Sunday, 11 July 2021

Tolkien and Diversity – and Tolkienian Inclusion

Re-reading this post before publishing it, I find that it appears a bit rambling or unstructured, but I haven't been able to do much to improve on it. I suspect that this is, at least partially, a result of trying to express some views that, while deeply felt, I haven't had much occasion to express in a coherent manner. If true, that could probably also explain why I have felt the need to resort to concrete examples to explain what I mean. 

I have, on this blog, already tried to indicate that I support the efforts of the Tolkien Society to open the society to be more inclusive of voices that have found it difficult to be heard, and of perspectives and readings of Tolkien that have long experienced being summarily – and perhaps even angrily – dismissed. I am well aware that these efforts are not new, but they have so far been kept in the academic domain, where they have, for many reasons, not disturbed the broader Tolkien community.

As a life-long member of the Guide and Scout Movement, firmly grounded in the Movements inclusive values[1], I welcome this and I embrace it. But I also recognise how extremely difficult it is – even for those who preach the inclusion – to actually practice it, when it comes to being inclusive of those whose views differ. Actually, my experiences in the Guide and Scout Movement has taught me to appreciate the need to coexist in constructive dialogue with people who hold views that I might find abhorrent.

This has taught me that I am not really inclusive myself before I can remain in constructive dialogue with such people: firmly stating my views, and firmly disagreeing with them, while still allowing that they are entitled to their opinions and views (though not to deny or contradict verifiable facts ... I am a physicist, after all 😉).

With that in mind, I have seen some rather dismissive comments about those who support the more traditional readings – e.g. about males who disagreed with a homoerotic reading of the relation between Frodo and Sam. Now, I haven't seen the comments that occasioned those dismissive comments, so they may, of course, have been entirely justified, but they made me think.

How would I express the fact that I read the text differently?

How would I express the fact that I believe that Tolkien intended the text differently?

How would I ask the other person to allow that my reading is also possible?

A few examples, not necessarily of how I would react, but of how I would want to react – of how I believe that my Scout Promise would commit me to do my best, to strive, to react (the opinions portrayed are to some extent caricatured, the responses are my honest views & opinions).

Opinion: “Frodo and Sam's relation is homoerotic.”

Response: “Now that's an interesting reading – I can see how you can arrive at that understanding, though I have to say that I have always, myself, understood it differently." 

Opinion (referring to the opinion above): “This is an affront against Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic!” 

Response: “Well, I think this would come under the freedom of the reader that Tolkien himself allowed as ‘applicability’. While I am, for my own part, inclined to at least agree with you that Tolkien's personal reading would be different, I also think that this reading is possible, and in no way an affront to Tolkien. Actually I like to believe that he would be happy to learn that the homosexual community can find applicability and identification in his work, even if he probably didn't himself intend the relation to be homoerotic.”

Opinion: “Fan-fiction is the most interesting topic in Tolkien studies!”

Response: “I am really happy for you that you enjoy fan fiction. I have never really found it particularly appealing or interesting myself, but I think it's great that others like it. It's certainly a field that deserves academic research, though for my own sake, I have found it difficult to see how such studies can inform my understanding of Tolkien – maybe you can help me with that?”

Opinion: “You can only understand Tolkien by reading him through a Christian lens!”

Response: “Hmm ... for my own part, I have found that the Christian – and indeed Catholic – lens has helped me see and understand some things or connections in Tolkien's work, that I hadn't discovered otherwise, but I don't agree that this is necessary to understand and appreciate his work per se, nor do I think that this lens is more important than e.g. the philological/linguistic lens or the lens of the pagan Northern Spirit, or the Classical Greek and Roman mythologies. All of these lenses, and probably more, in my view, contribute equally to inform my reading and understanding and appreciation of Tolkien's work.”

And so on and so on. 

Surely you get the idea? 

I would have loved to have a paper at the Tolkien Society Seminar, “Tolkien and Diversity”, that would have promoted a firmly Catholic reading of e.g. The Lord of the Rings, though, in the spirit of the seminar, it would, of course, have been inappropriate for such a paper to claim a monopoly as a lens for understanding and appreciating the book. Unfortunately, there seems to have been no such paper proposed (I will refrain from speculating as to the reasons for this absence, as my speculations might end up being uncharitable) – next time (yes, I do hope that there will be a ‘next time’ for this important theme), I hope that we can see an even larger diversity of readings and reading lenses represented – one that also includes the more traditional lenses, so that we can have a scholarly dialogue between these perspectives.


  1. Readers whose impression of our movement is based on e.g. the attitudes of the Boy Scouts of America of 15 years ago might find this a bit puzzling, but please believe me when I say that they were not representative of the Movement as a whole. Back


  1. I did actually propose a paper that, while not a pro-Catholic reading of Tolkien, did suggest how the idea of identity (which is something slightly different from identity politics), is an idea at tension with a number of demonstrable Tolkienian concerns. I thought it would be relevant, but the organizers decided that it wouldn't have fit what they were going for. That's their right, of course, and I'm not criticizing the organizers, but it might suggest that other types of papers might have been proposed, but just not accepted.

    1. Hi Dennis,

      I should probably have said something like "I am given to understand that", as I am of course reporting information. I do not recall from whom – someone close enough to the committee for me to trust their statement inherently, but that is all that I can recall.

      Your brief description sounds interesting enough for me – if it is accepted in some other context, I'd be grateful to know :)


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