Queer readings of The Lord of the Rings are not accidents
July 7, 2021 1:26 PM   Subscribe

Molly Ostertag presents an in-depth and compelling argument that the hobbits' relationship was a romantic one, presented as explicitly as Tolkien felt he could:
It was a conscious choice on the part of “Frodo” and “Sam” to include the many moments when they express love for each other, and it reads much in the same way people from the past delicately referred to their same-sex relationships: wanting to acknowledge their truth while obeying the conventions of the time.
posted by serathen (91 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Kevin Smith was on to something, with that scene in Clerks 2.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 1:38 PM on July 7, 2021


Molly has also created some really cool comics not to mention more sweet LOTR fanart.

(Also it's not relevant to this thread but Molly's wife is Noelle Stevenson (She-Ra, Nimona, Lumberjanes) and their back and fourth tweeting (including stuff about LOTR) is one of the few redeeming features of Twitter and gives me life.)
posted by Wretch729 at 1:44 PM on July 7, 2021 [19 favorites]


I think she makes a fair point, but based on my understanding of Tolkien and his almost entirely non-erotic inclinations in his stories, his intent wasn't to convey a crypto-queer relationship between Frodo and Sam but a fully honest, emotionally vulnerable relationship between two men, with no sexual dimension necessary. The kind of true platonic love we should all aspire to at some point in our lives.

As a matter of fact, I think some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual.
posted by tclark at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2021 [141 favorites]


I wonder if Tolkien's attitude about spirit de corps has anything to do with the horrid conditions of WWI that he suffered through watching with his mates and horses exploding in mounds of decaying flesh.

Like ... I mean I guess we can sexualize the effects of that experience if we want to do that.

Although I am sad. That this makes me feel like men can't have intimate emotional relationships with other men without it being sexualized.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 1:54 PM on July 7, 2021 [59 favorites]


An interesting and pretty well supported reading. I was thinking that while many people were exposed to the romantic tension between Frodo and Sam in the movies, where it's somewhat played up, the movies also play it down by accentuating Sam's interest in the barmaid Rosie.

At the end when they're facing all but certain doom, nothing left to lose, and everyone is thinking, kiss! kiss!, instead Sam says something about how if he were ever to marry anyone, it would have been her.

I was curious so I checked the book and there's no such moment in the book, or at least not at that time — in the pages leading up to the final encounter, Sam actually kisses Frodo's hand before carrying him up the last stretch. Perhaps it is a non-erotic kiss, but on the other hand, it does also read as a "this is as far as we can go" forbidden kiss. But maybe I'm inventing. But certainly he doesn't seem to suddenly feel the need to blurt out how much he loves hobbit women!

I haven't read the books all the way through in quite a while, but from what I remember although there is plenty of "maybe-so-maybe-not" arguable stuff such as the kissing and professions of love, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of "definitely not queer" stuff like a fulfilling heterosexual relationship sought and achieved by either of them — Sam's settling down is treated as sort of a foregone conclusion, a concession to the demands of normalcy following the extraordinary events of the books.

Maybe there's a paragraph that says something along the lines of At last, Sam had what he had wanted in his heart of hearts: a loving wife, healthy children and a cozy home in the peace of the Shire or something, but if there is I haven't found it.

I think some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual.

I think this is fair as well to an extent and I remember Anthony Mackie rather poorly but earnestly saying something along these lines re Falcon and Bucky.

But as I believe has been discussed here as well, there's a decent gap between a edge case interpretation (this one) and a fanciful, wishful interpretation (Legolas/Gimli for instance). With Frodo and Sam it seems like the door is left open to a queer reading and it's arguable that Tolkien left it that way — at any rate he seems not to have shut it.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:57 PM on July 7, 2021 [21 favorites]


I really enjoyed this analysis. Not because I think "OMG they were boning!" in some literal sense. (Everyone knows that was Gimli/Legolas.) But because it replicates all the close reading people like me do, looking for some aspect of ourselves in mainstream culture. Sometimes the queer content is intentional, sometimes it's accidental, and sometimes it's kind of in-between. I'm happy to fill in the gaps.

I think my reading queer content into books where it may not have been intended transcends tclark's concern about homophobia. I agree with the broad point: sometimes intimate relationships between men are not actually homosexual. I just don't care about that. I'm gay and I'm reading a story I love with two male characters I love and I'm going to find content I can relate to. Maybe it's overreading, maybe it's appropriation, I don't really give a damn. I'm making what I read mine.
posted by Nelson at 2:00 PM on July 7, 2021 [40 favorites]


it's queer enough that warner brothers felt the need to het up the Hobbit films with the creation of a romance plot with Tauriel that they backed Evangeline Lily into
posted by eustatic at 2:00 PM on July 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


I love a shout out to Italo Calvino, my fav:
The essayist Italo Calvino defined a classic as “a book that has never finished what it has to say,” and The Lord of the Rings is certainly a classic.
"Why read the classics" is a great essay that I think about all the time. It talks about how when you read a classic, no matter how many times, it always has something new to tell you. I think about this every time I re-watch something and find new things in it.

I think it's important to remember that when people say "I read this and I saw ____ here, here, and here" it doesn't mean anything other than "I would like to share that I saw ___ and what I think about that". It doesn't mean it's the only thing there is to see there. It doesn't mean it's contradicting the author, who isn't in charge of who sees what. It's just something saw there. If you want to see it too now you can. If it doesn't interest you to see it then you don't have to. It's certainly not supposed to asserting a new rule about what can be seen and what can't be seen.
posted by bleep at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2021 [37 favorites]


As the author notes it is really hard to apply our social mores and ideas of what sexuality is to a Victornia, Catholic author who claims not to know what "homosexuality" is until he was 19. Did he not know that people of the same sex engage in sexual activity or did he mean that he didn't realize that such people could be in long-term committed relationship? I'm guessing the latter, I can't imagine anyone going through an all boys school without at least jokes or hearing about two boys doing something sexual that would probably get swept under the rug as "boys will be boys."

If anything the relationship between Frodo and Sam were of the Batman (the comic)/Robin type which was parodied by Ace and Gary, yet I don't think there was ever an original intention to make Batman and Robin as queer icons.

I was in high school/college when the first LOTR movies came out and I don't remember it being derided as "gay" or shunned, unless I read the author's opening statement incorrectly. It was a fairly loved movie by popular kids and nerds alike.

That this makes me feel like men can't have intimate emotional relationships with other men without it being sexualized.

I agree, and while I am all for people finding whatever they want in works I don't think any strong connection needs to be sexualized.
posted by geoff. at 2:06 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite]


Molly has also created some really cool comics

So that's why the name looked familiar. She wrote Witch Boy! And illustrated Shattered Warrior, which I also rather liked. I remember thinking Witch Boy felt a little didactic / predictable compared to Lumberjanes, but it may have just been intended for younger readers. I can definitely imagine encouraging my son to read both, once he's older.
posted by serathen at 2:07 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


The comics are giving me life right now omg
posted by lazaruslong at 2:10 PM on July 7, 2021


I like how bleep put it.. take what you need from your art, it's all valid in that sense. Share what you get, learn from others, it's what makes the production of art worth anything as far as I can tell. Discover, be appalled, argue, agree, it's all about learning who and what we are?
posted by elkevelvet at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2021 [5 favorites]


I will second and third the comments upthread that our culture needs more space, not less, for displays of genuine, non-erotic emotional closeness between men. Sometimes love of a cigar is just... love of a cigar.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:19 PM on July 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


Your culture might need room for that; mine doesn't. My culture is shaped by centuries of erasure where we've been told time and again that meaingful romantic relationships between people like us were not possible. I'm gonna sex up Sam and Frodo all I want.
posted by Nelson at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2021 [34 favorites]


That's a really good essay. The voice is great, the structure (like, weirdly, NK Jemisin's excellent Broken Earth trilogy) leads you to think of a question about something on your own just as the issue is introduced, it's serious-sounding without being stuffy or de-haute-en-bas. Would read more like this.

