The Tolkien in Bilbo Baggins

David LaFontaine. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 23, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2016.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic work of fantasy literature The Hobbit has been enjoyed by millions of readers as a definitive story of escape. The book is equally cherished for the introduction of hobbits, an endearing variation on humanity. But the novel is much more psychologically profound and redolent with sexual symbolism than has been acknowledged by reviewers and Tolkien’s biographers. The distinctly homoerotic yearnings of Bilbo Baggins and the psychosexual pathology of Gollum were not discussed by reviewers in 1937 when the book was first published and hailed as a children’s classic on both sides of the Atlantic. But in the 21st century, Tolkien’s monumental fan base has elevated his works to legendary status, with every character and plot strand dissected with the utmost seriousness. Homosexuality, however, remains the final frontier in the journey toward full appreciation of Tolkien’s vividly original characters.

The origin of The Hobbit was bedtime stories invented by Tolkien for the entertainment of his four children in the late 1920s. Tolkien began writing the manuscript version of The Hobbit in his spare time as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in around 1930. The story of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who joins thirteen dwarves on their quest to reclaim a hoard of treasure from the dragon Smaug, gradually assumed a grander and more complex form as his writing progressed and the story gripped his imagination. The final version, while retaining some of the children’s story elements, is rich with erotic imagery and existential darkness. Bilbo Baggins and the creature Gollum are autobiographical, representing opposite corners of the author’s psyche.

In crafting The Hobbit, the genre Tolkien was aiming for was not so much children’s literature as what he termed “fairy-stories.” Beginning when he was an undergraduate and an aspiring poet at Oxford, Tolkien developed an attachment to the term “fairy,” or “faerie,” which he defined roughly as literature about magical happenings. He came up with the title The Trumpets of Faerie for a volume of his poems completed by 1915. Although warned against using the word by his former teacher R. W. Reynolds, the young writer continued to do so.

The use of the term fairy to denote male homosexuals dates back to the 1890s. By the 1920s, the word was fairly common, often employed in a derogatory sense, as shown in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) when Charles and Sebastian are taunted. With the passage of time, Tolkien became increasingly enamored of the term. In 1939, two years after The Hobbit was published, he gave a lecture titled “On Fairy-Stories” at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Given that he was a brilliant philologist attuned to the historical and cultural richness of names, places, and individual words, one can only conclude that Tolkien derived considerable satisfaction from the dual meaning of fairy-stories.

Bilbo: A Portrait of a Homosexual Man as a Hobbit

One of the 20th century’s most beloved fictional characters, Bilbo Baggins represents a radical departure from the classic warrior hero, beginning with his short stature and dislike of fighting. Tolkien emphasizes his status as a confirmed bachelor: never is Bilbo linked romantically with a female hobbit. The bright, vivid colors of his clothing and his long, curly hair fly in the face of sartorial traditions for English men of Tolkien’s era. His home, Bag End, is a luxurious, lovely environment, illustrating the hobbit’s artistic sensibility.

This portrait of Bilbo reflects the way many homosexual men of a certain education and economic status lived their lives in Tolkien’s era. These men were rarely identified openly as homosexual but were thought of as confirmed bachelors. Cerebral settings like Oxford and Cambridge with their nearly all-male populations provided such men with cloistered nooks, and bonding with male colleagues may have sublimated their repressed sexual urges. Lesbians in this era were generally isolated, like Bilbo, and viewed disparagingly as lonely spinsters, but some women formed female partnerships and became active in women’s suffrage. Their sexuality was the subject for private speculation.

Although married with four children when he wrote The Hobbit, Tolkien’s attitude toward Bilbo’s unconventional lifestyle is one of admiration almost to the point of envy. One of the hobbit’s most distinctive traits is that he has a feminine side, inherited from his mother Belladonna Took, which represents something wonderful in him: “Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out.”

