This is an informative essay. All the characters and plotlines here discussed belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien in Love
All you need to know about het and slash romance fics in the Tolkien universe
You need to know the rules in order to better disobey them.
Marcello Fois, Memoirs of the void
Let's say you watched the movies, read the books, and fell in love. With a character, with a line, with a race of Middle-earth, with a situation, with an atmosphere. Let's say you have a fervid imagination, or even a normal, healthy one, and sometimes you daydream and tell yourself stories. Where, of late, Elves and Hobbits and Gondorians tend to star far more than your schoolmates/friends/work colleagues. And let's say that one day you realize you are not alone in your daydreams: that out there there's a whole community of people who share your passion for such stories. And eventually, after dreaming and reading and re-watching the movie, if only to free yourself from it, you decide to write your story down. My compliments! You have become a romance writer, in the Tolkien fanfiction universe.
Nobody is born learnt, we say in my country. And when you're writing in a fandom as complex as the Tolkienian one, there are countless things one needs to know before fitting perfectly in it. There are thousands of pages about Middle-earth – and thousands of different interpretations about them, not to mention that sometimes Tolkien's writings are in contradiction with one another. Scared? You shouldn't be. You have years of reading ahead of you – and if reading isn't your thing, if you are a movieverse writer who doesn't care about the book or simply hasn't the time, or a book writer who's at her first read of the LotR trilogy, don't worry: this essay is written for you. To put down a few facts and give you the guidelines about how to go forth and enrich this fandom with a whole new generation of fantastic romance fics.
What this essay is: an easy guide to all you might need to know in the writing of Tolkien-verse romance fics, both het (male/female pairings) and slash (same-sex pairings).
What this essay isn't: a critique, an attack, a pretence at knowing everything. I'll quote bits of books from Tolkien to support what I'm saying, and occasionally essays from other writers or directly their words.
Sources: The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the History of Middle-earth; within its twelve volumes, notably the essay 'Laws and Customs of the Eldar'.
All set? Let's start!
Follows here an index of the contents of this essay, so that you may peruse and browse at will, looking for what you need.
1. Romancing the heroes: romance is legit
2. Once upon a time it was the canon
3. Het fic: there was a lad who met a lass…
4. Slash fic: there was a lad who met a lad…
5. The S word: love and sex in Middle-earth
6. You-know-what: calling things by their name
7. Culture clash: Man meets Elf
8. One-off: do Elves love only once?
9. Non-con: rape me (not)
10. Love hurts: BDSM
11. Incest: too close for comfort
12. Sirs and servants: class struggle, Middle-earth style
13. No I don't: combined marriages
14. He knocked him up: the controversial issue of M-preg
15. There were nine walkers…no, wait, ten
16. Monster love: Orcs in romance
17. Dwarves: know nothing, guess even less
18. The Middle-earth patient: love in the healing house
19. Sing to me, o Muse: song and poetry in romance
20. Crossed: when universes overlap
21. Conclusion: bringing the romance out there
1. Romancing the heroes: romance is legit
Tolkien's writings span thousands of years of a fictional place, Middle-earth, that the author declared to be 'our own world, in an imaginary time of its history'. As such, people there experience feelings we can perfectly understand: hatred, friendship, fear, courage, and, of course, love and desire. The pages of Tolkien books are full of characters, both male and female, that sometimes are characterized in detail over hundreds of pages, and some other times are just sketches a few lines long. Of some of them we know everything; of others, nothing. The less you know about a character, the more you are free to guess and invent; and sometimes even what you know may be incomplete.
We know a lot about Legolas; nothing about his love life. The same goes for dozens of other popular heroes; and when the book says nothing (and sometimes even when it does) the fanfiction writer comes into play. Don't accept flames from those who tell you you have no right to write romance fics: you have. Don't accept insults from those who think they own the truth: they don't.
Tolkien's books only mention het couples; that doesn't mean homosexual ones don't exist. And indeed, if Middle-earth is our Earth, in an however imaginary time, they will certainly have existed. That they are not mentioned only means they are taboo: nothing new beneath the visiting moon. Many of Tolkien's characters choose not to marry; some of them, who do it, have long, intense, ambiguous relationships with members of their own sex. It's home-free time, my dear fellow writers: jump in the gap and fill it.
2. Once upon a time it was the canon
'Canon' is perhaps the most dreaded word by fanfiction writers. Why? Because it's what intolerant people (usually called 'canon-nazis', but I prefer the term 'canon-pickers') use to bash them, cosh them, flame them, and destroy them. Why canon-pickers read fanfiction at all is a mystery that is yet to be resolved; their mere existence should not discourage you from writing.
On the other hand, canon exists: canon is the reason we're here, and the fact that we like it is the trigger that has pushed us to fanfiction in the first place. You may stretch it, gap-fill it, alter it, even break it; you can go AU (Another Universe, where things change substantially from the original story), and you can mock it, parody it, or use a different version from Tolkien's own writings. What you can't do, is ignoring it.
Have a doubt? Ask. There is Wikipedia, at least three different wikis devoted to Tolkien-verse alone, and dozens of forums. You have the indexes in the books, probably some friend who knows the story, and hopefully a beta helping you to go through what you're writing. Once you know the canon, you may do with it what you want: but you can't just wash your hands of it. Believe me, there are scores of hints, facts and plotlines in the infinite corners of Tolkien's books that will help you, inspire you, and give you a hand in wading through writer's block and exhaustion.
