Can a Queer Feminist Enjoy Tolkien?

The short answer to the question leading this post is…yes. The long, and more complete, answer, requires quite a bit of explanation. In order to do so, I’ve decided to address each half of the descriptor (queer feminist) separately, while offering some concluding remarks that bring them together.

As a queer man, I am always profoundly moved by the intense personal and physical relationships that emerge between the various male characters. Of course, the most notable such interaction is between Frodo and Sam. Truly, the relationship between them is one of the richest and most textured to be found in all of 20th Century literature (and much more so than most straightforwardly “queer” male literature, with some notable exceptions such as Maurice and Brokeback Mountain). Theirs is a relationship forged in the harshest of conditions, and it engenders a particular form of tenderness, both physical and emotional, that especially resonates with we  men who feel desire (again, both physical and emotional) for other men.

Now, I’m almost 100% certain that Tolkien, devout Catholic that he was, did not intend these relationships to be understood as in any way sexual, and I’m not really sure that I, irreverent queer reader that I am, see them that way either (though I know there are many who do). However, I respond to them in a way that is more raw and intensely emotional than mere friendship typically allows. In other words, I pick up on those elements in the text that resonate most strongly with my own experiences and encounters with the world. The queerness, then, is a latent possibility within the text, even if the author did not necessarily intend for it to exist. As the great cultural theorist and scholar Alex Doty pointed out, texts don’t have to be intentionally queer for audiences to pick up on and read them as such.

As a feminist, things are a bit murkier. There are, it is true, remarkably few women of any stature within The Lord of the Rings, though there are many more in The Silmarillion. Of all the women that appear, however, the two that most conspicuously embody what we might call “strength” are Galadriel and Eowyn.

Are these female figures somewhat marginal to the narrative? Perhaps, but I think that reading mostly misses the point. Galadriel, we know, is easily one of the most powerful Elves remaining in Middle-earth (the fact that he is entrusted with one of the three Elven Rings of Power is but one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting this). It is significant, I think, that she bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and that it is through her power that Lothlorien remains unsullied and that, at the last, it is Galadriel who brings about the final dissolution of Dol Guldur and its dungeons and pits.

Yet, for my money, it is Eowyn who most clearly stands out to me as Tolkien’s most masterful female creation. Unlike Galadriel, she does not have native, supernatural power. Instead, she is a woman born into a culture that typically prizes male valour and martial ability. While she obviously possesses these things,she remains bound in a culture that can best be described as benevolently patriarchal. For all that she possesses formidable intellectual ability and skill with arms, the world in which she lives does not explicitly value these when they are found in the body of a woman.

Eowyn’s greatest tragedy, however, is the fact that she finds herself bound to the aging and frail Theoden. Tolkien has an uncannily adept eye for identifying, and portraying, the intensely contradictory feelings such a woman must experience. She clearly loves her uncle and is willing to take care of him, yet she also finds her deepest desires–to be a warrior–frustrated by her familial duties. In a turn of fortune, Tolkien ensures that it is Eowyn, rather than any of the more traditional male heroes, who brings about the death of the Witch-king of Angmar, easily one of the most powerful and menacing of the villains in the Third Age.  At last, Eowyn is vindicated, her name enshrined among the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythology.

So what about a person, like myself, who specifically identifies as a queer feminist, both in terms of politics and in terms of scholarship? For all of its flaws, Tolkien’s legendarium (including but not limited to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) display a remarkable complexity in the ways in which it articulates issues of gender and sexuality. Somehow, Tolkien manages to bring to bear the high spirit of European antiquity with the concerns of modernity to craft a tale that can be appealing to even the most contrarian and radical of readers.

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