But Tolkien explores love in all its forms. Love isn't sex, though they often occur together; love can exist in many forms completely devoid of sexuality. The love between parents and children, between siblings, between close platonic friends, even the impersonal love for one's fellow man. But what is love?
It goes beyond affection, beyond respect, beyond simple enjoyment in another's company. Love encompasses these things, but it reaches the heights of truly wanting the beloved to be happy, to the point of being willing to give up something you want for yourself, for the sake of your loved one.
The four hobbits have varying relationships with each other, but all care deeply for each other. Merry and Pippin are cousins and also allies, partners in crime among the family, players of pranks and harmless troublemakers. When their cousin Frodo needs to leave the Shire but doesn't tell them why, they don't ask but immediately help him get out.
Frodo loves his uncle Bilbo, and while Bilbo sometimes thinks of his nephew as irresponsible, deep down they respect each other and share a slightly shameful (for hobbits) love of adventure and the wide world.
Aragorn and Arwen have the classic "hero and princess" relationship - except that she gives up her Elvish immortality to be with him, to live a mortal life with him.
Eowyn thinks she loves Aragorn, but it is only the hero-worship of a young girl for a celebrity. Aragorn sees that clearly, but respects and cares for her enough to treat her as a friend and to wish her well, even when he can't be the lover she thinks she wants.
The relationship I really admire is the bond between Eowyn and her uncle (and adoptive father), Theoden. Everyone loves Theoden, King of Rohan. He doesn't command, he leads. He inspires. He puts the needs of his people ahead of his own desires. Everyone who meets him wants to serve him, wants to ride into battle at his side. During his long illness at the hands of Saruman, Eowyn tends him faithfully as a daughter. When he recovers and learns of his son's death, she is at his side and gives voice to his mourning by singing a lament at the funeral. When he is wounded in battle she defends him, preventing the enemy from causing him more pain and indignity. And when she is finally unable to save him, he tells her that she already has, and dies with her name on his lips. Her cry of grief is wrenched from the depths of her soul.
Eowyn wants more than anything else to live as a man does, to ride out and do brave deeds and to prove her strength and courage in battle. Again and again, she is told to stay behind - but she will do so only for Theoden, when he uses the magic words that she cannot resist: "For me."
When her brother Eomer tells her to stay behind, she says nothing but quietly joins the Riders of Rohan, and acquits herself well in battle though at the cost of severe injury to herself. When he finds her, seemingly lifeless on the battlefield, he also reveals a depth of emotion that one does not expect to find in a fighting man - his anguish bursts out across the battlefield as he rocks her in his arms.
Recovering in Gondor after the battle, Eowyn finally learns of a more balanced love when she meets Faramir. She is grieving the loss of her dearly loved father figure, while he is mourning the loss of his father who was abusive and repeatedly told Faramir that his brother was far preferable; but a father who also held the position of Steward of Gondor and head of the military, of which Faramir was a captain. Faramir is kind enough and honorable enough in his own right to love his father in his own way, despite Denethor's own shortcomings as a human being.
Legolas and Gimli demonstrate the friendship that can grow out of respect, even for someone one has grown up learning to hold in contempt. Gandalf teaches the value of compassion for everyone, even those who seem unworthy of it. "Many who live deserve death, and some who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends."
Ultimately, it was Frodo's love for Bilbo that made him unhesitatingly take up the quest to destroy the ring when Bilbo was simply too old to make the journey; and Sam's love for Frodo made him insist on accompanying him, which turned out to be the deciding factor in the success of the quest.
All these years, all these re-readings and all the times I've watched the movies, and I never saw any of this before.
I can't wait to see what comes up the next time I experience the story.