You know Aragorn met Arwen and fell for her; if you know what he did before, in the meantime and afterwards with his wandering, ranging and soldiering life, your own plotline of a love story with another maiden can find a believable space in it. You can then go AU and have him marry her instead of Arwen if you want; and if you know the canon you'll know where to fit these events too.
If you have a doubt, ask. It's worth it.
3. Het fic: there was a lad who met a lass…
Het fics are your classical 'boy meets girl' stories. You can use them to explore an already established canon relationship (example: Faramir and Eowyn's marriage and life in Ithilien), to pair up two canon characters who didn't make it together in the canon story (ex.: Aragorn's and Eowyn's story, if he had fallen for her), or, very frequently, to introduce an OC (Original Character) who falls in love with an otherwise unmarried character (ex. Legolas or Frodo) or with a character that in canon has a mate (ex. Aragorn or Faramir).
OC het fics are usually reviled with venomous hatred by the canon-pickers; which is a pity, because some of them are really good. They can be romantic, sexual, angsty or all these three together; the only thing that matters is they are well written and plausible. Meaning: if your character joins the Fellowship and seduces Aragorn, you have to tell the reader how he'll cope with Arwen afterwards. The girl was ready to give up her immortality for him: he can't just text her saying he's met someone else.
Many het fics drip sappiness, and the lovers are happy from start to end; are you really sure this would be plausible in the Tolkien-verse? Whether you're writing War of the Ring, Nůmenor or First Age, chances are something terrible is going to happen during your character's lifespan. If he/she is an Elf, several horrible things are going to happen. (For more information about it, please check out Galadriel's biography). Terrible things affect people's lives: men go to war, cities are conquered, women have to flee or are taken prisoner. Wars leave scars, soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (even if they don't know what it is because Freud wasn't there to bring psychoanalisis along) and traumas like rape, captivity and loss are not solved in a day. You want the happy ending? Go ahead with it. But for a story to be interesting, there must be some conflict to be resolved, and some consequences to it.
Cinderella got to marry the prince; but before she had to slave away for her whole life under unloving, uncaring, downright mean people. And if she hadn't, your mother wouldn't have told you her story before you went to bed.
4. Slash fics: there was a lad who met a lad…
Slash fics, also called fem-slash if they feature a female/female couple, are very common: they serve the readers' need to explore unsolved canon issues such as Frodo's inordinate and effusive affection for Sam, Legolas' fondness for going pic-nicking with Dwarves, or simply, as in het fics, to pair up two characters the writer thinks really would have been great together. (For example, all the Aragorn/Legolas, Fingon/Maedhros fics out there.) OCs are very rarely found here, for the simple reason that Tolkien stories have such an amount of hot unmarried guys as it is that it's just superfluous to invent others. Unless, of course, the whole fic is centered around an original character, see Sauron's son in Spiced Wine's Dark Prince.
Canon-pickers flame slash fics because they think homosexual love just doesn't exist in Middle-earth (and as we have said, this is such a ridiculous concept it barely deserves attention), and, unfortunately, het writers flame slash ones because slash embarrasses them, or because they don't agree with the couple featured. (I have seen many Aragorn/Legolas fics flamed by Aragorn/OC pairers, and that's just an example). This, my friends, is just wrong: while any fic, be it slash or het, can be badly or well written, and constructive criticism always helps, to bash a story because we don't agree with the kind of love there featured is immature and childish.
I am an het writer who sometimes reads slash, as there are writers of both het and slash romance, and writers who prefer to read and write only in one genre. That's only natural; and if you don't like the opposite field, you only have not to read it. The Library of Moria is an online slash-only archive, OpenScrolls is an het-only one, and most fanfiction archives will allow you to decide whether you want to visualize slash stories or filter them out. Mutual respect is the basis for a peaceful, pleasant life; and literature, especially fanfiction-y one, works on the very simple assumption that if you don't like a genre, you don't read it.
This said, slash romance works along the same lines of het one: and plausibility here is just as important. Most of LotR fans know where you're starting from if you write a Frodo/Sam; but if you choose to write a less 'obvious' couple, for example Legolas/Boromir, you have to show the readers why they fell in love, how, when, and how everybody else reacted. Did they keep it a secret? If they came out, what difficulties did they meet?
While homosexual love is certain to exist in a world that mirrors our own, it is just as certain that Middle-earth features a medieval society where such a love is never mentioned or supported in any way. Love between soldiers, or master and servant, same-sex rape, or perversions acted out on impotent prisoners have always existed, and we have plenty of examples of it, obvious or not, in ancient histories, chronicles and epic poems. Whether such things are openly acknowledged is a completely different matter.
Any same-sex couple in Tolkien's world is going to meet opposition, the need for secrecy, and a thousand different problems. Homosexual kings may be forced to marry to give the kingdom an heir (we have real history examples of that), fathers may disown sons and daughters they find not conformant to their idea or what is right, and somebody may be bisexual and be torn between a female and a male love. (The het and slash writer Encairion has a very plausible theory of Elves being likely to be bisexual, as in them the spirit is stronger than the flesh, and therefore they'll fall for a spirit regardless of the sexual identity of the body that hosts it.)
So, if you think Aragorn and Boromir are pure heaven together, by all means write it; but as you do it know that while some characters will discover it and keep their peace in approving silence, others will criticize them and act out on their disapproval. The conflict poses you a challenge and is very likely to make you story more compelling and better to read.