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Thursday is apparently the new Friday. I'm in the middle of summer school, which means three hours on my feet and, often as not, another 2-3 in my office working with students, on three consecutive days, and then another 4-5 after that getting the next day's lectures in order. The weekends also involve doing the readings (so I only have to outline the  lectures not read new material) and of course the never-ending cycle of paper grading, but at least there's less structure so I can relax more.

I wasn't kidding when I said a while back that time was tight for me right now. But I have survived through week three of lectures, and while that means the oh-so-readable Herr Kant is next up on the menu, it means I also feel like I can breathe again. And think about fandom a bit.

Anyway, as I explained in my last post, I'm working on an essay about Boromir and the complete lack of canon on his love life. My ultimate goal is to show how the different ways people approach canon will approach how they write canon.I'm still interested in reading what people think of when it comes to Boromir, so feel free to comment there if you haven't already. But since I have to time to think about something other than teaching just now, I thought I'd move on.

I know in my corner of fandom (mostly writing about Gondorians and the Northern Dunedain) people tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to sexuality. I don't mean there are no stories that push the envelope, but when it comes to what JRRT himself meant, most people think he imagined Gondorians + the Northern Dunedain were fairly straight-laced. Characters are thought of as not only heterosexual but either happily married (and faithful) or else as celibate. Moreover, the fairy-tale wedding and the happily-ever-after that follows are the natural goal of all good folk, and if a character either doesn't have that or had it and lost it, that's an incomplete kind of life.

Fanfic is another thing entirely, of course. There the relationships get messier and more interesting, with prostitution and chambermaids and adultery and illegitimate children and even *gasp* homosexuality. But I think that for a lot of people, there's this idea that these stories are somehow subversive. (Gloriously so, sometimes, as in the case of so much B/T fic.) 

There are really two issues here: on the one hand what does Tolkien say (or what would he want), and on the other hand what you feel comfortable writing in your own fic. I'll come back to that second question in a later post. But for now, I'm interested: how do you think Tolkien viewed sex? Or gender roles, for that matter - do you think he was a kind of complementarian, or something else? Would he be comfortable with things like homosexuality and children born out of wedlock in his Middle-earth? And why do you think that? Are there specific passages (or comments in the Letters) that lead you to that conclusion, or is it more the absence of quotes (the fact that every time you read about romance it seems to be a male and a female who are either moving toward marriage or wish they could)? Or is it more about Tolkien's biography? Is there something about his place in history that makes you think he'd view his characters a specific way?

And with Boromir in particular: what's your view? Was he the original forty-year-old virgin? Have a wife Tolkien never mentioned (why)? Or something else?

Btw, I view sexuality as a much broader topic than actual sex. I understand some people don't want to write Tolkien's characters as sexual beings, or simply aren't interested in that issue. But the larger question of sexuality - gender roles, the role of marriage in society, adultery and divorce and so on - can play into a thoroughly PG-rated story. So give me your theories here.

As with last time, I may not have time to comment, but I definitely have time to read. I really enjoyed everyone's theories about Boromir's character, and hope other people enjoyed the conversation, too.

And remember: I may include ideas you mention in my essay (with credit, of course). If you don't want me to include your idea, I'd still love to hear it; just make it clear in your comment that you don't want me to mention your idea.  


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)
This article may be of interest to you: Love, Intimacy and Desire Among Hobbits by caraloup. It deals with hobbits but includes some notes on medieval conceptions of sex, intimacy and desire that are generally pertinent to Tolkien's books.

Tolkien's view on homosexuality may be inferred from his praise (in The Letters) of the historical novels by Mary Renault, who was a student of his. Renault's novels about Ancient Greek portray a rather positive (albeit not modern 20th century) view of homosexuality. Also, Tolkien's life-long friend and correspondent W. H. Auden was gay, and certainly Tolkien was aware of it.
Jul. 22nd, 2012 05:57 am (UTC)
Thanks for the link! I think I'd read it ages ago, but need to refresh my memory. I'm not interested just in Gondor, though that's the specific focus I'll be talking about.