She talks about a 1951 novel about a relationship between soldiers, Look Down In Mercy. Until fairly recently, I'd always vaguely assumed that there wasn't much actually gay literature that was published by mass presses prior to the sixties or seventies (I mean, there's The Well of Loneliness, books with comic gay characters as in Lawrence Durrell's work, etc) but there's actually quite a number of just...regular, pretty good novels and even detective novels. They were often controversial but they existed and people knew about them - they just get forgotten because "of course" gay culture begins with the seventies.

Which really ties back a bit to what seems to be the point of her essay - gay people have always existed and straight people often knew them, understood them fairly well and cared about them. It's not especially weird when you think about it that a sophisticated guy from a cultured background should have met some gay people and formed his own private ideas about their relationships and emotional capacities. If anything, it's weird when you encounter writers who definitely had gay friends but who none the less wrote gay characters as only grotesque and ridiculous.
posted by Frowner at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2021 [18 favorites]


There are enough such moments in the book that the undercurrent caught my attention when I first read it as a young teen. I'm surprised she didn't mention the time Tom Bombadil had them "run naked on the grass" after he saved them from the Barrow-Wight.

I sort of shudder to imagine what Christopher Tolkien would have said in reply. But who knows, really.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "It is one of my lifelong weaknesses that I never could endure the embrace or kiss of my own sex. (An unmanly weakness, by the way; Aeneas, Beowulf, Roland, Launcelot, Johnson, and Nelson knew nothing of it.)" There might be something along those lines happening here, or perhaps it provides a kind of cover.
posted by Caxton1476 at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


Also please don't let's have this be a fight about whether talking about potential gay relationships in literature is unfair to straight men. That's so boring, we had that fight here in like 2012, can't we talk about the essay and the books?
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2021 [48 favorites]


I agree, and while I am all for people finding whatever they want in works I don't think any strong connection needs to be sexualized.

This is an interesting reading that's been echoed by several posters in this thread, but I want to point out that the essayist isn't arguing for a sexualized reading. She never suggests they had sex. She suggests that their relationship included romantic yearning, a desire to be together. It's not "sexualizing" to suggest that people loved each other romantically.

If anything, it's weird when you encounter writers who definitely had gay friends but who none the less wrote gay characters as only grotesque and ridiculous.

Well, think about, say, James Baldwin. I tried to re-read Giovanni's Room recently and couldn't get past the homophobic and racist scene in the gay bar. It's very painful to see on the page the internalized homophobia of a genius. Most writers in the first half of the 20th century weren't prepared to write those other stories, where gay men were committed and happy.
posted by Orlop at 2:35 PM on July 7, 2021 [21 favorites]


Haven't read the article yet, and probably won't before the weekend, because I have a deadline, but I just really want to say that if I had a hundred likes, I'd give them to bleep's comment. I love that Calvino essay and will recommend it to everyone.
posted by mumimor at 2:39 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


This might be a comment on whether there was a homoromantic element to Frodo and Sam, and how an audience received it....

When I saw Return of the King, it was with a loud and boisterous audience, who did a lot of gasping and cheering and laughing and such. (And I admit, when Eowyn whipped off her helmet and shouted, "I am no man!" at the Witch-King before stabbing him, I was whooping and cheering along with the crowd.) But there were two different crowd reactions to Frodo-Sam moments - one early, one late - that when taken together I got a kick out of. The first came early in the film - I forget which scene, some kind of overwrought thing where Sam was swearing his loyalty to Frodo or urging him to do something, and someone in the audience either made a kissy noise or shouted "Kiiiiiss!" at the screen, and a lot of the rest of the audience dissolved into sniggers. I rolled my eyes.

But then towards the end, there's the scene where Frodo first wakes up in Rivendell, safe and sound, and the rest of the Fellowship one by one comes in to see him as he rejoices at all their reunions - Gandalf first, then Merry and Pippin come running in to jump on the bed in their glee, then Gimli and Legolas and Aragorn...all of them come in, falling all over themselves to see Frodo and celebrate that he's alive. And then towards the end, right as everyone is excitedly talking all at once and crowding around Frodo and he's just as excitedly listening to them....Sam very shyly comes in last, and just sort of hovers by the door. Frodo looks over at him in the middle of the commotion, and their eyes meet....and they say nothing, just share a smile of communion in the middle of all that.

That same audience that made a snickery joke about Sam and Frodo at the start of the film....when Sam came in at that scene, someone in the audience started clapping, and the rest of the audience quickly joined in on a round of applause that went on for a good 30 seconds after.

That left me with the impression that - okay, maybe Frodo and Sam was a romance, and maybe it wasn't, but whichever one it was didn't really matter as much as the fact that whatever form their love took, it saved Middle Earth. (And that maybe the dudes who were cracking ironic "omg they're gay" jokes earlier had maybe been chastened about thinking that was a thing to get bent out of shape about in the first place.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:02 PM on July 7, 2021 [29 favorites]


As a matter of fact, I think some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual.

I see this argument often when someone reads queer desire in a story about male intimacy. I agree that it's valuable to depict platonic, loving friendship between men - but going so far as to say it reinforces homophobia to read queerness into these interactions seems to leave no room for any queer desire that isn't explicitly called out... so in practice it denies all possibility of queer representation in history, past fiction, kid's stories, etc. The "why can't they just be friends?" angle also reinforces the idea that queer desire is shameful, and that straight men should feel ashamed if their platonic affection is mistaken as anything non-platonic. I don't think that's the intent, I get that toxic masculinity is pervasive and it's valuable to show straight men loving their friends. But I do think there can be harm in shrugging it off when people read queer representation in these situations, too.
posted by Emily's Fist at 3:03 PM on July 7, 2021 [33 favorites]


If you haven't had the pleasure, here's a .pdf link (and another) for the Italo Calvino essay mentioned in the article and this thread, Why Read the Classics?
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:17 PM on July 7, 2021 [13 favorites]


As the author notes it is really hard to apply our social mores and ideas of what sexuality is to a Victornia, Catholic author who claims not to know what "homosexuality" is until he was 19.

Edwardian. He was a kid when Victoria died. I expect he regarded whatever he heard of such encounters at school as a sin of circumstance rather than a fixed preference or identity: what we would now call situational homosexuality. (Regardless of what those classmates may have thought, some of them.)

But...I think this from the article is an overstatement: "Tolkien lived in a world where open same-sex romance was a social and often literal death sentence, where even writing about it (except to condemn it) was forbidden." The last executions for sodomy in England were in the early 19th century. The adult upper-class Edwardian world Tolkien would have encountered certainly recognized such preferences even if they were publicly treated as scandalous, the sort of "vice" the more privileged might get away with if they were discreet or confined their activities to marginal spheres like (metaphorical) Bohemia. He was, after all, a contemporary of Woolf. I'm reading Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw now, and there she is, late teenaged in the early 30s (daughter of an English mother though bounced about Europe), earnestly declaring her love to a local Frenchwoman, even as she notes other expatriates and artists having same-sex affairs. This is not to argue for the particular enlightenment of the Edwardians--and Tolkien himself had a sort of weird parochial Catholic upbringing that may have left him more naive on such matters--so much as to say I really don't think romantic love between Sam and Frodo would've been beyond his imaginative reach, even if it wouldn't have taken the shape we might think of as moderns. At any rate, Frodo and Sam's relationship has an excess of affective charge which opens the possibility of a queer reading even if it's hardly the only one.

Basically, I'm kind of disappointed by the thin knowledge the piece seems to reflect of the actual cultural context (starting by calling him a Victorian, which is weird to me; of his 81 years of life, about 9 of them were under Victoria), which I don't profess to be an expert on by any means but have read around enough to know that "social and often literal death sentence" is...too narrow.
posted by praemunire at 3:18 PM on July 7, 2021 [29 favorites]


but going so far as to say it reinforces homophobia to read queerness into these interactions seems to leave no room for any queer desire that isn't explicitly called out.

