Sex and Tolkien

Yes, I went to my local instantiation of the all-three-LOTR-movies
marathon on Tuesday, and enjoyed it immensely. The movies were a
delight; Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King fully lived up
to the promise of The Fellowship of the Ring and The
Two Towers
. Despite minor flaws and some questionable omissions,
Tolkien fans have reason to be vastly grateful both for Jackson’s vision
and the fact that Hollywood actually allowed him to make these movies
as good as they are.

The marathon was also quite a geekfest. The theater was
wall-to-wall with SF and fantasy fans, SCAdians, computer hackers,
and the like. A very intelligent, cerebral, imaginative crowd. My
kind of people, talking and meeting and mixing with each other
a great deal more than your typical movie crowd does. The fact
that many people showed up hours early to get good seats, and the
two half-hour intermissions, helped a lot.

In a refutation of stereotypes, many of those attending were
female. And attractive. And often dressed to display it in Arwen or
Eowyn outfits. Had I been actually trying, I believe I would have
taken home at least three phone numbers, which is a significant datum
even given that I’m a lot more self-confident about the flirting thing
than most geek guys.

Part of me was in anthropologist mode, contemplating the mating
behaviors on display, even as I was chatting with the pretty redheaded
theater student from State College, the massage therapist in the seat
next to me, the blonde in the concession-stand line, and the buxom
big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt who told me all about re-reading
the Rings every year since she was eleven, and I’ll be damned
if she didn’t mean that as at least a bit of a come-on. I wondered
what Tolkien, Edwardian prude that he was, would have said of the
human tendency to turn the appreciation of his works into a sort of
pickup scene for the high-IQ crowd. That led me to consider ribald
parodies like the hilarious Very Secret Diaries,
which at least two of the women I chatted with obviously knew quite
well and I’d bet money the other two did too.

I was also thinking, during the movies, about Liv Tyler. Long-time
readers will be aware that I have warm and lusty feelings about our
Liv. OK, so I will cheerfully concede that Miranda Otto is a dish and
well into wouldn’t-kick-her-out-of-bed territory, but her Eowyn
doesn’t nail the releaser circuitry in my hindbrain quite the way
Tyler’s Arwen does. During the first movie I found watching Arwen’s
lips as she spoke Elvish quite an erotic experience. (And it’s not
just me. My sister Lisa reported, after I mentioned this, having been
startled to discover the same reaction in herself. This is amusing
because I have never had any reason to doubt her report that she’s
normally as straight as a laser-beam.) Arwen isn’t any less sexy
in the third movie.

So I was well-primed to read the essay Warm Beds Are
Good
this morning. This is an extended and thorough consideration
of sex and sexuality in Tolkien’s works. Towards the end, the author
makes the telling point that eroticizing various elements in Tolkien’s
mythos is one of the ways in which modern readers adapt it to their
own fantasy needs. This makes sense; giving a luscious version of
Arwen screen time and playing up her thing with Aragorn is not just a
crude sell-it-with-sex maneuver, it’s a way to make the mythos
fundamentally more intelligible to a viewer in 2003 than the rather
dessicated and repressed account of The romance of Aragorn and
Arwen
in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings would
have been.

Warm Beds Are Good fails to grapple with the most
interesting question of all, however, which is how Arwen and Aragorn
could possibly have developed the hots for each other in the first
place. It turns out to be rather hard to come up with any theory of
Elvish reproductive biology under which Arwen’s behavior makes
any sense at all.

Aragorn’s end isn’t that much of a mystery. He’s an alpha male of
a warrior culture, chock full o’ testosterone and other dominance
hormones guaranteed to make him into a serious horn-dog. She’s a
beautiful princess, broadcasting human-compatible health-and-fertility
signals in all directions. If she doesn’t actively smell bad, tab A
fits slot B just fine from the point of view of his
mating instincts.

No, the fundamental problem is Arwen’s lifespan. She is supposedly
something like two thousand, seven hundred years old when she meets
Aragorn. That’s an awful lot of Saturday nights at the Last Homely
Disco West of the Mountains; if she has a sex drive anything like a
normal human female’s, she ought to have more mileage on her than a
Liberian tramp steamer. On the other hand, if her sexual wiring is
fundamentally different from a human female’s, what’n’thehell
is she doing with Aragorn? He shouldn’t look or smell or behave right
to trigger her releasers, any more than a talking chimpanzee would to
most human women.