Do you by any chance know the specific letters? I'll try to hunt down references to Renault. I wasn't aware of her novels.

I read some fan writer's essay (Tyellas's?) making the point that Tolkien taught at Oxford in the days when many of his students were publicly "aesthetes" (publicly homosexual, IIRC?). He was also a soldier in the WW1 trenches. I'm fairly sure he would have known about homosexuality. The bigger question is whether he would have approved of it or not, and whether he would have thought of a character he wrote as gay. On the other hand, if Tolkien saw Boromir as a kind of hedonist, then maybe a negative idea of homosexuality would have fit quite well with his conception of Boromir's personality, as a kind of "character weakness." (That was a friend's theory when I first floated the idea of the essay with her.)

(To be clear: I'm not saying homosexuality is bad; just that if Tolkien saw it as such, that might not keep him from thinking of his character that way.)
Jul. 22nd, 2012 11:10 am (UTC)
The Letter that mentions Renault is #294 from February 8, 1967, in the corrections for the Plimmer interview that was sent with that letter. In a footnote about his current reading, Tolkien says:
... I enjoy the S.F. of Isaac Azimov. Above these, I was recently deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault; especially the two about Theseus, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea. A few days ago I actually received a card of appreciation from her; perhaps the piece of 'Fan-mail' that gives me most pleasure.

Tolkien knew about homosexuality; there is no way he could not have known same-sex love existed (just like everybody else in his circles and in intellectual life of the time). Among many other things, he had read the Classics, and many Greek texts explicitly deal with same-sex desire.

It may be of interest to you to check out C.S. Lewis' statements on homosexuality. He is quite outspoken about homosexuality being one of the prime sins. I find it telling that Tolkien never ever commented on these statements of his close friend, suggesting to me that he did not agree or at least did not think Lewis' statements should be condoned.

I don't think homosexuality was something for Tolkien that he could or even should approve of or not. It existed, and Tolkien must have been aware of it in his own life, from his WW I experience, as you say, and also because of his friendship with Auden. I am also absolutely certain that Tolkien did not think of any of his characters as gay in our modern sense. He may have conceptualised warriors like Boromir to live by an ancient or medieval codex of male friendship that may or may not have encompassed sex. Personally, I think in Sam and Frodo's relationship there are clear indications that Tolkien conceptualised their bond as a medieval warrior-lover bond, a unity or soul, mind and body that alone was able to fight the effects of the One Ring. I think it's entirely legitimate to envision that bond as being of a sexual nature, as well, even when Tolkien did not. But such abond has not much to do with modern conceptions of homosexuality as a life-long individual identity.

I doubt Tolkien had an image of homosexuals as hedonists. That he admired Mary Renault's novels - which portray (and re-envision) an ancient (Greek) concept of homosexuality as a deep spiritual bond between two men, surpassing heterosexual relations that were seen as being foremost about procreation - makes me think that he shared or at least admired her view. Also, Boromir never ever struck me as a hedonist. He seems to have led a life mostly among soldiers, a powerful and charismatic leader. When he says he wants the power of the Ring to save Gondor I believe him. He may be naive as to the insidious workings of the Ring, but he does not want it for his own pleasures. Again, personally, I think we can deduce even from Boromir's close friendship with Faramir that men were more important than women in his emotional life. The way he wants to get Aragorn's approval during the Quest also shows this. If Boromir was gay, then I'd think he'd be gay as the warrior-lovers of the Theban band.

