“Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning-minded Inklings; how those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skilfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly meditating. That was true joy!”
One of the most prominent themes running through Tolkien’s stories is friendship. While the most famous of these friendships is that between Frodo and Sam, it is still only one of many, with other examples including Maedhros and Fingon, Merry and Pippin, Bilbo and Gandalf, Túrin and Beleg, Beren and Finrod, Barahir and his group of outlaws, and Legolas and Gimli – that last being even more remarkable for the base of enmity from which it started.
One thing that unites all those friendships is that they only involve males, and this can be directly related to the type of relationships Tolkien had through his life. From the formation of the TCBS (Tea Club Barrovian Society) at King Edward’s School in Birmingham to the end of the Inklings, Tolkien was always more comfortable with male companionship. While he did love his wife dearly, it was with his male friends that he would choose to spend long evenings, talking of mythology and religion; it was with his male friends that he would read out new works, expecting and receiving both criticism and praise.
The Four Loves
To begin to understand Tolkien’s view on his friendships, and the friendships of those in his books, it is useful to start with a quick look at the different types of love. Four types of love were recognised by the ancient Greek philosophers, and they have formed the basis for definitions ever since. These are affection (“storge”), erotic love (“eros”), friendship (“philae”), and selfless or divine love (“agape”).
Storge is the natural and mutual affection between parents and children, or between brothers and sisters. It is a kind of love that is often taken for granted, a love that one rarely has to work on, a love that is normally present in some way during one’s life.
Eros is romantic love, the love that forms an attraction between two people, and it is eros that we usually consider first when thinking of the word “love”. It is, however, not necessarily physical, as it may just be an intense infatuation that never results in a physical relationship.
Philae is brotherly love, free from the romance of eros. CS Lewis exalts this love as “the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue” (Lewis, 1960) since it is entered into with complete freedom and it is created between people with common interests. Friendship has nothing to do with family affection, physical attraction or romantic love, but it can still go to incredible depths, to the extent where a friend can be closer than a brother.
To us today, the idea of intense male friendships is unfortunately almost always bound up with eros. But this is only a recent view, as through the first part of the 20th century and before, male friendship was seen as the ultimate expression of camaraderie, a value which was only emphasised by the two world wars. This ideal can be seen in many texts from times onwards, including the Kalevala, one of Tolkien’s main inspirations.
“Brother dear, little brother
fair one who grew up with me
start off reciting with me
since we have got together
since we have come from two ways!
We seldom get together
and meet each other
on these poor borders
the luckless lands of the North.
Let’s strike hand to hand
fingers into finger-gaps
that we may sing some good things
set some of the best things forth”
(Kalevala, In the Beginning, lines 11-24)
Agape is unconditional love for someone, loving without expecting love in return. It requires sacrifice and selflessness, and is often equated with the love of a god for his people.
Philetic love in Tolkien’s life
Strong philetic friendships were made by Tolkien through his life, even often to the exclusion of his own wife. They started in his schooldays with the TCBS, and culminated in the Inklings, his circle of friends in Oxford.
During his last three years at King Edward’s School, Tolkien became close friends with three other pupils – Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Smith and Rob Gilson. And here we get the first view of an image of Tolkien – surrounded by his friends, smoking, talking about anything and everything – that seems to accompany most of the happiest times of his life.
“They spent the weekend chiefly in sitting around the gas fire in the little upstairs room, smoking their pipes and talking. As Wiseman said, they felt “four times the intellectual size” when they were together.” (Carpenter, 2002)
The four remained good friends after school, and they all enlisted in the armed forces during World War I. During the War, both Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Smith were killed, and the remaining members of the TCBS came to understand a little better how rare and special their friendship had been. This realisation is easy to see from letters sent to each other after first Rob Gilson’s, and then Geoffrey Smith’s, deaths.
