Tolkien: Friendship Versus Marriage
Years ago my wife and I caught the end of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings. As the stirring scenes full of teary-eyed farewells played out, my wife turned to me and said: ‘This is surely one of the greatest love stories ever told.’ She was not referring to Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn, or Samwise and Rosie, but to Frodo and his Sam. Unsurprisingly, their love and friendship is far more vivid in J. R R. Tolkien’s literary work. At the close of the 4th book, when Sam believes Frodo is dead, we read, “all [Sam’s] life had fallen into ruin.” For Sam, to lose his dearest friend was itself a kind of death. Thus Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings is certainly a wonderful love story.
Yet I can’t help but feel that Tolkien undoes much of this friendship theme at the close of his novel, where he seems to imply a conflict between marriage and friendship. Years ago I wrote about the many obstacles to friendship, and one of the obstacles I suggested was marriage. To quote that post, “I fear that an unhealthy emphasis on marriage means friendship is overshadowed, and friends are forgotten.” I went on to say it is a mistake to load all of our relational and emotional needs onto a single person—our spouse. Yet this seems to be the approach many take to marriage. So friendships are often the collateral damage at weddings. Rarely admitting it, we don’t think that it is possible to keep and cultivate intimate friendships once we are married.
Tolkien appears to fall into this way of thinking. In the final chapter of The Lord Of The Rings we thrice read that Samwise is “torn” between his old life with Frodo and his new family with Rosie. Sam expresses a deep desire to travel with Frodo to Rivendell yet he admits, “The only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.” Frodo replies, “You will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole.” Their quest to destroy the one Ring forged a remarkable friendship, imbued with a desirable shared love. Thus I find it strange, almost bemusing, that Tolkien would suggest Sam’s healing and wholeness would come with the departure of his closest friend, the one he earlier calls “all his life.”
I hope I am not being unfair to Tolkien. Those who know me will testify to my almost obsessive appreciation for The Lord Of The Rings. On many occasions I have said it is the nearest thing to a perfect novel. And I stand by those plaudits. However, the novel is not flawless—at least not in Tolkien’s handling of friendship and marriage. When Sam learns that his master will sail for the Grey Havens, Frodo reassures him, “Don’t be too sad, Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole…You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.” Thus Tolkien sets up an indissoluble tension between Sam’s marriage and their friendship. Sam will never be whole as long as Frodo lives in Middle-earth. He will always be torn between his young family and his old master.
But does Sam really have to choose? Do we? Are marriage and meaningful, intimate friendships incompatible? Let me answer those questions with two more: is it not better for us to be “torn” between multiple intimate relationships? Wouldn’t the lives of marrieds be greatly enriched through the pursuit of both a deeper marriage and friendships? Over the years I have had opportunities to speak and even preach on friendship. On most occasions someone asks about the place of friendships in light of marriage. To me this is further evidence that we spy an implicit conflict between the love enjoyed by close friends and entering into marriage.
After Frodo sails from the Grey Havens, Tolkien writes: “To Sam the evening deepened to darkness.” Sam is left forlorn, but no longer forced to choose between his master and his wife. Sam makes the return journey to Rosie with Merry and Pippin. As Gandalf says, “It will be better to ride back three together than one alone.” Even though they travel in silence we read, “Each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.” Again, I find these statements difficult to reconcile with the idea that Sam would never be whole or healed as long as Frodo remained. Isn’t the comfort and friendship shared by the three hobbits proof of the exact opposite? In fact, with some irony, as Merry and Pippin leave Sam at his home and ride away singing gayly, we can almost imagine Sam envying them.