As with the term “fairy,” Tolkien’s choice of the word “queer” holds fascinating possibilities. One clue can be found in novelist Mary Renault’s use of the word “queer” in her pioneering gay love story, The Charioteer (1953). Set in England in 1940 after the evacuation at Dunkirk, The Charioteer features numerous gay men, many of whom refer to themselves as “queer,” sometimes with slight self-deprecation but more often as a neutral term for their sexual identity. Renault’s use of the term points to its popularity in underground circles in England in Tolkien’s era.

Tolkien injects sexual passion into The Hobbit when Bilbo meets the dwarves, led by the gruff, charismatic Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin instructs the dwarves to bring out their musical instruments and play for Bilbo, who is in turmoil as to whether he should join them on their quest to reclaim the treasure. “It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons.” The music is enchanting to Bilbo, who swoons in romantic ecstasy as he imagines awakening out of his life of repression and loneliness and being part of a masculine fellowship.

In many of his books about the history of Middle-earth, Tolkien employs music, especially the singing of songs, to express romantic love between men. Sam Gamgee sings as he searches for his beloved Frodo and climbs the Tower of Cirith Ungol in The Return of the King. His song is answered by Frodo, and when they are reunited, Sam cradles Frodo’s naked body in his arms in a tender, blissful moment.

The song that the dwarves sing in The Hobbit holds a similar promise of a sexual fulfillment that Bilbo has never known before:

The pines were roaring on the height,

The winds were moaning in the night.

The fire was red, it flaming spread;

The trees like torches blazed with light.

Stirred by the dwarves’ passionate singing, Bilbo has one of several epiphanies and begins to realize that he is an intensely sexual being who yearns for intimacy. Song lyrics that describe male sexual arousal and flushed bodily sensations may have escaped the notice of reviewers in 1937 who saw The Hobbit as juvenile entertainment, but the book’s sexual atmosphere is surely a major reason why it has remained so popular among adult readers.

That Bilbo is beginning to fall in love with the dwarves’ leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is dramatized in the nighttime scene when Bilbo, lying in bed awake, is haunted by the sound of Thorin humming in the next bedroom. Tolkien recasts the classic romantic scenario of a man and woman in love, sleeping in separate bedrooms, divided only by a wall. Bilbo’s sexual awakening has begun, but he’s bewildered and conflicted. He must make a long, perilous journey, an internal as well as an external one, before he can fully realize his love for Thorin, which happens in the poignant moments before Thorin’s death.

Gollum: In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes

As resonant as his portrait of the lonely, searching Bilbo Baggins is Tolkien’s depiction of the creature Gollum. Introduced in the chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” Gollum is the paragon of a social outcast, mired in despair like the speaker in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, all alone beweep my outcast state…” Tolkien offers a much darker and more disturbing view of the consequences of the existential isolation of homosexuals than anything in the Sonnets. While Shakespeare’s mood is brightened by the love of another man, Gollum has lost the capacity to love, having been consumed by his obsession with the golden ring.

Gollum’s character goes beyond any ordinary social outcast. With his lisping speech, slinking movements, bulbous eyes, and his penchant for weird humor, Gollum is a literary landmark, a portrait of a lonely, self-hating queen who has become so predatory that at one point he contemplates eating Bilbo: “‘Bless us and splash us, my precioussss! I guess it’s a choice feast; at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum!’ And when he said gollum he made a horrible swallowing noise in his throat. That is how he got his name, though he always called himself ‘my precious.'” Gollum’s speeches come screaming out from the pages of what is clearly no longer an innocuous children’s tale.

In numerous Hollywood films of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, gay men were commonly caricatured as flaming, bitchy queens. Often these fey characters were played for comedy, serving as sidekicks to the leading men. More sinister were the films that portrayed homosexuals as malevolent, deranged villains, such as the type played by actors like Peter Lorre. What elevates Gollum above such stereotypes is Tolkien’s brilliant explanation of how Gollum’s pathology is rooted in social and emotional deprivation. Equally illuminating is the symbiotic relationship between Bilbo and Gollum. When Bilbo studies and debates Gollum, who’s about his own size, he’s confronting his alter ego. Seeing Gollum is like looking into a funhouse mirror in which Bilbo and his way of life are distorted into an expressionistic, Jungian nightmare, where Gollum enacts the shadow aspect of Bilbo’s personality.