“B-b-but…” I hear you splutter “This is
fantasy!”, to which I say foo! Tolkien was very
careful about logical consistency in areas where he was equipped by
temperament and training to appreciate it; he invented a cosmology,
thousand of years of history, multiple languages; he drew maps. He
lectured on the importance of a having convincing and consistent
secondary world in fantasy. Furthermore, Tolkien never completely
repudiated the intention that his fiction was a mythic description of
the lost past of our Earth, and that therefore matter, energy
and life should be consistent with the forms in which we know
them.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to analyze Middle-Earth as
though it were a science-fictional creation, to assume Elves and Men
both got DNA, and to ask if the freakin’ biology makes any sense at
all under this assumption.

And one of the facts we have to deal with is that humans and elves
are not just interfertile, they produce fertile offspring. That means
they have to be genetically very, very similar. If there
are dramatic differences between elf and human reproductive behavior,
the instinctive basis for them must be coded in a relatively small
set of genes that somehow don’t interfere with that interfertility.
In fact, technically, Elves and Men have to be subspecies of the
same stock.

When this came up on my favorite mailing list just after the first
movie came out, my hypothesis was that elves (a) have only rare
periods of vulnerability to sexual impulses, and (b) imprint on each
other for life when they mate, like swans. This pattern is actually
within the envelope of human variation, though uncommon — which
makes it a plausible candidate for being dominant in another hominid
subspecies.

This ‘swan theory’ would be consistent with Appendix A,
which (a) has Arwen meeting Aragorn when he was garbed like an elven
prince and (as near as we can tell through Tolkien’s rather clotted
chansons-de-geste style) falling for him hard right then and there,
and (b) has Arwen’s family apparently operating under the assumption
that once that had happened, the damage was done and she wouldn’t be
mating with anyone else, noway, nohow.

One of the techies on the list shot the swan theory down by finding a
canonical instance of an Elf remarrying (Finwe, father of Feanor;
first wife Miriel, second Indis). In subsequent discussion, we
concluded that it wasn’t possible to frame a consistent theory that
fit Tolkien’s facts. The sticking-point turned out to be the
half-elven; Tolkien tells us that they get to choose whether
they will have the nature of Men or Elves, and it is implied that they
do so at puberty.

Since that’s true, the difference between Men and Elves can’t
properly be genetic at all. It must be in the cloudy realm of spirit,
magic, and divine interventions. This is not an area in which Tolkien
(a devout Catholic) gives us any rules or regularities at all. Elvish
sexual behavior could be arbitrarily variant from human without any
reasons other than that Eru keeps exerting his will to make it so,
and He very well might be intervening to keep elf-maidens’ hormones
from getting them jiggy Until It’s Time.

Helluva way to run a universe, say I. Inelegant. A really
craftsmanlike god would build his cosmos so it wouldn’t require
constant divine intervention to function. It’s a serious weakness in
Tolkien’s ficton, one that runs far deeper than anachronisms like
domestic cats (which didn’t reach northern Europe until late Roman
times) and tea (to Europe in 1610) in the Shire.

Meanwhile, back in this universe, I’m kind of wishing I’d asked the
buxom big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt for her phone number. Too
many alpha-male horn-dog hormones, that’s me. Tolkien wouldn’t have
understood a sexual culture in which that was even conceivable
behavior for a happily married man. much less one in which the wench
and wife would have then been more likely to become friends than not;
his only category for it would have been debauchery. But I think his
fantasy continues to work partly because it’s so repressed.

Sexual love (and all the mutability of human custom that goes with
it) is essentially a side issue in Tolkien’s work, primarily a symbol
of reward for valor (Faramir and Eowyn; Sam and Rosie; Aragorn and
Arwen, for that matter). His Edwardian restraint produces a nearly
blank ground on which Peter Jackson can project Liv Tyler and readers
can project all their own sexual dramas and hopes, from the romance of
Aragorn and Arwen to the rather weird ones like Gimli/Legolas slash
fiction. Certainly that’s what the women in Arwen and Eowyn costumes
were doing.

And for a good laugh, there’s always the Very Secret
Diaries
. Rather than launch into a postmodernist-sounding rant
about irony and appropriation, I’ll just finish by observing that all
of these things modulate each other; that not only do we project our
sex onto Tolkien’s sex, we read Tolkien’s sex differently after
the Very Secret Diaries, or after seeing Liv Tyler
speak Elvish, than we did before. That much, Tolkien would
have had no trouble understanding.

36 thoughts on “Sex and Tolkien

  1. What about Vulcans, from the Star Trek mythos? They have a few things in common with elves: pointy ears, long lifespans, apparent absence or repression of the impulses which make us human.

