Tolkien Reading Day 2022: Love & Friendship

Every year to mark the downfall of Sauron on March 25, the Tolkien Society announces a theme for reading, discussion, and celebration. Let’s hope that this year’s theme, Love and Friendship, will lead to positive appreciations of the variety of loving relationships that Tolkien represents in his fiction.

I’ve written some articles on male relationships, mainly in The Lord of the Rings, and particularly how experiences in the First World War pushed male friendships beyond what contemporary heteronormative society might consider conventional behaviours. For example, in looking at Frodo and Sam’s relationship in a 2004 article (available below), I found that their gentle hand-holding and caring gestures could be seen in the context of what historian Santanu Das has described as sometimes occurring among WWI soldiers. The love and friendship in such relationships could exist on a continuum that would be difficult to pinpoint as one clearly-defined identity. As Das puts it: “A new world of largely nongenital tactile tenderness was opening up in which pity, thrill, affection, and eroticism are fused and confused depending on the circumstances, degrees of knowledge, normative practices, and sexual orientations, as well as the available models of male-male relationships” (Das 52–53).

For this year’s theme, though, I would like to pick up on some thoughts that I presented at a Tolkien conference in 2013 at Valparaiso University. I had previously written about friendships in war, but I wanted to explore what happens to friends after the war, after lives lived in peace with wives and children. How does Tolkien represent the death of friends?

Tolkien fans will recognize the gravesite of John Ronald and Edith, marked by a shared headstone over the place where husband and wife are laid together. As we know, Tolkien arranged to have the names “Beren” and “Lúthien” carved there under their names, thus associating himself and his wife with this romantic couple. They are buried together in Wolvercote Cemetery, which shouldn’t be surprising to us, given that husbands and wives are frequently buried together in western culture.

One might very well wonder, then, why another couple patterned after Beren and Lúthien — Aragorn and Arwen — do not end their days in the same place, in the same tomb. In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s death is described: he says farewell to Arwen and tells her not to despair as he falls asleep. The story tells us “And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world” (RotK, App. A). Arwen, though, does not choose to die by his side. She says farewell to her loved ones and leaves Minas Tirith for silent and lonely Lórien, where Galadriel and Celeborn no longer live. Her last resting place is there:  “There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea” (RotK, App. A). 

Aragorn, however, does not lie in his tomb alone in Minas Tirith. In Appendix B, we are told that at the passing of King Elessar, the resting places of Merry and Pippin are moved beside the king’s. In fact, Merry and Pippin had previously left their homes – as the chronicle tells us, “they handed over their goods and offices to their sons and rode away over the Sarn Ford, and they were not seen again in the Shire” (RotK, App. B). Merry travels to be with Éomer before he dies, and then he and Pippin spend their last few years in Gondor, “until they died and were laid in Rath Dínen among the great of Gondor” (RotK, App. B). Later, they are moved to rest beside Aragorn. The death of the king also prompts Legolas to sail over the Sea, “and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf” (RotK, App. B). And of course, Samwise Gamgee, after the death of his wife Rose, leaves his children and his home and, according to his family tradition, goes to the Grey Havens and passes over the Sea – this final reunion with Frodo being what was hinted at near the end of the Return of the King by Frodo himself, the possibility discussed in the unpublished epilogue to the book, and also stated in Appendix B.

In other words, Merry and Pippin leave their families and are finally laid to rest together, then moved to lie beside Aragorn; Legolas and Gimli pass out of this world together, and Sam leaves his family to end his days with Frodo – or so we are led to believe. In the cases of Legolas and Gimli and Sam and Frodo, Tolkien won’t confirm with any certainty in the story that they ended their days in one place, but Tolkien’s unmistakable desire to have them together in death leads him to give us very strong hints that this is what might have happened. 

We have examples of the desire of friends to be together in death, in some cases even leaving families to do so, not only in Tolkien’s fiction but also in historical facts. Many of the following examples come from a book by Alan Bray called The Friend, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, which has made me look at the concept of friendship, especially the death of friends, in Tolkien’s work in a new light.

