Naked Tolkien: The Amazon LOTR TV Series and Sex

The joys of fandom. No sooner has the Amazon Lord of the Rings series resumed production than something comes along to stir the pot. Specifically, there has been a casting call for people comfortable with nudity:

Someone did a bit of detective work, and found that the casting call is indeed for the Amazon series. Not just that, but the series has hired an Intimacy Coordinator too.

So there you have it: there will seemingly be nudity and sexual content in the Second Age series. From what we know so far. I am still taking a wait and see approach, and trying not to jump to conclusions.

The linked article, by one Cliff ‘Quickbeam’ Broadway, is a bit more fretful, citing a letter where Tolkien expressed his initial dream:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry.

I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Broadway sees a Lord of the Rings series featuring sex and nudity as being a violation of this principle. In his view, the High Fantasy nature of the setting is under threat from lowbrow intrusions, with the article going so far as to state that “Professor Tolkien kept the toilets, orgasms, and such other bodily ephemera offstage the entire time.”

In short, Broadway does not want this Second Age television adaptation to ape the more earthy aspects of Game of Thrones, and if Amazon is planning nude and intimate scenes then that is a Big Red Light for the project.

It is a sentiment I can understand. I also do not want Game of Thrones II: Atlantis Edition. But unlike Broadway, I do not think that the presence of sex or nudity inherently takes the adaptation down that path. It might do, but I think going from ‘sex’ to ‘Littlefinger’s Brothel’ is an excessive leap for now.

If I were to raise one single objection to Broadway’s argument, it would be this – why does he consider sex and nudity to be inherently gross? Why lump it in with farts and excrement? Dwarves coming out of toilets? Is he not capable of imagining a treatment that is anything other than pornographic or something unclean?

To illustrate, let us consider one of Tolkien’s key influences: William Morris. Morris, if you recall, was a vital player in the birth of the modern fantasy genre in the 1890s. A fierce Romantic, he adored Malory, and actually taught himself Icelandic so that he could translate the sagas into English. Morris also – and this is relevant – remarked that:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Considering his Romanticism, and this premium he places on beauty, Morris’ fantasy works are, unsurprisingly, very High Fantasy. He wanted art that escapes the drudgery of the late Victorian era, and which evokes a purer, more caring, and less soulless age. Tolkien may not have been a fan of Morris’ Marxist politics, but he was certainly on board with some of the earlier writer’s themes.

It may therefore interest you to know that Morris’ fantasy works are very comfortable indeed with sex and nudity (and his portrayal of female character agency is ahead of his time. But I digress).

So a man writing in late Victorian Britain saw nothing inherently low and gross about sexuality or nudity. Aforementioned man was integral to the formation of modern fantasy, to a degree where he both inspired and influenced Tolkien – and in terms of pre-1960 fantasy writers, he was not alone in writing sexual themes into his stories. So why should Broadway – writing more than 120 years later – consider such things out of place in High Fantasy? Have the tentacles of Grimdark so completely entrapped our minds that we cannot imagine sex and nudity as anything other than filthy?

Note that this is actually a different issue from arguing that Tolkien didn’t write sex*, therefore the series shouldn’t have sex. That is base-level Purist silliness. As always with adaptations, I am much more interested in themes than plot – and Broadway’s argument strikes me as thematic in scope (‘Tolkien wrote High Fantasy, sexual content is lowbrow, therefore the series shouldn’t have sex’). As mentioned, I just happen to think that Broadway’s interpretation of the role of sexual content is too narrow, and dare I say pessimistic.

*For a detailed look at how Tolkien handles sexual themes, I can recommend reading this essay, by Tyellas:

Tolkien is more nuanced and less prudish than people give him credit for…

That said, it is also worth remembering that Tolkien makes significant symbolic use of non-sexual nudity, and I think the TV series could do worse than remember that nudity is not inherently sexual.

For example:

  • The hobbits at Crickhollow: situational nudy – it’s a bath.
  • Merry, Sam, and Pippin on the Barrow Downs: nudity as freedom.
  • Gandalf on Zirak-Zigil: nudity as ‘birth’.
  • Frodo in Cirith Ungol: nudity as vulnerability and humiliation.
  • Nienor: nudity as innocence.
  • Saeros: nudity as uncivilised (his accusations about Hithlum women), and nudity as humiliation (his fate).
  • Herendil (an early version son of Elendil): situational nudity – he is swimming.

Only the last is actually during the Second Age, of course. However, I feel these examples do a decent job at illustrating symbolic potential for nude depictions, without sexualising matters. Indeed, given the setting, swimming would be inherently nude, as very likely would indoor sleeping.

Addendum: It is not canonical, but both Celebrimbor’s corpse on a pole, and Maedhros on Thangorodrim are represented as naked or near-naked in most artistic depictions. The former, of course, falls within the Second Age timeframe… which means, notwithstanding sensitivities, we might well be in for this sort of image at some point:

Image result for celebrimbor arrows

That’s not something pretending to be Game of Thrones. That’s the common interpretation of Celebrimbor’s fate (as described by Tolkien himself), and it ain’t pretty. Non-sexual nudity can be hauntingly powerful.

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