It is no secret that we queers have always had an appreciation and an adoration of Tolkien’s work. The richness and depth with which he paints the relationships between men–especially that between Sam and Frodo as they make their way to Mount Doom–almost inevitably strike a resonant chord with young queer nerds reading Tolkien’s work. Jackson, whatever else he has done to translate Tolkien’s work to film, has also heightened and intensified the affectiveness of these relationships, depicting them with true emotional richness. And, whether one hates or loves his new Hobbit trilogy, these new films have also opened up fascinating new avenues for queer reading and appropriation.
Perhaps no character in this new trilogy typifies this queer aesthetic as much as Thranduil, ably and memorably portrayed by Lee Pace. Now there are some who have referred to Pace’s acting as scenery-chewing, and perhaps they havev a bit of a point, but hit is precisely the ever-so-slightly over-the-topness of his acting that not only renders him such a sinfully queer character (for some reason I always think of Jeremy Irons’ iconic portrayal of the villain Scar in The Lion King when I hear Lee Pace’s delivery) but also gets across some of the haughtiness and selfishness that was a characteristic of many of the less noble of Tolkien’s Elves.
Fans have picked up on these particular qualities, as in the gif below, which juxtaposes Thranduil (labeled here as the “Bitch King”) with the Witch-king of Angmar from LotR. What strikes me as especially resonant about this image is the way in which it manages to capitalize on the elements of camp that suffuse Lee’s performance of Thranduil. He is at once the idol of our adulation and a subject of fun, a powerful king in his own right yet also possessing the flaws of personality that will eventually come back to haunt him as he loses his only son to his own hubris and unwillingness to imagine a worldview (at least until it is too late). And, above all, he is fabulous, and in his own way he manages to capture the cruel beauty of the Elves of Tolkien’s world.
Just as importantly, however, Thranduil, as well as many of the other most notable characters in the trilogy, embody various elements of physical beauty so fetishized and adored by gay men. For a straight director, Jackson has a remarkable penchant for casting lots of eye candy and dishy leading men in his roles, perhaps conscious that women and gay men (and maybe even some straight men) find male beauty fascinating. And fans have responded, finding in these beautiful male figures an object to desire, to identify with, and to objectify. One Twitter user, for example, utilized the image below to bring out the desires evoked by Jackson’s films, preceding Lurtz’s grisly visage with a listing of the leading men of both trilogies.
Elements of the fan community have, of course, also embraced the queerness of Jackson’s iteration of The Hobbit with an enthusiasm to rival that of the earlier shippers of The Lord of the Rings (who can ever forget the legions of fan fictions and fan art depicting such memorable pairings as Aragorn/Legolas, Pippin/Merry and, of course, Frodo/Sam?) While the Dwarfcest theme hasn’t caught on just yet (surely I’m not the only one who detected the on-screen chemistry between Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner as Fili and Kili, am I?), there is a remarkably invested fan following around Baggenshield, the inevitable pairing of Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield. Twitter is nearly bursting with memes, gifs, and images celebrating the bond between Hobbit and Dwarf, a celebration and an embrace of the obvious chemistry between Armitage and Freeman, as well as the equally obvious bond that develops between Bilbo and Thorin in the course of three films (I have even seen Bilbo referred to as Thorin’s “wife,” a particular reading that has queer written all over it). One does not have to look far in the film to see glimmers of this queerness, as when Bilbo seems to hesitate about how exactly to define his relationship with Thorin, both in his last conversation with Balin and, later, when the auctioneer asks him who Thorin was. This gap, I think, is crucial for the appropriation of this text by its queer fans.
While some might call this over-reading, seeking out something in the text that “isn’t really there,” I would draw our attention to the words of the late, great queer scholar Alexander Doty, who cogently reminded all of us that texts are always layered with queer potential and that finding, exploiting, and enjoying those potentials is just as valid as the allegedly straight readings that the mainstream so enjoys and attempts to enshrine as the norm. Embracing these methods enhances our appreciation for the richness and variety of readerly responses to Tolkien and the works he created and inspired.