    I singled out the Vulcans because their predisposition toward logic is not a genetic trait, but a cultural one. Vulcans are effective telepaths, and long ago discovered that this power could be used as a devastating weapon by an emotionally volatile individual. So they counteracted this by culturally deprecating the display or manifestation of emotion.

    My feeling is that Vulcans and elves both represent more “purified” versions of humans, with much more successful cultural repression of our base instincts. Elvish rules of propriety may be based in pragmatics from an earlier time which were long ago lost. It could be that the only difference between them and us, from a psychological standpoint, is that they are capable of exercising much greater restraint without the negative ramifications this would have on a human, and do so out of cultural and pragmatic need.

    The fact that Tolkien was Catholic appears to back this up. Catholicism teaches that our instincts are sinful or evil, and sanctifies their repression. Such a “purified” version of humanity would be quite a romantic notion to a devout Catholic — almost angelic in its imagery.

  2. Tolkien was a devout Catholic all his life, following in the footsteps of his mother. A shy child, he led a reserved life and didn’t move out of the cottage he and his wife had taken at Oxford until well into the 1960′s, after his books had sold millions of copies, and he tired of answering a new device he’d acquired in the 1950′s, a telephone, something acquired a bit later in the century than most. The same housekeeper he and his wife had for 30-40 years went with them to a more comfortable, and presumably quiet, residence in the countryside at a location not known to many. He had also disliked the various “fans” who started showing up at his gate in the 1960′s. Some of the public have wondered why the Tolkien family, the well known Christopher, and his two daughters, and the estate have not filed suit in connection with a number of promotions associated with the 3 movies. If you look up the family attorney’s address, available on the Tolkien Society’s site, you’ll note that the attorney handles all affairs of the family. And the attorney has no email address. Some of us who may only be in our 20s or 30s may have some difficulty in understanding ages in the past if we took comp sci and calculas classes and no history or literature classes if we were fortunate to go to college. Tolkien was as most know an accomplished linguist and Oxford don, but it might be of interest to visit the Society’s website and read the insscription on the headstone at the modest gravesite near Oxford that mention
    Luthien and Beren. The characters and events specific to The Lord of the Rings were not Tolkien’s first love or interest. Eric correctly notes or infers that there’s not much to be read into Tolkien of a sexual nature because it doesn’t exist. And all the nonsense in the movies about the two heroines mentioned did not, of course, occur in the works. They spruced up the movies a bit for present day audiences. But then the geeks assembled here knew that. ;) And he fortunately appears to have interests (left undescribed) other than comp science and calculas. ;)

  3. It seems a little perverse to insist that
    Tolkien’s fictional world should be understood as one in which elves as DNA-possessing creatures when most of the book was written before Watson and Crick’s discovery. However you understand the nature-nurture divide in our human society, there’s no good reason to try to force the parallel on
    Tolkien. I guess I vote for an elf sexuality that is awakened by events of
    mythic significance.

  4. good god shut the fuck up esr

    your liek fucking 45

    you arent gonna pick up chciks youa dulterous bastard

    its a fucking fantasy world and your thinking about this bullshiti its people like you who i will kill when i come to power

  5. In a desperate sort of way. I actually feel a little sorry for anybody with so little experience of actual women that he doesn’t understand why they might hit on a middle-aged guy who’s presentable and interesting. If dead cell grokked this phenomenon he’d probably get dates himself more often.

  6. I have only ever made one prayer to God, a very short one: “O Lord, make my enemies
    ridiculous.” And God granted it.

    Voltaire

  7. I think he’s just a troll, Eric. That’s what makes him funny.

    “N4st0r, tr1xx0r h0bb1tz0rz!!! Th3y st0l3 0ur pr3c10uzzz!!!!” –L33t Gollum

  8. Note: What follows comes from Tolkien’s materials in Silm and HoME, not speculation of my own; it isn’t consistent with the movie necessarily.

    Notwithstanding your “techie on the list”, I think the swan theory is well confirmed. The remarriage incident is said to be unique in the Elvish records, and reflects another unique event: Miriel *wants* to die, and actually manages to die “from inside”, which elves do not normally do. And it’s fairly clear that Finwe’s remarriage is wrong (it’s part of the Fall of the Elves) and anomalous. Even swans must have outliers.

    JRRT acknowledged that Elves and Men are the same species, and the distinctions between them are all about what kinds of souls they have. Elvish souls are bound to their bodies until the end of time (what happens to them after that, only God knows, literally), although their bodies become more and more ethereal as the ages pass. Elves who are killed (they don’t have diseases) or who die of grief are sent disembodied to Valinor, and they can be re-embodied: the Glorfindel that Frodo meets on the bridge in the book (replaced by Arwen in the movie) had died during the fall of Gondolin (in the First Age) in combat with a Balrog. These facts make them *fundamentally* different from any other life-form on (Middle-)Earth.

