Queer readings of The Lord of the Rings are not accidents

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. In honor of these enduring classics, we’re exploring every aspect of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material to the films’ best scenes and moments, along with the continued influence of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King on modern pop culture.

[Ed. note: This essay contains discussion of homophobia and mention of suicide.]

I was 12 in 2003, when The Return of the King was in theaters, and Frodo kissing Sam goodbye as he left Middle-earth made me sob like my heart was being ripped out, without understanding why. Outside of the safe darkness of the theater, in the Mordor-like wasteland of middle school, the movies were synonymous with the favored insult of the time — “gay.”

Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t come out for two more years, and none of us had seen a movie on the big screen where men hold each other, comfort each other, kiss each other’s foreheads. Early-2000s preteen America was a time of gay jokes, of “no homo,” of mocking voices and slurs, and secret, punitive violence enacted in the locker room against anyone who had a whiff of otherness. In that world, the Lord of the Rings trilogy stood out as deeply earnest, and therefore vulnerable.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

I listened to The Lord of the Rings before I knew how to read. It’s written on my creative DNA as the first book I really loved. But for a long time I avoided it, for the same reason that I learned not to talk about the movies at school: The accusations of queerness somehow tied into a story about elves, hobbits, and looming evil.

The essayist Italo Calvino defined a classic as “a book that has never finished what it has to say,” and The Lord of the Rings is certainly a classic. Revisiting the book in the last year, as someone who has been out for many years and who is deeply engaged in making and consuming queer stories, I was amazed to find a same-sex love story at the heart of the narrative.

There are many relationships between men in the book, most of them platonic. Merry and Pippin are cousins, and banter like cousins. They fondly tease their other cousin Frodo, and talk down to working-class Sam. Gandalf takes on a sometimes kind, sometimes frustrated grandfatherly role to the hobbits. Boromir and Faramir have an intense brotherhood, and have complex feelings about the loyalty owed to their king, Aragorn. These relationships are high drama; powerful examples of male friendship and family. But they do not read as intentionally romantic (and while fan interpretation is a diverse, wonderful thing, this essay is focused on authorial intent).

The exception is Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee — the Ring-bearer with an impossible burden, his loyal gardener, and the bond between them that ends up saving their world. Tolkien based Frodo and Sam’s relationship on ones he had seen and experienced in World War I — that between a usually upper-class officer and his batman, a usually lower-class man who served as his bodyguard, personal assistant, and constant companion. This basis does not preclude romance. There’s at least one novel about a batman and his officer having a romantic relationship (Look Down in Mercy by William Baxter, 1951), and many accounts of queer soldiers who found they could — while facing nightmarish conditions in the trenches — live out relationships that would have been impossible at home.

Frodo and Sam begin (as many great period-piece romances do) with a class difference. Frodo is Sam’s employer, and the distance between them in class and education is clear in early scenes. But as the story progresses, Frodo sees new sides of Sam in his impromptu poetry, his fascination with elves and stories, and his bravery. For his part, Sam is devoted to Frodo, discovering the depths of his devotion along the journey. He is flustered around Frodo, blushing when spoken to, holding “and gently stroking” his hands, face, and hair in various situations, and constantly expressing his loyalty.

As in any classic romance, through shared hardship they grow to become the most important people to each other. “Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit — indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends,” Frodo says to Sam midway through The Two Towers.

Peter Jackson’s excellent movies inject tension between the pair as Frodo is corrupted by the Ring — a choice that adds cinematic drama. But in the book, all the enemies exist outside the safety they find in each other, and a striking amount of description is devoted to their relationship. When Frodo is grievously injured, it is Sam (rather than any of Frodo’s relatives present) who stays by his side night and day. Sam gazes at Frodo in Ithilien, noting his beauty, and thinks to himself, “I love him.” They hold each other on the long trek to Mordor — Tolkien said in a letter that he “was [probably] most moved [...] by the scene when Frodo goes to sleep on [Sam’s] breast.” On a different night, Sam “comfort[s] Frodo with his arms and body.” And they are pretty much constantly holding hands: in the Dead Marshes, through Shelob’s lair, and while they sleep in Mordor.

Tolkien describes Sam as a “small creature defending its mate” when he protects Frodo from the monstrous Shelob. And when Sam thinks Frodo is dead, “all his life had fallen in ruin.” When Frodo is captured and imprisoned at the top of a tower, Sam finds him by improvising a song about hope and starlight that a naked, tortured Frodo weakly answers. When they wake after the quest is over, they’re lying next to each other in the same bed. They kiss at least four times; another time, it’s specified that they don’t kiss, which has interesting implications. And when they return to the Shire, Sam moves into Bag End with Frodo — no longer a servant, but an equal and a constant companion.

