As many who know me could attest, I have a soft spot for guys who like guys. I think it’s sweet & sexy. Little surprise, I suppose, that I have lots of gay friends and decided to live in the Castro. It’s not just that I am not homophobic; I’m positively homophilic. So, with, as Sir Ian McKellen puts it, the “gaggle of beauties” in the cast of the Lord of the Rings films plus all the deep affection between both the characters and the actors, it’s not news that I as much as anyone else thought:
“Frodo and Sam have got to be a couple. What other interpretation could there be? Maybe they haven’t done anything about this smoldering romantic passion, but, jeez, there’s no denying the devotion between them.”
And that remained my interpretation after seeing the first two films and rereading the first two books. But now that I’ve seen and reread Return of the King, I’ve changed my mind. Certainly, it’s possible to imagine a romantic relationship between these characters – lines like Sam’s (from the book) “I love him, whether or no” don’t make it much of a stretch – but now I do not feel that is the relationship which Tolkien wrote or the filmmakers intended or the actors portrayed. And, most importantly, this lack of sexual attraction doesn’t make the relationship any less significant.
To their credit, all of these storytellers (intentionally or otherwise) have left room for interpretation and personal reaction, but I believe that the relationship between Frodo and Sam which they describe is one for which we do not have a contemporary model. I’ve read of Sam as Frodo’s “batman”; of their relationship as that between a WW1 officer and the enlisted man who acts as a servant to look after his belongings and take care of him. Oddly enough, that relationship, though it was known less than 100 years ago, is not as familiar and understandable to us today as that of a knight and his esquire.
What is essential to understanding their relationship is the context of a society divided by class; Frodo and Sam are unequal. They are master and servant, well-connected gentlehobbit and working-class gardener. It is Sam’s duty, his role, to support Frodo in whatever way he can. Sam is not expected to understand Frodo or the great matters in which he has become involved. Today we would see that as unfair to Sam, as subjugation. “Don’t worry yourself with matters above your station” is not an approach which we in the 21st-century West consider good or just. We want Sam to be recognized – by himself perhaps more than by anyone else – as Frodo’s equal. But with them as equals, we have no model for Sam’s unstoppable, selfless devotion other than romantic love.
Think about that for a moment. Our culture doesn’t have a model for that kind of love. It’s like not having a word for some concept in your language. What does it do to us not to be able to express an idea? Or imagine such a relationship? Perhaps our problem is that we use the same word, “love”, to describe many forms of affection, quite a few of which are completely non-sexual.
I am interested to see how these characters will be interpreted in the future as Tolkien’s intent, the model for the relationship, and widespread experience of friendly but class-divided relationships fades. Will the devoted same-sex friendships of Lord of the Rings create a new model for loving, non-sexual relationships? Will Frodo and Sam be claimed as role models for gays and bisexuals? Or will the current rifts remain? Will homosexuality remain something that the characters are “accused of”?
This topic all came to mind when I was rereading Return of the King and got to this bit near the very end:
When all was at last ready Frodo said: ‘When are you going to move in and join me, Sam?’
Sam looked a bit awkward.
‘There is no need to come yet, if you don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘But you know the Gaffer is close at hand, and he will be very well looked after by Widow Rumble.’
‘It’s not that, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, and he went very red.
‘Well, what is it?’
‘It’s Rosie, Rose Cotton,’ said Sam. ‘It seems she didn’t like my going abroad at all, poor lass; but as I hadn’t spoken, she couldn’t say so. And I didn’t speak, because I had a job to do first. But now I have spoken, and she says: “Well, you’ve wasted a year, so why wait longer?” “Wasted?” I says. “I wouldn’t call it that.” Still see what she means. I feel torn in two, as you might say.’
‘I see,’ said Frodo: ‘you want to get married, and yet you want to live with me in Bag End too? But my dear Sam, how easy! Get married as soon as you can, and then move in with Rosie. There’s room enough in Bag End for as big a family as you could wish for.’
That passage reminded me of a similar one in the last Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, “Thrones, Dominations”, in which two characters with a very similar relationship, Lord Peter and his manservant, Bunter, are deeply depressed by the prospect of having to part ways when Bunter marries. What I had forgotten until just now when I went to see if I could find the passage quoted on the Web is that it was not written by Dorothy Sayers half a century ago, but was Jill Paton’s relatively recent completion of Sayers’ final unfinished work. Perhaps Sayers included the conflict and its pleasing solution in her notes, but it is equally possible that it is the invention of a mind of the latter half of the 20th century, perhaps even one which had been exposed to Sam’s dilemma.
Notes & additional reading:
1 – Nancy Marie Ott’s “JRR Tolkien and World War I”