My comment specifically was about the Frodo/Sam relationship and as far as I'm concerned my point ends there. It's not a general point intended to dissuade queer readings of potentially ambiguous texts.
posted by tclark at 3:26 PM on July 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


This is a lovely (in the greater sense) article that touches on all the meanings that can be teased out of the relationship except that it almost leaves be the class gap between the two. In almost every account of the First World War participants describe building relationships they couldn’t replicate in peacetime, and they lumped them under ‘comradeship’ and ‘mateship’ and the like, but it covered everything from romantic love to sex to the simple homosocial emotional intimacy and sharing. It was exclusive of women and powerful. Importantly that intimacy was for social equals—which Frodo and Sam are not. For Tolkien as for us it’s harder to imagine people bound up in British class sharing non-romantic, platonic intimacy across that gap of class; it almost has to be romantic to be credible.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:32 PM on July 7, 2021 [12 favorites]


This is a good essay. As others have pointed out, the argument is for a queer romantic reading, and sets sexuality aside. That's hard for many of us to do in our present culture -- but not for Tolkien, and not for contemporary ace folks. Ostertag doesn't go there, but Frodo being asexual while romantically attached to Sam would fit rather well.
posted by feckless at 3:35 PM on July 7, 2021 [11 favorites]


I don't intend this in a mean way at all and I think this is an interesting topic: because of homophobia (and it's other faces - misogyny and transphobia), male intimate but non- romantic affection is undervalued (in certain contexts) and that's worth talking about. But suggesting that reading a fictional character as gay as homophobic, well on it's face that's kind of a silly idea?

Like queers reading queerness in the world just isn't homophobic. I know that's not very articulate but I just doesn't make sense to me.
posted by latkes at 3:40 PM on July 7, 2021 [9 favorites]


As I recall, Rosie isn't mentioned until the end of LOTR, but the way she greets Sam implies that she had some sort of relationship with him.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:41 PM on July 7, 2021


If we don't adopt the queer reading, we have to conclude that Frodo is really abusing the employer/employee relationship. Forcing your gardener to go to Mordor with you is not appropriate even by Shire mores.

More seriously, Frodo and Sam are bonded by extremely intense wartime experiences. It doesn't take much reading to know that such relationships often were sexualized. (E.g. see T.E. Lawrence's memoir; he's more honest about this than many writers are.)

It's sad that some people are disturbed by queer readings. I'd note that there are straight readings too, and that applies to Frodo: there is not much textual support, if any, for Frodo being straight.
posted by zompist at 3:43 PM on July 7, 2021 [25 favorites]


It's an idealized portrait of an officer/batman relationship written by a natural member of the officer classes. Of course the batman figure is going to do his duty fired with a selfless love bordering on adoration - it's how that kind of relationship is interpreted by people of that kind of background.
All other interpretations are valid for the reader of course and most are probably more useful.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:44 PM on July 7, 2021 [11 favorites]


The thing that I thought was freshest and most interesting about Ostertag's essay was the look at textual parallels between Sam/Frodo and Luthien/Beren (and, by extension, Tolkien/Tolkien). More than anything else, that was what made me feel like there really was something there, even beyond the also quite apt point that the metafictional "authors" are making "choices" about what gets included in the text. This essay's arguing a lot more strongly from the text than it's given credit for in a lot of comments here.
posted by COBRA! at 3:49 PM on July 7, 2021 [23 favorites]


This is a great article, and I'm hesitating before I pass it on to my gay, Tolkien-fan daughter because I know that it's going to destroy her emotionally.

Although mention of Auden made me remember that he cited Frodo and Sam -- alongside Bertie Wooster and Jeeves -- as an example of agapē between a master and servant, a form of love which he felt was dying out in fiction because its social underpinnings were dissolving, Jeeves and Wooster being its last gasp in comic form
posted by mikelynch at 3:55 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


Queer love and affection does NO damage to platonic male heterosexual affection. The thing that damages platonic male heterosexual affection is the toxic masculinity that equates all affection with homosexuality and devalues that sexuality. Any non-toxic masculinity wouldn't care if their male-to-male affection was seen as queer, because there would be nothing wrong with that.

Let's at least TRY not to let heteronormativity take over this thread.
posted by rikschell at 3:59 PM on July 7, 2021 [40 favorites]


But...I think this from the article is an overstatement: "Tolkien lived in a world where open same-sex romance was a social and often literal death sentence, where even writing about it (except to condemn it) was forbidden."

Okay, but what about the way Robbie Ross was de facto hounded to death in the big anti-gay push during WWI? I'd argue that was a pretty big cultural moment. Or, really, the way that homosexuality was socially punished as with the soldier who committed suicide that she mentions? "Death sentence" doesn't literally have to mean "the state formally murders you"; getting expelled from your family, dropped by your friends and prevented from having any but the most stigmatized or casual employment can be social death. It's true that private same sex relationships were not literal death sentences, particularly if you were wealthy, but it would have been a pretty big deal if Maynard Keynes had walked down Piccadilly holding hands with what's-his-name.

What strikes me with LOTR and with pre-WWII homosexuality is that if things were kept unspoken and "private", there was a certain amount of freedom for some people, and there was a well-understood form of "privacy" (not quite the same as secrecy) around this stuff, as among the Bloomsbury set. But it was all allusive except when with people who were in the know - perfectly compatible with a queer LOTR reading.
posted by Frowner at 4:04 PM on July 7, 2021 [10 favorites]


Forcing your gardener to go to Mordor with you is not appropriate even by Shire mores.

... I have never gotten that reading from the text, which I read yearly for about 15 years. Sam is overjoyed to have the opportunity to go have adventures with Frodo. Later in the story, while yes, he'd rather not be in Mordor, he has committed himself to both the Quest and to Frodo by the time they get through Shelob's Lair. Remember that when he thinks Frodo is dead, he picks up the Ring and goes on.

If Sam didn't want to go, he wouldn't be there. (Well, in a Watsonian interpretation anyway. Your Doylist Interpretations May Vary.)
posted by suelac at 4:07 PM on July 7, 2021 [5 favorites]


As a matter of fact, I think some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual

Peter Jackson's big-budget CGI reading seems very straight-leaning, very platonic, to me: no queer subtext to be found in his interpretation, given all the heterosexual supertext between the beautiful people onscreen.

Is it possible to get myopia from seeing everything through a queer lens? Sure. But people come to art with their own experiences, and there seem more than plenty of those blindspots as a result of heterosexual-dominated popular culture.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


The idea that queer people need to center the potential impacts for straight men in how we understand and communicate about queer readings of any text is a profoundly heterocentric idea.
posted by overglow at 4:21 PM on July 7, 2021 [23 favorites]


Queer love and affection does NO damage to platonic male heterosexual affection. The thing that damages platonic male heterosexual affection is the toxic masculinity that equates all affection with homosexuality and devalues that sexuality.

The only thing in this thread that is equating affection with homosexuality is the essay. The thing that damages platonic affection of any kind is seeing romantic affection where there isn't any. That often comes from toxic masculinity, but not exclusively.
posted by O Time, Thy Pyramids at 4:26 PM on July 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


Not to follow a derail too far down the road, but-- as a queer man-- I think it's odd to hold up homoromantic love and "intimate, genuine platonic caring between straight men" (or whatever lol) as two completely unrelated concepts that are categorically separate, a Venn diagram that looks like OO. Like, the latter isn't always un-erotic even when it's not erotic.
posted by dusty potato at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2021 [19 favorites]


"Death sentence" doesn't literally have to mean "the state formally murders you"

I suspect Turing and Wilde would sign on to your petition.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


If Sam didn't want to go, he wouldn't be there.

Changing the nature of the relationships between the hobbits is the biggest violence that Jackson and the others involved in the films did to this story and its characters. In the movie, Gandalf forces Sam to go with Frodo as a kind of punishment. It's not clear at all why Merry and Pippin go with Frodo; they're just a couple of thieves that Frodo vaguely knows and literally runs into on his journey. In the book, Merry and Pippin are such close friends with Frodo that they recognize that he has something planned so they get Sam to spy on Frodo because they already suspect that he's planning to leave. They all go with him because they love him and refuse to let their friend go into danger alone. (And Fatty Bolger, a fifth hobbit friend who volunteers to stay behind and cover for Frodo as long as he can even after the Nazgul show up, was omitted from the films.)
posted by ElKevbo at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2021 [25 favorites]


There’s also the point that, while it’s pretty likely that Tolkien did not consciously intend such a reading, especially given the social differences between his age and ours, that does not invalidate Ostertag’s finding queerness in the text. A text is a conversation between author and reader, and, as such, it will change with time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:34 PM on July 7, 2021 [18 favorites]


In the book, Merry and Pippin are such close friends with Frodo

It's been a thousand years, but aren't Merry and Pippin Frodo's cousins in LOTR? Something about the maternal Brandybuck line?
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:38 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite]


Some of y'all might want to look at the roots of the concept of "platonic love" -- there's a lot more sexiness than you may remember.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:51 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


I've seen a general claim that Jackson left gift-giving out of the movie. Perhaps he was bad about other sorts of generosity as well.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:54 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


I think some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual.

