I vaguely remember my first introduction to The Hobbit, through the BBC radio dramatisation—a spectacular 8-episode series that my friends had on tape. We listened to it on long car trips, enthralled by the adventures of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves. Years later, I fell just as much in love with The Lord of the Rings, so different in tone and yet still a story in which small, seemingly insignificant people find their courage through impossible situations and support their friends, emotionally and practically, through dangerous adventures.
In neither story did romance take a major role, and at the time, I did not question it.
* * *
Only recently have I been comfortable enough to say that I am asexual. Maybe it was pure shyness, maybe uncertainty about committing to the term, but for a long time it wasn’t something I would have talked about aloud. But looking back, it’s always been part of my makeup, and as with many lovers of fantasy, part of how I’ve always constructed my identity has been through fictional characters. By my early twenties, I hadn’t encountered many examples of clearly ace characters in fiction, save perhaps for Sherlock Holmes, who I found a bit intimidating rather than relatable. In my favourite stories, however, I found characters who helped me to figure myself out. Bilbo Baggins, and later Frodo, defined my identity for me in different ways, before I had the vocabulary or understanding to describe it for myself.
Perhaps I didn’t have a word for it as such, but in the grand tradition of euphemisms and metaphors, I thought of myself as “like Bilbo,” or, when I was more romantically inclined, “like Frodo.” What hit me later was that neither of these characters were not defined in terms of what they lacked, and because of this, I didn’t think of myself as lacking something either. Finding myself single and inclined to remain so, at an age when most of my contemporaries were dating and hooking up, I wondered if I should feel differently about it, or whether my own fantasies (strong friendships, sincere declarations of love) were asking too much of a world driven by sex. Still, two of my fictional mainstays seemed unbothered by bachelorhood…
In Bilbo’s story, and later in Frodo’s, there was nothing wrong with being single. I recognise now the rarity of that situation, and its value to someone struggling with the realisation that what works for most people is not working for them. Singleness in Middle-earth, generally, does not seem to bear the burden of social stigma. Over half of the Fellowship are unmarried and childless. The idea that a fulfilling life and meaningful contributions to society did not depend on my wish to marry and have children has given me the kind of hope that these stories convey so well—a quiet but tenacious hope that sees me through difficult times.
* * *
It was not until I took a class on Tolkien in the third year of my undergrad studies that I started thinking about this more seriously. My professor pointed out the distinct lack of female characters in The Hobbit, as well as the lack of a love story in it, and asked us what we thought. Aside from the implication that a woman would necessarily act as a love interest (an infuriating assumption that my professor didn’t intend, but that is another conversation) there was the subject of romance brought into the open, and its absence noted. I do wish that there had been more women in Tolkien’s work, not least because I love those that he did write as fully fledged characters. The lack of a love story, though, did not (and does not) bother me.
By that point I was past the age of pretending to be above such things as romance: I’d realised that I did like it, I liked reading about it, I was a little uncertain about myself in regards to it, and I wasn’t keen on the notion of sex. It was nice that other people liked it so much, but I wavered between thinking that I was too young for it (I was perhaps 21 at the time of the course) and thinking that I was too busy (I was, as mentioned, a third-year undergrad and one of those who was constantly overwhelmed by something or other). The fact that there was no love story in The Hobbit had frankly gone over my head.
Bilbo never seems inclined toward romance, certainly. From the beginning, he lives comfortably alone, welcoming visitors—the consummate host, and probably an excellent friend. Following his adventure, he settles down again to enjoy his newly increased wealth and later adopts Frodo, finding familial fulfilment in the role of cousin and guardian. There is none of the emptiness or brokenness that accompany stereotypes of single people, and though the neighbourhood thinks him eccentric, Bilbo remains confident and popular right up to his famous disappearance on his eleventy-first birthday.
* * *
Frodo, on the other hand, has a profound romantic side. I read his relationship with Sam as a romance without sex, and in hindsight it should have been searingly obvious to me that this being my ideal said something about who I am and what I want in my life. Shipping is legitimate, and wonderful, but when it came to my own reading there was something elusive and intriguing there, something that I wanted. (Not the Ring, to be perfectly clear on this.) They were together, in a way that I could see myself being together with someone. (Not in Mordor, again to be clear.) Theirs was a love that differed from casual or even closer friendship, and I appreciated that, even while trying to work out what exactly it was that I appreciated.
While there is a class difference between them and professional loyalty may be part of Sam’s devotion to Frodo, the longer the two are together, the less this matters. Throughout The Fellowship of the Ring, despite their closeness, theirs is still a master-servant relationship to some degree, and Frodo is more prominent. But then come two books’ worth of wandering with only each other and Gollum for company, terrible dangers, and a rescue from the hands of the orcs. Sam becomes Frodo’s equal in narrative weight, in character, in significance, and Frodo comes to see him as such: as Samwise the Stouthearted, a hero in his own right.
