Thursday, December 18, 2003


OK. In reading a number of reviews and commentaries on Return of the King in particular and Tolkien in general, a common thread I've seen woven into the comments is that Lord of the Rings is "sex-less". Some simply make that observation, while for others it is an actual criticism, and it's one that I don't understand. It puts me in mind of that infamous attack article on the Harry Potter books Harold Bloom wrote some years ago, when he complained about the lack of "sexuality" in Rowling's books -- sexuality, in books about people who are what, twelve? -- and now I'm struck again by the apparent belief that a lack of sexuality somehow equals adolescence, and the story is not to be taken as seriously. It's weird how we've taken the idea that "Sex is a theme for mature audiences" and twisted it round so it implies that "Sex is a theme of mature stories". I don't get that, I really don't.

To be honest, I've never really needed sex in stories, and I'm perfectly happy when it's either left out or gracefully alluded to with evocative prose. Here is just such a passage, from William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, in which a young boy walking in the woods comes across two people "in the act".

Two people were lying on an Indian blanket and with a hot rush Stan knew that one was a man and the other was a woman and this was what men and women did secretly together that everybody stopped talking about when he came around, only some grownups never talked about it at all. Curiosity leaped inside of him at the though os spying on them when they didn't know he was there. He was seeing it all -- all of it -- the thing that made babies grow inside of women. He could hardly breathe.

No graphic illustration, no description of this-or-that bit of anatomy, no awkward verbs like "heaving" and "thrusting" and "rolling"; just point-of-view and implication. I tend to simply skim over sex scenes in books, and I tend to wince at them in movies. Maybe it's prudishness, although I like to think it's not; it's simply that eroticism for me is contained much more in the careful, and implied, release of pent-up passion (or the culmination of emotion) than in the actual up-close grinding of bodies. Casablanca would not be improved one whit by a scene in which Rick beds Ilsa. Sex is an adult theme, but it isn't the only adult theme; and in a story where love and heroism are the main themes, the inclusion of sex can simply overwhelm and distort everything.

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