(Also, I'm genuinely curious as to how this notion is "homophobic." Limiting, it may well be-- to straight people! Like, I wish heterosexuals all the best but the intimacy level of their relationships between each other really does not concern me directly.)
posted by dusty potato at 5:01 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


A text is a conversation between author and reader, and, as such, it will change with time.

I suspect some people might read my rather hasty comment as "Tolkien clearly meant X, but Ostertag can read Y if she wants," which is not what I mean by a text being a conversation. Whatever Tolkien's intent (much less my thoughts about his intent), it is not true while Ostertag's is false. I think it is very true that the greatest tenderness in LotR is seen in Sam and Frodo (with Legolas and Gimli being a somewhat distant second*); whether Tolkien meant that tenderness to arise from romantic attraction as opposed to class devotion and trauma is beside the point. Ostertag makes a case for a reading that is well-argued and not contrary to the surface of the text. It's valid, regardless of what Tolkien might have said.**

* I've always wondered if Jackson made Gimli a buffoon because he didn't want two homoaffectionate relationships (three, counting Merry and Pippin) in his films, and he couldn't downplay Sam and Frodo because it's the emotional heart of the whole story.

** After all, Tolkien famously claimed that LotR did not contain allegory, when everyone else thinks it does (as I remember, he had a very narrow and technical definition of "allegory").
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:23 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


Changing the nature of the relationships between the hobbits is the biggest violence that Jackson and the others involved in the films did to this story and its characters

I agree to an extent but the first film, unlike the books, doesn't take the time to elucidate family trees and preexisting relationships. It has to show, not tell, and it would be difficult to effectively and concisely elucidate these things in the first 20 minutes. They need to get the adventure started!

The main task was really to establish and define the two pairs: bumbling but good-hearted rival troublemakers Merry and Pippin, reluctant hero and steadfast squire Frodo and Sam. He does this very, very quickly and yes simplifies it, which later creates trouble when Merry and Pippin are off doing their own things and don't seem to have much in the way of defining individual characteristics, likewise Sam and Frodo when separated are only defined by their need to find each other other. They don't work well as individuals but as duos they have personalities and roles.

But you're right that downplaying the pre-existing friendship between Frodo and Sam (however much they make up for it later...) was a mistake. Sam's introduction is actually quite funny and adds a needed moment of levity ("don't turn me into anythin'... unnatural" ...hmm) but it really should have also been an opportunity to introduce the relationship better. Jackson's punching up of the boring intro has no shortage of mistakes.

I think I have strayed from the topic at hand, though!! I am reading the on-topic comments with interest. ...—pray continue.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:31 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


"Death sentence" doesn't literally have to mean "the state formally murders you"; getting expelled from your family, dropped by your friends and prevented from having any but the most stigmatized or casual employment can be social death.

"Often literal death sentence" has a meaning, and if she meant merely "social death," that's all she had to say. Careless phrasing at best, but, I think, reflecting a shallow understanding of the cultural context. A person reading this article without background would quite reasonably come away with the conclusion that people were being routinely executed for sodomy in that time and place, as opposed to being "merely" persecuted if they lacked the resources, skills, and luck necessary to navigate the cultural strictures against it (as most would).

Of course Edwardian England was not some great site of queer liberation; I wouldn't call it liberal by any standard; but she writes about it as if it were Nazi Germany, where one could of course get that literal death sentence, and the topic was shut out from public discourse except as a spiritual and physical disease. It goes without saying that there are many different ways a state and a society can suppress or accommodate itself to the ideas of same-sex love and desire. In understanding what it might mean (to him and to contemporary readers) for Tolkien to intend a romantic reading of Frodo and Sam's relationship, those differences in backdrop are important.
posted by praemunire at 5:38 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


E.g. see T.E. Lawrence's memoir; he's more honest about this than many writers are.
Actually this is a really telling comparison of groups-of-men-making-a-journey-books. It's not that the Nine Pillars of Wisdom is honest, it's self-serving, exculpatory, and very unreliable as a primary source about the Middle Eastern campaign, it's that it, and Lawrence's other writing, describes military male intimacy in almost the opposite way to Tolkien—it's very honest about physical desire, and silent about the kind of idealised courtly love Ostertag describes in Tolkien.

Lawrence prizes his relationships with the Arab men and boys he fights with, and takes pains describing their [attractive, foreign] bodies and habits. He famously describes being raped by the Turkish governor of Dera, and his shame, an event that probably didn't happen (or at least, something sexual and traumatic happened to him, but it wasn't that). The Mint which is his interwar memoir of serving in as an enlisted man in the RAF is all about the attraction of male physical closeness, begins with a room full of naked men, is as explicit as can be ('all the latrines have lost their doors') and has one of the best literary descriptions of riding a motorbike I know—not coincidentally, it's pretty steamy.

This is all as far from Tolkien as it's possible to get. Nobody expresses bodily desire, nobody seems to want each other even as much as they want breakfast. LOTR is in the William Morris tradition of medieval revival, of chaste romance and commitment, honour and tragedy, and that's quite obviously what Frodo and Sam enjoy.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:40 PM on July 7, 2021 [10 favorites]


I love this article. I came in hoping to read something in the thread other than the tired canard of "interpreting this as queer hurts the ability of straight men to have friendships".

You know where you see a tremendous amount of platonic male intimacy with no worries about its sexual overtones? Among gay men. Because they aren't worried about "looking gay". A queer reading of Frodo and Sam is not a barrier in any capacity to your ability to be platonic to your friends unless you are worried about looking gay.

You know where romantic AND platonic close relationships of men get erased and played down? History, because mainstream history is afraid of them looking gay (whether or not it was true.) Can we please do better.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:40 PM on July 7, 2021 [35 favorites]


As far as whether there's a gay subtext that can be read into the Frodo & Sam relationship, my hot take is that whenever the author hasn't explicitly told you what the deal is, then as the reader, you're free to interpret it however you want (not a controversial position, generally).

That said, there's no need to interpret it in only one way. Frodo/Sam is kind of like a Schrodinger's Relationship. It's simultaneously BOTH potentially a platonic male relationship of deep fraternal devotion AND potentially a veiled gay relationship. I don't need to look into the box to force it to collapse into one or the other. The idea that it has the potential to be either (and maybe both) is, itself, pretty cool.

Nevertheless, my restraint fails me if we're talking about Frodo/Legolas. That box lid is coming off, y'all.
posted by darkstar at 5:53 PM on July 7, 2021 [9 favorites]


Society has already imposed a sexual destiny where anytime a heterosexual man and woman become friends they must ultimately start having sex. This has of course resulted in all kinds of horrible bullshit like Mime Pence refusing to speak to a woman without his wife present.
posted by interogative mood at 6:10 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


"Often literal death sentence" has a meaning, and if she meant merely "social death," that's all she had to say.

But we aren’t talking about “social death” — a loss of social connections and prestige, we are talking about literal death, although not carried out directly by state execution. Wilde’s famous conviction and imprisonment didn’t just ruin him socially; it destroyed his health and led to his death 3 years after release, around the age of 46. Turing’s suicide May as well have been “state murder by proxy,” and Roger Casement’s conviction for treason (for which he was executed by the state) was obtained, at least in part, by leaking his journals (which revealed his homosexuality). So, literal death, enacted by the state.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:13 PM on July 7, 2021 [10 favorites]


That said, there's no need to interpret it in only one way. Frodo/Sam is kind of like a Schrodinger's Relationship. It's simultaneously BOTH potentially a platonic male relationship of deep fraternal devotion AND potentially a veiled gay relationship. I don't need to look into the box to force it to collapse into one or the other. The idea that it has the potential to be either (and maybe both) is, itself, pretty cool.