Ancient and medieval texts describe the close bonds between men, sometimes as sworn brothers. In Homer’s The Iliad, the ghost of Patroclus visits his dear friend Achilles in a dream and says to him  – and here I give you Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

But there is one more
thing that I have to ask, and I hope you will do it. 
May my bones not be buried apart from your bones, Achilles.
May they lie together, just as we grew up together
when my father brought me from Opois to your house 
It was then that Lord Peleus welcomed me in his home, 
and he brought me up kindly and let me be your attendant. 
So may one urn hold the bones of us both together. (23.80-90) 

Here is a representation of lifelong companions and friends and one’s desire for burial together after death – to mingle their very bones in the same place.

We can find other examples in medieval literature. Take the Middle English romance about two friends, Amis and Amiloun. These two young men pledge their fidelity to each other as sworn brothers, a pledge that is tested severely in later life in this romance, when one of them sacrifices his own children to save his “trewe” brother (don’t worry — the children are miraculously brought back to life afterwards). The two sworn brothers die together on the same day and are laid in the same grave:

Both on oo day were they dede
And in oo grave were they leide,
The knyghtes both twoo;
And for her treth and her godhede (goodness; virtue)
The blisse of hevyn they have to mede, (as their reward)
That lasteth ever moo.

In the ballad of Bewick and Graham, collected a few centuries later, we have again two sworn brothers. They are forced to fight each other, but they vow that if one of them dies in the fight, the other will kill himself, which is exactly what happens. After the death of Graham the last words from Bewick are : “Nay, dig a grave both low and wide, / And in it us two pray bury;”

In these fictional examples, the claims of one’s sworn brother are often set in conflict with kinship claims but nevertheless surpass them.

But it’s not just in fictional texts that we – and Tolkien – could find representations of men closely bound in ties of friendship, often with the wish to be buried together. Alan Bray examines several examples, mainly in pre-18th century traditional society, of gravestones or memorials commemorating two friends together, usually with the same iconography one would expect in tombs of married couples, and he discusses the evidence for ceremonial pledges of friendship between men (and in one interesting instance between two women in the nineteenth century). These rituals occurred in public, in church usually, before witnesses and with the two friends taking communion together to seal their pledge of fidelity to each other. The public countenance of friendship could be visible in various practices in the course of a friendship: exchanging the kiss of peace, the giving of gifts, the sharing of food, and the sharing of beds (in life and in death).

For example, Tolkien would have seen the 14th-century brass memorial in the chapel of Merton College in Oxford for John Bloxham and John Whytton arranged in the familiar iconography of a married couple, side by side with hands in prayer. The tomb was designed by Whytton after Bloxham’s death for the both of them, commemorating their friendship of more than 20 years.

Memorial brass for John Bloxham and John Whytton, Merton College, Oxford

Or, I wonder if Tolkien ever noticed this gravesite when as a young boy he and his mother and brother rented rooms in a postman’s cottage in Rednal that sat at the edge of the grounds belonging to the Birmingham Oratory. According to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, “The cottage lay on the corner of quiet country lane, and behind it were the wooded grounds of the Oratory House with the little cemetery adjoining the chapel where the Oratory fathers and Newman himself were buried. The boys had the freedom of these grounds, and further afield they could roam the steep paths that led through the trees to the high Lickey Hill.” (37). In that cemetery through which Tolkien and his brother roamed lies the shared grave of John Henry Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St John, an arrangement that Newman had been careful to insist on. These two friends are flanked in their final resting place by two others: Joseph Gordon and Edward Caswall. These three friends Newman referred to as “three great and loyal friends of mine” (Bray 294) who died before Newman and whose pictures he kept beside his altar in his room, an arrangement that was replicated in their final resting places.

Burial place of Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St. John

Recognizing the importance of friendship in these past examples adds insight to the significance of friendship in Tolkien’s work. In The Silmarillion, for example, we have the story of Maedhros and Fingon. After Maedhros is captured by Morgoth, his lifelong friend Fingon set out to search for him. We are told that Fingon had been “close in friendship with Maedhros” and that “the thought of their ancient friendship stung his heart” (Sil. 124). In a rescue scene that is a precursor to Sam’s rescue of Frodo in the tower, Fingon begins to sing, and Maedhros answers. Fingon manages to find and to save his friend Maedhros, who waives his claim to kingship over the Noldor, to the disapproval of his brothers.

