THE FILM TOLKIEN, released last year and directed by Dome Karukoski, the award-winning director of Tom of Finland, sparked a bit of controversy by challenging heterosexual assumptions about J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) through its portrayal of his intimate friendship with the young gay poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894-1916). The two met as teenage boys at King Edward’s School and deepened their bond at Oxford, where they probably were lovers.
Tolkien’s early years formed his creative imagination, beginning the journey that led to his masterpiece The Lord of The Rings. During this crucial period, it was Smith rather than Edith Bratt, the woman Tolkien eventually married, who was his artistic muse. Both young men were promising poets, and their poems from this period are rich in homoerotic imagery and themes.
World War I wrenched both away from Oxford and sent them to the Western Front in France. Smith’s tragic death at the age of 22 during the Battle of the Somme left Tolkien emotionally shaken—and determined to publish Smith’s collected poems, which he did under the title A Spring Harvest.
While scholars and biographers have emphasized the role of masculine fellowship in Tolkien’s life, they have stubbornly avoided the implications of his intimate relations with men. Homoerotic elements in his books have been ignored, with a few notable exceptions, including my earlier pieces in this magazine, “Sex and Subtext in Tolkien’s World” (Nov.-Dec. 2015) and “The Tolkien in Bilbo Baggins” (Nov.-Dec. 2016).
The true story about the relationship between Tolkien and Smith merits investigation from a gay-affirming perspective. The letters that flowed between them, often romantic in tone, open a window into their intimacy, as does their poetry. In the years after the young poet’s death, Tolkien was creatively inspired by the memory of Smith and the love they shared.
Dreams of Changing the World
Tolkien and Smith first met at the prestigious King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where both excelled as students. While the all-male school catered to the sons of aristocrats, Tolkien earned admission solely on the strength of his brilliance. An orphan by the age of twelve, he was forced to live in a lodging house and follow the guidelines of his guardian, Father Francis.
With its lavish halls and sumptuous grounds, King Edward’s was an Edwardian precursor to Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” books. For Tolkien, who was admitted in 1900 at the age of eight and graduated in 1911, his tenure there was a time of real magic. Fascinated by legends, literature, and languages, he developed an obsession with the mythical beings he called “fairies.”
In 1900, Tolkien composed one of his first poems, “Wood-sunshine,” about fairies singing and dancing in a forested landscape: “Come sing ye light fairy things tripping so gay,/ Like visions, like glinting reflections of joy.” A brilliant philologist attuned to the cultural resonance of language, the young man can hardly have been innocent of the many layers of meaning evoked by the term “fairy.” It was in the 1890s that the word “fairy” began to be used as a synonym for male homosexuals. Indeed one of Tolkien’s teachers at King Edward’s, R. W. Reynolds, even warned his protégé that the word had been “spoiled of late.” Tolkien ignored the advice and continued writing poems about fairies.
Smith was two years behind Tolkien at King Edward’s and also took pleasure in flouting England’s conventions. He delighted in acting in the school’s annual “Greek Play.” A photograph of him in costume for his role in Aristophanes’ The Frogs shows a young man with a delicate, fey appearance and a dreamy expression. If Tolkien were looking for a youth who fit the part of one of the fairies he loved to write about, he found its perfect embodiment in Smith.
In its depiction of the young Smith, the film Tolkien offers a charming portrait of a gay teenager in the Edwardian era. Adam Bregman’s Smith steals furtive, adoring glances at the young Tolkien, played by Harry Gilby. With sensitivity, the film depicts a schoolboy crush that serves as the prelude to a more enduring love story.
David LaFontaine is a professor in the English Department at Massasoit Community College.