Exactly.
I feel like dragging Lin-Manuel Miranda in here and standing him up on a soapbox to shout "Love is love is love is love is love is love...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:18 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


There's so much social construct around romantic feelings that a lot of people who are typically thought of as "straight" are only so out of convenience. Not just closeted folx, but people who are in happy hetero relationships who might have ended up with same-sex partners had they allowed themselves to consider that an option. Looking back at least one college friendship in the early 90s, we hit it off so deeply and so fast that it could have been romantic (for me anyway) if I'd been a better version of myself at the time. Fighting patriarchy and received gender roles will make bi-, pan- and fluid sexuality/romance/orientation options for more people.

The all-male heirarchical nature of upper-crust British society led to TONS of same-sex male romance and sex, and a surprising amount of literature about it considering that it was not openly acceptable. Tolkein undoubtedly knew about gay male romance and at least had friends who partook in it, and that may have rubbed off on his writing whether or not that was exactly what he was trying to portray. He was certainly used to turning a blind eye to such things or casting them in a socially acceptible light.

And it's way more fun to queerify his weird little kingdoms than to just consign them to the rubbish bin of dry colonial fairy tales.
posted by rikschell at 6:22 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


The all-male heirarchical nature of upper-crust British society led to TONS of same-sex male romance and sex
No, it lead to a tiny amount of clandestine same-sex male romance and a TON of male on male rape.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:38 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


Won't someone think of the male platonic friendships? :P

This essay is excellent, thanks serathen!
posted by subdee at 7:22 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


[In LOTR] nobody expresses bodily desire, nobody seems to want each other even as much as they want breakfast.

(can I just say, as an asexual, I feel seen)
posted by Emily's Fist at 7:28 PM on July 7, 2021 [14 favorites]


Tolkien, the underappreciated 2019 biographical film, did a good job of bringing to life the social context of the historical period in which Tolkien lived, and how his life experences when on to inform his literary works.
posted by fairmettle at 7:52 PM on July 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


That film also showed how poor he was growing up; his entry into the academic world was wrangled by his priest pulling strings (plus Tolkien himself being a very good scholar). Gives the lie to the assertion above that JRRT was naturally part of the "officer classes."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:34 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


He went to King Edward's School, Birmingham - a public (ie. Private) school founded in the 16th century. In the UK money is only one class signifier and often not the most significant - ancestry is most important with educational background a close second.
I stand by the "natural officer class" comment.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:49 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]


LOTR is in the William Morris tradition of medieval revival, of chaste romance and commitment, honour and tragedy

This makes LOTR even odder, because while Morris’s prose romances aren’t explicit, they sure aren’t chaste. The Well at the World’s End is a bit raunchy.
posted by clew at 10:18 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


He went to King Edward's School, Birmingham - a public (ie. Private) school founded in the 16th century. In the UK money is only one class signifier and often not the most significant - ancestry is most important with educational background a close second.

According to Wikipedia, he was only able to go to King Edward's School because he won a scholarship. Amongst the public schools King Edward's School itself is atypical, not being a boarding school; I suspect that has or had significant cultural implications, although I'm not part of that world. As for ancestry: his father was a bank manager of German extraction, who died when Tolkein was four. His mother died when he was twelve, and his guardian was a Catholic priest. Both of his parents came from the petit bourgeousie; I don't think he had any very wealthy or aristocratic relations. I think it's fair to say that Tolkein was the first member of his family to enter the upper class, and that was only because at that time academia was one point of entry; it wouldn't be the same today.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:34 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


[In LOTR] nobody expresses bodily desire, nobody seems to want each other even as much as they want breakfast.


Giving new meaning to "Second Breakfast", "Elevenses", etc. We know what Bilbo really means when he says he feels "like butter scraped over too much bread", wink, wink.


(sorry)
posted by darkstar at 11:25 PM on July 7, 2021 [6 favorites]


This reminds me of this wonderful Tumbler post which after detailing some of the nerdier parts of Tolkien's "translation" of the account written by Bilbo, has this passage about reinterpretations:

Stuff like this is EXACTLY why I feel like there’s so much room for more diverse, inclusive reinterpretation of Tolkien’s work. Because if you look at the way Tolkien’s contemporaries translated real writings from real historical cultures, there’s a lot of assumption of whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity that isn’t actually in the text. Going with the concept that Tolkien was translating the mythohistory of an existing culture, it makes sense that a white Catholic Oxford don born in the Edwardian era would take for granted that all beautiful highborn people are white, all male relationships are platonic, all marriages are heterosexual, most people in conventionally male roles are men, and everyone is cisgender. So it’s totally in keeping with Tolkien’s premise, I think, to approach his Middle-earth writings like, “Okay, what could be the real story here as opposed to how a white English dude born in 1903 would have translated it?”


which seems to parallel the argument OP opens this piece with nicely.
posted by macrael at 1:32 AM on July 8, 2021 [14 favorites]


COBRA!: textual parallels between Sam/Frodo and Luthien/Beren

A long time ago, when I first reread Lord of the Rings as an adult (in a university class on Tolkien), I was struck by how different Frodo and Sam’s relationship was from other friendships in the novel, and that the main parallel I could see was Arwen and Aragorn. I posted the essay I wrote to LiveJournal (as one did in the early part of the century). Here’s the bit about that, though it’s only a part of the greater argument:
Aragorn and Arwen are love writ huge. Such is its power that it is does not diminish throughout their lengthy courtship and even longer marriage and when Aragorn dies the despair of Arwen is such that she becomes so despondent that she, for lack of a better term, goes insane. In contrast, when Rosie dies Sam goes to the Grey Havens. This is not as dissimilar as it first seems. Arwen pleads with Aragorn not to die and then regrets having to die herself. She wanders into the forest that once was Lothlórien and after some time dies there. Sam’s decision to go to the Grey Havens is similar. The novel never actually says that he is taken across to Valinor.
There are a lot of things one associates with romance between Frodo and Sam, which I went into further detail in the essay, and it seems to me fairly difficult to argue against it. If you’re contending that it is a conventionally straight relationship, you need to show your work.
posted by Kattullus at 1:36 AM on July 8, 2021 [9 favorites]


I know the essay argues against it but it is weird to me if anyone wants to say Tolkien was too Victorian to think homoerotically. I mean, he was an academic in the prime Bloomsbury group era. Tolkien and E.M. Forster were not only contemporaries but, trivia fact, Tolkien nominated Forster for the Nobel Prize. Neville Coghill of the Inklings was definitely known to be living with male lovers. I’m not sure if that’s a minor straw man argument or if people really think that way.

I agree with the reading that great works have complexity woven into them and I think part of the genius of Hobbits in general is their uncynical intensity. As we start to emerge from the pandemic I kind of feel like love and optimism and action in the face of overwhelming evil really are magic. That’s my reading, to quote above, love is love is love.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:56 AM on July 8, 2021 [11 favorites]


This is the territory explored in Alan Bray's The Friend. That book had a big impact when it came out in 2002, though it now seems to have faded from sight, mainly, I think, because so much has happened since then in terms of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and Bray's book is too nuanced to fit easily into that debate.

Bray argues that there is a long tradition of male same-sex friendship that was intensely romantic, intensely physical, but essentially non-sexual. (The word 'platonic' doesn't quite do justice to it, because this kind of friendship was rooted in bodily intimacy.) He also argues that this was understood in terms of a distinctively Christian ethic. The friendship of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John is one of the best-known examples.

So, yes, Frodo and Sam have a romantic, physically intimate relationship. You don't even have to read between the lines to find it; it's right there in the text. And I think Tolkien intends us to read it as a romantic relationship. From our perspective, it's hard to understand how a same-sex friendship could be, at one and the same time, deeply romantic and yet non-sexual. But as Bray says in The Friend: 'The inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms says something of contemporary poverty', i.e. we have a narrower sense of what might be possible within the limits of a non-sexual relationship.