The frame story Tolkien created for The Lord of the Rings was that the tale was simply translated from a much older historical document. This is established in the book’s introduction, where the author describes how Bilbo’s private diary (i.e., The Hobbit) was preserved and expanded by Frodo (and later Sam), becoming an account of the War of the Ring. That volume, The Red Book of Westmarch, was preserved and transcribed, and passed down as ancient history — “those days [...] are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed” — until it ended up in Tolkien’s hands. This frame is evident through the book in bits of old lore scattered through the story, footnotes on the quirks of translating languages like Elvish and Orcish into English, and in the extensive appendices that lay out Middle-earth’s history before and after the story.

When a book is presented as a primary source rather than a work of fiction, it’s an authorial invitation to look between the lines and search for hidden truths. The narrator becomes part of the fiction — history, after all, is recorded by specific people with their own motives — something that Tolkien, as one of the world’s foremost Beowulf scholars, would have intimately understood. It was a conscious choice on the part of “Frodo” and “Sam” to include the many moments when they express love for each other, and it reads much in the same way people from the past delicately referred to their same-sex relationships: wanting to acknowledge their truth while obeying the conventions of the time.

Heterosexual romance is sparse in the books, and discussion of sexuality between the characters is absent (the One Ring can be seen as a metaphor for lust and temptation, but that’s a whole other topic). But Tolkien was not averse to romance. In a letter to one of his sons, he wrote about chivalric romance as the height of romantic love: It idealizes ‘love’ [...] it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity, at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service,’ courtesy, honor, and courage.This is the relationship between Aragorn and his elf-love Arwen; between Éowyn and Faramir; and it is, to a T, the relationship between Sam and Frodo.

It is also found in “The Tale of Beren and Lúthien,” a high romance from Middle-earth’s mythology, which Tolkien based on himself and his wife Edith. Interestingly, there are many parallels between this story and Frodo and Sam’s tale. Beren also has an impossible quest, and Lúthien also insists on accompanying him. Like Frodo, Beren is trapped in a tower by his enemies; like Sam, Lúthien sings to find him, and he answers her. Beren loses a hand; Frodo loses a finger. The Phial of Galadriel that Frodo bears was made with light from a star formed by the object of Beren’s quest, something Sam notes — “we’re in the same tale still!” For an author who was meticulous about world-building and mythology, the parallels feel intentional and pointed.

If you’re a certain type of Lord of the Rings reader, you’re probably yelling, “Tolkien was a Catholic born in the Victorian era! He never would have written about gay people!” But there are examples of queerness in Tolkien’s time and place, and any speculation is backed by historical context.

Three years younger than Tolkien, Edward Brittain was also a young, decorated soldier in World War I. He faced a court-martial in 1918 after one of his letters described “homosexual relations with men in his company.” Rather than face the consequences — corporal punishment and two years in prison — and the shame the trial would bring upon his family, he walked into enemy fire and was killed.

Two years before The Lord of the Rings was published, war-winning codebreaker and genius mathematician Alan Turing stood trial for “homosexual acts and gross indecency” — that is, being caught in his own home with another man. He was sentenced to chemical castration, and took his own life — six weeks, in fact, before The Fellowship of the Ring came out.

Tolkien lived in a world where open same-sex romance was a social and often literal death sentence, where even writing about it (except to condemn it) was forbidden. For an example, we can look at Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken (later reprinted in Vanauken’s autobiography) that Lewis had received a letter from a “pious male homosexual [...] but of course it was the sort of letter one takes care to destroy.”

Tolkien’s fame as a Catholic writer leads people to assume he wasn’t tolerant of queerness, though his published writing does not provide any evidence for this (unlike Lewis’). The only mention is a bland reference in his biography by Humphrey Carpenter: “As to homosexuality, Tolkien claimed that at nineteen he did not even know the word.”

Many accounts of queerness from this time, especially ones that are neutral or positive, have been destroyed. We only know Brittain’s story because his sister took the unusual step of preserving his letters. Of course, queer people and queer desire exist no matter what the laws say. So do we have any evidence that Tolkien had interactions with his queer contemporaries?

Tolkien wrote of the openly gay poet W.H. Auden as “one of my great friends,” and Auden wrote glowing reviews of The Lord of the Rings when it came out (they also had a fight because Auden visited Tolkien’s house and said that it was “hideous,” but that’s another story). As described by author Reynolds Price, at least one member of Tolkien’s friend group, the Inklings, “separated from his wife and lived a quietly homosexual life.” Most interesting to me, Tolkien was a teacher and fan of Mary Renault, a writer who spent her life in a romantic relationship with another woman. She became an icon in the gay male community for writing sympathetically about same-sex relationships in ancient Greece. Tolkien wrote that he was “deeply engaged” in her books, and that a letter she sent him was “the piece of ‘Fan-mail’ that gives me the most pleasure.”

How would an author in England in the 1950s allude to queerness in his fiction? Tolkien notes in the introduction to The Lord of the Rings that “Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were as bachelors very exceptional” compared to other residents of the Shire — and Bilbo, who adopted his nephew and had “whole rooms devoted to clothes,” certainly reads as queer. He never married, despite several drafts where Tolkien tried and failed to imagine a wife for him, and this fact is discussed in Unfinished Tales, a collection of stories and essays published after his death. “[Bilbo] wanted to remain ‘unattached,’” Tolkien wrote, “for some reason deep down which he did not understand himself — or would not acknowledge, for it alarmed him.”

