolkien himself was to say later, “Probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine a case of true love) permanence.” (Carpenter p52)

Even from the earliest tale, the forced separation of Beren and Tinúviel is present.  Following Tinwelint’s (Thingol’s) challenge to gain a Silmaril and the beginning of Beren’s quest, Tinúviel learns of Beren’s plight, in this case as a prisoner of Tevildo prince of Cats.  She immediately wishes to go to his aid.  Tinwelint refuses, and seeing the desperation in her, contrives to keep her caged in a house up Hirilorn.  Thus, like the forced separation of Tolkien and Bratt, is the love of Beren and Tinúviel cemented.

Another scenario reflects the value of love.  Upon Beren’s declaration of love for Tinúviel to her father, Tinwelint laughs and gives a Silmaril as the bride price in jest.  But for Beren, love is no jest.  He responds:

“Nay, but ‘tis too small a gift to the father of so sweet a bride.  Strange nonetheless seem to me the customs of the woodland Elves, like to the rude laws of the folk of Men, that thou shouldst name the gift unoffered, yet lo!  I Beren, a huntsman of the Noldoli, will fulfill thy small desire.” (TBoLT II p11)

Now Tinwelint gives this challenge, knowing that in all likelihood such a quest’s success would be nigh on impossible.  And so he laughs.  Beren’s rejoinder is the wake-up call to him, and all of the true worth of love.  In love are all things possible, all dangers surmountable and all pain bearable.  Nothing shows this sense of love more than the Biblical sense of the word “suffer,” which not only implies pain, but acceptance and allowance or the welcoming of that pain for others.

Through all of their adventures, whether in the Tale or the Lay or the chapter in the Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien succeed through love.  When they fend for themselves, alone, both fail.  When they work together, joining their talents in love, they succeed.

On Beren’s first foray, he is captured by Melko, and given over to thralldom under Tevildo.  So too in the later tale, devoid of love, he and Finrod are captured and tortured by Sauron.  And Lúthien, in the later tale, is captured by Celegorm and Curufin and held in Nargothrond.  Yet working together, they penetrate Angband, steal the Silmaril and escape.  In the escape, Carcharoth bites off Beren’s hand which holds the Silmaril and…

“Tinúviel wept over the maimed arm of Beren kissing it often, so that behold it bled not, and pain left it, and was healed by the tender healing of her love.” (TBoLT II p33)

As the development of the Tale progressed, this notion of love as healing would grow and morph into “medicinal” care and less blatantly a cure through the magic of love.  And yet, though diffused in the nature of tender care, later by action is this sense of the healing power of love shown.

Upon their return to Tinwelint’s halls, Tinúviel’s father remarks in amazement regarding the valor of his daughter.

“He marveled at the love that had awakened in the heart of Tinúviel so that she had done greater deeds and more daring than any of the warriors of his folk.”  (TBoLT II p.37)

In some ways, contemplating this quote, the nature of love is akin to the nature of courage.  It is not a quality or characteristic of a person, so much as it is an ability to rise above any adversity.  In love there can be no bounds, no limits.  Love takes the skills already present and allows them to flourish and reach their full potential.

In one of my previous posts regarding the nature of Time, I describe how in the early conception of Arda, all are bound to the world by the constraints of Time, and only Men are permitted to escape beyond in death.  In the Tale, both Beren and Tinúviel are elves, subject to this bond.  When Beren dies, Tinúviel follows him to Mandos and pleas for their release.  The power of her love for Beren grants them new life, but Mandos says to them:

“Lo, O Elves, it is not to any life of perfect joy that I dismiss you, for such may no longer be found in all the world where sits Melko of the evil heart – and know ye that ye will become mortal even as Men, and when ye fare hither again it will be for ever…” (TBoLT p39)

Granted at this point in the Tale, the notion of Men leaving the confines of the world has not yet been expressed, but the implications of this later development combined with the notion of Time as bond and the revelation of Mandos here lead to very interesting conclusions regarding the nature of love.

In death and love, Beren and Lúthien are freed from the trappings of Time.  Their love is timeless and stronger even than these bonds that even the Valar cannot break.  So is the power of love, to transcend all and conquer all.


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