It’s in the Beards

Reading transgender narratives in Hobbit fanfiction

“On the third day, one of the dwarves practicing axe forms took off his shirt under the hot sun, and Bofur saw Dwalin’s eyes go wide. With barely restrained glee, the big dwarf almost tore off his own shirt, getting it caught in his knuckledusters…After that, Dwalin took his shirt off every day, with a relish that brought a smile to both their lips. It was a precious freedom.”

Last summer, a few days before the solar eclipse, I checked that the house was clear, ventured outside onto the deck, and took off my shirt outside the confines of my own room since my top surgery the previous winter. The sun was warm on my shoulders and back for the five minutes I luxuriated in the new feeling, striking bodybuilder poses and giggling with joy and at myself for taking joy in such a seemingly simple act. There may have been some spinning around and something approximating a shimmy—I will deny nothing. Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to go outside without a shirt or my scars would heal weird. I retreated back into the house. But for those few, precious minutes, I remembered and finally understood the above passage for the first time since reading it a few years ago.

The passage, though it describes two characters from Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, is not from the actual book. Rather, it’s from a middle part of a trilogy of fanfiction of the movie based on the book The Hobbit, focusing on the gender transition (FTM) of one Dwalin son of Fundin, dwarf of Erebor. Yes, this is a thing that exists. Yes, I read it: several times, in fact. It will be helpful if not entirely necessary for you to be at least familiar with the concept of dwarves in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit and the word “transgender” before continuing onward.

I’m going to give those unfamiliar with the series time to read a synopsis of Tolkien’s work (please focus on The Hobbit and the Company of Thorin Oakenshield). Read it? Great. Here we go.

In the film version of JRR Tolkien’s The Two Towers, there is an iconic scene. Well, there are several: Legolas skateboarding down the staircase at Helm’s Deep, Arwen’s purple dress, that time a bedraggled yet inexplicably attractive Aragorn son of Arathorn opens both doors to a bickering court, Eowyn standing atop the steps to the Edoras. Those scenes, while combined form the basis of my sexual orientation, are not the scene I’m talking about. I’m talking about a throwaway scene to many, filmed as the refugees of Edoras and Rohan flee to the sanctuary of Helm’s Deep, along a sunlit road, joking with their companions before the wargs attack the caravans. Still with me? Great.

In this scene, Eowyn, princess of Rohan, and Gimli son of Gloin, a dwarf of Erebor and one of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, are learning about each other’s cultures. “It’s true, you don’t see many dwarf women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance that they’re often mistaken for dwarf men!” Gimli informs Eowyn.

She looks back at Aragorn, a worldly traveler, who gestures with his hands towards his face and stage whispers “It’s the beards.” Eowyn laughs.

Gimli finishes: “This in turn has given rise to the belief that there are no dwarf women, and that dwarfs just spring out of holes in the ground, which is of course ridiculous.” Three or four lines of dialogue, depending on how you slice it: that’s it. It takes 10 seconds to say, and most people forgot the joke as one of the many moments of camaraderie and humor found among the more dramatic elements of the trilogy of films.

Gimli_-_FOTR

Much like the one ring, carried along, but mostly forgotten, in Bilbo Baggins’ pocket, the scene lay dormant in culture and in my brain for a good decade. In hindsight, of course, I remember remembering that scene very well. That same decade was also a period of my life where I tried to ignore I was trans. But, in 2012, two things converged upon each other: the first installment of The Hobbit came out in theaters, and I wrote in very cramped writing in my journal that I might be—just might be—transgender.

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In the intervening decade between the Lord of the Rings trilogy and whatever group name we’re using for The Hobbit movies, we as a culture had leaped into the future, catching the public in general up on some queer and gender theory. Transgender and transsexual, in 2012, weren’t words you knew because of gender studies classes or porn, anymore. Jennifer Finney Boylan had written a popular memoir She’s Not There, which to this day helps put a relatable face on transgender women. Chaz Bono started living as himself. You may not know a trans person, but you probably knew that we existed and that, perhaps, we weren’t all dead sex workers in Law & Order. Perhaps.

Those ten years for me were, being my adolescence and early 20s, obviously also a time of great growth. I went from watching Kiera Knightly—and isn’t it always her—in Pirates of the Caribbean and having the stomach swooping realization that, oh no, I liked girls too, when I was 12, through to a stuttered coming out, a few boyfriends, a couple girls I made out with, one girlfriend. Ten years of me declaring emphatically that I was sure boobs were not the thing for me, no matter how rebelliously they grew like impertinent Himalayas without my consent. I met and subsequently avoided several trans men in my women’s college in an attempt to dodge the entire subject, only to watch at close range my sister have a tumultuous coming out of her own as transgender.

We converge on December 2012, when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out in theaters. It was important because it hit a sweet spot of fandom, particularly people in roughly my age range and circumstances: early 20s, fandom weathered through much Discourse but willing to fight that fight again, passingly good writers, already progressively minded due to years of JK Rowling’s gentle political literary influence (a simpler time), largely un/underemployed due to a recession blowback on our generation. We had opinions and words and time on our hands.

Untitled design (2)

Fans wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Hobbit fanfiction, fanvids, headcanons, long rambling essays about Jewish coding and what did that mean, ModernAUs and HighschoolAUs and Bakery and Space and PirateAUs. Alternative Universes where, what if—and this is a well-populated tag on ArchiveofOurOwn for this fandom—Everybody Lives/Nobody Dies?  And then, of course, bringing up that scene from The Two Towers:

“It’s true, you don’t see many dwarf women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance that they’re often mistaken for dwarf men!”

