Monday, March 23, 2015

Marriages: Comic, Tragic, Mixed, and/or Gay — and HOBBIT [2}: The Movie {21 Dec. 2013)

           I'm aware of the danger of a necessarily ignorant outsider writing about people's deepest concerns and beliefs, so please forgive me if I make any mistakes on the intricacies of the world and peoples of J. R. R. Tolkien. I studied with care his seminal — yea, downright ovular — Beowulf essay, "The Monsters and the Critics," but I never got beyond just reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit or seeing any of the movies more than once. Still, I just saw Peter Jackson's The Hobbit [2]: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and I have some comments about a movie that may be of some political importance — the movie that is, not my much-less-advertised comments.

            To start with, as a short person who fetched what gentility I have from American land-grant universities, I was very happy to see a film featuring Dwarves and find it of interest that in Jackson's movie (though certainly not in The Hobbit), Kili, a Dwarf — if a young, well-connected, relatively tall, relatively clean-cut and decent-looking one — can have a chance with Tauriel, an Elven female of intelligence, skill, beauty, and some influence, even if lower caste: a Sylvan, or Wood-, Elf, rather than one of the High ones, which means she won't get very far in a love for Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil, the head-elf among the Elvish military aristocracy we see in the movie.

            Anyway, there's chemistry, as they say, between Tauriel and Kili, and the set-up for a love triangle of Tauriel, Kili, and Legolas. The Tauriel-Legolas leg of the triangle would be pretty standard, with a "heavy father" character standing between young lovers of slightly different caste and class, but cinematically "white bread." Among Tolkien fans in parts of the world where caste systems are still alive and virulent, the conflicts in a Tauriel/Legolas relationship could resonate strongly; for most viewers — eh! The Elven relationship here is pretty much well-off urban royalty (male Legolas) vs. more rural gentility (female Tauriel), and whether it's a standard issue rom-com, or Romeo and Juliet (an Italian romantic comedy that goes really wrong) — been there, seen that.

            The possibility of an Elf/Dwarf mating, however, is intriguing in terms of biology to start with, and beyond that politics both past and very much present. 

            On the biology proper, though — kinky-porn-flick opportunities aside — the question is, Are the Dwarves and Elves of Middle Earth closely enough related to allow fertile matings, and if the mating was reproductively successful, would the offspring be sterile hybrids ("mules") or fertile? Or would it be a point of a future movie that their chances for offspring would be in question?

            Traditional romantic comedy moves toward a new and better world coalescing around a central heterosexual couple, either getting married or exiting toward a wedding. If it's a Shakespearean rom-com, that'll be one central couple plus about as many others as mathematically possible, plus maybe music and a dance. "Comedy" comes from komos, which means revel — a drunken revel — and in their romantic versions, comedies move toward weddings and a celebration of fertility. As Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing, with much irony but truly, "the world must be peopled" (2.3).

            If we move toward a happy ending, with the union of Elf-female and Dwarf-male, we may celebrate union and social integration and all that, but not fertility, not unless a Personage of Great Authority on such matters certifies that you can cross successfully Elves and Dwarves (possibly resulting in Hobbits or Vulcans; I will defer to the fans here). If we move toward tragedy — and killing off major characters may become fashionable — we will mourn the sundering of a union or potential union that, again, might be infertile.

            One much-mocked reactionary argument against gay marriage is that man-on-man (sic) unions will lead to man-on-dog matings and other abominations. The more serious argument is that same-sex marriages are infertile. But what happens if an audience is rooting for an Elf-on-Dwarf relationship ("cowgirl" style in the porn version), or mourns the loss of a Dwarf/Elf union? Either way we could be affirming the goodness of "the marriage of true minds" but copulation between two bodies that either may be sterile in its results or, if the script says so, is definitely sterile. We might well reject man-on-dog relationships and pony-on-girl — and we should, given issues of informed consent and age of consent — but if we accept an Elf/Dwarf marriage with no possibility of reproduction, we are, in a very indirect, figurative way, quite directly confronting and undermining two of the underlying fears about gay marriage.

            In terms of other politics …. Well, I just read A Very Brief Introduction to the Silk Road, and I'm re-listening to a book about the Spartans. Between the two of them, I got thinking about the Elves as a military aristocracy that doesn't require horses; a wellborn Elf is not necessarily a knightly cavalier (chevalier, caballero) — but they definitely do archery. Again, a question for the experts: Is this because Elves are reflection of the Welsh, who perfected the long bow? Also, or alternatively, are Elves archers in part because however much the Elves we see in Hobbit are confining themselves, their history was woodland, and horses aren't that useful in forest warfare — but bows can be?

            From the Spartans through the Anglo-Saxon thanes to an incredibly thickheaded French aristocracy during their 100-Years War with England, aristocrats could come down on one side or the other about horses, but real men, true warriors/heroes/aethelings viewed bows as cowardly. Indeed, royal and noble and genteel Frenchmen seemed convinced that a peasants' weapon like the bow — or an infantry weapon like the pike — couldn't possibly prevail against glorious armored knights on horseback, a conviction that contributed strongly to those glorious armored knights on horseback getting slaughtered at the Battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). So it's interesting to see Elves as archers and hear them on occasion speak a language that to my ears sounds Welsh. A military aristocracy with brains could be, like the Spartans, a formidable force, especially if, unlike the Spartans, the Elves don't have to worry about revolts from slaves whose labor supports the military that oppresses and exploits those slaves.

            If the Elves are Welsh-ish aristocrats who can get by without horses, the Dwarves are more my people: Dwarves as infantry. In fighting on foot, Dwarves are like Anglo-Saxon warriors, or one stereotype for Anglo-Saxon warriors anyway, except the Dwarves are so ungenteel as to have civilian lives where they actually make things and deal with money. A gentleman might be poor, but he's not "in trade"! Thanes and aethelings and earls and warriors/heroes/men —Old English could conflate that last set of terms — real men don't make stuff; they destroy it. In traditional terms, the Dwarves are ignoble in their industry. That we like them and that Peter Jackson has made a popular movie featuring them, may help fantasy fans, and others, rethink definitions and evaluations of "noble."


            So I'll join the folk cheering on Tauriel and Kili and wishing Legolas well on his way to Lord of the Rings. Just being a woman-like being of non-Queenly power makes Tauriel a progressive addition to the conservative world of Tolkien's high fantasy. If Tauriel she goes for love and/or sex with Kili (or a female Elf to be introduced later), she'll have really broken new ground in Middle Earth: human society of today as well as once upon a time and long, long ago. 

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