Tolkien on Gilson’s death: “I do not feel a member of a complete body now.” (Carpenter, 2002)
GB Smith to Tolkien on Gilson’s death: “I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst of news. Now one realises in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was.” (Carpenter, 2002)
Letter from GB Smith to Tolkien written shortly before his death: “My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight – I am off on duty in a few minutes – there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!” (Carpenter, 2002)
– The Inklings
Tolkien’s other close group of friends was the Inklings, a well-known and well-documented group of mainly Oxford academics during the 1930s. Of all the members of the group, Tolkien formed a particularly close friendship with CS Lewis, a relationship that was documented in detail by Lewis in his book “The Four Loves”. Two quotes from that book show first, his relationship with Tolkien [and the other Inklings], and secondly, his belief in the separation of women’s and men’s companionships.
“Those are the golden sessions, when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim or responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hours ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give.”” (The Four Loves, 1960)
“What were the women doing meanwhile? How should I know? I am a man and never spied on the mysteries of the Bona Dea.” (The Four Loves, 1960)
Or as Carpenter put it:
“Friendship of this kind was remarkable, and at the same time entirely natural and inevitable. It was not homosexual (Lewis dismisses that suggestion with deserved ridicule), yet it excluded women. … if we have ever enjoyed a friendship of that sort we shall know exactly what it was about. And even if that fails us, we can find something of it expressed in The Lord of the Rings.” (Carpenter, 2002)
It is easy to believe from these descriptions that, to Tolkien and Lewis, their friendship was the defining point of their lives during those times. While many would prefer to find this great comfort and familiarity in a wife or husband, they preferred to look for it in male friendship – a bonded world where women were not generally even considered, let alone welcome.
“Indeed he perceived that his need of male friendship was not entirely compatible with married life. But he believed that this was one of the sad facts of a fallen world; and on the whole he thought that a man had a right to male pleasures, and should if necessary insist on them.” (Carpenter)
Indeed, the breaking down of Tolkien and Lewis’s relationship was accelerated later by Lewis trying to involve his new wife Joy Gresham into their circle of friends.
Philetic love in Tolkien’s work
With the prevalence of strong male friendships in Tolkien’s life, it is hardly surprising that many of the most memorable companionships within his works are also of this kind. Some examples of these are given below.
– Frodo and Sam
The most famous of Tolkien’s friendships was that of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, a long-standing relationship that was only cemented further by their shared journey to Mount Doom during the War of the Ring. Their relationship is both one of master and servant, and of mutual friendship and dependence. The one quote which, to me, sums their friendship up above all others is:
“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” (RotK, Mount Doom)
In this, Frodo shows that he would prefer to be with Sam than with anyone else in the world at what he presumed would be their death. And this simply because of philetic friendship and shared experiences, without any overtone of romantic love.
Other examples, out of many, of their deep bond include:
“He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured, “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”” (Sam, TTT, Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit)
“Frodo, Mr. Frodo!” he called. “Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow! Wake up Mr. Frodo! O wake up, Frodo, me dear, me dear. Wake up!” … He stooped. Very gently he undid the clasp at the neck and slipped his hand inside Frodo’s tunic; then with his other hand raising the head, he kissed the cold forehead, and softly drew the chain over it. And then the head lay quietly back again in rest.”
Philetic love is shown as the strongest force in Frodo’s life. The question of whether this is also true for Sam is slightly harder, but as Sam chose to leave the Shire with Frodo rather than stay behind and declare his intentions to Rosie. I would say that perhaps at least until the Scouring of the Shire, it would definitely be true, Frodo’s love for Sam, pure and generous, even shows no problem with sharing Sam with his romantic love Rosie:
“It’s Rosie, Rose Cotton,” said Sam. “It seems she didn’t like my going abroad at all, poor lass; but as I hadn’t spoken, she couldn’t say so. And I didn’t speak, because I had a job to do first. But now I have spoken … I feel torn in two, as you might say.
