Queer readings of The Lord of the Rings are not accidents

Kevin Smith was on to something, with that scene in Clerks 2.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 1:38 PM on July 7

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 [14 favorites]

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

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 [4 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 [1 favorite]

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 [17 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 [27 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 [14 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 [2 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 [14 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 [6 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 [5 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

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 [13 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 [5 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 [9 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 [4 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 [5 favorites]

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 [4 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

"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

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

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.


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

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