Lord of the Ring Taps a Gay Archetype

Published in: July-August 2003 issue.



THE LORD OF THE RINGS gives a significant purpose and meaning to enduring male-male partnerships that many more overtly gay narratives do not. In both the original three-part novel by J. R. R. Tolkien and its recent cinematic adaptation, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins is able to realize his potential as a hero and save the world from ruination only by relying on the loving bond he develops with his steadfast companion, Samwise Gamgee. What’s more, this primary transformative relationship occurs in the context of many other abiding same-sex attachments—whether between hobbit and wizard, elf and dwarf, man and elf, or hobbit and man—that contribute to the hero’s accomplishment of this mission.

The homoerotic aspects of this motif of male partnership are strikingly evident in Tolkien’s novel, in which Sam is portrayed as much more than just a close friend to Frodo. He is Frodo’s ever-present servant, bodyguard, champion, and inspiration. Whether they’re fleeing winged serpents, battling a giant spider, or escaping from murderous orcs, Sam is always at Frodo’s side, repeatedly risking his own life to protect that of his master. Throughout the story, the two hobbits are openly affectionate, often described as sleeping together, holding hands, even sobbing with feelings of affection for one another. For example, while Frodo is ill and unconscious for days with a severe stab wound, Sam almost never leaves his side, holding his hand continuously. In another moment of great difficulty, “Sam still holding his master’s hand caressed it.” During one particularly harrowing scene, Frodo is abducted by orcs, and Sam must make his way through an orc stronghold in order to rescue his friend. At last Sam finds Frodo, who’s completely naked, “lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags.” Sam is ecstatic:


“Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!” cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. “It’s Sam, I’ve come!” He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast. Frodo opened his eyes. “Am I still dreaming?” he muttered…
“You’re not dreaming at all, Master,” said Sam. “It’s real. It’s me. I’ve come.”
“I can hardly believe it,” said Frodo, clutching him. … “Then I wasn’t dreaming after all when I heard the singing down below, and I tried to answer? Was it you?”
“It was indeed, Mr. Frodo. I’d given up hope, almost. I couldn’t find you.”
“Well, you have now, Sam, dear Sam,” said Frodo, and he lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes. …
Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed. It was not enough for him to find his master, he had still to try and save him. He kissed Frodo’s forehead.


The deep, undying affection between the two hobbits is made even more explicit in an another scene, while Sam is observing an inner light in Frodo while he sleeps. Sam says to himself, “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”

            The entire epic arc of The Lord of the Rings is based on the inseparable bond between Frodo and Sam as they repeatedly face almost certain death in their quest to return the “One Ring” to the volcanic furnace of Mount Doom. At the very climax of the journey, Tolkien describes his characters as “two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near.”

Perhaps here the author was remembering his own experiences of friendship amidst calamity as a British army lieutenant in the nightmarish trenches of World War I. Tolkien readily admitted the source of his inspiration for Sam: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself” (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 book, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography). Tolkien survived his time on the front line, but almost all of his closest friends did not. It was partly in their memory that Tolkien began creating the mythology that would become the foundation for his epic.

While it’s true that Tolkien had a wife and raised a family, extremely close male friendships were the primary focus of his social life, and it’s clear from his poignant depictions of male companionship that something deeply homoerotic if not homosexual stirred in his soul, something that was perhaps both aroused and crushed in the trenches of World War I. Tolkien created an incredibly rich and detailed fantasy world from which heterosexual romance is almost entirely absent, and none of the primary characters is married. Instead, this world comprises a fellowship of nine single men all bound to each other by their solemn word, with the bond of Frodo and Sam at its core.

Tolkien was open about his desire to create a new, living mythology for English culture in Lord of the Rings and related works. Surely it is significant that he chose to make same-sex companionship so central to a narrative that’s explicitly symbolic and archetypal, intended to offer a “glimpse of the underlying reality or truth,” as Tolkien put it. This is “fantasy” in the deepest sense of the word, evoking the underlying archetypes of the human psyche that C. G. Jung and subsequent psychologists, anthropologists, and literary critics have articulated.

In his own reading of mythology, Jung highlighted the archetypal “hero’s journey” as emblematic of the process of self-discovery and self-actualization that he called “individuation.” For heterosexist Jung, individuation was always spurred by a man’s relation to his internal feminine “soul figure,” known as anima. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is clearly on a “hero’s journey” of “individuation,” but his adventure is facilitated largely by male figures, and especially by Sam, his devoted companion. This same-sex configuration of self-actualization echoes closely the individuation process for gay men described by gay-centered psychologist Mitch Walker, who has brought a much-needed homosexual perspective to Jungian psychology and elucidated the significance of “a special, erotic, twin ‘brother’ who is felt to be the ‘source of inspiration’” in a gay man’s psyche.

Walker has termed this inner archetypal figure the “Double,” who appears in the unconscious inner world of all men, straight or gay, as the underpinning for ego identity and the source of “brotherly love.” Yet for gay men, Walker explains, this archetypal being is erotically charged and becomes the primary “soul figure,” exactly the role that Sam plays for Frodo, as “a soul-mate of intense warmth and closeness” who can “unlock creative processes” and lead to “significant self-realizations.” He is also a “powerful helper, full of magic to aid in an individual’s struggles.” Time and time again, when Frodo has become disoriented, exhausted, or hopeless, Sam inspires him to continue, supporting him both physically and emotionally throughout their tortuous journey. When neither of them reasonably should have any strength or hope left, Sam “magically” finds a way to bring them out of their predicament, whether it’s by finding enchanted elfish rope in his pack or by helping Frodo take his final exhausted steps up Mount Doom.

