Reimagining Rose: Portrayals of Tolkien's Rosie Cotton in Twenty-First Century Fan Fiction

Article excerpt

An Incomplete Rose: "Nowhere Elaborated"

When one considers the outstanding heroines of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, Rosie Cotton may not come immediately to mind. Her competition is daunting, from the regal Galadriel and courageous Eowyn (1) to the exotic Arwen and commanding Melian. For one thing, hobbit women, with the exception of the unsavory though ultimately redeemed Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, seem more noteworthy for their recurring absence than their presence in Tolkien's texts. The mothers, sisters, and future wives of male hobbit protagonists repeatedly appear as faceless names; though Tolkien assures his readers that the Old Took's three daughters were remarkable, their stories, too, are mere ellipses (Hobbit 2). Moreover, when Rosie is recalled, it is the idealized memory rather than the flesh-and-blood Shire lass who frequently is valued. Rosie's worth often seems tied to the greatness she inspires in the quest-bound Samwise Gamgee.

Tolkien himself was aware of his loud silence with regard to Rosie Cotton. In a letter to Milton Waldman probably written in 1951, Tolkien describes the Sam-Rosie relationship as a crucial key to the theme of The Lord of the Rings despite this lack of exposition:

  I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere
  elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief
  hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life
  (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes,
  and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty. (Letters 161)

For Tolkien, then, Rosie's worth lies not only in the inspiration her existence provides during the quest, but also in the promise of her actions after the Ring's destruction--loving Sam, of course, and also performing her "ordinary life" activities of cooking, homemaking, nurturing, and mothering. Such efforts empower Sam (and through him the Shire) to, in Tolkien's words, breath, eat, work, and beget. This role makes Rosie more than a mere memory but no less of an ideal. Tolkien's defense of Rosie as an essential ingredient to his message provides the reader with a better understanding of Rosie as a symbol of humble hearth and home, but it fails to offer a deeper appreciation of Rosie as a character and individual.

This incomplete portrait of Rosie Cotton drawn by Tolkien now serves as a challenge to the burgeoning world of Tolkien fan fiction. Fan fiction itself is far from new, of course; one could say that the medieval authors who embellished and explored preexisting Arthurian legends were early, if not the earliest, fan fiction producers. Contemporary fan fiction has been dated back to the publication of the first Star Trek fanzine, Spocknalia, in 1967 (Verba 1) and ably documented by the likes of Henry Jenkins, Camille Bacon-Smith, Joan Marie Verba, Constance Penley, Cheryl Harris, and Alison Alexander, among others. Tolkien fan fiction likewise has a notable history. One need only to glance over past publications from The Tolkien Society, The American Tolkien Society, and The American Hobbit Association, to name but a few groups, to recognize the ongoing literary impulse to contribute to the landscape of Middle-earth.

Twenty-first century Tolkien fan fiction represents a new incarnation of Tolkien fandom, however. Traditional fan fiction outlets and by-products such as conventions, printed fanzines, and awards continue to thrive, but the Internet also allows online fan fiction archives, discussion boards, lists, blogs, live journals, RPGs (role-playing games), and MUSHs (multi-user shared hallucinations) to flourish, as well. Thanks to the instant accessibility of electronic texts and the widespread popularity of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-2003), multiple generations of fans are now involved together in the production and critique of Tolkien fan fiction.

Journalist Noy Thrupkaew suggests this is a worthy endeavor, since fan fiction authors "have changed TV- and movie-watching"--and, it seems certain, book-reading--"from a passive act into one that is participatory, allowing the deciphering and creation of meaning" (Thrupkaew). …