/rambling Sunday afternoon thoughts

Jul. 19th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
I hadn't commented on the earlier post, so I'm throwing out a thought or two on Boromir here as well. I am mainly a Silm writer, so I don't have much of a head canon about him. Some of the canon (as in some of the quotations supplied in the last post) makes him sound either personally immature or like a cultural or genetic throwback, which when I think about the implications rather worries me. It also occurs to me that it probably wouldn't be altogether easy to be a son loved by Denethor the way Boromir was--and although I doubt whether Tolkien meant to imply this, I wonder whether some of Boromir's characteristics might not be explicable as those of a son who has issues of several kinds with his father and is too loyal even to admit it to himself. Similarly, since he probably remembers Finduilas better than his brother does, how might his attitude towards marriage be affected by his views on the relationship between Denethor and Finduilas?
As for Tolkien's more general views, I'm sure they changed over time and it seems to me that they can be rather ambiguous and contradictory. He seems to be at his most troubled in "Aldarion and Erendis" and at his most dogmatic, but not necessarily most consistent, in "Laws and Customs of the Eldar". I rather like the reading of that document which interprets it as the product of a long transmission and the guesswork and wishful thinking of several generations of Eldar, Numenoreans and Gondorians, as Clotho123 has it. If so, it would also say something about Gondorian attitudes, but not directly, but by talking about the Other (i.e. the Eldar).
Jul. 22nd, 2012 10:00 am (UTC)
Boromir can be a first-class enigma. On the one hand, he seems so defined by his duties: to Gondor, of course, but also to Faramir (at the age of ten he was dealing with his mum's sudden death and a five-year old brother and also (if you accept the popular fanon) a dad so worn down by grief he couldn't be much of a parent. That's a lot to manage at a young age. But on the other hand he seems so given over to the "carnal" joys. I don't necessarily mean sexual, but just bodily, immediate joys. He almost seems more Rohirric than Dunedain in a lot of ways, a "middle-man" (as opposed to high/men of the twilight), to use Faramir's description. So he seems defined both by desires but also by the sublimation of those desires to duty. It makes for an interesting character to think about.

(I have to admit, when I first read LOTR he struck me as a first-class oaf; I only came to appreciate him through fanfic, seeing some people develop truly interesting depictions of him - I'm thinking particularly of Boromir/Theodred shippers, though I'm sure there was good work being done elsewhere - and then saw that really interesting stuff in the canon once I know to look for it. *g*)

Anyway: I like your thought about the father dynamic. Fascinating! I'll have to think about that.

I'm familiar with LaCE though I definitely need to reread it, but I've never actually read Aldarion and Erendis all the way through. Were there any parts you were thinking of specifically? On LaCE, I like that reading of it as well. In my own fic I've thought that Gondorians thought of LaCE as representing their own ideal (they are elf-friends after all), and how closely a particular character actually played out that ideal would depend a lot on how he viewed the elves. This is a big point I've had Boromir and Faramir debate in my own fic: whether sexual purity (of the heterosexual or homosexual variety) was something men really needed to be concerned with, or whether rejecting that in the right way was a part of declaring yourself to be Men and not Elves.

That strikes me as a bit ironic, given that Elves seem to be the type who get swept away by love even more than men do. C.f.: Feanor, Seven(!) Sons of. :-)
Jul. 23rd, 2012 01:38 am (UTC)
Aldarion and Erendis (the most important quot.):
Men in Númenor are half-Elves (said Erendis), especially the high men; they are neither the one nor the other. The long life that they were granted deceives them, and they dally in the world, children in mind, until age finds them – and then many only forsake play out of doors for play in their houses. They turn their play into great matters and great matters into play. They would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, river to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards, women for their body's need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth; and children to be teased when nothing else is to do – but they would as soon play with their hounds' whelps. To all they are gracious and kind, merry as larks in the morning (if the sun shines); for they are never wrathful if they can avoid it. Men should be gay, they hold, generous as the rich, giving away what they do not need. Anger they show only when they become aware, suddenly, that there are other wills in the world beside their own. Then they will be as ruthless as the seawind if anything dare to withstand them.

Clearly Erendis isn't meant to be entirely right, but perhaps she is not meant to be entirely wrong either--some of her criticism chimes with what Tolkien as narrator says elsewhere.

I never saw Boromir as a mere oaf, but it so happens that the first bit I read of LOTR (and this was before the movies came out) was Boromir's death and burial in a borrowed copy of the Two Towers. I then went and bought the whole book and started from the beginning, but my reading of his character was probably coloured by that coincidence.