The relationship between Frodo and Sam is not only an ode to same-sex love but also an archetypal dynamic within each gay man, where self-reflection may reveal the existence of an inner lover or a “soul figure” and guide who loves us just as Sam loves Frodo, and who, like Sam, can spur us to reach our greatest potential. To reach that potential, however, the hero must suffer a terrible descent and confront what Jung called the “shadow,” representing the most shameful and self-doubting parts of the self. The Lord of the Rings vividly demonstrates this essential, painful aspect of the individuation process.

In the course of their journey, Frodo and Sam must break away from their fellowship of seven other comrades and travel as a twosome into the dark Land of Mordor, where Frodo is charged with the responsibility of destroying the “One Ring” in order to end forever its ability to cause evil. This journey into “hell” is a powerful metaphor for the confrontation with the shadow, which is even more dramatically embodied in the story by the character Gollum, with whom Frodo and Sam must contend soon after they are separated from their other friends.

Gollum was the bearer of the Ring for almost 600 years until it made its way into Frodo’s hands. Before he took possession of the ring, Gollum was a peace-loving, hobbit-like person, but now has devolved into a wild, emaciated, obsessive creature who can devour an entire live fish raw. He is described as “a nasty crawling spider” and “a large prowling thing of insect-kind.” His life unnaturally extended by the power of the Ring, Gollum is simultaneously ancient and regressed into an infantile state—needy, paranoid, envious, and full of rage. He offers a frightening mirror image for Frodo, who may face a similar disintegration if he fails to destroy the Ring. But only Gollum knows the way to Mordor, so Frodo must somehow develop a relationship with him in order to reach his destination. Frodo is initially disgusted by this creature, even wishing his death, but he eventually develops a strong empathy for Gollum. As Tolkien puts it: “the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds.” This bridging of the divide between the hero and his inferior shadow—between ego and unconscious—is a poignant evocation of the psychological integration required for any man’s self-actualization.


IN THE CINEMATIC version of Lord of the Rings—a series of three films directed by Peter Jackson (The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001; The Two Towers in 2002; and The Return of the King, to be released later this year)—the dynamics between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have been notably altered from Tolkien’s books. In the two films so far released, Jackson has elected not to show much of the homoerotic behavior that the novel describes as occurring between Sam and Frodo. Instead, some of this erotic energy has re-emerged in the developing relationship between Frodo and Gollum, which is a main focus of The Two Towers. This means that gay filmgoers must use their imaginations to “re-eroticize” the partnership between Sam and Frodo even as they witness a particularly rich, eroticized portrayal of the shadow in the form of Gollum.

This new depiction of Gollum, greatly enhanced through the use of breakthrough computer graphics, is a truly impressive sight. With huge glistening eyes, he is virtually naked save for a tiny loincloth, the only bare-skinned body amidst a world of heavily clad and armored characters, almost phallic in his libidinal scrambling about. He is dominated by fear and shame, yet in many ways he’s the least repressed creature in Middle-earth, full of vitality and agility. He has no qualms about wrapping his entire body around Sam in an effort to strangle him (in a position suggestive of anal sex), and when trying to get Frodo’s attention affectionately paws the latter’s arm.

Gollum’s embodiment of both shadow and eros actually parallels the unconscious psyche of so many gay men, where homosexual eros has been deeply repressed due to the relentless shaming of parents, religion, and society. Here is a striking image for each gay man to consider as a possible reflection of his own inferior, infantile, crushed, gay shadow-self. How heartening that the film also amplifies Frodo’s growing empathy with Gollum, offering a vision of the approach a gay man can take when confronting his own feelings of inferiority. Perhaps never before on screen has a hero had so much affection for such a grotesque character. For any gay man wishing for true self-discovery, the solution may be to follow Frodo and develop empathy for his own “inner Gollum.” In facing the shadow in this way, a gay man may also gain a fuller experience of previously repressed homosexual eros.

Yet in order to integrate the shadow and its hidden treasures a person must actively wrestle with it. This process is suggested in The Two Towers when, spurred by Frodo’s invocation of his original name, Gollum begins to communicate energetically with his lost “half-self,” Sméagol. This lively exchange is highly evocative of what Jung termed “active imagination,” a meditative process whereby a person can get in touch with different parts of himself. Just as Gollum finds himself in an active argument with another part of himself, so too a gay man can engage his own “inner Gollum” in a dialogue of ever-growing understanding. This process can be assisted in yet another way by watching The Two Towers. Because Jackson has successfully applied an amazing hyper-realism to this fantasy character, Gollum seems utterly believable on screen. This experience of imagination made real may help the receptive viewer appreciate that “Gollum” might in fact exist as a “real” being inside the viewer’s own psyche.

Just as Frodo comes to know Gollum in the context of his partnership with Sam, so too a gay man can enjoy the support of his own “soul figure” in the confrontation with his shadow, using the film saga as inspiration for this relationship. Although Jackson has downplayed the homoerotic aspects of the “double” relationship between Sam and Frodo, the films still offer a powerful visual depiction of affectionate male-male partnership and its symbolic importance. With some referencing to the original novel and a little erotic fantasy, gay filmgoers can restore the sexual union of Frodo and Sam (as well as the other pairings, such as Merry and Pippin, Gimli and Legolas, Aragorn and Boromir).

The Lord of the Rings shows a world on the edge of apocalypse that is saved by one individual who learns to rely upon the everlasting support of his loving comrade while developing empathy for the most inferior creature in his world. Each of us can embark on our own psychological version of this journey in order to become more whole, self-actualized, and liberated, thereby modeling a new way of gay being and becoming for a deeply troubled and hateful world desperately in need of a more authentically loving alternative.


Roger Kaufman is a gay-centered psychotherapist intern working in a Los Angeles private practice. His writings have appeared in the LA Times and White Crane Journal.


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