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The many types of love in The Lord of the Rings – and the one you may have overlooked

Our favourite books have a way of growing up with us. So it is for me with, among others, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Each time I re-read them, I find something I hadn’t noticed before – something that shines a light on a so-far-shadowed part of me. In 2020, I could barely read the last chapters with Frodo and Sam in Mordor, such was my anxiety. But I also cried for the first time, reading this book for the fourth or fifth time, in a chapter I hadn’t really thought much of so far – “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”.

“Gollum disappeared. He was away some time, and Frodo after a few mouthfuls of lembas settled deep into the brown fern and went to sleep. Sam looked at him. The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master's face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo's face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He's like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, London, HarperCollins, 1992, p. 678.

The love between the two Hobbits, or at least Sam’s love for Frodo, has been much talked about. It had been read as a soldier’s devotion to his superior, as the deep friendship between two souls faced with the hardest tasks, as gay love, and of course all of these reading are valid. J. R. R. Tolkien’s characters embody many types of love, whether love for people or love for ideas.

It has often been commented that The Lord of the Rings lacked intimate scenes despite the fact that different couples are pictured in the story. But what struck me the last time I revisited these books, as I was going through a quiet identity crisis, is how comforting the lack of sex was for me. I didn’t have to read it as something the author had glossed over, as I’d done before. On the contrary, I could simply read those relationships as complete, fulfilling interactions between characters – exactly as they were described on the page. In the same way that J. R. R. Tolkien leaves no detail aside when describing a landscape, I could take all the words from the quote above as exactly what they meant – that Sam loved Frodo as much as Aragorn loved Arwen, that he took his hand and trembled next to him, without denying the love but without reading sexual attraction there either.

It wasn’t until months later that I came out to myself, and to close ones, as asexual – an identity I hadn’t so much as heard about until I was 26 and I researched the LGBTQIA+ acronym. Suddenly, so many things made sense. It was the last piece of the puzzle clicking into place and revealing the whole pattern – one of the many reasons I’d loved The Lord of the Rings and J. R. R. & Christopher Tolkien’s other books throughout the years was because I felt safe. I knew I wouldn’t have to read intimate scenes and feel frustrated because I desperately wanted the relationships between characters to be about something else. I could read the story without looking for clues that yes, Aragorn and Arwen are sleeping together, or yes, Sam and Frodo are keeping each other warm on the way to Mordor in ways that aren’t described in the text. Once again, those interpretation are perfectly valid, and to some extent I agree with them. But The Lord of the Rings is subtle enough that it welcomes a host of different reading experiences, including that of asexual readers like myself.

I could follow this with an analysis of my profound love for Fitz and the Fool in Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but it is essentially the same, with the difference that the author is more explicit. It still took me years and several re-reads to understand why I loved my favourite passages so much – they are, in short, about drawing the line between romantic and sexual love, and about breaking away from labels, especially ones supporting the gender binary. But this is already far beyond the scope of this post, and so I will stop here for now. In all my years of loving the works of J. R. R. and Christopher Tolkien, 2022 is, for me, the right one to celebrate love and friendship, in all their forms.

Post-scriptum: after I shared a preview of this piece on my Tipeee account, an anonymous subscriber wrote to me to share an article that echoed some of my thoughts on the subject. If you still doubted you could be misty-eyed while reading an academic paper, please have a look at Nicole Guedeney’s “The Lord of the Rings, or how to survive fear and despair” on the Tolkien Estate website.

In front of a shelf lined with books by J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien, a white card shows a poem handwritten in the style of the hobbit's calligraphy. It says, "Arise, arise readers of Tolkien! / Bookish thoughts awake: stories and poems! / Pages shall be turned, spines cracked, / An ink day, a line day, ere the eyes tire! / Read on, read on! Read on for Tolkien!". The signature indicates "Marie B.".
The poem I composed from Théoden's speech, and calligraphied for Tolkien Reading Day 2020.

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