Love, Pure as the Driven Snow?
I'm obsessed with polar exploration. Specifically, with the chronicles of early twentieth-century British exploration of Antarctica -- most of which center around spectacular failure.
In 1912 Robert Falcon Scott was beaten, in the race to the pole, by Norwegian Roald Amundsen; Scott died, with his polar party, en route back to their base, trapped in a blizzard, only eleven miles from a food depot which would have saved them. (Whether they died because Scott planned poorly, or because of weather anomalies he never could have predicted, is the source of much scholarly debate. See Susan Solomon's The Coldest March.)
In 1915, Ernest Shackleton set out to sledge across the continent. He failed, too. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped in pack ice. It was crushed. Shackleton and his men lived on ice floes, then in a pair of rowboats; they performed superhuman feats of survival. Remarkably, they all lived, although none of their actual goals came to fruition. They took some amazing photos (http://www.shackleton-endurance.com), though, especially considering they had to haul the glass plate negatives with them when the ship sank.
I could go on for days. I read everything I can get my hands on, although I eschew most of the current narrative rehashings in favor of source texts. I'm geeky, almost manic, in my recounting of details which would leave most ordinary people, ah, cold.
But aside from the fact that Martin Shaw (of Professionals fame) stars in The Last Place on Earth (http://www.framheim.com/LPOE.htm), a 1994 British miniseries about the race for the pole, (yes, I own all seven tapes), there's not much crossover between my polar obsession and my involvement in slash fandom. For one thing, I have serious issues with RPS. Did the explorers live in an all-male world down there? Yep. Did they face adversity together? Yep. Did they write impassioned rhapsodies about each other in their diaries? Yep. Did they rely on each other, often to the point of dying in each others' arms? Yep. I still wouldn't slash them. End of story.
What's wacky is that my polar exploration is starting to inform the way I engage with certain slash fandoms. Last fall, along with most of the rest of America, I re-read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy in anticipation of the December release of FoTR. I hadn't read the books since adolescence, years before my polar obsession began and years before I had any awareness of either fandom or slash.
I was staggered. The Company of the Ring -- most specifically, the partnership of Frodo and Sam - seems to me clearly patterned after the early-twentieth-century British masculine ideal, as exemplified in the polar explorers whose diaries I reread so avidly. Frodo and Sam face impossible adversity in service of a noble goal; as Ring-bearers, they understand each other in ways that outsiders never can. They protect one another. They are loyal to one another. They love one another. Just like the polar explorers.
ŠWho I feel fairly certain weren't, on the whole, queer. I'm sure some did pair off, in one fashion or another. But I wouldn't venture to guess, and I wouldn't dream of writing about it. I think there's something weirdly repressed about the English male psyche of the early twentieth century, but at the same time I'm charmed by that repression. Scott loved his men; knowing that his party was dying with him was harder than realizing he was dying himself. And not because, as the average slash story would probably have it, he regretted losing somebody's blowjob-perfect lips. To slash the polar explorers would not only be potentially libelous; it would fundamentally alter their heroic narrative.
Their apparent purity is part of what I love about these explorers, after all: unlike those "exploring" Africa and the Arctic, the Antarctic explorers weren't subjugating native peoples, weren't engaging in the dirty play of global politics. Their ambitions, like their love, were pure as the proverbial driven snow. They sought discovery, knowledge, honor. Mundane concerns like sex were beneath them. At least, that's how their story goes. Weirdly enough, although I firmly believe sex doesn't "sully" anything, although I know there's no escaping the various agendas of history, some part of me is drawn to the Romantic construction of the polar narrative.
If the hobbits were modeled after these explorers, as I think they were, does that mean I think slashing LoTR sullies the purity of hobbit love? If I did, I wouldn't be alone. For instance, writer Neva Chonin appears to think so. "It's fun to imagine clumsy courtships among dwarves and elves and hobbits, but in this particular work it's more exciting to consider the alternative: that the fellows of the Fellowship openly express affection for one another with no erotic strings attached," she writes (http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/chonin/). And part of me is inclined to agree. I can't help reading the hobbits in the context of the British explorer ideal, and in that context, their love isn't sexual. The hobbits encode a British ideal of men loving, and relying on, other men in a non-sexualized way.
Then again, now that I'm in slash fandom, part of me can't help reading the books with a slashy eye. Give me a break: they live together, they sleep together, they hold hands, they pillow their heads on each others' breasts, they actually say they love each other. I've actively built slash fiction out of so much less, it's almost ridiculous not to let this subtext shine through. Plus which, trying not to mentally slash the movie is nigh-impossible. (Lord, those actors are pretty.)
So maybe the ultimate answer is to remember that the hobbits may be designed on the explorer model, but they're not the historical explorers. Let the historical realities inform the way the hobbits were created, but let our own mental hobbits do what they may.