A similar bond of friendship can be seen in The Children of Húrin in the characters of Beleg and Túrin. Beleg is devoted to Túrin’s welfare, searching alone for him in the wilderness, leaving his own people to be with Túrin. At his death, he is called “truest of friends” (CH 156) and Túrin’s grief over Beleg’s death “was graven on the face of Túrin and never faded” (CH 156).

A couple of the friendships Tolkien describes involve not only this kind of lifelong loyalty in the face of peril, but also some kind of ritual or oath to mark the friendship. Take the example of Felagund and Barahir in The Silmarillion. Barahir comes to King Finrod Felagund’s aid in battle. In return, Felagund “swore an oath of abiding friendship and aid in every need to Barahir and all his kin, and in token of his vow he gave to Barahir his ring” (Sil. 176). Oaths can be problematic in Tolkien’s fiction, as we well know from Fëanor’s oath, but Felagund nevertheless makes a vow of friendship. This kind of sworn relationship creates a new, voluntary kinship, the outward sign of which is the ring that is given to Barahir. The oath of friendship extends to Barahir and all his kin, one of whom, Beren, will make a claim on that bond, with the result that Felagund will leave behind his family, renounce his kingship, and sacrifice his own life to save Beren from certain death.

A formal vow and the giving of a gift as its token marks the covenant of friendship between Felagund and Barahir that creates new relations between their families. In The Lord of the Rings, the nine members of the Fellowship do not swear any formal vows to support each other or to accomplish their tasks – Elrond allows for the operation of free will in this momentous matter – but I do think that Tolkien adapts an old ritual of fidelity in the story of Frodo and Sam that is a mark of their unique friendship and, seen in the light of other practices of sworn friendship, helps to explain events once they return home. I’ve described that pledge in a previous post. Suffice it to say that it involves another scene of tender hand-holding on Mount Doom in which Frodo and Sam reenact the medieval ritual of homage.

I think that that scene marks a private pledge of loyalty and love – the friendship that we see in so many other examples – that has a bearing on the lives of Frodo and Sam when they return home. Frodo assumes that their bond will continue to keep them together, never questioning the possibility that Sam would not want to move into Bag End with him. When Sam expresses his concerns over being “torn in two” (RotK, VI, 9) by his relationship with Rosie and with Frodo, we glimpse how the strength of the bond of friendship can be perceived as equivalent to that of marriage. And when Frodo bequeaths “all that I had and might have had” (RotK, VI, 9) to Sam, making him his heir, we see the workings of the voluntary kinship ties that the institution of friendship could create. Sam becomes like kin to Frodo, who gives him everything as a token of their friendship. 

Lastly, we see the desire of friends to end their lives together. Although Frodo knows that Sam cannot sail west with him (at least not right away), he does ask Sam to arrange for some time to go with him to the Grey Havens. Finally, Sam understands the reason why:

Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.
“To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo.
“And I can’t come.”
“No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens……

“Come now, ride with me!”

(RotK, VI. 9.)

I think that when Frodo says to Sam,  “Come now, ride with me!” he is in effect saying that he wants to have his friend by his side in what will be equivalent to Frodo’s death scene, his passing out of his world and into a new one.

The bond that spurs one friend to leave behind home and family to sacrifice everything for the sake of the other, the creation of new relationships that establish a different kind of kinship, sometimes marked by vows or rituals, and the desire to face eternity together, sometimes side by side in the same grave —  these are elements of friendship that we can find in Tolkien’s fiction as we can in other texts and historical examples. These practices and rituals of love and friendship are old and varied, and could have a deep significance for the generations that have come before us.

More Readings

Some of the texts I’ve cited:

My articles on friendship in The Lord of the Rings:

And even further reading:

Here is a wonderful book, beautifully written, by Amy Amendt-Raduege: “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Kent State UP, 2018. Winner of the 2020 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies. This book doesn’t deal with the death of friends in the same way I’ve outlined above, but it does discuss the topic of death and dying in far broader terms, examining the manner of death, memorials of the dead, and ideas about what happens after death throughout The Lord of the Rings.

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