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Queer readings of The Lord of the Rings are not accidents

II was 12 in 2003, when The Return of the King was in theaters, and Frodo kissing Sam goodbye as he left Middle-earth made me sob like my heart was being ripped out, without understanding why. Outside of the safe darkness of the theater, in the Mordor-like wasteland of middle school, the movies were synonymous with the favored insult of the time — “gay.”

Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t come out for two more years, and none of us had seen a movie on the big screen where men hold each other, comfort each other, kiss each other’s foreheads. Early-2000s preteen America was a time of gay jokes, of “no homo,” of mocking voices and slurs, and secret, punitive violence enacted in the locker room against anyone who had a whiff of otherness. In that world, the Lord of the Rings trilogy stood out as deeply earnest, and therefore vulnerable.

I listened to The Lord of the Rings before I knew how to read. It’s written on my creative DNA as the first book I really loved. But for a long time I avoided it, for the same reason that I learned not to talk about the movies at school: The accusations of queerness somehow tied into a story about elves, hobbits, and looming evil.

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. Revisiting the book in the last year, as someone who has been out for many years and who is deeply engaged in making and consuming queer stories, I was amazed to find a same-sex love story at the heart of the narrative.

There are many relationships between men in the book, most of them platonic. Merry and Pippin are cousins, and banter like cousins. They fondly tease their other cousin Frodo, and talk down to working-class Sam. Gandalf takes on a sometimes kind, sometimes frustrated grandfatherly role to the hobbits. Boromir and Faramir have an intense brotherhood, and have complex feelings about the loyalty owed to their king, Aragorn. These relationships are high drama; powerful examples of male friendship and family. But they do not read as intentionally romantic (and while fan interpretation is a diverse, wonderful thing, this essay is focused on authorial intent).

The exception is Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee — the Ring-bearer with an impossible burden, his loyal gardener, and the bond between them that ends up saving their world. Tolkien based Frodo and Sam’s relationship on ones he had seen and experienced in World War I — that between a usually upper-class officer and his batman, a usually lower-class man who served as his bodyguard, personal assistant, and constant companion. This basis does not preclude romance. There’s at least one novel about a batman and his officer having a romantic relationship (Look Down in Mercy by William Baxter, 1951), and many accounts of queer soldiers who found they could — while facing nightmarish conditions in the trenches — live out relationships that would have been impossible at home.

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