Progressives think Sam and Frodo were more than good friends
The Tolkien Society. The very words conjure up certain images. Earnest, tweedy Englishmen with old-fashioned glasses and luxuriant beards, reading each other densely argued papers about Elvish grammar and little-known battles from the First Age. Long and complex arguments over pints of real ale in Oxford pubs, about the real significance of Tom Bombadil or the true causes of the Fall of Gondolin.
It would seem, however, that my stereotype is out of date. This weekend saw the Society’s annual conference, the agenda for which provoked anger and derision when it was made public last month. The call for papers had stressed that this year’s theme was to be identity and diversity, and attendees got it good and hard. Speaker after speaker discoursed on queerness and transgenderism, racism and sexism. Some of the paper titles were close to self-parody, with their talk of Othering and Problematics; my personal favourite was “Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien”.
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Maybe next year we’ll get back to hearing the thoughts of the Reverend Peregrine Cocklecarrot, MA on the correct dating of the abandonment of Fornost, but I’m not especially optimistic, given the monomania that tends to mark progressive activists. Once they get their claws into an organisation, it is very difficult to get them out again. As Robert Conquest famously noted in his Second Law of Politics, “any organisation not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing”.
Naturally, the kerfuffle over the Tolkien Society’s “surrender to woke” created its own backlash. An essay argued that Tolkien had intended Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins to be read as gay lovers. The Guardian carried a piece suggesting that it would be no big deal if the forthcoming Lord Of The Rings TV series featured gay characters because, well, it’s all made up anyway, innit.
We face the age-old question of who gets to say what a work of fiction is really about. Conservative readers of Tolkien often note that the great man himself was a traditionalist, who stated that the saga had been written with a deliberately Catholic lens.
This assertion, while true, is not the whole story. You don’t sell 150 million copies without a certain breadth of appeal. Hippies famously loved Lord Of The Rings. Peter Jackson, who is not a Christian conservative, did an excellent job of bringing the book to the big screen. I am modern enough to accept that authorial intention can’t always be the last word in the interpretation of art — and I’ll even admit some of the papers at the Tolkien Society conference sounded quite interesting, notably the ones about disability and Soviet illustrations.
All the same, to use the Tolkien legendarium as a Trojan horse for a particular political agenda, which is alien to the text and which he would certainly have strongly disliked, is fundamentally disrespectful to, and contemptuous of, the book. Authorial intention isn’t always the last word, but it cannot be disregarded entirely. We know, for example, the experiences and archetypes that fed into Tolkien’s portrayal of deep, intimate friendships between male characters — notably the officer-batman bonds formed on the Western Front — and they had little to do with sexual relationships.
The temptation is to write this off as yet another meaningless culture war skirmish: small earthquake in Chile, no-one killed. On the contrary: the attempt by activists to colonise every area of cultural life with their faddish neuroses must be resisted by all those who enjoy books and films for their own sake.