We Tolkien-lovers have spent no small amount of energy defending him against the charge that his work is “childish”; “unrealistic”, and all the rest of it. In the main, our apology is accurate – properly understood, the Legendarium *is* deeply adult, deeply realistic and a very deep well of *wisdom*. Mostly. But there is one way in which I still feel it isn’t – one thing that for some time has been bugging me and interfering with my enjoyment of re-visiting Middle Earth. That is the question of sex.
Tolkien knew all about the male sexual drive, of course, as evidenced by his personal correspondence. Certainly as a soldier he would have been exposed to (or at least heard about) the full scope of male desire. He must have known that men under pressure, fierce men, sinewed and hard, experience desires.
And yet – what are we to make of the dominant male characters in his world?
There is a tendency for us, as believers, grasping the rich Christian symbolism in LotR, to likewise want to view the *characters* as proto-”Christians” – people to believe in, when our own leaders have so often failed us. If we view chastity as a Christian virtue – well, we naturally want to believe that our heroes are virtuous. But are they? Can we believe it?
I will omit the hobbits, elves and dwarves from this discussion – as “fantasy species” we cannot be quite sure what goes on in their heads. Let us consider just four characters, of the human race that we all know and love: Aragorn, Boromir, Eomer, and Faramir.
Boromir, my favourite character in LotR, is an ambitious, bold, self-confident man, brimming with male vitality and drive. By the time we meet him, he has fought many campaigns, been politically active for years, and by any account seems socially savvy. Is there any way to believe that this man remained chaste?
Similarly, Eomer. Eomer is another of my favourite characters (in the book at least – Karl Urban portrayed him decently, but not excellently. In the book, Eomer shows much more gravitas, judgement, intelligence, less hot-headedness – in short, much more *nobility* of character than Urban can muster. He is more “wild” and uncouth than Boromir, but perhaps even wiser, in the sense that men close to the land often are. His sense of duty at a time when the very existence of his people is at stake is thought-provoking and inspiring, worth reading through in light of our present crisis). But again – are we really to believe that this hard-riding, robust, life-and-death-facing horseman finds himself able to abstain from the pleasures of yellow-haired maids?
What of Aragorn and Faramir? Knowing what we do of their personal characters, it’s easier to believe they remained chaste. Aragorn is the Christ-figure who manages even to resist the temptation of the ring. And yet he is, what, 90 years old when he joins the Fellowship? Is he really virginal at that age? Faramir is the “good” son, who prays before eating and loves tradition and learning. But he too is a man.
Is it believable, then, that sex should have been omitted from the story? Or *is* it, in fact, believable, and am I reading 21st-century assumptions into the story?
I have to say that in my experience, as someone who *does* believe in chastity as a virtue, I must nevertheless acknowledge that most of the best men I’ve known – men who were *alive*, vigourous, and not afraid of their own shadows – had awful trouble maintaining any sort of chastity. Was this really different in other eras?
Or did Tolkien intentionally downplay the sexuality of his characters, in much the same way that he downplayed Christianity to make it less explicit?
Are our heroes merely human after all?