The thing about Boromir's quasi-Rohirric attitudes, of course, is that he is not actually one of the Rohirrim and grew up as the son of the most Numenorean of fathers in all of Gondor. So although these traits look superficially Rohirric, something quite non-Rohirric may underlie them. Faramir has one explanation of how Boromir came by them (general backsliding of Gondor's culture under conditions of war), but there may be other factors also.

Edited at 2012-07-23 01:40 am (UTC)
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:38 pm (UTC)
Just a couple-a points...
1) Reticence does not necessarily equal a lack of understanding. I've thought of this with Tolkien chiefly concerning violence, but I think it extends itself to sexuality as well. So while Tolkien might have acknowledged the extent of violence--and sexuality in Arda (just look at his list of Quenya dirty words!), that doesn't mean he'd have been okay with making it incredibly explicit, especially in material he himself published.

2) Concerning gender roles, which I realize is only tangential to your topic: there's a difference between Tolkien's "should be" and "is" with gender roles. All I will point to is that his stablest and most positively-treated societies (i.e. the hobbit family dyarchies, the Numenorean monarchy, and Rohan's preferring someone of the house of Eorl to rule them even though she's a woman) are comfortable with having women in positions of power. It's pretty clear, too, with the whole Arvedui debacle, that Gondor's failure to acknowledge the legitimacy of inheritance through the female line resulted in the eventual failure of the line of Kings in general. I think you can trace a lot of the decline of Gondor's society through the lens of the gradual devaluation of women and even things that become perceived as womanly--e.g. Earnur.

I'll wax more eloquent, I'm sure, as you start to move to "how do you treat your conception of canon in your writing?" Haven't felt the need to weigh in otherwise because I'm just not that interested in Boromir as a character. As the prior discussion proved, there are enough people comfortably debating his meaning and legacy through the lens of fiction. I don't think I'd have anything new to add if I were to focus on him.
Jul. 22nd, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Just a couple-a points...
1) This is a very good point, and thanks for bringing it up. I wouldn't expect Tolkien's writing to verge into erotica (this is myth verging on "high romance," not Fifty Shades of Grey, thank God). I do think there's a difference between saying JRRT would have not wanted to have any explicit sex scenes, and saying that he thought all of his characters were either straight + married, or celibate.

The real question to consider - and this really falls under that other post on how we work with Tolkien's canon, I think, so we can follow up on it when I get to that point - is, what do you do with the fact that Tolkien might not have been comfortable mentioning explicit sex or homosexuality or whatever in his work? Does that mean that "authentic" fanfic shouldn't portray the characters that way, out of deference to Tolkien? Or does it mean that things homosexuality and prostitution and divorce and whatever else did occur in Middle-earth, and that while Tolkien chose not to depict it, the rest of us are free to?

2) I love your point about Arvedui! I'm definitely bringing that up. Thanks for that.
Jul. 20th, 2012 12:52 am (UTC)
We don't know what he did last night
And with Boromir in particular: what's your view? Was he the original forty-year-old virgin? Have a wife Tolkien never mentioned (why)? Or something else?

With Boromir, I guess I don't have a real opinion at this point - given the way the world presents, I have the impression Tolkien probably didn't intend for us to assume he's had sex outside of marriage. However, I find it's just not a question that interests me greatly. If ever I want to discourse on the possibilities of long-term male celibacy, I've got Aragorn. Boromir... just doesn't get me thinking about these questions. I have to have some other reason to consider whether he's actually had sex, and that's going to depend on what kind of story I'm telling.

If he's fixated on Faramir and terrified of being found out on multiple fronts, then he's going to have been pretty damned careful to not have sex. *cough*

If he's interested in men, then I think the question is simply at what point does he decide that either he can risk being discovered, that he's got sufficient power to control what happens if he's discovered, or simply gets overwhelmed and ends up sleeping with someone he probably shouldn't sleep with by the calculus of prudence? [Hello, Unabeauverse and Andrahar! Also Theodred.]

