In his case, one of his best-loved and fundamentally important characters was inspired by his wife and muse, Edith Bratt. That character’s name can even be found inscribed on the gravestone underneath Edith’s own.
J.R.R. Tolkien Marriage to Edith Bratt
When he was sixteen years old, J.R.R. Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, a woman three years his senior. They were introduced after he moved into a boarding house where she lived in Edgbaston. Edith’s mother died when she was fourteen years old and her guardian found her a place there. The couple frequented teashops, according to someone who knew them at the time, and enjoyed spending the majority of their time together. In one charming anecdote relayed by Humphrey Carpenter, the two are described sitting on a balcony overlooking the pavement and tossing sugar cubes into the hats of men walking by, only pausing when the sugar bowl was empty before moving on to the next table.
The two had a similar upbringing in that they both suffered the loss of their parents. Together, they bonded over their mutual need for new, close connections. Unfortunately for Tolkien, his grades suffered in the wake of his relationship with Edith, and his guardian, Father Morgan, forbid him from seeing her until he was 21. Father Morgan was also concerned about the fact that Edith was Protestant. Only once did he disobey this order. He waited until the eve of his 21st birthday to write to her and ask her to marry him.
After receiving the letter, Edith informed him that she had already accepted another’s proposal but was relieved to know that Tolkien still loved her. She expressed her concern that he’d lost interest in her and that everything changed when she got the letter. She’d only agreed to marry someone else because she believed her relationship with Tolkien had come to an end. The two met up at the beginning of January 1913, walked through the countryside, and by the end of the day she had decided to accept his proposal. Edith chose to convert to Catholicism at Tolkien’s insistence. This was something she resisted at first, considering that she was deeply invested in the Anglican parish. Then, once she had decided she was going forward with the conversion, she faced blowback from the community.
The two got married on March 22nd, 1916 at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, Warwick. At the time, Tolkien had no money nor any real prospects of making any. Over the course of their marriage, which last until November 1971 with Edith’s death, the two had four children together, John Francis, Michael Hilary, Christopher John, and Priscilla Anne.
It has been recorded that Tolkien’s time serving World War I was hard for Edith. She feared the knock on the door reporting his death in the line of duty. Interestingly enough, during this period, Tolkien devised a method of communication that allowed the two to correspond about his location with the British Army censoring his letters. Their first child, John Francis, was born soon after Tolkien returned from France. Their other three children were born in 1920, 1924, and 1929.
Characters Inspired by Edith Bratt
In one noteworthy and commonly cited incident, Tolkien and Edith were walking in the woods in Roos while he was stationed at Kingston upon Hull. She began to dance for him in a clearing, an incident that inspired the meeting of Beren and Lúthien from ‘The Song of Beren and Lúthien.’
This song is one of several works that tell of the adventures of a mortal man, Beren, and his love for Lúthien, an elf-maiden. It was published as a stand-alone book in 2017, many years after Tolkien’s death. The tale is mentioned in The Lord of the Rings as well as in The Silmarillion. It takes place in the First Age of Middle-earth, more than 6,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. When the two characters meet in the song, Beren has just experienced the defeat of his companions in his attempt to flee to the realm of Doriath, belonging to the elves. There, he met Lúthien as she was dancing and singing in a clearing. He fell in love instantly with her beauty, voice, and countenance.
Some have cited the various trials Tolkien and Edith had to endure before they could find happiness as another link between their lives and those of Beren and Lúthien. Both couples were, in the minds of those around them, unsuited for one another. Beren was a man and Lúthien an elf, while Tolkien was a Catholic with little financial means and Edith was a Protestant.
In addition to being the primary inspiration for the character of Lúthien, Edith is also thought to have been the inspiration for other female characters such as Arwen Evenstar, Éowyn, and Galadriel although there is no real evidence for these assertions.
After Edith’s death, Tolkien wrote the following words describing his wife to his youngest son, Christopher, who later became his literary executor:
In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing — and dance.
Today, visitors who find their shared grave at Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford will certainly notice the name “Lúthien” inscribed under “Edith Mary Tolkien” and the name “Beren” inscribed under “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.” He also added in his letter to his son the following quote:
I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while).
Tolkien passed away twenty-one months after his wife, in September of 1973.