“I see,” said Frodo: “you want to get married, and yet you want to live with me in Bag End too? But my dear Sam, how easy! Get married as soon as you can, and then move in [here] with Rosie. (The Return of the King, The Grey Havens)
But Frodo and Sam’s relationship also shows one of the pitfalls of philetic love – when a friendship is affected by mistrust or jealousy. In “The Lord of the Rings”, this happens when Sam sees Gollum near Frodo and immediately challenges him, calling Gollum a sneak and a villain when at that point his feelings actually were true and good. While this does not greatly affect Frodo and Sam’s relationship, it does significantly affect the object of the mistrust.
“Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.” (The Two Towers, p366)
Tolkien later called this the “most tragic moment in the Tale” (Letters, #246), the moment where the possibility of regeneration for Gollum was irredeemably lost through Sam’s jealousy. “The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.” (The Two Towers)
– Merry and Pippin
Merry and Pippin show us two different levels of friendship – the strong familial bond between cousins, and the bond between the larger group of four hobbits.
At the start of “The Lord of the Rings”, Merry and Pippin quickly realise that something was about to happen to Frodo, and they went ahead, without asking, trying to ease his way – to Crickhollow as they thought at the time. Throughout the rest of the story, they still constantly thought of Frodo, putting his needs before theirs.
Merry: “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” (The Fellowship of the Ring: “A Conspiracy Unmasked”)
“We must stop him,” said Pippin. “And that is what he is worrying about, I am sure. He knows we shan’t agree to his going east. And he doesn’t like to ask anyone to go with him, poor old fellow. Imagine it: going off to Mordor alone!” Pippin shuddered. “But the dear silly old hobbit, he ought to know that he hasn’t got to ask. He ought to know that if we can’t stop him, we shan’t leave him.” (The Fellowship of the Ring: “The Breaking of the Fellowship”)
Merry and Pippin also provide what I consider to be one of the most pure moments of friendship in the books, an occasion that obviously echoed Tolkien’s own ideals of companionship. This occurs after the Battle of Helm’s Deep, when Merry, Pippin and Gandalf’s party find themselves at Isengard, and while there, they have a quiet, homely interlude away from battle talking of inconsequential things.
Merry: “But first – if you have finished eating – you shall fill your pipes and light up. And then for a little while we can pretend that we are all back safe in Bree again, or in Rivendell.” (The Two Towers, Flotsam and Jetsam)
– Gimli and Legolas
Some friendships in Tolkien’s work encompass more than the two people involved. A case in point is Legolas and Gimli, as is that of Fingon and Maedhros, discussed later.
Through “The Lord of the Rings”, Gimli and Legolas evolve from mistrusting and reluctant allies at the Council of Elrond to become firm friends by the later Battles in Gondor. This change in outlook is seen also as representative of the changes occurring in Middle-earth towards the end of the Third Age, heralding a new era where ancient enemies can become allies and even friends.
Their friendship truly started in Lothlórien, and was cemented during the series of battles leading up to the defence of Gondor.
“Down from the wall leapt Gimli with a fierce cry that echoed in the cliffs. “Khazâd! Khazâd!” He soon had work enough.
“Ai-oi!” he shouted. “The Orcs are behind the wall. Ai-oi! Come, Legolas! There are enough for us both. Khazâd ai-mênu!”” (The Two Towers, Helm’s Deep)
“You have passed my score by one,” answered Legolas. “But I do not grudge you the game, so glad am I to see you on your legs!” (The Two Towers, The Road to Isengard)
The end result of the friendship was that Gimli became the only dwarf to sail West, the Valar allowing him to journey across the Seas with Legolas, because of their friendship.
“We have heard tell that Legolas took Gimli Gloin’s son with him because of their great friendship, greater than any that has been between Elf and Dwarf.” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A)
– Fingon and Maedhros
Fingon encompassed the ideals of both philetic and agapic love, forming close friendships in which he did not hesitate to sacrifice himself for the other. Agape forms the underlying Christian principle that “greater love has no man than he lays down his life for a friend”, and as a staunch Catholic, we can probably assume that Tolkien held this ideal highly as well.
