5. The Lure of Youth

Irresponsible Tweens and Erotic Uncles

“The eldest of these [cousins], and Bilbo’s favourite, was young Frodo Baggins. When Bilbo was ninety-nine he adopted Frodo as his heir, and brought him to live at Bag End; and the hopes of the Sackville-Bagginses were finally dashed. Bilbo and Frodo happened to have the same birthday, September 22nd. ‘You had better come and live here, Frodo my lad,’ said Bilbo one day; ‘and then we can celebrate our birthday-parties comfortably together.’ At that time Frodo was still in his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three.”

A Long-Expected Party, The Lord of the Rings


Continuing the analysis, there is a psycho-ethnographic aspect to sexual attraction and social expectations within the Shire. Tolkien was quite meticulous in giving the different beings of Middle-earth unique life-spans and reproductive histories. “Laws and Customs among the Eldar”[1] is a detailed account of Elves, references to Dwarves are scattered throughout various books, we know Gilraen married young, while Denethor married late[2], and there is the above statement (plus extensive genealogical charts) for hobbits. One of the most important considerations when writing Legacy was being aware of the psychological and physical maturation rates of hobbits, as defined by Tolkien, and figuring out how patterns of desire and social expectations would map onto it.

One of the difficult points was to decide what kind of age factor to use in translating hobbit ages to human equivalents. A ratio of .64 is achieved by dividing 21 (the American standard for full, legal adulthood) by the 33 age given above. While rendering good ballpark figures, it resulted in ages that felt too “young” for the story and for the society – a 99 year old Bilbo would be 63 human years, and a 21 year old Frodo would be just over 13.  Tolkien gives 100 years as a common death point for hobbits in the time of the Ring, and physical conditions in the Shire are gentle enough that the equivalent of 63 human years struck me as far too young for a common death point. The ages of hobbits in between Bilbo and Frodo also appeared rather skewed. After experimentation with different factors, I settled on a .75 calculation ratio.

The factor also worked backwards when determining relative ages of other hobbits in the genealogical tables. The Old Took, at the time of his death, would be the equivalent of a 97-98 year old human, for example. It also set a human equivalent of 30 and 52 as the beginning and end points for the average age range of parents at the time of births, since hobbits start producing children at approximately 40 and are through with childbearing by 70. Tolkien was remarkably consistent in having parents being approximately the same age. There are very few May-September marriages in hobbit society, making Frodo’s parents’ union quite exceptional.

Even using a factor, this gives hobbits an amazingly long adolescence – 13 years versus a human 8 or 9-year period of time (depending on whether one counts adolescence from 12 or from 13). Add onto this the average gap of 7 years between coming of age at 33 and the average age at the birth of a first child, 40, and most hobbits are sexually mature for 20 years before reproduction begins. One thing this indicates to me is the wide-spread use of contraceptive practices within the Shire society. Tolkien himself would probably point to abstinence as the primary practice, and this is undoubtedly the most common form. However, it does also open questions about other practices, such as same-sex liaisons before marriage, opposite-sex sexual activities besides penetrative sex before and after marriage, use of contraceptive devices and medicines, and abortion. Given the depressed population after the Fell Winter, abortion would probably not be an acceptable action to take except under very extreme circumstances.

Looking at this picture, some interesting patterns can be posited, particularly in light of a recovering population and expanding economic prosperity. The greater sexual-freedom of women would increase the possibility of non-marital sexual liaisons, though unmarried women would probably still be reasonably concerned about preserving virginity and not bearing children out of wedlock, particularly as significant property inheritance is through paternal lines. As mentioned before, a profoundly reduced female population in the two oldest age cohorts and a greatly reduced female population in the two youngest would encourage same-sex liaisons between men. Particularly among the unattached males, there would be a strong possibility of cross-generational sexual activity. 

The strongly homosocial patterns of cultural interactions outside of a marital unit would further encourage these types of relationships. However, this a far cry from saying that such liaisons would be approved of or considered respectable in the general society. “Unnatural” activities would still carry a large stigma. It is probable that very strong emotional bonds would exist between adult males, particularly in the first two age cohorts, due to the shared experience of loss from the Winter. It is also likely, within the second cohort, that an individual male’s first explicitly sexual encounter would be with a same-sex partner, probably one of the same or similar age. Even so, there would be very clear distinctions between “horsing around” or “doing what young boys will do” and being perverse or unnatural. Relieving sexual drive with another male might be overlooked or quietly excused, but persistent seeking out of male partners in preference to female partners would not be acceptable.

As indicated in the demographic analysis, later cohorts will become increasingly intolerant of same-sex interactions. However, the older male cohort has certain advantages vis-à-vis the increasingly punitive third cohort – wealth. They also have strong ties to other males within their own cohort, the most dominant males in the Shire. From this can be extrapolated a certain protection of their status, particularly if their own behavior is within reasonable bounds. Some of the males might be favored in competition for the oldest females of the third cohort (as I suppose is the case for the marriage between Drogo and Primula), while others may be made welcome in households of childhood friends, trusted with the women and children of that household (as I suppose is the case with Bilbo). In certain cases, an unattached male might be asked to serve as a sire to provide children for a couple where the husband’s fertility is impaired (possibly from illness during the Winter), though this would for a variety of reasons usually be limited to single men who were close male kin (brother or cousin) to the husband, and enjoy a position of trust in the household.