The epiphany experienced by Bilbo through his encounter with Gollum is the defining moment in The Hobbit. After winning the game of riddles, Bilbo is in a position of power and has the option of killing Gollum. Instead, in a flash of empathy and compassion, Bilbo places himself in Gollum’s position: “A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled.” This description of Gollum as living a life deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and love speaks to the collective suffering of all the sexual outcasts in Tolkien’s era.

Love that Goes Beyond a Masculine Fellowship

A gay-themed reading of The Hobbit is bolstered by the emotions expressed in the moving scene that reunites Thorin and Bilbo just before Thorin’s death. Grievously wounded in the Battle of Five Armies, Thorin summons Bilbo to ask his forgiveness for having tried to kill him.

Inspired by the tradition of battlefield farewells between warriors in epics such as Beowulf and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Tolkien pushes his characters past the boundaries of masculine fellowship and into the realm of romantic love. After Thorin dies, the passionate feelings within Bilbo pour forth unrestrained: “Then Bilbo turned away, and he went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and, whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse.” The tragic intensity of a lover’s grief is made even more painful by the knowledge that the love was never fully acknowledged until it was too late.

Heroic literature tends to walk a fine line between the homoeroticism of men at war and the anticipation of heterosexual romance that awaits the heroes when they return home. In The Hobbit, Tolkien dispenses with the latter and focuses exclusively upon the all-male quest. The conventional theme of male warriors removing their defensive masks when one of them is wounded is dramatized with even greater intensity in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. As Boromir lies dying, having being ambushed by orcs, he is caressed and kissed tenderly on the brow by Aragorn. As in The Hobbit, Aragorn’s uncontrollable weeping after Boromir’s death betrays his realization of the love he has not dared to disclose. “He knelt for a while, beset with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand.”

Tolkien was haunted by his memories of World War I, when Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894-1916) was wounded by bursting shells during the Battle of the Somme and subsequently died on December 3, 1916. Smith and Tolkien had become soulmates as undergraduates at Oxford when both young men delighted in sharing their poems with one another. Tolkien loved Smith as he had never loved another man before. They may have been lovers at Oxford, but this is one of many secrets in the author’s personal history. Smith’s death ended their intimacy, but the memory fired Tolkien’s creative vision, and his stories of Middle-earth show how the love between soldiers can counter the evils of war.

Returning home at the end of The Hobbit, Bilbo recapitulates Tolkien’s return to England after his war experience and the loss of Smith. Bilbo, like Tolkien, has undergone such a profound emotional transformation that even his neighbors sense the difference in him. “He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighborhood to be ‘queer’-except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders.” Viewed as queer by those around him, Bilbo, like the author, finds a measure of peace in composing his memoirs. But the sense of loss remains: the love that goes beyond male fellowship can neither be forgotten nor recreated.

The essential sadness of Bilbo in the many years after his one great adventure continues into the next book in the cycle, The Fellowship of the Ring. The author’s own inner darkness also did not diminish, despite his growing fame following the success of The Hobbit. According to Colin Duriez in J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, a few months after the publication of The Hobbit, the author went into crisis that verged on a nervous breakdown.

The diaries kept by Tolkien at many points in his life have never been published and are carefully kept from public scrutiny by his family. Reading the diaries would undoubtedly provide a fuller picture of the author’s sexuality and his love for the two men who were most important to him: Geoffrey Bache Smith, the doomed Oxford poet, and C.S. Lewis, with whom he shared the completed draft of The Hobbit years before daring to send it to a publisher.

