The Tales That Really Mattered: A Discussion of Fanfiction, Queer Identity and Lord of the Rings

The final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out when I was eight years old and I remember being very confused by a scene towards the end. In the scene, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins are sitting on a rock surrounded by lava. They have just destroyed the ring and are waiting for the end, and Samwise is crying as he admits to Frodo that if he was to marry anyone it would’ve been Rosie Cotton. This confession made no sense to me. I had just sat through three movies where Sam had followed Frodo across Middle Earth on a perilous journey, and it seemed obvious to me that after everything they’d been through they would get married. From the scene at the end of the first movie where Sam cried and said he didn’t mean to leave Frodo, to the very end where Sam had carried him those final few steps up Mt Doom, I had been watching a romance between these two hobbits. How could the story now veer wildly off course and have Samwise marry a girl from the Shire?

I later found out that on the DVD commentary Sir Ian McKellan talked about this exact thing. He said: “When I suggested to Sean [who played Sam] that he should take Elijah’s [Frodo’s] hand, it was because I thought anyone who knew the book would care about the deep friendship, often of an innocently physical nature, that might’ve been missed by two resolutely heterosexual actors — who also mightn’t appreciate that gay people like myself saw in a touch something more meaningful than others might. So, to persuade him to touch Elijah, I’d say: ‘Well look, it’s in the book.’ So then, other people were seeing the romance I was seeing, but perhaps not people who were ‘resolutely heterosexual’.”

Imagine if Frodo had been a girl. Imagine if we had been given a movie trilogy wherein Samwise had told her to not go where he couldn’t follow, referred to himself as “her Sam”, left his home and journeyed across Middle Earth for her, fought his way up a tower full of orcs to rescue her, and wherein Frodo told him that she wouldn’t have gotten very far without “Samwise the Brave”. How could a straight creator miss the romantic elements in that story?

Imagine if Ginny Weasley was a boy, and Luna had gushed to anyone who would listen about how very kind he was and how nice he was for defending her. Would it be too big a leap to imagine a crush on Luna’s part?

Imagine if Captain America was Stephanie rather than Steve, and Bucky was her best friend across time who only remembered who he was when he looked into her eyes and heard her say she was with him to the end of the line. Wouldn’t we have a romantic subplot over the next movies, or at least some see sort of tension between the characters? It wouldn’t be too big of a leap to expect romance.

When we as an audience consume media, we always frame the stories and characters based on our understanding of the world. We fill in the gaps in the story with our own lived experiences. And so, for someone who is straight, the idea of a romance between two characters of the same gender might not enter their minds. They may very well just see a very close friendship between two hobbits (which was certainly what Sean and Elijah saw when they were acting the characters). But someone else may see something more. They’ll take their own experiences of love and see it reflected on the screen, even where it isn’t necessarily intended by the creators or actors.

And this is true for all media and all people. Someone with a disability may see a character acting in ways they act, and wonder if that character has their disability. Someone from a certain religious background may find similarities with a character in their favourite book. Someone who is trans may see similarities between their lived experiences and their favourite comic book character.

A creator relies on their own experiences when creating media, and has certain expectations of how people will consume their stories. But when they finish their work and it is viewed by an audience, that audience will inevitably see the work in a myriad of different ways and fill in gaps differently. And so, we end up with a million different interpretations of who these characters are, many of which may not necessarily be what the creator intended, or even wanted people to see — but that is how people see them.

So what is a queer audience to do when they see what is, to them, a promising romance with no payoff?

When people do not see themselves represented in media, sometimes they turn to fan communities where they’re free to create their own narratives. They write fanfiction.

I was first introduced to the world of online fanfiction by the Twilight books. Say what you want about that series, but Stephenie Meyer was amazing in the way she encouraged fans of her works to create their own stories, even linking to fansites on her official website. And through these fansites I found stories not just about Bella and Edward, but about Bella and Alice, or Bella and Rosalie, and it was something I’d never seen before. At a time of my life where I was just beginning to question my own sexuality, here were online forums full of stories where girls loved girls and boys loved boys, and I was encouraged to explore my own feelings and write my own stories about characters I already loved. Here was a world where people didn’t have to answer to editors or producers, where they didn’t need to care about being palatable for a mass audience, where they were free to write stories just for them about people like themselves.

We live in a world where a lot of people are assumed straight unless proven otherwise, especially in media. But in a way, this is a blessing for a queer person writing fanfiction. If we are meant to assume a character is straight, they are not likely to talk about their sexuality, because why would they? And if they do not talk about their sexuality, then why can’t they be queer? And if a queer person sees themselves in the character, there is nothing to stop them creating their own stories where that character is queer. They can log on to their preferred site and have a story about this character up in an hour.

One of the great things about online fanfiction communities is the lack of barriers. People do not need to find agents and face the costs of publishing and advertising to create their works and get an audience. They do not need to establish a setting or characters from scratch if they do not want to, as they are already established in the source material. And there is already an established audience hungry to read new narratives. This is fantastic for younger creators, offering them a platform where they can write their own stories, find their voice and explore their sexualities through familiar characters and worlds. Hell, it was in a Twilight fanfiction that I first encountered the term “bisexual” and a lot of things fell into place for me.

And these online spaces are not limited to queer narratives. There is a great Star Trek: Voyager fanfiction that follows a love story between Captain Janeway and first officer Chakotay, which was started by a fan wishing to write the character of Chakotay to be more accurate to their own lived experience as a Native American. Numerous stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom explore Bucky’s life with a prosthetic arm, or make Clint deaf as he is in some of the comics. Since I am also partially deaf, I myself had great enjoyment taking a character from a video game who was also half deaf and writing long stories correcting the ways the original narrative got my disability wrong.

I’m not saying fanfiction is perfect. It has its problems, as does any other area where a lot of people gather on the internet. But it is a very valuable tool that enables people who do not feel represented by the media they consume to easily make representation.

Media has gotten much more diverse lately and I am thrilled by this, but we still have a fair way to go. So, in the meantime, I still write and consume my own fanfiction to fill in the blanks. Some of the sweetest moments in life are when people comment thanking me for writing experiences like their own, or for including gender diverse, asexual or polyamorous characters, which they may not encounter in other media. Or at least, who they may not see being portrayed openly and accurately.

The Lord of the Rings movies may not have depicted Samwise and Frodo in a tragic love story where the One Ring corrupted Frodo too much for him to happily marry Sam. Harry Potter may not have had Luna and Ginny kissing in secret corridors of Hogwarts and dancing at Slughorn’s party together. Game of Thrones may not go off on a wild tangent about single-mother Cersei who owns an established coffee shop and is engaged in a fierce rivalry with young entrepreneur Daenerys, who has opened a coffee shop across the street and with whom she slowly falls in love over about a hundred chapters. But somewhere out there somebody is writing fanfiction about all of these things — and if they aren’t, then you or I can write it. And maybe there’s another eight-year-old who’s confused by the movie they’re watching, who’ll one day find fanfiction and realise that they can create and consume stories about people just like them and fix the obvious problem with that movie.

The last pages are for them, I say, as I hand them my ageing computer and sail away across the sea into the Undying Lands full of queer media.