Thus, there is an interesting situation for the third age cohort, starting about 1336 when the youngest of them is 20 years old and has entered puberty (Ferumbras III), and continuing into 1388, when the youngest of the cohort reaches that age (Frodo).  They are reaching sexual maturity with a somewhat reduced female population and an unusually large contingent of unattached adult males.  This situation would be most pronounced between 1353 and 1383, when the bulk of the cohort population would have been between 20 and 35 years old. This would include the majority of the Old Took’s great-grandchildren, who are also the most prominent social and economic actors in the maturing generation. Their social relations to the “uncles” would be significantly sexualized, for females as well as for males.

As a result, there is an anxiety in the society about the uncles. They have wealth (potentially), they are unattached by marriage and thus free to select from among partners, and they are available sexual partners for younger, unattached males in an extended condition of adolescence. That they are also sexual competitors for all women is suppressed in favor of dwelling on the aspect of their sexuality which is most easily demonized; to acknowledge their attractiveness to females is to obliquely acknowledge the younger male’s lack thereof. At the same time, there would probably be an eroticization of the reviled men. The “fascination with the abomination” is powerful, and speculation about their erotic activities allows vicarious enjoyment of proscribed behaviors. The third age cohort, great-grandchildren of the Old Took, in Legacy are almost obsessed with Bilbo's sexuality, and can barely see anything else about him, unlike the elders in his own age cohort, who don’t see him exclusively in those terms (though they do acknowledge this about him). An erotic intent is reputed for almost everything he does. The sexual allure of adolescent boys (curious, compliant, subordinate, unable to be impregnated) is presumed, and his inability to resist this temptation is taken as a given.

Another fascinating factor, one that is of great interest to many, is Bilbo’s apparent perpetual youth because of the Ring. Though he is almost one hundred, he has the appearance of someone the age of his younger cousins in their fifties and sixties. What would have been a great advantage to him in his own sixties and into his seventies, had he pursued a wife, is now another sign of his unnatural, perhaps perverted, condition. Even he is beginning to worry about this inexplicable signifier.

Legacy takes as Bilbo as its protagonist, and the entire story is told from his perspective. However, a major theme of the story is Frodo’s growing consciousness of himself as a sexual being, and how his knowledge of the psycho-social position of eroticized uncles in general, and of Bilbo in particular, affects his relationship with Bilbo. The status of this knowledge becomes the ground on which Frodo is manipulated (or resists manipulation) by other relations who are not averse to exploiting rumor, innuendo, sexual uncertainty and sexual curiosity for economic, political and sexual advantage. What Frodo is learning, in a variety of ways, is that he himself may be the object of desire and, like adolescents in most societies, is trying to understand what this means, how he might take advantage of this condition, and what choices he must face because of it.

An interesting comparison presented itself for me in developing Legacy – Bilbo and his cousin, Ferumbras III. Tolkien explicitly says Ferumbras is unmarried, yet it seems almost impossible that the (eventual) Thain of the Shire would not have been able to obtain a marriage partner; he is the most eligible bachelor in the Shire, after all. The only hint Tolkien gives is in a letter, implying that his mother is such a domineering harridan the poor fellow cannot find a woman willing to be her daughter-in-law. It is comical and plays on misogynistic tropes, but not believable in a patrilineal, patriarchal society. Thus, one can safely assume his unmarried state is by choice, even if heavily influenced by his mother. His social position is such that he (possibly alone of all Shire hobbits) could be very open in preference for same-sex erotic partners. He would also have reached adulthood in 1346, shortly after Bilbo returned to Shire bearing the Ring. While by birth date and unmarried status, Ferumbras most closely resembles the second cohort, I took the potentially corrupting influence of the Ring to place him firmly within the third cohort, with a second cohort twist – unlike Esmeralda and Saradoc’s desire for wealth and possessions, Ferumbras is (by reputation) indulging in unfettered carnal desires.

Thus, he combines the sexual threat of the uncles with the avariciousness of the younger population. This would also mean that he fails to fulfill the socio-political responsibilities of stewardship entrusted to the Took dynasty (to be discussed in greater depth in the following section). There is no continence or judgement in his sexual choices, and his social prominence does not allow his actions to remain private. Ferumbras becomes a standard narrative type, in some ways: the hedonistic, somewhat predatory, lord or notable who uses his position to indulge in socially unacceptable desires. He is the epitome of the dangerous, erotic uncle.

Bilbo faces a constant comparison to this close relative, and must always consider his own actions and desires in relation to the example set by Ferumbras. Attentions to younger men would always be subject to presumption of an erotic motive. If he did, in fact, find other men sexually desirable, he would be in a difficult position. How would he moderate his own desires and behaviors in light of social opprobrium and wariness, but also with regard to his own thoughts and attitudes towards such desires? This became a significant concern while writing the story – to make Bilbo a part of his society, sharing its standards and mores, yet also to establish his intellectual and psychological independence from this environment in a realistic manner.

[1] Part Three, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, Morgoth’s Ring, HoME X.

[2] Appendix A, Lord of the Rings