    Humans are of course short-lived, subject to disease and old age, and when they die, their souls leave the universe altogether. (Hobbits are an offshoot of humanity, so the fact that we don’t have inter{course,marriage} with them is cultural.)

    So no, Eru doesn’t dink with Elvish sexuality all the time. Elves marry once, typically in their first century, have sex and kids, and then move past that stage. They do enjoy remembering sex, though, as a facet of their general attitude toward any kind of memories, which are almost as real to them as current experience.

    In any case, Arwen has only three Elvish grandparents, and her whole family is a special case: until they individually choose either humanity or full elvishness, they don’t actually mature. The same was true of her father Agent^W Elrond and his brother, Aragorn’s remote ancestor Elros, as well as Arwen’s brothers Elladan and Elrohir, whose fate is not told.

    On anachronisms: the tomatoes mentioned in Bilbo’s larder in the Hobbit get changed to pickles, but nothing can be done about tobacco/pipe-weed, or potatoes either. It is mentioned that pipe-weed is not native, and was brought over Sea by the Numenoreans.

  9. I’ve wondered whether Tolkien’s stories of male humans marrying up to elves (aside from Aragorn and Arwen, there’s Beren and Luthien and I think there’s another I’m not remembering) is related to courtly love.

    While the world-building in Tolkien is extraordinary, it doesn’t strike me as unlikely that some aspects are manipulated for the sake of the plot–how likely is it for the big war to turn on an attack on *one* central weakness?

    In the same sense, the maximal reward for the high-status guy is pushed beyond plausibility. However, pointing this out might be ungeekly.

  10. I share your feelings about Arwen (who I found much sexier than I do Liv Tyler in the general case), and also share your observation of the population at RotK (although in my case, thy were at that difficult age where they look like you want to, er, have when you should instead think of adopting them.)

    I’ll also note geekishly that Aragorn is more “elvish” than most Men, since he’s one of the long-lived Numenorean kings — 3000 years after Isildur’s Bane, but there’s only a dozen or so generations between them.

    I’ve got to say, though, that as clearly mythic as the world of the Ring is, wondering about the DNA issue seems a little like “straining at gnats and swallowing camels”. I mean, we’ve got sentient gold rings, disembodied nearly-omniscient Eyes, and a main character of the Maia, a sort of angelic Presense whose physical body is apparently a communications convenience like the telephone to mortals.

  11. ..reminds of the discussion in Donnie Darko on the sexual habits of smurfs when a drunken Donnie utters the classic line, “What’s the point in living if you don’t have a dick.” (Right after taking target practice, esr.)

  12. I think the answer you seek is actually contained within the very secret diaries themselves:

    “Wish I could be interested in Elf men, but ever since debacle with Glorfindel back in Second Age when he accused me of copying his hairstyle, have given up on my own kind.”

    Not all women fancy Metrosexuals, after all ;)

  13. Echoing some points that have been hinted at, Good vs. Evil is a central theme throughout Tolkien’s works, and for a devout Catholic like Tolkien, Good would certainly include sexual purity. It may be hard for some here to understand, but in the world-view shared by Tolkien and the Good forces of Middle-Earth, sexual purity is good and sexual urges are controllable.

  14. It’s fairly obvious that Arwen doesn’t have a normal menstrual cycle either. Losing an ovum 13 times a year for two-and-a-half millennia would mean her ovaries at birth would have to be the size of grapefruit. If elves were as fecund as humans the world would have been overrun with them. So it would appear that elves can choose when to enter oestrus. Gotta wonder how much Aragorn was getting after they got hitched.

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  17. to be perfectly fair that encyclical was written in 1968.

    Also all Catholics do not have a perfect comprehension of their creed.

    And of course, JRRT was not writing a catholic-oriented story, but more in the style of celtic myth with medieval courtly romantic bits.

  18. in response to willc2, Tolkien may not be writting a catholic-oriented story but nontheless underneath the magic, the story is a tale of faith. devout tolkien pushed c.s. lewis over the fence and made him embrace his religion using the using the argument that “the Resurrection was the truest of all stories.” for more info and much more eloquent explanation, read “the real followship of the ring,” can be found at salon.com.

