Gary Collinson examines contemporary readings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings…
Originally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, The Lord of the Rings is an epic high fantasy chronicling the ‘War of the Ring’ and the end of the Third Age of ‘Middle-Earth’ – a secondary world created by renowned author, J. R. R. Tolkien. Having sold over 100 million copies world-wide, the novel has been adapted to various other mediums including the hugely successful movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson – The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003).
Ultimately a tale of good against evil, The Lord of the Rings centres on the impending invasion of Middle Earth by the Dark Lord Sauron and the journey of a reluctant hero Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit charged with destroying the ‘One Ring’ – the source of Sauron’s power. The various races and inhabitants of Middle-Earth – Men, Elves, Dwarves and Wizards – unite in an effort to repel the invasion and provide the necessary time for Frodo to venture into the heart of Sauron’s domain, Mordor, where he must cast the One Ring into the Crack of Mount Doom to bring an end to the Dark Lord’s reign of terror.
In the essay The Death of the Author (1967), French theorist Roland Barthes proposed that “the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination”. Barthes was critical of the way that texts are often explained in relation to the author’s own identity, imposing a final signification or meaning. He argued that the author acts as sculptor, with the audience ultimately determining their own meaning. This view is most certainly evident in contemporary readings of the The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien serving as a sculptor to a wealth of different readings including allegories of war and religion, allegations of racism and of course, more recent debates surrounding sexuality.
Racism and the Ring
In an article in The Scotsman printed just prior to the release of The Two Towers in 2002, The Lord of the Rings was labelled “an epic rooted in racism” by cultural studies academic Dr. Stephen Shapiro, where “Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde”.
Although this view is primarily based upon the movie adaptations – with the Uruk-hai having being described as resembling Maori warriors or black, dreadlocked savages – director Peter Jackson clearly drew inspiration from the book for his racial coding for his characters. Heroes and their cities are depicted as white, or as Shapiro claims “uber-Aryan” (Gandalf, the Rohirrim, the men of Gondor and their capital, Minis Tirith), while the majority of villains are represented as black, such as the Nazgul, Uruk-hai, Minas Morgul and the Tower of Barad-dur.
Although such imagery stems from Jackson’s realisation, if we are to consider Tolkien’s novel itself there is a clear distinction between the representation of good and evil, which could be deemed by some to have racial connotations,
“’More men going to Mordor,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Dark faces. We have not seen Men like these before, no, Smeagol has not. They are fierce. They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold… Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look.’” (The Two Towers, 1954)
While Shapiro claims that Tolkien intended for The Lord of the Rings to convey an idealised version of England free of foreign invasion, the lines between good and evil are not as explicit as he would have people believe. Several of these ‘uber-Aryan’ characters display villainous traits, such as Saruman the White, who along with Smeagol, Denethor, Boromir and Isildur are lured towards the power of the One Ring and in the process, corrupted by evil.
To counter these allegations of racism, one could argue that characters such as the Uruk-hai are dark not because of racial issues but due to their affinity with evil. One of the major themes of the narrative – exemplified by Frodo’s mission – is not to judge people based upon appearance, and Shapiros comments – such as the idea that Gimli represents Tolkien’s view of the Scottish – lean more towards the movie adaptations than the novel itself. It could also be suggested that the coding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters highlight not so much racial differences but those of class. Whereas characters such as the Hobbits and the Elves appear very articulate, cultured and educated – displaying what would be considered middle or upper class tendencies – Tolkien’s representation of the Orcs leans more towards the working classes, which is emphasised further through Jackson’s use of rugged, Cockney-like dialects for the Uruk-hai and other Orcs.
A Bromantic Fantasy
Debates surrounding sexuality within The Lord of the Rings has intensified following the release of Peter Jackson’s film versions, leading many to conclude that the Hobbits – and in particular Frodo Baggins and his servant and companion, Samwise Gamgee – are homosexual. Such readings have also intensified through fan-fiction, and in particular the sub-genre of ‘slash fiction’, which focuses on depicting same-sex relationships between characters such as Frodo and Sam or Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock. There are numerous passages in the novel that could lead contemporary readers to suspect something more than a close relationship between Frodo and Sam,
“’Sam, dear Sam,’ said Frodo, and he lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, losing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness… He kissed Frodo’s forehead. ‘Come! Wake up, Mr Frodo!’ he said, trying to sound as cheerful as he had when he drew back the curtains at Bag End on a summer’s morning.” (The Return of the King, 1955)
Viewed from the perspective of today’s society, this description of Sam’s reunion with Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol may appear to have homosexual connotations. However, these interpretations fail to consider that Tolkien was inspired by his own experiences during the First World War (the novel itself has been described as “the last work of First World War literature, published almost forty years after the war ended”), basing the relationship between Frodo and Sam on that of a military officer and his batman.
During wartime – and especially during the horrors of the trenches in the First World War – it was commonplace for people to develop close physical and emotional attachment, and of course early twentieth century society was distinctly less sexualised than today. As Tolkien was drawing on his own experiences, it is likely that the relationship between the Hobbits was intended to represent the close male-bonding and comradeship of soldiers at war as opposed to that of sexual desires or identities.
Tolkien viewed fantasy as ‘desired notion of unreality’, free of the physical and scientific constraints of the real world. However as readers our decoding of his opus is bound to reflect our status as inhabitants of this real world, despite the presence of Elves, Orcs, supernatural beings and other elements of the fantastic in the text. Even with the wealth of background information supplied through works such as Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth series, The Lord of the Rings continues to generate debate amongst fans and the popularity of the ‘slash’ fiction fan community is testament to Barthes notion of The Death of the Author.
Clearly one of the main pleasures of epic narratives such as The Lord of the Rings is their ability to spark debate and generate discussion, which is part of the reason why Tolkien’s novel remains so popular over half a century after publication.