Peter Jackson’s Films of the Hobbit

If anyone still wondered whether The Hobbit were really a children’s story, New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, released in three spectacular installments (2012, 2013, and 2014) banished such thoughts forever. With sexy, stylish actors cast as his leading men, a brooding, modernist musical score, and computer-generated imagery creating battles of a sometimes frightening nature, the films evoke both the wish fulfillment of dreams and the anxiety of nightmares. The performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo is worthy of special mention. Freeman is perfectly attuned to Bilbo’s gay identity from the start. Without ever resorting to stereotypical mannerisms, he conveys the hobbit’s secret through soulful facial expressions that show the depths of his aloneness and his growing attraction to the dynamic Thorin, played with swashbuckling intensity by the darkly handsome, long-haired Richard Armitage. Freeman’s Bilbo is more overtly comic than the original character, but he’s never self-mocking or trivial. The artistic side to his nature is conveyed through his love of beautiful things in his home. In touch with his feminine side, decidedly uninterested in war or violence, Bilbo is the prototype of a sensitive gay man.

Tolkien once wrote: “I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats.” It is intriguing to ponder what the author would have made of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. One senses that the man who was traumatized by the Battle of the Somme and deplored technological advances in weaponry would have been dismayed by Jackson’s penchant for gargantuan special effects and lengthy battle sequences. But Tolkien would have been delighted by the colorfully designed dressing gown worn by Freeman in the opening scenes of the first film. Vibrantly multicolored, made of silk brocade, velvet, and damask, the costume perfectly symbolizes Bilbo’s sexual nonconformity.

A major departure from Tolkien is Jackson’s addition of a heterosexual romance, which was prompted in part by criticism of Tolkien’s lack of female characters. The fabricated romance between the dwarf Kili and the elf Tauriel tampers with the ethos of Tolkien’s all-male fellowship. To his credit, though, Jackson did not alter the sexuality of Thorin Oakenshield, whose potent sex appeal is seen through Bilbo’s eyes. The character of Thorin drives the trilogy forward; Armitage’s Thorin is smoldering with anger and radiates a fierce sexual energy, a perfect counterpoint to Freeman’s portrait of Bilbo as a sensitive gay man. Indeed, Thorin is the homoerotic fantasy of a muscular, swarthy hero who sweeps the gentle Bilbo off his feet and literally out the door of his cozy home.

The most memorable scene in the film trilogy is the dramatic first meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, which retains virtually all of Tolkien’s original dialogue, including the riddles. Gollum comes to life through a brilliant fusion of computer-generated imagery and the acting of Andy Serkis. The nightmarish, Freudian qualities of the encounter are emphasized by the pools of water, as if Bilbo is surrounded by dark mirrors that reveal his unconscious thoughts. Howard Shore’s stirring music achieves operatic intensity in this scene, leading up to Bilbo’s epiphany. The climax occurs when Bilbo looks at Gollum and realizes that he’s looking into himself, and he decides to spare Gollum’s life.

Peter Jackson has made a strong contribution to opening the eyes of the public to the subject of homosexuality in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His Oscar-winning films The Fellowship of The Ring (2001) and The Return of The King (2003) feature romantic gazes and tender moments shared between Elijah Wood as Frodo and Sean Astin as Sam. In The Hobbit, Jackson appeals to a 21st-century understanding of gay identity in Martin Freeman’s charismatic portrayal of Bilbo. The controversy generated by the gay themes in Jackson’s film adaptations and the varying opinions expressed by films critics have obscured a fundamental point: Jackson’s films bring forth the sexual subtext that is already strongly featured in the books.

The Hobbit on film may spark deeper analysis of the sexuality in the original book in the years to come, and the character of Bilbo Baggins, so long a favorite with readers, may be headed for new life as a gay icon. Tolkien’s life story, too, may be revisited by scholars astute enough to understand the author’s psychological connection to Bilbo and Frodo, who are in love with other males. Tolkien’s sympathetic depiction of the unconventional lives and loves of hobbits takes his readers on journeys that go ever onward, to places yet to be discovered.