“I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different… I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back… I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end…” Samwise Gamgee
Anyone who’s gone through a painful breakup is well aware of how culture is dominated by stories about love, lust and dysfunctional relationships. Luckily, there is a thousand-page masterpiece that almost shelves the romance altogether.
Because I am a nerdy nerdface (shock!) I have read a lot of criticism of The Lord of the Rings, and among essays written through wildly different critical lenses, one of the pervasive topics is the fact that the fellowship is kind of an Old Boys’ Club, much like one can imagine the Inklings, the group of medieval literature nerds that included Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and others. One writer quips (ew, I just said “quips”) that women feature so little in the story because none of the male protagonists knows anything about women.
I won’t argue that the paucity of relatable female-identifying characters in the trilogy (and The Hobbit, though not quite so much in The Silmarillion) is not problematic for a reader like myself who thinks a lot about gender theory and equality. It’s clear from his personal remarks that Tolkien was quite the sexist, although not, I think, more than the norm for a British white male born in the late 19th century. (He believed that past a certain point, women were incapable of a serious contribution to academic conversation.) While reading LotR, I am often frustrated by the fact that Tolkien paints the character of Eowyn with such simple yet poignant grace, yet her story is a brief aside to the main plot (despite her ultimately crucial role) and there are no more prominent womanly characters given the same treatment.
However, there is an enjoyable side effect to this problem. We are given a cast of male characters who are not strictly heteronormative, because for the most part they have no perceptible sexuality. We hear a few sentences about Sam’s interest in Rosie back in Hobbiton, but the only important romantic subplot, the love quadrangle between Aragorn, Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, is so epic in tone, so non-mimetic, that it bears little resemblance to the fixation on romance and sexual attraction that we find in most other works. With those exceptions, the protagonists, the antagonists and even the supporting characters seem to have no interest sex with either, or even to identify with a particularly masculine gender. Instead, goals for the greater good and strong, trusting friendship take center stage.
Of course, I would feel much more comfortable with the work if the primary actors included women and queer people. I know with enough authorial courage this could be achieved without altering the platonic, purpose-driven group dynamic that sets the books apart. Unfortunately, Tolkien himself didn’t agree:
There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong… It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure… In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman… The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does.
Okay, so Tolkien gets props for an early and critical recognition of the the “friendzone” bullshit that “men’s rights” and PUA people are always bandying about, but it’s such a shame that he couldn’t see past the social constructs of his era to imagine a world where people of different genders and sexualities could work together and care for each other without requisite romantic attachment.
At times, though, there is really nothing more comforting than being swept into a world so exquisitely imagined without confronting the real-world anxiety of sexual and romantic dynamics. Call it escapism if you wish, but I will argue every time that literary escapes are effective because they show us what we want our world to be, leaving us, sometimes, stronger and smarter than when we escaped.