If he's able and willing with both sexes, okay, how does he split his time? Does he use one liaison to cover others? [The only story I can think of that I might tell where this might come up as a central plot point would be ... okay, actually, I can't come up with a story I would want to tell that would accommodate this arrangement. The Unabeauverse plotline comes closest, but most of that aspect of it, I didn't write myself.]

If's he's attracted to women, then how is he interested? What does the line "taking no wife and delighting chiefly in arms" mean? It could mean that he's not interested in marrying, but otherwise is willing to have the occasional fling - just not with someone he'd have to marry. That's how it reads to me, if I assume Boromir is attracted to women. Given how precarious Gondor's situation is, I assume he and Denethor would be having fights every morning over the fact that he wasn't yet courting a good Gondorian girl he could marry and produce heirs with. And again, I'm drawing a blank on what storyline I'd personally want to write that would feature this sort of relationship. Doesn't mean there aren't any, just that nothing's coming to me.

Generally speaking, there are only two scenarios in which the virginity or non-virginity of a male character is of interest to me as such dramatically:

1) In regard to questions surrounding how one maintains personality in a context of overwhelming force and violence that threaten to pervade every corner of life. That is the only context that makes Aragorn's strongly-suggested choice for celibacy dramatically interesting to me; the alternative - that he's saving himself for Arwen - may be consistent with Tolkien's context and sexual morality, and with conventions of high romance, but I never was a great romance fan.

2) Potentially, though I've never written this story, for metafic purposes -

BOROMIR, emerging into the dawn, to fanfic authors camped outside his tent: "Oh for Valar's sake! What? What do you want?"

AUTHOR: "Um... we're just trying to see if, you know, there's somebody..."

BOROMIR: "In my tent? In fact, I have squirrels in my tent right now. Last week, a fox went in and shat all over my socks! Week before, Faramir nearly bled out in my tent and stayed over with a healer. Two nights ago, I picked up Lilwen. And if Father's exchequer doesn't act soon on the request for more shields, I'm either going to sleep with him or with his wife, or I'm going to string him up - I'm still deciding which. Because in fact, I have an army to run - " *waves at Anduin's far bank* "- and the Enemy is on the other side. Either get to the logistics tent and start taking inventory with those pens, or go join the girls on the rim - I'm sure someone will pick you up."

AUTHORS in chorus: "Hey!"

BOROMIR: "It's a patriarchy at war, lasses, in case you'd not noticed. Even in fiction, it ain't pretty. So scram!"

Jul. 20th, 2012 01:36 am (UTC)
Re: We don't know what he did last night
ROTFL! *giggle*snort* Yep--I can certainly imagine THAT, LOL!
Jul. 20th, 2012 01:32 am (UTC)
As far as how JRRT would have viewed (to maintain your distinction) "sex" in his stories as opposed to "sexuality", I think we have his example to go by: to be colloquial, it's none of our business what goes on between the sheets-- get back to the story. Clearly sex happens in M-e, or it would be more under populated than it is. Also, he does hint at more; there are implications in some of the Silm, and I believe someone pointed out that at one point he made a list of "dirty words". But he just wasn't interested in that aspect of the character's lives. Whether there was homosexuality or prostitution or children born out of wedlock in his world, I don't think he considered, but if someone had asked him and he'd felt like answering, he probably would have said something like: of course, it's a fallen world. But among the "high races" it is extremely rare. That's just my guess, and I'm guessing more off the total body of his work than anything specific.

"Sexuality" I think is addressed in one way: while JRRT has few major female characters, the ones he does have are extremely strong-willed and able to wield power along with the men. I don't think he'd have gone beyond that, and I think he was a man of his time in a lot of ways, and would have been uncomfortable thinking about homosexuality in his world (though as I said above, I do not believe he'd have denied it's existence at all).

