Sex and Subtext in Tolkien’s World

David LaFontaine. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 22, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2015.

The technological wizardry of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of The Lord of The Rings has contributed enormously to the worldwide popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of The Rings, a massive book that Tolkien labeled “heroic romance” rather than a novel, was originally published in England in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. The book achieved cult status among college students in the U.S. and England beginning in the 1960s, and book sales soared.

Nevertheless, Tolkien has generally been excluded from “literary” studies at colleges and universities, in part due to derisive attitudes towards the genre of fantasy fiction, which Tolkien referred to as “fairy stories.” On another level, Tolkien’s genius has also been under-recognized because of a powerful undercurrent of same-sex love within the realm of Middle-earth. The homoeroticism of the hobbits, the race of beings that launched Tolkien’s fame, has often been glossed over, denied, and sometimes attacked, albeit obliquely. The revolution in attitudes toward gay and lesbian people in the 21st century offers the chance for a dramatic re-evaluation of Tolkien’s place in the literary canon and a deeper understanding of the gay themes in his books.

The New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson capitalizes on a modern sexual sensibility in his three visually stunning film adaptations of The Lord of The Rings, released in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Homoerotic desire is up there on Jackson’s very large screen for all to see. All three films were critically acclaimed, with dozens of Oscar nominations collectively. But while the films have secured Tolkien’s place as a literary giant, the gay themes in these adaptations have engendered controversy. In the decade since the films were released, Tolkien scholarship, far from embracing sexual modernism, has become increasingly repressive. Religious conservatives have dominated published biographies and critical works. Their approach toward homosexuality in Tolkien’s work and in his life has been complete silence.

What, then, is the truth about the author’s treatment of homosexuality in the original The Lord of The Rings? Are Jackson’s films faithful to Tolkien’s vision, or do they augment the story with contemporary sexual attitudes? Equally engaging is the question of the life of Tolkien, and the role that homosexuality played in his relationships with men, especially his attachment to the author C. S. Lewis and the literary circle known as “The Inklings.”

Frodo and Sam: Hobbits in Love

Tolkien’s vision of the way of life of hobbits is crystallized in the first book in the trilogy, The Fellowship of The Ring. The hero, Frodo Baggins, is a confirmed bachelor who, like his older relative Bilbo Baggins (the hero of the earlier work,1938’s The Hobbit), possesses the characteristics of a lonely homosexual man who has made a comfortable life for himself in a world where finding love is not an option.

When Frodo embarks on a quest to destroy the evil Ring, he is accompanied by his faithful gardener, Sam Gamgee, and two other hobbits named Merry and Pippin. The intense bonds of love that bind the four hobbits together bolster the interpretation of the hobbits’ way of life as a sort of gay male commune. In The Two Towers, the second book in the trilogy, Tolkien comes into his own as a visionary and a mythmaker, and his treatment of homosexuality becomes more explicit. The book centers on Frodo and Sam, who are now alone on their increasingly perilous journey. Surrounded by omnipresent evil, an atmosphere based on Tolkien’s horrific memories of the Battle of the Somme, they gradually fall in love and find the strength to counter the evil around them.

Tolkien frequently comments on the physical and moral beauty of his male characters. Most admired by the author is undoubtedly Sam Gamgee, whom Tolkien modeled on the working-class soldiers he met in the trenches in World War I. Rustic, unwaveringly loyal to Frodo, rough-hewn in speech and manners, Sam becomes Tolkien’s ideal man. In his earthiness and sensual charm, Sam resembles the gamekeeper Alec Scudder in E. M. Forster’s Maurice. Both authors utilize the honesty and physicality of a working-class man to illustrate the naturalness of same-sex love.

In one of the most emotional scenes, Sam has an epiphany while watching Frodo sleeping. He imagines that a light is shining from within Frodo, and the truth of his own feelings becomes apparent to him. “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’s all-consuming love for Frodo becomes the guiding force of goodness throughout the remainder of Tolkien’s epic.

Sam’s epiphany is followed by scenes in which the two hobbits express their love in increasingly homoerotic terms: holding hands, sleeping huddled together, swearing eternal devotion. Near the end of The Two Towers, when Frodo is apparently killed by Shelob, a gigantic spider, Sam’s grief is overpowering. In a poignant scene reminiscent of Romeo in the Capulet’s tomb in Romeo and Juliet, Sam mistakenly believes his beloved to be dead. After embracing and kissing Frodo, he contemplates suicide as a means of being reunited with him. In such climactic moments, Tolkien recasts the literary traditions of romantic love.

