Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hobbit Love

One of Göran's and my more memorable activities was reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings together, from cover to cover. The reading was usually before bed time. I would read dramatically out loud, while Göran would snuggle up against me or rest his head on my shoulder or chest. He loved my impression of the ent Treebeard. (Ents were a magical race of giant tree-like beings that cared for the forests, and that spoke very slowly. Göran thought my version of Treebeard was better than the movies). He was also impressed by my fluent reading of Elvish text, which he attributed to the fact that I grew up speaking Finnish, the idiom that provided the template for the imaginary language that Tolkien created for his books. But what delighted us most was the hobbits.

For us there was never any question that the relationship at the center of the epic -- the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee -- was really a gay relationship. The mutual devotion and sacrificial love of Frodo and Sam became a role model for us, an example of the kind of love we felt for each other. We knew that if one of us were ever called to go to the ends of the earth on some great adventure, it would not be possible without the other by our side, and that neither of us would hesitate to give our life for the other.

One of the really emotional moments in Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the epic for me was the scene where Frodo, wanting to spare Sam the danger of the journey into Mordor, attempts to strike out on his own by stealing a boat and paddling out across the great Anduin River. Sam finds Frodo and heads out to catch up with him, but can't swim. As it seems Sam is about to drown, Frodo reaches down and heaves Sam up into the boat where they collapse into a tearful, loving embrace, while Sam swears undying devotion to Frodo. Where you go, I will go, Sam says. From the moment I first saw that scene, it electrified me. It reduces me to a lake of tears every time I see it. That is what our love is like, I thought. Frodo and Sam was Göran and I.

I remember subsequently having a friendly argument with Sam Welter, a close friend of the family, specifically about that scene, and about hobbit love in general. Sam didn't think there was a gay subtext in Lord of the Rings. He insisted I was reading too much into Tolkien's story. (Tolkien was, after all, a devout Catholic, and married with children!) We ended by agreeing to disagree, though Sam acknowledged that he could see how gay men might read those themes into the story.

But now, a recent review by English Literature Professor David LaFontaine in The Gay and Lesbian Review, makes the case in very persuasive terms that, not only was there a gay subtext in the Lord of the rings, but that J.R.R. Tolkien himself may have experienced same sex attraction and likely felt a bond with his friend C.S. Lewis that had homoerotic elements. Those of you who are interested in reading the details of his argument should buy the November – December 2015 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review. I'm happy to lend my copy to anyone who's interested in reading it! I won't recapitulate the specifics of his arguments here, but he points out that not only does the text have clear homoerotic themes, critics of the day ridiculed Tolkien's work precisely because of this, and Peter Jackson's film adaptation deliberately muted these elements in the text.

I remember watching the film The Fellowship of the Ring with Göran and being disappointed (though not surprised) that Jackson elided the hobbit bathing scene (which was a part of the book Göran and I very much enjoyed). But, in The Return of the King, when Sam finds Frodo with pants on in Cirith Ungol, instead of completely naked as he was in the book, Göran and I were taken aback. Why did Jackson make that directorial decision, when he could easily have found a tasteful way to portray the story as it was written? The film version makes us forget that in the book before Sam does anything else, he lovingly cradles his naked Frodo in his arms.

But what really takes the cake is the scene outside of Mount Doom, famous among gay fans of Tolkien as a portrayal of same-sex love and devotion. Again, Frodo is being tenderly cradled in the arms of Sam, as they prepare to die, and all of a sudden, Sam is going on about "Rosie Cotton dancing." What the heck....???  There's no Rosie Cotton dialog in the book. Jackson almost certainly added it to disperse the undeniable homoerotic element in the pinnacle expression of same-sex love in the three films. (Well, that and Boromir's death scene.)

If the movie, in other words, had portrayed in a more straightforward manner what was told in the books, the film almost certainly would have aroused the same homophobic wrath that Tolkien's books apparently unleashed when they first came out in the 1950s. Jackson, wanting to avoid that, tweaked the film version enough to allow plausible deniability of homo love in the films, while leaving enough in to keep gay fans of the film (like me and Göran) coming back again and again.

Last June, when Göran and I were in Oxford, England, we made a point of visiting the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis met to discuss their writing projects. Little did I know that we were visiting a place that maybe ought to be listed in the gay tour books!

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