Bilbo and Frodo’s home of Bag End is described by other hobbits as “a queer place, and its folk are queerer” — an adjective which had a strong connotation of homosexuality by the late 1800s. And then there’s “strange fates,” from one of Tolkien’s letters, referring to elves who did not marry. The most notable example of this is the other implied same-sex romance of the book — Legolas, an elf who overcomes the ancestral enmity between dwarves and elves through his relationship with Gimli.

Delving into queer history can be frustrating, because so often you hit the wall of we can never know for sure. It’s tricky to apply modern labels to people that they did not claim in life — but modern labels include “straight” and “cisgender” just as much as “gay” or “transgender.” All we can do is look at their lives and be open to the possibility. Sean Astin, the actor who played Sam, summed up this lack of definition excellently in a recent video: “I think Sam and Frodo should have kissed [...] how do you know they didn’t?”

Near the end of the book, Sam marries Rosie Cotton with Frodo’s encouragement (after dithering, because he wants to live with Frodo but also wants to start a family), and all three of them move into Bag End.

Samwise the Brave gets the hero’s reward — wife and family, pastoral bliss — with the understanding that it would be no reward at all if he didn’t get to live with Frodo. Sam and Rosie’s marriage, and the other two that close out the book, indicate a future for Middle-earth in the form of a new generation. But as Tolkien notes in another letter, “the greatest of [romances] do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation.” And that is the logic he applies to the central romance of his book.

While the quest is over and the story should be wrapping up neatly, Frodo is suffering from wounds that refuse to heal. He cannot claim his own hero’s reward and enjoy his home and the people he loves — and so he leaves Middle-earth for the Undying Lands with the elves. And he does it, explicitly, because Sam describes himself as being “torn in two” by his love for Frodo and his love for his family. Frodo knows Sam can never live a full life while he is there, suffering.

I have to wonder about Tolkien’s lived experience. He had a little fellowship of schoolmates, other young men equal to him in genius and creativity. They were drafted in the Great War, where nearly all of them died. One of them was Geoffrey Bache Smith, a poet whose work is considered homoromantic by modern readers. Smith died from enemy shrapnel at age 22. Before going into battle one day, anticipating his death, he wrote to his friend Tolkien: “My dear John Ronald [...] may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”

Tolkien was haunted by Smith’s death, driven to collect his poems and publish them. There are echoes of Frodo and Sam here; echoes of Frodo leaving, of Sam having to finish the literal book telling the tale of their quest.

Sam’s struggle to finish their story is the framing device of a rejected epilogue (eventually published in The History of Middle-earth) set years after Frodo has left. Tolkien was fond of this final chapter, but cut it because early readers told him it was too sentimental. “Your treasure left,” Sam’s teenage daughter observes in the epilogue, referring to Frodo. She directly compares Sam’s love of Frodo to the elf Celeborn’s love of his wife Galadriel. The epilogue ends with Sam hearing the sound of the sea that separates him from Frodo, “deep and unstilled.” As though even in a full and well-lived life there is the unspoken sense of something missing.

Tolkien had his beloved wife Edith. Sam had his Rose. But there is room, I think, for another kind of love, specific to both the real and invented worlds that Tolkien inhabited. A love that grew in extraordinary hardship, and ultimately could not survive outside of it; but that was deeply meaningful all the same. A love that deserves to be seen for what it was, and to have its story told.

Queer people have always existed. The words for us have changed, will always change, but our hearts are the same. When we look at history, we must follow breadcrumbs to find ourselves. And like many of us, Sam Gamgee is obsessed with stories. He’s always noting that he and Frodo are in a great tale, and wondering whether it will be happy or sad. When he thinks he will die to defend Frodo’s body, he wonders if there will be songs written about this last act of loving defiance. He wonders, like so many others, if this love will be remembered.

So here’s a final breadcrumb: Tolkien wrote that Sam rejoins Frodo in the Undying Lands at the end of his life. It’s alluded to in the book, and briefly noted in the appendices. Why Sam goes, and what happens when he is reunited with his “treasure,” is not a story Tolkien could tell. For clues, perhaps we can look to Tolkien’s other great romance, as told by Aragorn in “The Tale of Beren and Lúthien”:

“It is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Sea, and after a brief time walking alive once more in the green woods, together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world.”

With thanks to the Rev. Tom Emanuel, Putri Prihatini, Paul Springer, and several other Tolkien experts for their feedback.

Works Cited
Berry, Paul and Mark Bostridge. Vera Brittain: A Life, Chatto & Windus, 1995.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, HarperCollins, 2003.
Lewis, C.S. Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis, HarperOne, 2008.
McGhee, Beth. “Homosexuality in the First World War.” East Sussex WW1 Project. Accessed 30 June 2021.
Price, Reynolds. Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, Scribner’s, 2009.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1992.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Rohy, Valerie. “On Fairy Stories.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 50, no. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 927-948.
Tolkien and Alterity, edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.


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