The Newman connection is interesting. Newman died in Birmingham in 1890 and was buried, at his own request, in the same grave as Ambrose St John. Tolkien was born in 1892 and grew up in Birmingham, where he had close family connections with the Birmingham Oratory that Newman had founded. So I think it's safe to assume that Tolkien was aware of the Newman / St John relationship and might well have taken it as a model of same-sex friendship.

Tolkien would of course have been aware of the homoerotic potential within same-sex friendship. How could he not be? This was the era of the Wilde trials, after all. But if Newman and St John represented the 'good' side of male friendship, Wilde represented the darker, shadow side. I feel Molly Ostertag's essay skips a little too easily from 'same-sex romance' to 'queer' to 'gay' as if these are all on a continuum. For us they are. For Tolkien's generation they were not.
posted by verstegan at 4:15 AM on July 8, 2021 [16 favorites]


It always struck me that Sam loved Frodo way more than Frodo loved Sam. Maybe that's because of the Peter Jackson movies, which I saw before I read the books. More than anything, it felt like a fantasy of the dying upper classes to have a servant go to such extraordinary lengths for his master. Meanwhile, Frodo is a Hobbity Lord Grantham -- benevolent and caring, but not exactly loving. When does Frodo ever sacrifice anything for Sam's happiness?

That said, a queer reading makes absolute sense -- fans were shipping Frodo/Sam almost immediately. And P.J. sets up Frodo/Sam/Gollum as a sort of love triangle; how else to explain Sam's intense jealousy when Frodo insists on taking Gollum with them? It just felt very one-sided to me.
posted by basalganglia at 4:24 AM on July 8, 2021 [5 favorites]


It is terribly strange and disheartening watching my peers get so twisted up that they are left defending homophobia because they are convinced that people who identity as queer can't possibly be the fonts of homophobia and misogyny that they so often are.

There is a tremendous amount of toxicity in modern fandom, one facet of which is that a lot of "queer reading" is built on and perpetuates homophobic tropes, and this will be true until we confront it directly.
posted by seraphine at 4:31 AM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


I think that for me, it's "are Frodo and Sam queer" is a smaller subset of the larger problem of why fandom (including literary criticism here) has to sexualize every single human relationship.
posted by phooky at 4:42 AM on July 8, 2021 [4 favorites]


Frodo:Samwise::Wimsey:Bunter.

Discuss.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:43 AM on July 8, 2021 [5 favorites]


phooky: I think that for me, it's "are Frodo and Sam queer" is a smaller subset of the larger problem of why fandom (including literary criticism here) has to sexualize every single human relationship.

As much as I am cognizant of the fact that fandom — even humanity as a whole — has a long history of interpreting characters in ways that don't have much grounding in the text, Sam and Frodo's relationship is clearly romantic, to the point that it takes some very liberal interpreting to get past that.

Furthermore, "romantic" isn't the same as "sexual". In fact, as I mention in my old undergrad essay, that if not for the fact there are parents and progeny, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that anyone has a sexual relationship, not even on the level of metaphor.

Except, that is, for Frodo and Sam. The latter is likened to an animal that "stands above its fallen mate", with the Frodo as the fallen mate.

That said, there's nothing in the text that suggest that they have sex, but that goes for every character in the novel. Sex isn't something that Tolkien concerned himself with overmuch as an author, but he did think a lot about love and romance, and Frodo's relationship with Sam fits the romantic mold.
posted by Kattullus at 5:31 AM on July 8, 2021 [13 favorites]


It's been a thousand years, but aren't Merry and Pippin Frodo's cousins in LOTR?

*pushes glasses up nose* According to Appendix C, Merry and Pippin are first cousins (Merry’s mother Esmeralda and Pippin’s father Paladin are siblings), while Frodo is somewhat more distant (Esmeralda and Paladin’s grandfather Hildigrim Took is the older brother of Mirabella Took, Frodo’s maternal grandmother).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:46 AM on July 8, 2021 [11 favorites]


I found the essay to be moving, well researched, but not argued. There isn't much being argued or fought for in words. To me, it was laid out, a delicate hope set out for people to take with them or not, and I came here after reading hoping for, well, more than this.

As much as the essay argues anything, it is the erasure of queer romance from daily life. It's that there are a handful of films a year (more now, but as the essay mentions, Brokeback Mountain came out after Fellowship) depicting any kind of queer romance, set against an overwhelming cornucopia of straight romance. Ostertag carefully shows that for queer audiences, because it has been so rare to be openly depicted, those audiences have had to carefully look for telltale signs and words in code. Ostertag is saying (again, to me) that Lord of the Rings is filled with these signs and code, furthermore is ready for nearly anyone who might say otherwise.

Ostertag isn't erasing non-romantic heterosexual love, that's literally the society we live in that does that. A queer writer saying "I have found this" in a text is not denying you your reading of the text any more than that writer showing how they have come to see a relationship as queer denies you your ability to value strong heterosexual relationships.

As Ostertag says, "none of us had seen a movie on the big screen where men hold each other, comfort each other, kiss each other’s foreheads." This is a writer trying to find some place they can call theirs, in a giant sea of imagery and text, in whole industries devoted to making more and more heterosexual content that is explicitly, even aggressively says "this isn't yours."
posted by Ghidorah at 6:12 AM on July 8, 2021 [18 favorites]


Excellent article! It makes a good case and is solidly based in research.

Bret Deveraux of ACOUP.blog looks at a different angle but I think is also a worthwhile read.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:17 AM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


Apart from the persistent derail of "does a queer reading of ambiguous male characters in novels hurt straight men" (which, could we stop?), I think there are two arguments going on here that are not at all congruent, which is leading to people arguing past each other.

Argument 1: Tolkien, as a product of his time, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc seems unlikely to have deliberately written coded homosexuality into his novel.

Argument 2: Within the relationship of Sam and Frodo in the novel, I, the reader, see words, actions, and descriptions that I, the reader, read as signs of deep homoromatic devotion (with or without sexual passion). This is bolstered by the way pretty much everyone agrees that Sam and Frodo have a deep and abiding friendship that is one of the core emotional threads of the novel.

These can't be argued on opposite sides because they aren't in opposition.

If you want to argue against Argument 1, you would need some very solid evidence like letters from Tolkien or people very close to him expressing it. Otherwise, the historical/literary approach is to assume that he held roughly standard views for his society. class, etc. This is complicated by the way (as a couple of people have mentioned upthread) that our concept of "gay" maps precisely onto ideas about male homosexuality, homosociality, and homoaffectionalism from 100-150 years ago, which it most certainly does not. Victorian and Edwardian ideas about male same-sex sexuality are, frankly bizarre by today's standards. Which does not mean that men did not love men emotionally and physically at all levels of society; it's just really difficult to see if you are insisting on seeing through a 21st C lens.

Now, if you want to argue against Argument 2, you need to either dispute all the evidence (e.g. "when they held hands on page XYZ, they were crossing rugged terrain and needed to stop each other form falling; that's hardly romantic.") or you have to claim that the reader (in this case Ostertag) does not know what she feels or understands. That latter needs considerably more evidence than asserting Tolkien was consciously inserting gay characters into his stories. No one in this thread has made a convincing case that Ostertag is wrong about what she is seeing or disputed the scenes that she builds her case on.

Tolkien does not have to have intended a queer reading for that reading to be true!

This literally happens all the time in literary criticism.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:24 AM on July 8, 2021 [8 favorites]


some of the queer readings of Frodo and Sam reinforce the homophobic notion that men can't or shouldn't have truly emotional, vulnerable, devoted love for one another and remain heterosexual.

This is exactly and perfectly backwards.

The idea that our culture discourages men from emotional, vulnerable, devoted non-sexual/non-romantic love - it's simply not true! Emotionally intimate platonic male friends are anything but rare in literature. George and Lenny, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Hamlet and Horatio, Calvin and Hobbes, Jeeves and Wooster, Aubrey and Maturin, Spongebob and Patrick, Laurel and Hardy... Platonic male love is always celebrated - not just celebrated but in fact that's the only form of male-male relationship that's ever allowed to exist.

