Some starting points on affectionate friendship in The Lord of the Rings

I’ve sometimes encountered comments from new readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in regard to their surprise and even shock at the book’s rising level of male-male affection, kissing, expressions of love, and also the book’s general celebration of un-neurotic and un-conflicted male bonding. It may seem curious to today’s readers that Tolkien felt free to so boldly portray these aspects of Middle-Earth, and also to launch such books into the cultural and emotional ice-age of the 1950s.

Probably it has something to do with the period in which Tolkien came of age, roughly 1908-1922.

* Wilde and poetry. It was a post-Wilde world, in which previously open traditions of casual male-male affection in friendship (see above picture) were diminished and policed. But his youth was perhaps sufficiently distant from the immediate impact of the notorious Wilde trial, in time and also in space. He was coming of age in practical can-do Birmingham, rather than the overheated literary salons of London. One might perhaps also consider the ongoing impact of Whitman’s poetry among literary lads, in terms of celebrating affectionate male bonding in England at that time, though I don’t know offhand of any evidence that Tolkien thought highly of Whitman. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad seems likely to have had more impact in Britain, especially in the context of the First World War — when a copy was reputed to have been in almost every back-pack as our soldiers departed for the Front. For strong discussions of the war poetry and its portrayal of affectionate friendship in a post-Wilde context, one might look at Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (2005) and the seminal The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). For the modern student, it’s perhaps important to highlight that poetry was then vastly more culturally important than it is today, and also engaged in a far more active dialogue with art.

* Freud. Doubtful. Tolkien lived in a pre-Freud world as he came of age. Freud only became widely known among the intelligentsia in the English-speaking world from about 1919, and even then he was usually encountered through a lens of superficial re-interpretations and even ‘progressive’ charlatans and quacks. The fathers of Tolkien’s Birmingham Oratory were Catholics of a variety who were fairly open to the world, by the standards of the time, but one has to doubt they had any regard for the likes of Freud and his followers. Still less would they have had an affection for Freud’s befuddled leftist acolytes — of the sort who drifted around Greenwich Village and Bloomsbury, revelling in a heavily sexualised home-brew made from half-fermented bits of Alder, Jung and Freud. The type later became academics and plagued Tolkien with their detested attempts at early ‘literary criticism’ of his work. It’s true that such ideas did become increasingly fashionable in England in the 1930s, and the writings of Freud’s associate Jung were known to some of Tolkien’s circle. But it would be a huge mistake to claim that Tolkien was juggling psychoanalytical ideas on male affection while devising The Lord of the Rings.

* Service. Far more important for understanding Tolkien’s main work seems to be the forgotten history of the entangling affections which can grow up in an enduring master-servant relationship. Also the traditions and set of implicit boundaries which develop from that, within a stable and self-confident civilisation. Then the ways in which that tradition fed into, and was changed by, the experience of the First World War and the ideological ferment of the 1930s.

* Fraternity and fellowship. There is also the little-regarded history of ‘public friendship’ to consider, in which affection became embedded and expressed in the brotherly networks of civil society and mutual aid, often along lines of civic/political affiliation. One could even see Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as making an attempt at ‘working back’ to an idealised Christian form of this, as a reaction to the ‘politicised friendship’ developed by the proto-fascist left/right in Europe in the 1910s and 20s around hiking and the outdoors life, and which was later so ruinously militarised by the youth cadres of both national socialism and soviet socialism.

* Brotherly and knightly love. Asexual brotherly love and its traditions and standards within Christianity, would also prove a useful and fruitful line of enquiry. It was a strong tradition, in which gestures of love and affection were simply not culturally understood as diminishing one’s masculinity, or inviting an onlooker to cast aspersions about one’s innate erotic inclinations. The brotherly love tradition arose from The Bible’s examples, but was also deeply developed by the Christian monastic literary tradition which celebrated highly romanticised loving male friendships, often within a knightly tradition. On that, see Edward Joe Johnson, Once There Were Two True Friends, Or, The Idealized Male Friendship in in French Narrative from the Middle Ages Through the Enlightenment (Summa, 2003). I imagine that one may also be able to trace such ideas in Tolkien favourites such as the neo-medievalist fantasy novels of William Morris.

My short and quick search for further print material reveals that the introductory book on ‘Loving asexual affection among male friends: a history’ has yet to be written. Many in our highly politicised and dumbed-down Eng. Lit. depts. will think it enough to reflexively point to Sedgwick’s famous Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). But that book assumes desire, and is now understood within a wider perspective which is very much entangled in discovering a history of casual gay sex and the wider project to back-date the modern post-1972 naffly rainbow-flagged gay identity.

A glance at the contents page for the book Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture (1999) suggests that none of the essays there are on-topic. The book The Overflowing of Friendship: love between men and the creation of the American republic (2009) looks much better. The British Empire and American ‘wild frontier’ experiences of male bonding are probably quite important in terms of feeding their structures of feeling through into the all-male ‘big landscape’ adventure novels of Tolkien’s youth (Henty etc). In that regard the article “Romantic friendship: male intimacy and middle-class youth in the northern United States, 1800-1900” (Journal of Social History, 1989) also looks like it might be a useful starting point.

The book Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War (Cambridge, 2003) is on the novelists Forster, Conrad and D.H. Lawrence and judging by Google Books it looks rather tedious (I was forced to read and study Lawrence and Forster at school, and as a consequence loathe both). But the book is on-topic in terms of the influence of the war and may prove to have some useful structuring ideas which are portable. But note that the author appears to come at this “neglected topic” via a modern leftist viewpoint, one which focusses on “institutional social power” and assumes “thwarted homoerotics”.

There is more to be found, lightly scattered among the Tolkien essays:

* Marion Perret, “Rings off their fingers: hands in The Lord of the Rings“, Ariel, Vol.6, No.4, 1975, pages 52-66. (Hands, fingers, touching are all recurring motifs in the book, and of course hands are an important means of conveying affection).

* Marion Zimmer Bradley, “Men, Halflings and Hero Worship”, in Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, 1968.

* A. Smol, “”Oh… oh… Frodo!”: Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings“, MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, 2004.

* A. Smol, “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, the First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings”, 2005. (Conference paper).

* Magnús Örn Þórðarson, The theme of friendship in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, 2012. (A short degree dissertation, in English).

New addition, June 2017: Kaufman, Roger: “The amplification and avoidance of homosexual love in the translation of Tolkien’s work from books to films”. In: Kapell and Pilkington (Eds.), The Fantastic Made Visible: Essays on the adaptation of science fiction and fantasy from page to screen, McFarland & Company, 2015.

This blog post is just my quick and rather flighty survey of the topic, a version of that undertaken for a friend, but it may help someone more interested than I am to get started on writing in-depth about the topic.


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