Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part VIII
Today we return to your regularly scheduled McGarry and Ravipinto. Specifically, we will look at their next paragraph, focused on marginalised minorities:
High fantasy frequently chronicles the struggle between a transformative, conquering force understood to be evil and the heroes who stand against it. These saviors embody privilege; they are almost always white, heterosexual, and (as Stross notes) male. Women and ethnic or sexual minorities may end up assisting the heroes, but those that do rarely question the societal structures they fight to preserve or restore, nor do they attempt to change those structures for their benefit or for the benefit of those like them. Such people are the forgotten of modern fantasy, lost in the shadow of the status quo, made powerless and invisible by the very society they strive to protect.
As seen previously, Sauron is not transformative in a social sense. He (if not his servants) is the embodiment of Law and Order, reunifying the divided peoples of Middle-earth under one banner. McGarry and Ravipinto accordingly start off on the wrong foot, by mistakenly identifying the conflict in The Lord of the Rings as being Change vs Status Quo, when in reality is about Domination vs Freedom (or more accurately, Power vs Rejection of Power). The latter point is actually interesting, since for all the post-1977 Tolkien imitation, it is very unusual to encounter a fantasy where the objective is (1) destroy the magical artefact, not use it, and (2) reject power, not accept it. The Lord of the Rings is diametrically opposed to the narrative of “plucky little protagonist defeats Evil with the help of the magical artefact once they believe in themselves.” But I digress.
McGarry and Ravinpinto have identified the heroes as invariably white, male, and heterosexual. The difficulty is – who, exactly, are the heroes in The Lord of the Rings, rather than being the supporting cast? It is all very well to identify Aragorn as fitting this criteria (he’s white, male, so far as we know heterosexual, and descended from a line of Kings). The problem is that, as far as the actual plot goes, Aragorn is just as much part of the supporting cast as anyone else – it isn’t him leading the way to Mount Doom and destroying the Ring. Aragorn’s contribution is (1) rejecting the temptation of the Ring, and (2) providing the military distraction that allowed Frodo and Sam to succeed. As grand as the Battle of Pelennor Fields is, as noble as the defence of Minas Tirith is, the real story is taking place a few hundred miles further east.
So if Frodo and Sam are the heroes, how do they fit with the notion of white heterosexual male privilege? Turns out, not very well. Yes, both are white males, and one of them at least is comfortable middle-class (if not true upper class like Merry and Pippin). But Frodo’s sexuality is completely absent from the story: he never expresses sexual interest in anyone, let alone marries and has children. Calling him heterosexual is rather artificial in the circumstances. Moreover, while Frodo (as a Baggins) does enjoy hereditary middle-class privilege, he does not embrace it (he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses), and like Bilbo before him rejects conservative social norms (“Bilbo’s cracked, and Frodo’s cracking”). As for Sam – who really does have a sexuality – he is explicitly working class: the closest Tolkien ever comes to writing about a figure from the proletariat, albeit rural not urban. Another really interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, but not The Silmarillion) is that the heroes aren’t grand figures. They aren’t mighty swordsmen, or great leaders of men. They aren’t even exploiting some role as the Chosen One. They are really just a pair of very ordinary people, who don’t give up, and who eventually triumph through their moral qualities (specifically the mercy granted to Gollum). In short, they are Everymen, not the embodiment of privilege in the way that Aragorn might be accused of being. Bilbo – in contrast to Thorin – plays the same role in The Hobbit.
Even The Silmarillion plays with this. For all that it is a tale of grand heroics against impossible odds, and for all that there are no hobbits to play audience surrogates – one notable thing about The Silmarillion is that the truly privileged figures, Noldorin Royalty like Fëanor, Fingolfin, Maedhros, and Turgon, or Sindarin King Thingol (he alone of his people to have seen the light of the Two Trees), ultimately fail. The failures are grand, as befits a truly epic story, but they still fail: blood, skill in arms, determination… none of it matters in the end.
In fact, the two major bright spots once the action hits Beleriand are actually from more unlikely sources. A mortal man of no great lineage (basically a wandering outlaw) joins a rebellious Elven Princess and achieves what all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not – the capture of a Silmaril. Beren and Lúthien are hardly Everymen a la Frodo and Sam, but they aren’t really McGarry and Ravipinto’s embodiment of privilege either (Lúthien might be, were it not for the article clearly placing women outside the privileged category). And then there is Eärendil, whose most important role in the stand against Evil is not his slaying of Ancalagon, but rather a pilgrimage to the Valar, to plead for help on behalf of two peoples. Yes, he’s a white male (and descended from Noldorin Royalty on his mother’s side), but he’s there as a messenger – and note that he (a half-blood) succeeded where all the white male Elves had failed.
None of this really lends itself to the idea of privileged heroes stalwartly defending existing social structures with the assistance of invisible minorities. Never mind that the issue is not really one of social structure: if anything, closer inspection of Tolkien appears to suggest the reverse is true as far as successful heroics are concerned – a bunch of ragtag Everymen or people of “different” background (or women) achieve what the truly privileged cannot, in some cases reducing the latter to mere supporting cast.