C. S. Lewis was deeply moved, sometimes affected to tears, when listening to Tolkien read him the chapters in The Two Towers that dramatize the love between Sam and Frodo. These readings happened in 1944, when the circle of friends calling themselves “The Inklings” was meeting virtually every Thursday night in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford, and also on Mondays at the pub “The Eagle and Child.” Tolkien chose to read these especially romantic chapters in private sessions when he was alone with Lewis. The authors had become spiritually intimate early on, after they met in 1926 at an English faculty tea. But Tolkien was married with four children, and England actively enforced laws criminalizing homosexual contact between men. Private hours reading about Sam and Frodo was perhaps the closest that Tolkien and Lewis ever came to acknowledging the truth about their feelings for one another.

Unconventional Love in the Return of the King

Published in 1955, the final volume of the trilogy, The Return of The King, is Tolkien’s finest literary achievement and a testament to his courage and artistic integrity. Heedless of the hostile response of many English reviewers to the first two books, Tolkien, far from backing away from homoeroticism, intensifies his portrayal of unconventional love, enriching the central love story with supporting characters who also rebel against social norms.

The men far outnumber the women in Tolkien, but his women characters are strong and memorable. Arwen and Galadriel are elves who possess the attributes of goddesses from Nordic mythology. In illustrating the legendary powers of women, Tolkien paves the way for portraits of women in fantasy fiction such as The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The most interesting of the rebellious women in The Return of The King is Éowyn, who disguises herself as a male warrior to defend the people of Rohan. Her cross-dressing is ostensibly motivated by the crisis of war, but she is clearly dissatisfied with the conventional woman’s role, which seems to her “a cage.” Éowyn is exhilarated by the power and freedom conferred on her by the male persona, whom she names “Dernhelm.”

One of the climaxes in the book is Éowyn’s battle with the Lord of the Nazgul, who has defeated all the men who have fought with him. When this evil supernatural being encounters her, he boasts that no living man can destroy him. Éowyn’s response is triumphant as she prepares to vanquish her enemy. “It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter.'” The triumph of Dernhelm/Éowyn provides a crucial victory in the War of the Ring and illustrates how justice is served when women defy gender norms. In shining a light on his feminist heroines and hobbit-heroes, Tolkien creates a framework that enhances the book’s sexual radicalism.

The most explicitly homoerotic scene in The Return of The King is when Sam rescues Frodo, who has been captured by an army of orcs. Risking almost certain death, Sam ascends the dark passages up to the topmost room of the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where he finds his beloved Frodo: “He was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags: his arm was flung up, shielding his head, and across his side there ran an ugly whip-weal. ‘Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!’ cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. ‘It’s Sam, I’ve come!’ He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast.” Frodo’s full nudity, crucial to the meaning of this scene, is altered in Peter Jackson’s film treatment (more on that below).

In one of literature’s greatest romantic moments, Tolkien slows time to a standstill, as Sam, heedless of the legions of orcs poised to kill them both, savors the sweetness of cradling Frodo’s nude body in his arms. “Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness.” This fleeting moment of bliss may have been personally meaningful to the author as Tolkien enacted his own sexual fantasies about holding and caressing the naked body of a man whom he trusted and loved-in Tolkien’s case, C. S. Lewis.

Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in 1954, followed by The Return of the King in 1955. The Oxford professor whose life revolved around teaching Beowulf in Old English, grading exam papers, and bicycling around the streets of Oxford was unprepared for both the adulation and the hostility that his books about hobbits engendered.

Some English reviewers condemned the books and their author in thinly veiled homophobic terms. The hand holding, cuddling, bed-sharing, and confessions of love among the hobbits rankled many critics. The Scottish writer Edwin Muir wrote a scathing review in The Observer entitled “A Boy’s World,” in which he savaged Tolkien in a manner designed to embarrass the author: “The astonishing thing is that all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes. The hobbits, or halflings, are ordinary boys; the fully human heroes have reached the fifth form; but hardly one of them knows anything about women, except by hearsay.” Muir’s characterization of the hobbits as boys, implying sexual immaturity, is a coded way of saying that the hobbits are not “real men,” i.e., sexually mature heterosexuals. In point of fact, Frodo at the beginning of the quest is about fifty, and Sam is in his thirties. The hobbits’ short stature (about half that of a human), through which Tolkien challenges masculine norms, is yet another reason why Muir degrades them.

