Sunday, December 12, 2010

Teeth, Tolkien, and "Twilight"

Ask anyone who's read them what they find least satisfying about the Twilight novels and they'll likely tell you it's their utterly unrealistic view of human sexuality. You get a couple of teenagers making goo-eyes at each other for several hundred pages, and now the elders are out of town, they're in the bedroom together, half their garments have gone AWOL, and . . . nothing happens. First base, second base . . . the baseball diamond has gone straight-edge. Bella and Edward don't even have the condom discussion. Perhaps vampires are unusually sensitive to fluoride? 

Most of us assume that if you put a straight man and a straight woman in a room together, extraneous factors being ignored, it's likely there will be at least a tiny smidgin of sexual tension between them. And if there's more than two people in the room, or if the would-be sex object is for some reason inap- propriate or unavailable, then--like a fly bumping around in a bottle until it finds a way out--the sexual energy will hover until it finds someone (or something) it can fix on. Until it does, everyone involved is going to feel the buzzing of frus- trated libido.And as any human being who has ever had wisdom teeth can tell you, libido doesn't like being frustrated.

Tolkien knew this as well as anyone--even though he wore dentures. (Which, incidentally, he liked to give instead of money to unattentive cashiers at the grocery store, just to see their reactions.) Being a professional medievalist, the Master of Middle-earth tended to adopt at least some portions of the medieval world-view and its sundry symbolic displacements, so that his own sexuality, even in his private letters, tends to be skillfully and modestly hidden. Carpenter's Biography speaks of Tolkien's intense need for privacy in regards to his marriage, and there's no reason for us to speculate on the nature of his relationship with Edith. Unlike her beloved husband, SHE was no smut-peddler.

So here I'll just mention the simple fact that J. R. R. Tolkien was more than a scholar. Yes, he was a devout Catholic who got up at the crack of dawn to ride his bicycle five miles to church so he could take communion before early Mass. . . . but he was also a man who, after the birth of his fourth child, had to sleep in a separate bed because getting his wife pregnant again might have killed her. (Afterall, being a devout Catholic in his day meant he couldn't even discuss condoms, let alone use them.) Heavily sublimated as his feelings may have been, Tolkien knew about sex, and about sexual frustration. He also knew how to write about them.

Libido's need for a nesting place is especially obvious in literature. Authors can't just conjure up sexual imagery without doing something with the resulting emo- tional urgency, in either their characters or their readers. The "head" of pressure (as it were) must be released. Even the most skillful author can't make the pressure simply disappear, because they've used sex to arouse the reader's expectations, and it's answering the reader's "and then what?" that keeps them with the story. Copulation needn't be the only way to release the tension, but the power of libido must in some way be acknowledged, or the reader has been cheated. And I can't imagine that Mormon housewives approve of cheating any more than non-Mormon non-housewives--even when they're doing just that.

Tolkien has set up his own, fairy-tale equivalent of a bedroom scene when the Fellowship meets Galadriel. And (unlike some authors), he has no intention of cheating his readers. We've already seen how sexual tension is present, and thick enough to cut with a charmed knife forged by the Men of Westerness. The source of the tension is, of course, Galadriel; indeed, it's almost shooting out of her like a laser. But unlike the traditional fairy-tale, in which we get to see everything from only one point of view--i.e., the male's--Tolkien lets us also see the sexual energy through female eyes. That is: what is the goal of Galadriel's libido? Where should her desire come to rest? Who should she want?

According to the canons of the classical fairy-tale, the fixation object should be Aragorn. (Big Pointy Things--chick's dig 'em.) But as we've seen, Aragorn is engaged to be married. In a "modern" novel this would present no problem: gal and guy could do the wild thing or not, with plenty of soul-searching agony thrown in to make the encounter "realistic" (think Bridges of Madison Country.) But even within the "fantasy" setting Aragorn has a perfect reason to avoid Galadriel's libido, and she to avoid his: the elf-queen is the future king's future grandmother-in-law. Even in a "realistic" story this could be expected to dampen his ardor, and maybe even hers. (This isn't The Graduate.) So Aragorn, Big Pointy Thing notwithstanding, is out of the game. One down, seven to go. . . .

So who's next in line? It should be Boromir. Strong, handsome, courageous, noble, Boromir has the cajones to battle hordes of orcs yet is gentle enough to carry the hobbits piggy-back down from the Redhorn Pass. Well-connected, too: he's the heir of the cur- rent ruler of Gondor, and the leader of Gon- dor's army. There's just something about a man in uniform . . . particularly when he's got a great big horn. What's not for a (straight) woman to like?

Unfortunately for the cause of True Love, it's what Boromir doesn't like that's the problem. . . .

(to be continued)

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