When I first saw Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring, I remember thinking how great it was he didn’t skimp on the displays of affection between friends as they were depicted in Tolkien’s books. Listening to the audio commentary tracks when the DVDs came out, I heard Ian McKellen describe how he’d advised Sean Astin to hold Elijah Wood’s hand in the scene where Frodo first awakens in Rivendell, because, McKellen said, the fans of the books would be looking for it.
At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Sam came in. He ran to Frodo and took his left hand, awkwardly and shyly. He stroked it gently and then he blushed and turned hastily away.
‘Hullo, Sam!’ said Frodo.
‘It’s warm!’ said Sam. ‘Meaning your hand, Mr. Frodo. It has felt so cold through the long nights. But glory and trumpets!” he cried, turning round again with shining eyes and dancing on the floor. ‘It’s fine to see you up and yourself again, sir! Gandalf asked me to come and see if you were ready to come down, and I thought he was joking.’
In fact, the scene in its original form seems even less amenable to homophobic viewers. For years after the films came out, interpretations of the ardent but platonic relationships have provoked infamous consternation. Early on, especially, there were plenty of jokes based on the idea that Frodo and Sam were lovers, and on the other side I heard people scoff at those who would view the friendship through a homophobic lens or who championed the idea of a Frodo/Sam love affair in a positive sense. Surprisingly, I very rarely saw anyone talk about the fact that these displays of affection weren’t widely seen as strange or implicit of homosexual feelings when the books were first published. Now that the movie’s eighteen years old and a lot of the people who were children when it was released are a few years into adulthood I wonder if the films have had any lasting effect in this regard as to how young people form friendships.
This comes to mind because I’ve been listening to some YouTube essayists lately on the topic of masculinity, mainly Jordan Peterson (who I discovered about two weeks ago) and his critic and possible admirer ContraPoints. Yesterday, ContraPoints released a video on masculinity that seemed to draw a lot on Jordan Peterson but with some somewhat murky sarcasm. I find ContraPoints videos interesting particularly because she tends to challenge her own presumptions though, like many commentators on the left, her arguments are too often carried on the wings of sarcasm rather than sound argument, thereby leaving several gaps of logic in the arguments. But part of the premise of her video is that, as the social revolutions motivating the left are breaking down traditional masculinity as being outdated and dangerous, they’re not leaving men with any alternative model to aspire to.
It’s ironic that she criticises people to the left of her for this sloppiness without herself taking time to define what traditional masculinity is, which is a problem because she seems confident that it does need to be discarded. But I wonder, if even heteronormative masculinity accepted Sam stroking Frodo’s hand in the 1940s but it was too much for even not especially homophobic men in 2001, what is this thing we’re talking about? What’s really traditional?
For the past five or six years, I’ve been reading a lot of 17th and 18th century literature. I’d heard at college that the 18th century is widely neglected in academia—there were no classes on 18th century literature when I went to university from 2015 to 2017. YouTube essayists and articles I read in both left or right publications tend mainly to discuss the 18th century in terms of it being the time of the Enlightenment. The left seem particularly intent on arguing how purely rational philosophies from the period allowed for the perpetration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and other social injustices. But reading authors of the era that seem to be largely neglected by critics and universities I’ve been seeing a very different picture. My favourite 18th century novel so far is the 1748 picaresque Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett. In fact, I consider it one of the most underrated novels of all time. I won’t go into all the reasons now but for the purpose of this entry I’d like to share one of many pertinent passages:
. . . I threw myself upon the bed in an agony of despair, resolved to perish rather than apply to my companion, or any other body, for relief; but Strap, who knew my temper, and whose heart bled within him for my distress, after some pause came to the bedside, and, putting a leathern purse into my hand, burst into tears, crying, “I know what you think, but I scorn your thought. There’s all I have in the world, take it, and I’ll perhaps get more for you before that be done. If not, I’ll beg for you, steal for you, go through the wide world with you, and stay with you; for though I be a poor cobbler’s son, I am no scout.” I was so much touched with the generous passion of this poor creature, that I could not refrain from weeping also, and we mingled our tears together for some time. Upon examining the purse, I found in it two half-guineas and half-a-crown, which I would have returned to him, saying, he knew better than I how to manage it, but he, absolutely refused my proposal and told me it was more reasonable and decent that he should depend upon me, who was a gentleman, than that I should be controlled by him.
This isn’t Frodo and Sam—this is a moment shared between Roderick, who considers himself a gentleman, and Strap, his servant. I’d heard the relationship between the Hobbits had been based on a certain type of master/servant relationship portrayed in classic fiction but I didn’t really see it until I started reading 18th century literature. Arguably, this type begins in the 17th century with Don Quixote or even in stage drama though servants in Shakespeare tend to be more clever and cunning than those in 18th century fiction, probably because Shakespeare knew many people of that class were among his audience. Servant characters tended to be portrayed as more simple-hearted in 18th century novels but also virtuous and noble—above all, there’s a genuine and often profuse affection between servant and master, whether it’s Friday and Robinson in Robinson Crusoe or Partridge and Tom in Tom Jones.
One way you could look at it is to say that depictions of relationships like this reinforced an oppressive social order. On the other hand, you could also say it was a context for men to express affection for each other and it was a system through which society functioned.
A few days ago, I read an article on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that remarked on how Cliff’s devotion to Rick didn’t seem realistic. But I’m compelled to ask, is it really so strange?
Personally, I’ve always felt some ambivalence to traditional conceptions of gender. I have found it kind of annoying when anyone has ascribed some aspect of my behaviour, positive or negative, as being typical of my gender. I do believe there are a few differences between how people of different genders often, but not always, behave but that most of the presumptions about the groups, like any presumptions that encompass whole groups of people, tend to be subjective.
Twitter Sonnet #1270
Recordings start behind converted screens.
Battalions mass beyond the foil gate.
Approaching boots ascend a hill of beans.
With foggy breath the watchers sit and wait.
A froggy shape in vapour formed above.
From ponds arose the drops to make the cloud.
Some pairs of hazy figures fell in love.
A sep’rate ghost emerged amidst the crowd.
Astride a bug, the future’s knight embarked.
Along the roads a troop of cans observed.
With laser pens lieutenants craft remark.
A borrowed car a newer crown will serve.
Concealed beneath the captain’s coat’s a watch.
Continued time commends a second scotch.