The ONLY kind of male-male relationships that are stigmatized are the sexual/romantic kind. You're saying we stigmatize het male non-sexual/non-romantic emotional intimacy, therefore it's progressive to celebrate platonic male buddies in literature, when the truth is that we stigmatize het male emotional intimacy only when we suspect that it is sexual or romantic. How can it be progressive to keep crying "no homo"?
posted by MiraK at 7:31 AM on July 8, 2021 [12 favorites]


I dunno, I feel bad for straight guys who can't have close male friends who they hug and tell they love because they're afraid they'll be seen as homos. They are victims of homophobia.

Just don't give a damn about that when I'm reading books. Half this Metafilter thread is telling me I'm Gay Reading wrong. Fuck that, and fuck you for saying it. I don't care whether Tolkien never heard of gay people or was a typical Edwardian or won every game of soggy biscuit at his public school. I don't care what he intended when he wrote. I care about the words on the page and what they mean to me when I read them. And if that involves Sam and Frodo loving each other and being intimate, fine. If that involves reading badly edited raunchy fanfic with hairy Hobbits boning each other, fine. If that involves appreciating the fine love between these two men despite their class differences and the ordeals they are going through, their heroic and noble love for each other that literally saves the world, why that's fine too.

And that's what the whole article is about! Ostertag does a great job explaining the kind of close reading we queers do when looking for ourselves in our entertainment. Really not interested in being told that's wrong. It's literally part of the basis for my self identity.
posted by Nelson at 7:44 AM on July 8, 2021 [15 favorites]


By the way, if people are interested in hearing two well-read gay men struggle with discussing the sexual identities of historical figures (mostly in the last 150 years, so the period we are talking about) and frequently touching on the way that even well-meaning men who are part of the apparatus of a colonial empire might have.. extremely complicated (especially by today's standards) relations with men in colonized places, you could do a lot worse than listening to the Bad Gays podcast (previously), especially the episodes on Lawrence of Arabia, Gordon of Khartoum, and Roger Casement. They do a lot of work digging into how to discuss the lives of men (and a few women) who we would probably call gay, bi, trans, etc today (and who might very well identify that way themselves) but whose time and society cause them to identify in different and sometimes perplexing ways.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:45 AM on July 8, 2021 [9 favorites]


No one in this thread has made a convincing case that Ostertag is wrong about what she is seeing or disputed the scenes that she builds her case on.

Pretty much no one in this thread is arguing much of anything except nomenclature, which is as I see it the core problem, as neither "friends" nor "gay" is a great fit for what Tolkien seemed to hold as something singular, not a question of identity.

Sam and Frodo's love for each other by the end of the books is physically intimate and deeply profound and forged by their shared experience, which cannot be removed from the equation because the intensity and sacrifice of that shared experience defines the bond. Since this love is male/male and more than just friendship, we reach for "gay" to describe it, but that designation of identity misses the mark as much as calling their unequal standing and devotion borne from life and death struggles a "friendship" does in the other direction. Both have some application, the physicality of their bond and the intensity of it of course relates well to gay relationships and the sense of it having a lasting effect and shared emotional importance speaks to friendship as well, but this specificity of how the depth of attachment to each other developed says something different than either alternative.

The thing is we don't really need those terms to talk about it since love, devotion, intimacy will all work just fine and are described in detail in the book, so there's no need to question any of it. Seeking some label fit to our time for other purposes isn't helping define anything, it only serves to distort. We get way too caught up in sorting and labeling sometimes, where just talking about the things as they are shown or experienced without cataloging can make appreciation much easier.

That said, if someone wanted to dig into the possible subtext around the change in Sam and Frodo's relationship after they faced Shelob, the creature often noted for being representative of monstrous femininity, that could be fun too.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:46 AM on July 8, 2021 [6 favorites]


I dunno, I feel bad for straight guys who can't have close male friends who they hug and tell they love because they're afraid they'll be seen as homos. They are victims of homophobia.

Yeas, that's what I was saying. The only time men avoid intimacy with each other is when they're afraid it will be seen as gay. Purely platonic intimacy between men has never been under attack, so it needs no defenders. The NO HOMO reading of Frodo and Sam has never been stigmatized or attacked or undermined. On the contrary, the NO HOMO interpretation of Frodo and Sam is the only one we've been allowed. Why does anyone feel the need to keep defending that interpretation? Who do they think is attacking it? And most importantly, how on earth is stoutly declaring NO HOMO supposed to be combating homophobia? Like, even in your example of straight men being afraid of being perceived as gay, surely you realize that for them to keep shouting NO HOMO is the homophobic solution, not a progressive one?

It's reminiscent of how a particular subtype of racist reacts when white characters get race-bent. When a Black Hermione was cast for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there was of course the unwashed masses of regular racists who were objecting for all the usual reasons, but there was also a small subset of more erudite racists who argued that it was patronizing towards the Black community that a bunch of white producers decided to presto-chango turn a white character written by a white writer Black, to throw a bone to Black fans. It was pandering, it was shallow, it was racist (against Black people) to cast a Black Hermione. It's not an exact parallel because obviously racism and homophobia are not perfectly analogous to each other, but you can see the same pattern at work: casting a Black actor is racist towards Black people and reading Frodo and Sam as gay is homophobic - sure it sounds absurd on the face of it, but wait till you hear the amazing justifications they can come up with!
posted by MiraK at 9:07 AM on July 8, 2021 [5 favorites]


Upon reading more of this thread, this wonderful link posted by subdee above has a quote that tackles the notion of "men who can't hug for fear of being thought gay are victims of homophobia":

Suaine, May 2, 2021:
>> This is literally the reason men are so terrified of being open about loving each other platonically, because they don’t want people to assume they’re gay just because they can be supportive of their fucking friends

This is the one that kills me.

You are literally justifying homophobia. You’re saying that it’s worse to be called gay than it is to not be able to be open with your friends. Come on, do some fucking self reflection here.

Because what you’re saying is that men would love to be more open with their friends, but they are too damn homophobic to do so. What, it’s too difficult to say “no, we’re not a couple, but thanks for noticing”? It’s too hard to be thought of as gay so men can’t be arsed? Do you realize how that fucking sounds?
posted by MiraK at 9:39 AM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


Argument 1: Tolkien, as a product of his time, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc seems unlikely to have deliberately written coded homosexuality into his novel.

Argument 2: Within the relationship of Sam and Frodo in the novel, I, the reader, see words, actions, and descriptions that I, the reader, read as signs of deep homoromatic devotion (with or without sexual passion). This is bolstered by the way pretty much everyone agrees that Sam and Frodo have a deep and abiding friendship that is one of the core emotional threads of the novel.

These can't be argued on opposite sides because they aren't in opposition.


Yes, and acrimony and self-hatred are the methods of patriarchy, to create the opposition(s), internal and external, and create the division, in order to subjugate one side of the division(s), over and over.

those of us who are wearing our privilege, it must be our duty to soothe the deflection and create solidarity, but no one should be surprised that the deflection is there, it's part of the social order what makes the soldiers soldier. if you can't make others other, you won't kill and die
posted by eustatic at 10:59 AM on July 8, 2021


Molly Ostertag also features heavily in Maggie Mae Fish's video on this topic.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:21 PM on July 8, 2021


My reading of Tolkien is that he felt a profound need for the things he imagined to have some sort of existence beyond him. The literary conceit of the Red Book, the in-world explanation of the different Ring-finding stories in earlier and later editions of The Hobbit, his "cordial dislike of allegory", the obsessive language-making and world-building. One could go on. The whole essence of sub-creation seems, to me, to be the experience of imagination as mystical exploration, in which artistic work is both an act of free and conscious creation and a process of pure discovery of the necessary and inevitable truth of God's creation. It seems to have been a part of Tolkien's faith that the world he reached for in his imagination was there to be discovered in every detail, and that this did not mean that he had done so, or uncovered everything with perfect accuracy, but rather that his discovery was always ongoing, always deepening.