It is strange to think that the best and most powerful parts of their love story come at the darkest points in the books, when they have run out of any hope save for what they find in each other. Then again, perhaps that’s the point… When all else is stripped away, what is it that sustains them? Sam storms the tower in which Frodo is imprisoned and sings in the darkness, seeming to hear “a faint voice answering him.” They face the worst places they can possibly go together, and are ready to die together. It is a love that responds to the direst of circumstances by growing only stronger, and that ultimately saves the world—and the idea that love could do that without being necessarily sexual in nature inspired me inestimably.
I don’t like to talk much about the end of the third volume, because I have yet to complete it without devolving into undignified tears. But I think it is important that the bond between Frodo and Sam is not forgotten even as Frodo departs the shores of Middle-earth: Leaving the last few pages of the Red Book, Frodo trusts Sam to complete the work, just as they completed the journey together. (As a writer, I can only hope to have someone in my life who loves me enough to complete my own unfinished stories.)
* * *
Brokenness, and eventual unbelonging, are part of Frodo’s story, of course. Bilbo’s too, but he only leaves Middle-earth as a much older hobbit, and has had the chance to enjoy years of a fulfilling and happy life beforehand. This brokenness is not tied to his singleness, because while he certainly was in no frame of mind for courtship on his return to the Shire, Frodo had also gone fifty years before the quest without marrying or falling in love. It is something else, a trauma or sadness that he cannot share with others and which causes them to worry about him—but even this lingering damage serves to highlight the importance and strength of the relationships he has, and the love that he and his closest friends share.
I mention this because brokenness and unbelonging have been part of my experience, too, for far different reasons than the lingering effects of an epic quest. I move around a lot, and in doing so, find it hard to keep in touch with many of my friends. I have not had a sustained group of friends in one place for many years. The pain that results from this is as real and profound as that of forsaken romantic love, and it has been important in shaping who I am. It isn’t because of my disinterest in sex, and I am not lonely for that reason, but because of other kinds of love and belonging that I wish I had. That I can find these in a beloved book is some solace, and especially seeing them so highly valued, and their loss mourned.
This valuing of friend-love is demonstrated so early on in The Fellowship of the Ring that it would be easy to pass it by unnoticed, but the “Conspiracy Unmasked” chapter strikes such a strong note for friendship that it must be mentioned. This chapter also shows how different Frodo’s journey will be from Bilbo’s, and foreshadows some of the elements that will decide major events later on in the story. To my mind, it is also an indication that Frodo’s priority is friendship, as it is these friends whose impending parting he agonises over in the preceding months…
While it may be easier, from a narrative standpoint, to have a single hobbit going off into the unknown, not leaving behind a wife and children, it may bear different complications, as evidenced by Frodo hating to leave his friends, trying to depart unnoticed. It doesn’t work, of course, because his friendships are the strongest bonds in his life. If Bilbo was able to run off into the blue with a gang of unknown dwarves at a moment’s notice, Frodo had no such chance in “Conspiracy Unmasked,” because in lingering too long he tipped off his friends that something was going on.
Leaving again, at the end of The Return of the King, is no easier. Frodo tries once again to slip away unnoticed—and again fails. His friends catch him up. His Sam sees him off and understands why he has to go. Though Sam by this point is married, I continued to believe that Frodo was the love of his life, but in a different way. Merry, Pippin, and Sam have the chance to bid Frodo farewell and share the pain of parting, in a sober echo of that earlier, more ebullient scene.
* * *
The resonance of fictional characters depends on many things. It isn’t always a set of statistics that lines up exactly as expected, but sometimes a surprise: sometimes the characters I identify with are the ones that seem nothing like me at first. But this does not change the fact that representation matters, and that when some part of ourselves that we rarely see reflected in fiction makes its appearance, we recognise it. It comes as a great joy and relief.
I found myself in the Bagginses—characters who seemed a little at odds with their communities, perhaps, but with strong social lives. Characters who seemed intelligent enough, but still made mistakes that wiser characters could have warned them against. They were not confident, they were dreamers. Bilbo rushed out the door without a pocket handkerchief. Frodo inadvertently led his friends into danger within two hours or so of walking out the door at Crickhollow. These are the kinds of people who would be well set up for a heroic romance, if they had been so inclined, but Bilbo was quite content with no romance at all, and Frodo shared a different kind of love with Sam through their adventure and beyond. For me, their relationship is a romantic friendship, simply because that is my ideal and I like the thought of sharing it with them.
They resonated in different ways. Bilbo’s life as an ordinary bachelor (before the adventure) and as an eccentric bachelor (after) made me realise what fun singleness could be. Frodo’s upbringing, simultaneously comfortable and threaded with a yearning for adventure, followed by a journey that left him neither rich and happy like Bilbo nor married like a typical adventure hero, made me see the importance of having people to rely on in dark times, to “trust…to stick to [me] through thick and thin—to the bitter end,” as Merry put it. And in both cases, my emerging ace brain responded with the persistent feeling that I was like them—not because of something we lacked, but because of all that we shared. The road goes ever on and on, and I’m glad to be able to follow it in such good company.
Isobel Granby is a writer, PhD student, and artist currently based in Newfoundland. Her hobbies include violin, fencing, and gazing upon the raging sea. She is currently seeking an adventure that will be terribly exciting but not cause her to miss second breakfast.