In the 1950s, anti-gay sentiments were often cloaked in attacks on a man’s “masculinity” or a woman’s “femininity.” In addition to being scorned for his characters’ sexual and gender nonconformity, Tolkien continued to suffer the perennial fate of authors of fantasy fiction, what Tolkien called his “fairy stories.” Writers like Edwin Muir and his ilk might have saved themselves a lot of ink had they simply stated what they really meant when reviewing Tolkien’s books: “No more fairy stories.”

Fortunately, The Lord of The Rings found champions in powerful places, and these reviewers were even more impassioned in describing what the books meant in terms of fantasy, myth, masculinity, and love. Leading the charge in favor of Tolkien was none other than C.S. Lewis. Unfazed by the prospect of being accused of personal bias, given his Oxford connection and personal friendship with Tolkien (whose books he edited informally), Lewis penned rapturous reviews, including one in Time and Tide extolling The Fellowship of The Ring. “This book is like lightning from a clear sky. To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate.” Lewis was sincere in his belief in Tolkien’s genius, but the sensuous quality of his language (“gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed”) suggest something more personal.

The poet W. H. Auden rhapsodized about The Lord of The Rings in The New York Times. “No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy,” he wrote. While Auden did not mention homosexuality, his own poetry had become increasingly forthright in portraying gay themes. Although Auden had been a student of Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s, they met very few times over the course of their lives. Auden moved to America in 1939, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman. Auden openly embraced his gay identity and become active in left-wing politics, while Tolkien remained married to Edith Bratt for more than fifty years and was a devout Catholic. But the authors forged a strong bond in a series of erudite letters that continued until the time of their deaths, by coincidence in the same year and month: September, 1973. Their shared literary and personal interest in same-sex love was never discussed openly.

The Fellowship of the Ring on the Big Screen

Attempts to translate The Lord of The Rings to the screen began in the late 1950s, with Tolkien serving as a skeptical script consultant, but the project fell through. The Beatles contemplated their own film version in the 1960s, but their plans also came to naught. In 1978, Ralph Bakshi directed an animated version of Tolkien’s epic. The visual style is dark and intriguing, but the film is marred by the director’s homophobic portrait of the creature Gollum, who’s presented as a lisping Hollywood stereotype of a bitter queen.

It remained for Peter Jackson to offer a spectacular film adaption of The Fellowship of The Ring. Released in 2001, the film garnered rave reviews, won four Oscars, and became an international blockbuster. As impressive as the computer-generated imagery is the homoerotic yearning that fills Jackson’s expansive screen. Jackson’s cinematography can be said to have a distinctly homoerotic directorial gaze. One of the pioneers of this perspective was Franco Zeffirelli in his 1968 film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s camera gazes lingeringly on the beautiful visage of Leonard Whiting as Romeo, and the director is equally obsessed with the supple bodies and colorful codpieces worn by the young Capulets and Montagues.

As in Zeffirelli’s film, the male leads in The Fellowship of The Ring are photographed in vividly sensual ways, with frequent close-ups to portray intense emotional bonds among the virtually all-male cast. The effect is one of sustained homoeroticism. Elijah Wood, the youngest of the actors, is an androgynously lovely Frodo Baggins, with luminous eyes, featured in many soulful close-ups that convey both his spiritual purity and the beauty that he possesses in Sam’s eyes. Short in stature, with a lilting voice and many fey mannerisms, Elijah Wood is one of the most unconventional heroes in movie history.

Even more overtly homoerotic is Jackson’s photography of Sean Astin in the pivotal role of Sam Gamgee, the love of Frodo’s life. With his blond, curly hair, full, sensual lips, and beefy muscularity, Sean Astin is a brilliant screen realization of the hobbit whom Tolkien found so bewitching that he once referred to Sam as “this jewel among the hobbits.” Jackson frames Elijah Wood and Sean Astin in many romantic shots. One of the most lyrical scenes is when Frodo and Sam are walking through autumnal, glowing wheatfields. Through gold-tinted lighting, expressive music, and an idealized landscape, Jackson foreshadows the love that develops between the hobbits on their journey.

Another of Jackson’s brilliant casting strokes was the choice of English actor Sean Bean in the pivotal role of Boromir, the man tormented by his lust to possess the Ring. In 1993 Sean Bean became an English sex symbol due to his role as the gamekeeper Mellors in Ken Russell’s 1993 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which an instant of full-frontal nudity escalated his international celebrity. As Boromir in The Fellowship of The Ring, Bean remains fully clothed, but he exudes a sexual charisma. In an intriguing addition to the original book, Jackson implies subtextually that Boromir is secretly in love with Aragorn and wishes to share the throne of Gondor with him. Boromir’s furtive glances at Aragorn communicate his erotic attraction to the man who starts out as his rival and becomes his inspiration.