  19. Dear Mr esr.

    Has it ever occurred to you that you may not be a member of the “high IQ” crowd? I see your concern for IQ as a measurable quality and you seem happy to include yourself among those who have “high” IQs.

    I would like to know what, besides self-confidence, makes you so sure.

    Also, could you please increase the size of your comment box?

  20. Hi,
    I enjoyed your article on Tolkien and sex, and while I realize that it was meant in jest, I thought you might find this of interest.

    A friend just recently referred me to an essay by Tolkien (originally a speech)which supports the idea that you cannot hold the Tolkien universe to ‘real world’ standards. It is in the Tolkien Reader and is called, I believe, ‘On Faery Stories’. In it Tolkien is very specific about what a Faery story is and how he strove to make LOTR such. To Tolkien, a Faery story has its own laws and rules which do not, and cannot, conform to our world or the tale crumbles to dust. The most basic aspect is the acceptance of magic as wholly real and everpresent and NOT explainable by scientific methods. These are not his words, but in a sense trying to disect the magic, and thus the Faery World constructed, tends to kill it just like the goose that laid the golden egg.

    Anyway, Tolkien can obviously explain it much better than myself. If you can find a copy of it, I highly recommend it.
    Have a Happy New Year.

  21. The sticking-point turned out to be the half-elven; Tolkien tells us that they get to choose whether they will have the nature of Men or Elves . . . .

    Curiously, this was not true until Earendil forced the issue by setting foot in Valinor, forbidden to mortals; the dichotomy thus seems to be Valar policy, not nature.
    So what happened to Dior’s soul?

  22. When considering elves, their unusually long lifespan requires significant impediments to reproduction, or else overpopulation results. That’s why most of the male elves in the movie are so obviously gay. The non gay ones are very nearly non-sexual and hard to arouse, as evidenced by their infrequent reproduction.

    This leaves the female elves. Female elves are unusually horny, because their chances of actually convincing one of the male elves to have sex is almost none. Segregation of thge species usually keeps cross breeding to a minimum.

  23. Arwen would potentially be attracted to a human male, since she is one-quarter human. Her father, Elrond, was half-elven.

  24. really weird site. i cant belive some of the dirty things a mind can come up with.

  25. Quite interesting post.

    However, as several readers pointed out, things kinda get a bit fuzzier considering that Arwen is half-elven (actually 1/4 human, 1/8 maiar, and 5/8 of various elf kinds) and Aragorn has elven blood…

  26. “When this came up on my favorite mailing list just after the first
    movie came out, my hypothesis was that elves (a) have only rare
    periods of vulnerability to sexual impulses, and (b) imprint on each
    other for life when they mate, like swans.”

    When you consider (b) how can ypu say your techie shot down the “swan theory” when Finwe only remarried after the death of his first wife, Miriel. He was married to Miriel for life.

    Jeff says:

    “Catholicism teaches that our instincts are sinful or evil, and sanctifies their repression.”

    That is so much nonsense and it is not what Catholicism teaches at all. Catholicism upholds the natural law and identifies as sinful or disordered those aspects of our behaviour that depart from it. If Catholicism sanctified the repression of sex it would not be the most numerous religion in the world.

  27. I’ve wondered whether Tolkien’s stories of male humans marrying up to elves (aside from Aragorn and Arwen, there’s Beren and Luthien and I think there’s another I’m not remembering) is related to courtly love.

  28. actually, humans marrying elves isn’t all that rare, take DND for example. you have half-drow, and of course you have half-elves. i’m not saying that everything you see will have half-elves, but most games,books or videos that have a mythical backround is likely to have elves, so it’s no surprise really to see Troilken have half-elves in his series.

  29. I see what your saying, but i think that you are actually refering to Neverwinter Nights. In the games that I play, (Besides Warhammer) I usually see Half-Elves.

    BTW It’s Tolkein, not Trolkein.

  30. A friend just recently referred me to an essay by Tolkien (originally a speech)which supports the idea that you cannot hold the Tolkien universe to ‘real world’ standards. It is in the Tolkien Reader and is called, I believe, ‘On Faery Stories’. In it Tolkien is very specific about what a Faery story is and how he strove to make LOTR such. To Tolkien, a Faery story has its own laws and rules which do not, and cannot, conform to our world or the tale crumbles to dust. The most basic aspect is the acceptance of magic as wholly real and everpresent and NOT explainable by scientific methods. These are not his words, but in a sense trying to disect the magic, and thus the Faery World constructed, tends to kill it just like the goose that laid the golden egg.

  31. Arwen would potentially be attracted to a human male, since she is one-quarter human. Her father, Elrond, was half-elven.

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