The relevance of this is that it goes beyond a sort of death of the author avant la lettre, into something arguably much wilder, affirming that the truth about Middle Earth is neither encoded in the text, nor a matter of irreducible intellectual ambiguity. Rather it is the truth uncovered by our imagination, as guided by what is best in us. What Tolkien intended is, on these terms, much less important than what the right story, the true story, is. I believe that this story is the love story, and that there is a necessary reason why, beyond the end of the book, it ends with Sam and Frodo, Ring-bearers both, reunited beyond the western sea.
posted by howfar at 8:21 PM on July 8, 2021 [7 favorites]


What, it’s too difficult to say “no, we’re not a couple, but thanks for noticing”? It’s too hard to be thought of as gay so men can’t be arsed? Do you realize how that fucking sounds?

cw: homophobic threats

I don't think you're intending to argue that it is not difficult to be a gay man in the world or that the patriarchy does not heavily police queerness or anything queer-coded with threats of violence, but I read this & pretty viscerally imagine someone saying "no we're not a couple but thanks for noticing" to the drunken rednecks who kept my gay male friends out of their sports bar by growling long strings of f-slur laced insults & descriptions of the violence they were in for as punishment for having entered the space while looking queer, then following us out to the parking lot & (drunkenly, badly) attempting to kick my friends' teeth in

granted this was almost 20 years ago & it might now be safer to walk into these particular sports bars, but I'd argue that in large part certain straight men are afraid of seeming gay because they know what the men around them do to gay men and it frequently involves violent social exclusion

like the "find a less homophobic town to live in or accept being casually harassed everywhere you go" kind

this is in the U.S. where gay men are "lucky" enough to only actually be murdered sometimes instead of as a general rule

so I feel like if we want more straight men to stop being afraid of seeming queer, we need to work on dismantling the threat & oppression systems the patriarchy uses to enforce heterosexuality, or at least treat them as real & serious

I mean we should like, do that anyway
posted by taquito sunrise at 2:55 AM on July 9, 2021 [6 favorites]


Tolkien was in the Army and in the Battle of the Somme. It was brutal and horrific. I hope that despite the very strong anti-gay feelings of the time, he and other men took what comfort they could from one another, in affection or sex.
posted by theora55 at 8:13 PM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]


Seeking some label fit to our time for other purposes isn't helping define anything, it only serves to distort.

Sorry to quote myself, but I wanted to expand a little on something I said that I don't think the essay really looks at very well. The authors are applying something of a selective reading of the many texts that make up Tolkien's mythology. Their choices go to reinforce values they, and many of us, hold as important today, but being selectively chosen fail to reflect on how importing those values to certain character readings will necessarily change how the whole of the text reads as well.

Tolkien's work is a huge fabric of myth, pulling too hard on one strand of that fabric can serve to bunch, warp, or even unravel the whole in unexpected ways if you aren't looking to maintain a sense of coherence to the whole of it. To talk about Frodo and Sam as "gay" in terms of that being their identity in the current sense can change how other elements of their story then read. Gollum/Smeagol under that reading almost necessarily then also need be read as "gay" for the role he plays in the story as something of an antipode or alternative to Sam or what Sam's love represents. Sam, the character, treats Gollum as a rival for Frodo's attentions. That rivalry becomes more like a gay triangle of sorts the more one forces a purposeful sexuality based romantic reading on Sam and Frodo as the character of Gollum represents the counter option Frodo may choose under the Ring's influence. There is nothing about Gollum that reads as coded "straight", so it isn't a problem of false identity, but of different kinds of desire/love.

Pull on this thread a little more, as the essay does with Bilbo's "queerness", and the question of Sauron himself comes into play. In the early mythology Sauron is noted for seducing men and elves with his words and fair appearance/beauty. Seduction and beauty are every bit as redolent as queer for ambiguity of definition. This becomes important because the more one pulls on the thread of reading the favored characters as gay, the more the entire mythology becomes about being gay, with the One Ring itself then virtually being a token of gayness. That becomes a real problem as the One Ring is also the symbol of corruption and specifically works through the corruption of desires into their darkest form. That Sauron is also associated with a corrupt form of breeding, that led to orcs, is also deeply problematic here as the One Ring and acting on corrupt desire is virtually synonymous and at least part of that corruption is linked to the physical manifestation of unwholesome desire.

The opposing force to corruption is one of purity, Sam's love of Frodo virtually must be a pure one for their story to make sense, but the question of purity is yet another difficulty as it is something beyond or non-physical, acting without "desire" in that form. While purity isn't synonymous with chastity, there is some strong indications that physical desire is almost inherently open to being corrupted for having a base in impurity. The code of chivalry that Tolkien seems to favor echoes this to some degree and it all can go as much to suggesting that Sam's love for Frodo by not being based on desire, is the force that leads to the point of destruction for the Ring, where Gollum's biting off Frodo's digit represents the ultimate alternative avoided, which can obviously be read sexually if one goes that route. It also echoes not only Luthien's loss of a hand, but Isildur's literal "unmanning" of Sauron when he sliced off Sauron's finger and rendered him incorporeal. (Isildur, as the other ringbearer, is a bit more uncertain in his "identity" by this path, but the Ring "chose" to abandon him to be killed by orcs, so lending an added air of ambiguity to their "relationship". In a somewhat like sense, Boromir's threat to Frodo can also take on a different sense if one keeps pulling on one thread for meaning as does the encounter with Shelob and other events. )

With Rosie being one of the few women Tolkien bothers to spend much character time speaking about, the relationship between Sam and Rosie takes on an important function simply by dint of being noted at all. In the proposed reading this is, more or less, as a "beard" for Sam and Frodo to "really" be gay, but it is also as open to being read as evidence that Sam's love for Frodo remains pure for not being based in physical desire, but something more "noble" that transcends the physical. By pulling on a thread to "prove" Sam and Frodo are "gay" as an identity one also opens the reading to the opposite proof, where Sam's love is powerful for not being acted upon, unlike the corrupt physical desires represented by Sauron and the One Ring.

There is also the issue of how opting to emphasize a favored queer reading is to try and make the work more "likeable" at the potential expense of other readings, in Tolkien's case, how sexism might inform the work. Tolkien by all accounts I know of, was a genial sexist, but a sexist nonetheless, where he tended to follow the belief of there being separate spheres men and women inhabit, as women, largely, had innate characteristics that kept them distinct from men and the male world. One may dote on one's wife and children, as Tolkien seems to have done, but still find something more or of different import of value in the world of men that a family cannot provide. In that way there can be deep and abiding love in two spheres that don't intersect with each other and are equally valid.

That isn't to say that what Tolkien's mythology is "about" but that choosing to emphasize one reading because one "likes" it better may be shielding an alternative that isn't preferred, which is its own type of misreading. By leaving the book to say what it says as it does, the "readings" remain open for the density of the texts, there are indications and counter indications that allow for the questions about Tolkien's take on sex, desire, identity and other things to be both present and subject to contradiction as the contrasting elements are held against each other in various arrangements. That's the strength of his worldbuilding, even if his views are present, the totality or gestalt of the collected works goes beyond those to something more.

Choosing to read Sam and Frodo's relationship as having gay resonance is completely reasonable because that is in the text directly, trying to force it to being something more definitive alters more than just that element, it can change the whole fabric of the myth. There is a big difference between a "marked" symbol and an unmarked possibility in this sense. There are certainly works where one can read gay allegories or make solid claims for certain characters being best understood as gay when the surrounding text makes that read viable, but I don't believe that is the case here, at least not as the linked essay intends, and I personally don't believe that a anything goes if the reader likes it, text be damned, approach works either, even though that often does seem like a defining value of fandom nowadays.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:09 AM on July 14, 2021 [4 favorites]


Thank you for that reading, gusottertrout. It's still a recognizable gay story but now more a sad one wrapped in the homophobia of its era. Sam and Frodo's love is "pure", ie: non-physical, a chaste love. (CS Lewis woulda loved that.) It's OK for two men to love each other as long as they don't, you know, actually do it. The other queer characters, Sauron and Gollum, are defined by their bestial and physical natures. They are the evil ones.

Not mad about this reading, it's very consistent to its time and culture. I appreciate reconciling the various queer subtexts with the mythological overtext of the Lord of the Rings itself.
posted by Nelson at 6:53 AM on July 14, 2021 [2 favorites]


« Older The senior role in what is still a colonial system...   |   NYC mayoral race Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments