Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XV

Having broken with McGarry and Ravipinto to write 8000 words on Tolkien’s female characters (Part I, Part IIPart IIIPart IV), let’s return to it, and finish it off:

There are many ways in which sexual minorities are marginalized in fantasy fiction. In The Lord of the Rings, this is accomplished simply by ignoring their existence. As far as we can tell, every biological resident of Middle-Earth—human, elf, or orc—is cis-gendered and heterosexual. The transformative and evil forces— in this case, Sauron—may be once-men, but The sexuality of all “normal” beings of the world is much more clearly defined. Men love women, women love men, and there is no suggestion that things have ever been otherwise. Obviously, some of this is due to the time in which the series was written—a more progressive approach might have gained Tolkien censorship or even charges of indecency—but it still set a troubling precedent that extends even to a more progressive era.

This is simultaneously true and unfair. The article is correct to note that homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings – it was only legalised in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (some nineteen years before New Zealand…). Moreover, until 1959, English Law applied the Hicklin Test for works seen as corrupting the public morals – had Tolkien’s world been anything other than purely heterosexual, he would never have found a publisher. It’s worth noting that the trial of Oscar Wilde was something that took place in Tolkien’s own lifetime.

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(Tolkien’s own views on the matter can only be subject to speculation. We do know, as per Letter 294, that he thoroughly enjoyed Mary Renault’s historical fiction novels – which portray homosexuality in an Ancient Greek setting).

In-universe, not everyone in Middle-earth is heterosexual in the sense that many characters simply don’t develop sexual relationships – not just the obviously asexual beings like Gandalf, but the likes of Bilbo, Frodo, Gimli, et al. It actually also seems common for certain characters to fall in love with certain activities, to the point where those override any sexual urges: Aldarion and the Sea, Boromir and fighting, dwarven males and their crafts. Haleth is an interesting female example of a woman who remains unmarried, not because she could never realise her true love (a la Andreth), but because that’s her choice. Were Fem-Slash not so comparatively rare in Fanfiction, Haleth would be a potential candidate for (purely reader-interpreted) lesbianism.

This presents an interesting problem to modern readers of Tolkien’s work, as much of the series concerns only the relationships between male characters. Women are prizes to be won or treasures to be protected (this is most particularly true of Aragorn’s fiancé, Arwen), and are almost always kept “off-screen.” It is therefore not surprising that modern readers see homoeroticism in the close friendship of Frodo and Samwise (Goodreads, 2010-2015). Samwise occasionally pines over Rosie Cotton, back in the Shire, but it is his love for Frodo that keeps him on the quest of Mount Doom, and that saves him from the Ring’s corrupting influence. Since overt homosexuality does not exist in Tolkien’s world, the deep connection between the hobbits seems even more sexual in nature. 

I have addressed the role of female characters elsewhere.

Ted Nasmith - La mort de Boromir

As for Frodo and Sam, Tolkien clearly did not intend this as anything homosexual – it is derived from a Victorian worldview, where such close (physical) relationships between men did not automatically attract the sexual overtones a twenty-first century reader might see in them. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible, applying the Death of the Author principle, for a modern reader to interpret something sexual in there. It’s their prerogative – since the reader (not the author) derives meaning in a text, The Lord of the Rings basically addresses homosexuality if (and only if) the reader wants it to.

The marginalization of minorities—both racial and sexual—extends also to women. It is no surprise that women are sidelined in fantasy, which deals primarily with patriarchal models (Kuznets, 1985). There are nearly no women of importance in the The Lord of the Rings and those few that exist serve primarily as prizes or caretakers. In Middle-earth, it is men who fight the battles, men who solve the problems, and men who change the world. Whatever small role Tolkien’s few women—Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn—may play in saving Middle-Earth from Sauron, ultimately the story of the War of the Ring is not theirs. 

As I concluded in my four-part essay on the subject, the scarcity of female characters in Rings does not render them unimportant. Éowyn is neither a prize, nor a caretaker (she is simultaneously an exploration of gender roles, and of the Northern Theory of Courage). She is the most important Rohirric character, and perhaps even the second-most important human character, behind Aragorn.

I would note though, that in their rush to identify men as the key actors, McGarry and Ravipinto overlook that the story of the War of the Ring isn’t really Aragorn’s story either. For all his majesty, he’s simply the distraction that allows the Ring to get to Mount Doom. The real determiners of Middle-earth’s fate are Frodo, Sam, and Gollum – in a context that does not really suit a thematic consideration of gender (would the text be different, beyond tokenism, if one or more of those three had been female?).

Yet for all this lineage and distinction, Galadriel plays a very small role in the War of the Ring. She welcomes the Fellowship to her home in Lothlórien, lades them with gifts, and provides Frodo with cryptic advice. It is mentioned in The Return of the King (Tolkien, 1955) that while Aragorn battled Sauron, Galadriel participated in an attack on the forces of Dol Guldur, but this struggle goes on “off-screen” and is by implication relatively unimportant. 

Galadriel plays a small role because the Elves are fading. This isn’t a matter of gender, it’s a matter of her entire race vanishing.

There is little to say about Arwen Evenstar, who in the entire series sews a banner and marries Aragorn, two traditionally female roles that have little impact on the struggle against Sauron. 

I’m not going to defend Book-Arwen, who is simply a weak, xeroxed version of a far more interesting Silmarillion character.

Yet even this small victory is soon taken from Eowyn, for shortly after Sauron’s fall, she quickly repents her martial ways in favor of the more marital, as she indicates when accepting Faramir’s proposal: “‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’” (Tolkien, 1955, p. 262). Thus a character who began by railing against the restrictions under which women labor retreats swiftly to the role of wife, nurturer and, by implication of her engagement to Faramir, mother. 

As I have said elsewhere, this is not a woman being put back in her box. This is a woman who desired death, but who has now found cause to live again. It is rather strange, when you think about it, that the likes of McGarry and Ravipinto would consider hunger for violence a healthier motivation than a desire to heal. Are soldiers more worthy than doctors?

From The Lord of the Rings to A Song of Ice and Fire we can trace an evolution from Tolkien’s straightforward, epic Middle-earth to Martin’s more morally nuanced and grittily realistic Westeros. In a real sense, Martin is trying to answer the question of what happens if we do not accept at face value that a conquering hero “ruled wisely and well,” and in that he has undoubtedly been successful. His characters are more complex, come from a wider variety of backgrounds and grapple with shades of gray rather than the often less complex black-and-white conflict of Tolkien’s War of the Ring.

I could point out that Martin’s viewpoint characters are (with very few exceptions), the social upper-crust of Westeros, and even those exceptions tend to be people like Davos, who are notable because they hang around the upper-crust. By contrast, the two major heroes of Rings – Frodo and Sam – are middle-class and working-class respectively. Nor is there anything particularly grey about Martin’s conflict between the Others and humanity – the Others are the black-hats, and the humans are, well, humans. The reader knows which side to cheer for.

As for Tolkien, the War of the Ring does not represent a real-world conflict of Men vs Men. The Orcs aren’t Germans, or Russians, or Muslims, or whichever allegory of the week foolish people try to stick on the text. Tolkien knew only too well that real-life wars are much messier, with Orcs and Angels, and everyone in-between, being found on both sides of a conflict (hence his comment that “we were all Orcs [in the First World War]”). In the context of the War of the Ring, you have black and white as poles on a spectrum, with characters like Sam, Gollum, Denethor, and Sauron, falling all over the place – just because Tolkien actually applies an objective system of morality does not mean that system should be treated as straightforward or simplistic.

That completes my rebuttal of McGarry and Ravipinto. I hope you enjoyed it. 🙂

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One thought on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XV

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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