Upon a second glance, I want to take the opportunity to analyze a specific moment in the movie that seems especially significant and has the capacity to re-contextualize the plot of the entire film, depending on the perspective of the viewer.
There is one particularly moving scene set during Tolkien’s college years at Oxford. In the fencing room, a hungover Ronald is consoled by his best friend, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, after learning that Edith is engaged to another man. I discussed this briefly with SamanthaMaybe, and we agreed that there are easily two different readings of this scene, but both are important, and worth discussing.
On one hand, it’s difficult to come away from this scene without seeing Geoffrey’s words as an admission of unrequited love for Ronald, an unspoken truth that both of them are aware of and fully intend to do nothing about, given their different romantic leanings. Geoffrey seems to speak from a very specific perspective of experience, and it’s not difficult to see how this could be true, though I don’t know how accurate to Geoffrey’s real-life inclinations that might be. On the other hand, at no other point in the film is there a clear indication that Geoffrey sees anything but a dear friend in Ronald, and this scene can also easily be read without any romantic undertone as simply a beautiful moment where a friend consoles another with kind, sincere words that clearly help him in a time of desperate pain.
It would be a mistake to discount either reading, in my opinion, and I can see support for either in the text of the film itself. However, I worry that erasure of one in support of the other would be a misunderstanding of Tolkien’s stories of friendships between men, at large.
J.R.R.’s many works display, over and over again, the power and healthiness of affection – both physical and verbal – between brave, strong, and honorable men. Some of them love women very much. An assumption that kindness and connection between two men can only exist when there is romance is both unfair and ignorant. Such an assumption would stem from the idea that both friendly compassion and romantic feelings are inherently emasculating, and that notion is, frankly, stupid. Both can exist, either separately, or simultaneously. Personally, I think this scene occurs between two straight friends, and does what most of Tolkien’s work does: normalizes and encourages brotherly love. However, I also think that it would make a lot of sense, narratively and within the emotional fabric of this specific story, if Geoffrey’s character arc in this moment is heightened by his admission of love without any expectation. His consolation of Tolkien, due to his own quiet and painful experience, would be made even more meaningful, because of it.
Regardless, I think both readings are valid, either separately or when combined. Still, I don’t want someone to miss the importance of one by only considering the other. Middle-Earth’s stories have done good work to normalize healthy friendships based on kindness and mutual affection, and I don’t want a romanticizing eye to eliminate that message. At the same time, I don’t want to imply that romantic feelings necessarily nullify friendship and friendly intent. People can and often do exert self-control when they help a friend, even if (perhaps especially when) they are in love them.
The film begins with Ronald searching for Geoffrey on the battlefield and ends shortly after he convinces Geoffrey’s mother to publish her son’s poetry. Amidst the tearful conversation, Ron says that Geoff was the best example of what it means to be love and be loved that Ron has ever known. As Ron learns to finally write down the long brewing tale about fellowship written on his soul, you can see how important his loving friendships with the members of the TCBS – especially Geoff – were to him.
Did you see the fencing room scene as part of the epic love story of Ron and Edith, or the epic love story of Geoffrey and Ron? Sound off in the comments! Whatever your perspective, it can’t be denied that love – filial or romantic, requited or fulfilled – is foundational to the best and most epic kind of story one can tell.