Monday, September 7, 2020

Were They or Weren't They?

I was procrastinating this afternoon when I happened on an old column by Slate's former movie reviewer David Edelstein.  He had recently reviewed The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the vexed question of the bond between Frodo and Sam had stirred up a reaction in Edelstein's email.

Here’s scholar Jeanette Zissell on the tabloid antics of Sam and Frodo: “The intense relationship between Sam and Frodo, for example, is exactly of the same kind as Patroclus and Achilles, or Roland and Charlemagne. These men were extremely close, bonding in situations where their lives depend on each others’ actions. Their relationships read as verging on the homoerotic to a modern reader, and yet fall short of actualizing that tension. In Sam and Frodo’s case, as Tolkein was a devout Catholic, this relationship also reflects the communion between believers, and the respect, self-sacrifice and love they owe to each other. And while such sexual tension may or may not be present in any instance, each has a theme of friendship it is easy to miss. If these were stories of women, would we be so quick to discount feelings of loyalty and sentimental love in this way? As a culture we are often uncomfortable with male sentiment, something medievals had no difficulty in expressing. And while I understand your assertion and to a large extent agree, I would bring attention to the complications of these concepts that modern culture does not understand. We could well benefit from an inspection of that kind of bonding, and to look further at the self-assurance and lack of shame at male feeling that it involves.” Bravo. Gimme a kiss, Jim.

I wonder what Ms. (or Professor?) Zissell is a "scholar" of.  She ought to know that though Homer's Achilles and Patroclus weren't depicted as lovers, they were widely read as lovers by Greeks just a couple of centuries later.  This was not a confusion engendered by "modern culture," nor was it due to discomfort with "male sentiment."  It was an ancient culture revising its forebears, and since the characters in question are fictionalized if not fictional, it's as much a waste of time to insist that they weren't 'really' having sex as to insist that they were.  She should also know that sentiment and loyalty between women, historical or fictional, makes many people uncomfortable too.

As I've discussed before at length, ease with intense male bonding has coexisted with unease about it through most of Western history.  Even now in our supposedly more enlightened day. there are turf wars over the sexual orientation of this fictional character or that historical personage.  Where Frodo and Sam are concerned, I find it very interesting that so many modern readers devoured The Lord of the Rings without apparently being bothered by their closeness.  Maybe they were comfortable as long as they were immersed in the story, and only got nervous when for some reason they had to think about it.  As Jeanette Zissell's remarks show, even specialists in ancient or medieval literature don't think about it very well.  Maybe I should get around to reading The Song of Roland.