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  • Gazing Upon Sauron:Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of the Postcolonial Optic

Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought, he himself was one.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

And he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes—the coming menace was unmasked at last.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

In the objectification of the scopic drive there is always the threatened return of the look.

—Homi Bhabha, "The Other Question"

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, by sheer virtue of its material size, presents a near-impossible challenge for any type of critical or revisionist imagining. It is not easily read and not easily fixed within a particular academic gaze. Its generic ambivalence as a text creates problematic and incomplete readings, for it occupies several different literary modes—epic, romance, pastoral, and fantasy—without [End Page 908] firmly attaching itself to any of them. Tolkien's narrative is, at times, a sprawling landscape of descriptive catalogues, where dialogue merely foregrounds the history and diegetic complexity of Middle-earth. But, simultaneously (and paradoxically), that narrative is shaped by the ambivalent social interactions of a wide array of characters—each one, often at unexpected moments, capable of intense personal revelation. And within that array, it is Tolkien's hobbits, themselves socially marginalized and culturally othered, who will become the object of this inquiry. For in many ways they are (post)colonial subjects, but in just as many ways they are something different—hybrid figures who tease the edges of any essentialist reading, whose slippage eludes the critical eye.

To look at them, to position them within a visual field of interpretation, is to expose The Lord of the Rings as a text that hinges upon viewing: looks given, looks returned, looks frustrated, and looks denied. Whether it is Sauron's roaming eye, the imperial gaze of the Elves, or Shelob's (the spider-monster) hungry, mindless stare, the hobbits must negotiate an increasingly complex system of looks that seek to either subject, disembody, or distort them. Sam and Frodo, transplanted from their native Shire (which itself undergoes a process of colonization), find themselves in a new world of cultural instability and political upheaval that has, in actual fact, always existed just outside the borders of their home. They become the aliens, the exiles, the visually aberrant subjects who have no discernible place within the social text of Middle-earth.

They are ignored by Elves, Dwarves, and humans, condescended to by Wizards, nameless (and therefore bodiless) within the collective memory of the Ents (the giant tree-folk), and, furthermore, the object of each other's critical and doubtful gaze. Yet, as Elrond states, it is their "small hands [that] . . . move the wheels of the world . . . because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere" (270; bk. 2, ch. 2). It is their deeds, however flawed or ambiguous, that eventually become mythologized in story and song. But herein lies the paradox of their status as misjudged and falsely imagined colonial subjects.

For if the hobbits have greater social mobility because they are invisible, or incorrectly perceived, then it is their ambivalent subjectivity that makes them heroically effective. How does this disrupt, or resignify, notions of cultural alterity and the known/knowable (post)colonial subject? And in what ways do the hobbits both maintain a system of cultural stereotyping (through mimesis or passing) and simultaneously oppose it through acts of visual and linguistic defiance?1 How do they look back, returning not a discrete and uncomplicated gaze of Empire, but a wide network of competing gazes— [End Page 909] the Elves as originators of written culture, the Dwarves as industrialists, the humans as failed interlocutors, and their own kind, the insular Shire-folk themselves, who dread anything different or unnatural, anything "queer"?

Current Tolkien criticism, described by Daniel Timmons as "an established state with demarcated regions that seem self-reliant, yet not mutually exclusive" ("Mirror" 190), is widely dispersed over various interpretive realms—most commonly literary...

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