Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, the First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings
By Anna Smol
The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 Conference: 50 Years of The Lord of the Rings, ed.Sarah Wells (Coventry: The Tolkien Society, (2008)
Abstract: My paper explores continuities in the institution of male friendship from the Middle Ages to the First World War and then looks at contemporary explorations and understandings of the central male friendship in The Lord of the Rings, that of Frodo and Sam. I look at some examples of medieval forerunners before examining the nature of male friendship in World War One through the perspectives of critics such as Sarah Cole, Santanu Das, Joanna Bourke, and Allen Frantzen. I focus my discussion of The Lord of the Rings on the Cirith Ungol scene, in which Frodo and Sam sleep together, and on the Mount Doom scene, in which Frodo asks Sam to hold his hands, a gesture that I argue mimics the medieval ritual of swearing fealty to a lord. I then examine the contemporary reception of the Frodo – Sam relationship in the Peter Jackson films and in reactions to them. I conclude by considering slash fan fiction and its version of male friendship.
One could argue that the heart of The Lord of the Rings is the relationship between Frodo and Sam, and it is that male friendship that I would like to focus on in my presentation. Marion Zimmer Bradley identifies their friendship as the most intense love relationship in the book, akin to classical ideals of friendship in heroic literature, while David Craig in a fairly recent Mallorn article suggests a more modern mode of friendship experienced in the First World War, comparing the bond between Frodo and Sam to the homoerotic relationships represented by some First World War writers. Craig’s conclusion is that the Frodo–Sam relationship is basically a homosexual one, but I would like to modify this view by looking at recent work by First World War historians and literary critics such as Paul Fussell, Joanna Bourke, Sarah Cole, and Santanu Das to suggest that the concept of sexuality and gender in this situation was not as clearly defined as Craig indicates. I would like to present this research about male friendships in the First World War and to discuss how Tolkien’s work reflects what we see in other writers who represented their experiences in the First War: their disillusionment, the problem of lack of recognition, the return to domesticity after the War, and the often described tender physical gestures of intimacy that defy conventional, contemporary western categories of sexual identity and expectations of masculine behaviour.
Most of the young men who served in the First World War would have been brought up on books that presented a turn-of-the-century medievalist vision of chivalry and heroism. Tolkien, of course, had a firsthand knowledge of medieval texts which also provided him with a vision of male friendship, and I would like to discuss the way in which Tolkien rewrites medieval heroism and medieval gestures of relationship in a couple of significant scenes, particularly on the stair to Cirith Ungol and on Mount Doom.
After discussing Tolkien’s representation of male friendship in the context of World War One trench literature and medieval literature, I would like to consider in the final part of my paper the contemporary reaction to the Frodo–Sam relationship in the Peter Jackson films and in fan fiction. Even though the films avoid depicting certain scenes in the books, they have elicited all kinds of commentary about the sexuality of Frodo and Sam (or the actors who play them). From audience members sniggering in the movie theatres to entertainment reporters asking if the hobbits are gay, the story has evoked an interest in the male friendship of Frodo and Sam. Perhaps the most extreme example of such attention is in the highly controversial subcategory of fan fiction called slash, which posits a sexual and romantic relationship between two male characters. I would like to conclude my paper with a consideration of Frodo and Sam slash fiction, which has exploded on the Internet in recent years, commenting on the varied intentions and the effects of slash as a contemporary response to the kind of male friendship that Tolkien represented in his portrayal of Frodo and Sam.