Friday, September 1, 2023

queer theory and Tolkien

Last night began the online Oxonmoot conference from the Tolkien Society, which since it's there and I'm here meant much of the most interesting material was on in the middle of the night. Fortunately I'm often up in the middle of the night. There's been a lot of work recently applying "queer theory" - the deconstruction of standard gender and sexual identities - to Tolkien, and in the middle of last night I found two outstandingly excellent papers exemplifying the genre.

One was by Mercury Natis on Bilbo and Frodo as leaders of a "chosen family." LGBT people are often ostracized by their biological families and build up social support networks that become their families of choice. Bilbo is unmarried and without close relatives, he's estranged from his closest, his cousins the Sackville-Bagginses, he's considered odd and crazed by many of the neighbors (the word "queer" is actually used in this context), so he makes his friends among his younger cousins when they begin to grow up, even adopting one of them, Frodo, as his heir. Frodo was another isolate, an orphan, a Baggins in Buckland, a Brandybuck in Hobbiton. He needed the family Bilbo could provide, and in turn follows Bilbo's pattern, making his friends, like Merry and Pippin, among his younger cousins. When Merry says they'll follow Frodo on his quest because they are his friends, he's understating the case: they're taking on a really awesome responsibility because they're his family.
Did Tolkien intend this reading? Maybe to an extent: he too was an orphan and needed in part to build up his own family, so he understood. But whether he intended it or not, this is a reason so many queer readers love his book and identify with the hobbits so closely.

The other was Sara Brown on Eowyn and Dernhelm. Brown's main point, her queer-theory reading, was that Dernhelm was not a disguise, a false front that Eowyn puts on in order to fight, but is the masculine part of her. Brown described the repressed background that put Eowyn in this situation - Gandalf's lecture to the clueless Eomer in the Houses of Healing is a major source text here - and Tolkien reinforces this by always using the masculine pronoun to describe Dernhelm, and at the moment of revelation penning the definitive sentence, "Eowyn it was, and Dernhelm also." They're both real people within the story, and yet both the same person.
Brown goes as far back as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to draw a distinction between physical bodies and sexual identity. You're born with a female body but you have to become a woman. And she had several more theoreticians making the same point. And I was thinking, "Here's the exact argument that's being made by supporters of trans rights, decades before the current discourse arose, the argument that the 'X and Y are the whole story, the end' crowd refuse to accept." I've not seen these earlier writers cited in defense of trans rights, though I suppose they must have been. Anyway I'd like to see it more often.

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