As for Boromir in particular, I don't know. I think of him as being more or less subsumed by the war and by his need to protect Gondor, and that he probably took no wife because he probably knew he'd not live long. This would likely have been a bone of contention between him and his father. Although perhaps not-- Denethor was 46 when he married Finduilas, and Boromir was only 40 when he was killed. At any rate, I don't have difficulty believing any of the likely scenarios about Boromir's sexuality: he was celibate due to the pressures of war and the knowledge that an out-of-wedlock child could damage the Stewardship politically; he was a discreet homosexual, practicing or not; he carefully had some careful commitment free sexual liaisons either with a female paramour or with prostitutes; or he was simply asexual-- some people are--I know a few personally--and just literally had no interest in sex. Of course, that's not much fun for those writing fanfic.

I think out of the fanons I know about Boromir, the most interesting ones are either the Boromir/Theodred pairing, which makes a kind of neat parallel in literary terms, or one that so far as I know only one person has written: that he actually had made an early marriage and was widowed early on, and pretty much decided not to do that again.

Jul. 20th, 2012 01:54 am (UTC)
I always feel that Tolkien applied the strict morality of his Catholic faith to his characters and saw them as either celibate or married.

I gave Boromir an illegitimate child in my personal universe and then felt guilty that Tolkien would probably not have approved.

I think Dreamflower makes some excellent points.
Jul. 20th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
Boromir was the first-born son of the Steward of Gondor, leader of its forces in a wartime situation, and unmarried. That would create a problem, even if he might have been more long-lived than the average Gondorian. I can't see Denethor not pushing him for an heir to help stabilize the white chair. But, Boromir was a wartime commander and I got the impression that he was not actually in Minas Tirith that frequently, more often being out in the field. So even though Denethor might have wished for an heir from his son, his son wasn't home often enough to wed and have a child.

Boromir, more than likely, gathered wartime comfort from other warriors, although the rank of his companion would need to be high. I can see him with generals of his army, I can also see him with similarly-ranked allies such as Theodred.

- Erulisse (one L)
Jul. 21st, 2012 12:02 am (UTC)
Speaking generally, for me I find it comes down to whether one adopts a "Doylist" or "Watsonian" perspective when writing or reading fanfic based on Tolkien's world. I make the choice to accept Tolkien's own conceit that he's not the inventor, but a translator and historian of a real place that long predated him. And he was a great one. ;) But like all historians and philologists and archaeologists and translators, he had has own biases and blind spots, and of course he focused more on things that fascinated him and less on things that he wasn't so interested in. He is the best historian of Middle-earth and Beleriand--but no one man, no matter how dedicated, can ever give a complete picture. There's still a lot in the gaps. I think of the lack of women's history and queer history and working-class history we get in conventional histories and epic literature of our own world, and it's easy to see how much there might be left unsaid in Middle-earth!

So as a fic writer and reader, Tolkien's own beliefs about sexuality and marriage and all that, while interesting and insight-providing, don't in any way define what I would choose to write or not to write--or what I believe might have "really" happened, for that matter! I'm pretending to be a historian too, and I might come to very different conclusions! The make-believe is meta in that way, and I might not agree with the good Professor about certain things. I may pretend I have found some new evidence or translated a new piece of writing that casts certain relationships in a very different light. Perhaps I'm approaching his long shadow in the spirit of a friendly academic rivalry. I find it more fun this way.
Jul. 22nd, 2012 06:06 am (UTC)
...Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. (Appendices)

This is one of my favorite quotes when I think of Tolkien, not as sole creator of Middle-earth, but as its unreliable narrator (or at least one of them.) The sense that even what he directly depicts the characters saying isn't always what they said. (Or ever, when you consider that he is reporting/"translating" conversations that would have been held in Westron, Sindarin, Orkish, etc.)

And because I can never seem to leave Orcs out of it, I will say that I have long had this idea that gay men in Tolkien's Middle-earth are analogous to Orkish women. They may be - doubtless are - there, but we need not speak of them, whether out of personal distaste or due to our perception of their general irrelevance. ("We" being Tolkien, in this instance.)

'There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known'. (http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Mrs._Munby_21_October_1963)

Edited at 2012-07-22 06:07 am (UTC)
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