That scene was proof positive that you couldn’t know if every member of the sudden surplus of dwarves in our collective Tolkien film conscious were men, women, or somewhere else on a dwarven gender spectrum. Heck, that line justifies even thinking about a dwarven gender spectrum, whether Tolkien would have liked it or not. When I got into reading Hobbit fic in 2014— right around the same time I bothered to get a therapist and embark on my actual transition with all the baggage you’re thinking off (hindsight-ridden therapy sessions, the search for someone who would prescribe me testosterone, terrible private Youtube videos of me gleefully saying “this is one month on T,” the undercut chop, dubious sartorial decisions)—there was a whole archive of transgender dwarves fanfiction for me to roll around in.

The reasons fanfiction and a trans identity coexist for me are twofold —one, fanfiction moves faster than regular publishing and can take more risks due to the fact that, with very few exceptions, no one is getting paid or depending on a publisher thinking there is a market for a given story before giving it a green light. The second and more nuanced reason is that fanfiction writes around the edges and through the ragged holes in the cultural canon, much like a trans person finds themselves in the marginalia and between the binaries of our cultural hegemony of cisgender thought.

The sheer profusion of fics in this singular Hobbit fandom for trans characters astounds even me, someone who in their day job keeps an eye on published LGBTQ literature. Many of the fics are obviously about the process of social, medical, and emotional transition in the imagined aspects of Tolkien’s Dwarven culture (e.g. “Bofur gets Elrond to Give Trans!Dwalin a Top Surgery,” “Nori Figures Out Pronouns for Themself,” “How Much Would It Suck To Be Called King All The Time If You Were A Trans Woman in A Deeply Transphobic Society”). But the fics I enjoy the most are ones devoted to more than the tropes popular in published fiction, fics where trans characters are normal and not everything is about one’s medical or social transition.

Hobbit fanfiction is where I learned how to be normal and trans at the same time. Many fics with trans characters in the Hobbit fandom are not really about gender transition at all or gender is a throwaway line as part of the fic’s internal worldbuilding. (e.g. “Genderqueer!Ori is the same nervous apprentice scribe you’re used to, moving on,” “Thorin crowns herself Queen Under the Mountain,” “Random warrior dwarf takes a moment to ask someone’s pronouns before a battle”). While I take pride in being trans, it was comforting during the beginning throes of my transition to immerse myself in cultures where that difference from the norm went unremarked upon. Here on Earth I stuck out, none of my clothes fit, and my social circle was uneven in using my pronouns—on Middle-earth being trans was just boring.

HOBBIT

This normalization wasn’t a new experience with fanfiction for me. Back in the early aughts, when I was panicked about being bisexual, some age-inappropriate Harry Potter fanfiction was how I learned to feel normal about liking people of all genders. There is a comfort in feeling part of the in-crowd, as much as there is a joy in celebrating what makes each of us different. In my case, published fiction does not have a space for trans characters where what makes them different is only one facet of their personality and experience. That’s where fanfiction comes in.

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When you are queer, when you are trans, when you are not usually represented in media: you learn to read around the edges of a text to find yourself, like climbing a series of switchbacks to reach the top of the same mountain others use a ski lift to ascend. When I was in high school, learning to close-read a text, I never found it particularly difficult. Of course, texts work on multiple levels. Of course, a series of words can have more than one meaning depending on who reads them; my straight classmates sure got something different out of Homer, out of A Separate Piece, out of Virginia Woolf.

“Hobbit fanfiction is where I learned how to be normal and trans at the same time.”

Growing up and reading as a trans person, as a queer person, you learn to look for what isn’t being said as much as what is. Silence resonates to your heartbeat, thumping along as an echo: that’s me. That’s me. That’s me. Fanfiction filled in those silences with words and stories of my own experiences. Sometimes you have to create what isn’t being made, tell what is lost in others’ stories. Fanfiction is there for the gaps, the silences and caesuras in text and narrative.

The state of trans representation in published media is radically improving, however. The stories in which trans people can find themselves are more and more part of established pop culture. You can go to any big-box or indie bookstore to find trans characters: going to space in sci-fi anthologies, solving mysteries, having petty domestic dramas in short story collections, falling in and out of love, growing old, having friends and enemies, celebrating joyously. We are not silent anymore in the cultural narrative, and we are telling our own stories.

However, this doesn’t mean that I’ve suddenly switched over to reading only published fiction. First of all, I have a To-Be-Read pile resembling the Andes (Kindle literary fiction sales are a burden) and I’m avoiding it guiltily. Secondly, published fiction hasn’t quite caught up to the easily accessible breadth of trans narratives available to me by clicking the tag “trans character” and selecting my fandom, my dwarves, myself. And even if we had demographic parity in trans characters in published fiction, I’d probably still read tons of fanfiction with trans characters, specifically for them, in fact. It’s a love and a habit.

Fanfiction is not something to be slowly replaced over time like deliberately redundant home appliances that are surpassed by the vacuum/steam mop/AI assistant/toaster combination of the future, but rather exists intrinsically alongside published media. With, not in spite of. Back when ebooks came onto the scene, the publishing and library industries spent a decade worrying about borrowing rates and the fate of the physical book: would no one think of the printed word? The printed word is fine, and so too are the much-worried-about indie bookstores. Ebooks have found their market share, indies figured out how to stay beloved and relevant. So, too, will fanfiction continue alongside published fiction and media, even as both incorporate more and better representations of trans people. Because hey, everyone could be trans, if you write it. It’s the beards. •

 

All images © Warner Bros. Pictures


KJ Gormley lives near the water, currently South America, sometimes Maine. In daylight hours they are a librarian. Featured writing in INTO and Brooklyn Magazine, among others.  More writing here. You can follow them on twitter.

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