The motif of love between men reaches its climax near the end of the film, when Sam and Frodo risk their lives for each other. The image of Frodo’s hand clasping Sam’s hand to save him from drowning is accompanied by the crescendo of Howard Shore’s stirring music. In the film’s final moments, the screen is flooded with homoerotic intensity. Sean Astin gazes adoringly at Elijah Wood, and as they head towards the evil land of Mordor, it seems the hobbits will finally be united as lovers.

The Return of the King: The Movie

The Return of The King, the final film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, was released in 2003 and generated an international sensation. Most critics praised the movie as the apogee of Jackson’s career, and The Return of The King was deluged with eleven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. And yet, it must be said that Jackson’s most highly acclaimed film in the trilogy falls short in its handling of homosexual themes and often fails to do justice to Tolkien’s vision. The homoerotic gazes between the hobbits Sam and Frodo are still there, but changes to Tolkien’s original dialogue and scene descriptions diminish the strength of their bond.

Following the 2001 release of The Fellowship of The Ring, a great deal had been written in newspapers, magazines, and especially on the Internet questioning the gay themes in the film. Whether Jackson was taken aback by the homophobic criticism is a matter of conjecture. What he produced are several crucial scenes in which Tolkien’s portrayal of love between men is downplayed. In the scene when Sam rescues Frodo, who’s imprisoned in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Jackson alters Frodo’s full nudity as described by Tolkien and shows the hobbit only shirtless. Granted, full exposure may have been out of the question for the film’s target audience, but Frodo’s nudity could have been conveyed in ways that are familiar to Hollywood. Furthering the damage, Jackson rushes past the moments when Sam cradles Frodo’s body in his arms. Thus the erotic communion that’s present in the novel is entirely lost.

One of most spectacular settings in the film is Jackson’s utilization of Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand, to represent Mount Doom, where the hobbits finally destroy the evil Ring by casting it into the flames. As Mount Doom erupts and self-destructs, Sam and Frodo cling to each other, facing death. In this end-of-world scenario, Jackson alters Tolkien’s original focus on the love between the two hobbits, writing new dialogue that has Sam suddenly talking about Rosie Cotton, a hobbit from back home, and how he wishes he could marry her.

The most puzzling treatment of homosexuality in the film occurs after Sam and Frodo are rescued from Mount Doom by giant eagles and brought to safety. In the movie, Frodo wakes up the next morning in a luxurious bed, where he is soon joined by Merry and Pippin. The three hobbits proceed to embrace and cavort joyously in the large bed during an extended, soft-focus, slow-motion sequence that seems like something out of Elvira Madigan. But even in a scene bursting with homoeroticism, Jackson makes a crucial departure from Tolkien. In the book, Frodo and Sam wake up in bed together, while in the film Jackson takes Sam out of the bed and places him standing apart in a nearby doorway, an image designed to separate Sam from the homoerotic activity of the the hobbits in bed.

Jackson re-establishes himself, however, as a director with a gay sensibility through the brilliant ending to the film. The farewell between Sam and Frodo at the Grey Havens, where Frodo prepares to sail away with the elves into a twilight world, is almost unbearably poignant. The outpouring of tears and affection among the hobbits leads up to the final embrace between Frodo and Sam. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are superb here, holding back nothing emotionally. When Frodo caresses Sam and places a prolonged kiss on his forehead, the camera angle and the lingering nature of the kiss lead us to believe that Frodo wishes to kiss Sam on the lips. In this final scene of the trilogy, Peter Jackson throws caution to the wind and leaves us with unforgettable moments that linger in memory.

The Future of Tolkien’s Fairy Stories

The mysterious departure of Frodo sailing into the West toward a glowing horizon at the end of Tolkien’s epic is emblematic of what the future may hold for Tolkien readers and scholars: “And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water.” What lies ahead can only be imagined because so much has yet to be explored.

Tolkien’s genius as a creator of unconventional love stories has for too long gone unrecognized. Viewed as an oddity by most of his dry-as-dust colleagues at Oxford, he was a special target of criticism when The Lord of the Rings was published in the reactionary 1950s. Tolkien was given an enormous boost by the youth movement in the ’60s, though the homosexual themes in his books were still overlooked. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy did justice to these themes, up to a point, and not without arousing controversy and some backpedaling on the director’s part.

But Tolkien’s unique vision continues to gather strength, and the homoerotic culture of the hobbits is reaching increasingly vast numbers of people. There may come a time when the romance between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee in The Lord of The Rings will finally be awarded its rightful place as one of the greatest love stories in English literature.