The most heroic instance of this kind involved Maedhros, the son of Fëanor, whom Fingon rescued from Thangorodrim, both for the sake of friendship and for the sake of friendship between their two houses. He rescued Maedhros even though he thought his old friend had betrayed him, thus showing that he acted entirely selflessly, through his love for the son of Fëanor.
“Fingon had been close in friendship with Maedhros; and though he knew not yet that Maedhros had not forgotten him at the burning of the ships, the thought of their ancient friendship stung his heart. Therefore he dared a deed which is justly renowned among the feats of the princes of the Noldor: alone, and without the counsel of any, he set forth in search of Maedhros … Fingon climbed to the foot of the precipice where his kinsman hung, and then could go no further; and he wept when he saw the cruel device of Morgoth. … Fingon cut off his hand above the wrist, and Thorondor bore them back to Mithrim. (The Silmarillion “Of the Return of the Noldor”)
The perils of eros over philae
While Tolkien’s works are full of implicit praise for the joys of philetic friendships, there are also instances where he shows how powerful a force eros is, and how likely its presence is to disrupt any friendships that get in its way. Two examples of this are Gorlim the Unhappy and Maeglin.
Gorlim was a man of Ladros, who, after returning from war to find his house sacked and his wife gone, joined Barahir’s group of outlaws, later betraying them to Sauron when captured.
“Then they promised him that he should be released and restored to Eilinel [his wife], if he would yield; and being at last worn with pain, and yearning for his wife, he faltered.
Then Sauron smiled, saying: “That is a small price for so great a treachery. So shall it surely be. Say on!”
Now Gorlim would have drawn back, but daunted by the eyes of Sauron he told at last all that he would know. Then Sauron laughed; and he mocked Gorlim, and revealed to him that he had seen only a phantom devised by wizardry to entrap him; for Eilinel was dead.” (The Silmarillion, “Of Beren and Lúthien”)
Another example of an instance when love overcame friendship – leading to huge betrayal, unhappiness and loss of life – was when Maeglin betrayed Gondolin.
“he purchased his life and freedom by revealing to Morgoth the very place of Gondolin and the ways whereby it might be found and assailed. Great indeed was the joy of Morgoth, and to Maeglin he promised the lordship of Gondolin as his vassal, and the possession of Idril Celebrindal, when the city should be taken; and indeed desire for Idril and hatred for Tuor led Maeglin the easier to his treachery, most infamous in all the histories of the Elder Days.” (The Silmarillion, Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin)
Tolkien’s books are full of examples of close friendships – Frodo and Sam, Legolas and Gimli, Maedhros and Fingon. These philetic friendships generally occur between males, with Tolkien’s main female characters often being isolated from the comfort that could be gained from intimate companionship.
When looking at these friendships, the background in which Tolkien wrote the stories must be considered – we simply can’t interpret them from a modern day point of view. The great friendships of Tolkien’s life were male – from the fellow members of the TCBS to CS Lewis and the Inklings. They were mainly philetic and agapic friendships, deep bonds being formed among the men based on common interests – academic and otherwise.
Is it then any wonder that Tolkien wanted to add to his books the comfort and joy he himself found from these relationships? Is it then any wonder that today we can still look at the descriptions of the friendships and instinctively understand how deeply Sam loved Frodo, or how Fingon was willingly to sacrifice himself for his friend? Is it then any wonder that philetic friendship is put forward as the ultimate in comfort and joy?
– Tolkien, JRR. The Lord of the Rings. 1968 edn.
– Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 1977.
– Lewis, CS. The Four Loves. 1960.
– The Kalevala, translated by Keith Bosley. 1989.
– Carpenter, H. JRR Tolkien a Biography. 2002 edn.
Written and researched by Atalante