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Old 02-08-2009, 07:18 PM   #1
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - Tolkien and his Characters

In the Fantasythread there is a small subset of discussion about the effects of war on Tolkien’s characters, and perhaps more importantly on Tolkien himself. Searching the Barrow-downs I did find one thread on Frodo and PSTD Shell-shocked Frodo .... or .... PTSD in LOTR but nothing else.

While I am not suggesting that Tolkien himself suffered from PSTD or that any of his characters were written as having PSTD, I do believe that examining the effect war had on his characters and himself could be helpful.

So to start this discussion off I am going to quote some posts from Fantasy (apologies if I miss anybody’s or if somebody didn’t want their post quoted here):

Post #83
Originally Posted by LadyBrooke View Post
To me the greatest horror (or victim) of war is not the dead, but those who, though living, are unable to cope or recover from what they experienced. This is what struck me the most about the ending of Lord of the Rings - Frodo is unable to find healing when he goes home. And though we can hope that he does find it over the sea, is that really a happy ending? I can’t consider it one because he (and Bilbo) are separated from their friends and families. And that to me is the greatest tragedy - one that I have seen too often in real life - those who are living but at the same time not, who are still fighting the war everyday in their minds. And Tolkien shows this with Frodo.
Post #85
Originally Posted by Ibrîniđilpathânezel View Post
I do think that the ravages of war upon the land made a great impression on Tolkien, and this comes across clearly in his writing. His experience with the human suffering it entailed may have been too personal for him to communicate effectively (or in a manner which would have felt appropriate to him). We do see some of it in the suffering of Frodo, and the changes wrought on the other Hobbits of the company, and as someone recovering from PSTD, I find it quite sufficient. Others will not, obviously. To each their own.
Post #88
Originally Posted by LadyBrooke View Post
Well, in LotR and TH I do think that something of the true horror of war is missing, aspects we can see quite clearly in CoH and Sil. Pondering why this is I was reminded of something that one of my great-uncles once said. He said that the horror was something that could not be described by him because it was something that was such a personal part of him that he could not lay it bare before other people. At the same time though he wrote it all down but he kept it locked in a safe because he didn’t want others to see it. Perhaps this is part of the reason why LotR and TH are so sterilized. It is very hard to publish something dealing with a personal piece of you even if it is a fictionalized account.

Also some people deal with stress and grief in different ways and perhaps the nice warfare of LotR and the horrors of the Sil and CoH are simply the different ways that Tolkien dealt with his memories. I cannot remember where I read it, but wasn’t LotR’s writing difficult for Tolkien during WWII. Perhaps this is because he had to face the reality of war again as his sons were fighting and he couldn’t ignore it in his writings.
Following quote courtesy of Ibrin for looking it up and posting it in Post#113
As for what to try and write: I don't know. I tried a diary with portraits (some scathing some comic some commendatory) of persons and events seen; but I found it was not my line. So I took to 'escapism': or really transforming experience into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years since and still I draw on the conceptions then hammered out.
J.R.R. to Christopher, June 1944

and my response to this quote in Post#132
Originally Posted by LadyBrooke View Post
Escapism - the seeking of distraction from reality by engaging in entertainment or fantasy: this is the definition from my dictionary. So he was using his writing to escape the reality of war and become emerged in a fantasy world where everybody is noble and righteous.
Originally Posted by LadyBrooke View Post
This is what I think too. Along with the fact that Tolkien didn’t actually publish the grim parts himself, it does make you wonder. My great-uncle can’t talk about his own part in Vietnam without coaching it in terms of various books and movies. It was simply too traumatic for him - much as WWI must have been for Tolkien, losing the good friends he did.

So, basically what is my entire point that I’ve been trying to express in every post I’ve made on this thread?

War is traumatic.

I know of many veterans who have turned their trauma into activism - good for them, that they can stand up for what they believe in.

I also know many veterans who for them it is too traumatic. They repress their memories of the bad things that happened. They refuse to speak about it. If they do it is only to close family members. They use escapism - whether that escapism takes the form of alcohol, drugs, the arts, extreme sports, whatever.

And I believe that Tolkien belongs firmly in the second group. His form of escapism is writing, he purged all of the bad memories from his public thoughts (in this case TH and LotR), and only spoke of the reality in his private thoughts (in this case the writings of his that were only published after his death).

It has nothing to do with misleading the public, and everything to do with his own personal reaction to a traumatic event in his own life. I don’t know if any of you have ever truly been traumatized. I do know that in the aftermath of 9/11, I developed an anxiety disorder that has lasting affects. Sometimes it’s not a matter of if somebody should have done something, but a matter of they could have done it.
Think I’m completely off my rocker? Think a character other than Sam or Frodo experienced PSTD? Want to add more about Tolkien’s reaction to the World Wars?

The only thing I ask is don’t turn this into an argument about whether the view of war is realistic in LotR. If you want to argue about that, we welcome your thoughts in the Fantasy thread.
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Old 02-08-2009, 07:57 PM   #2
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My father simply does not discuss actual combat in WWII. He will reminisce about how fun being stationed in Honolulu was, how being on a ship made him sick (and island hopping offered plenty of nausea), but beyond that....nothing. And I don't believe he suffers from anything like PTSD, although he does have this eccentric habit of complaining about how bad TV is, while watching it for hours -- and I mean full-blown arguments with an inanimate object. *shrugs*

As far as the story, I would definitely say that Frodo had lingering mental affects that went beyond any recurring physical pain. He is the prime example of a war veteran who "can never go home", and perhaps Tolkien is referring to similar WWI vets he knew who returned to England after the war but still felt displaced.

Sam? He, Merry and Pippin seem resilient in the stolid Hobbitish manner. If he did have any pain it was in sympathy for Frodo, and not for himself.
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Old 02-08-2009, 08:00 PM   #3
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There is no quotable proof of it, but I have wondered if "the Black Breath" that struck down so many who had fought the Enemy in LotR was symbolic of "shell shock" or "battle fatigue" in the old parlance, PTSD in today's terminology. It is presented in the "magical" context of Tolkien's subcreation, but some of its defining symptoms -- tremendous despair, physical and mental exhaustion, disturbed dreams or even delerium following an intensely traumatic event or series of events -- are quite similar to some of symptoms of PTSD. Would that real PTSD were as easily dismissible as breathing athelas steam and having a gifted healer call the victim back from the brink!

I must think about this before I comment more fully. It's a very personal subject for me, and I want to be sure I'm considering it with a clear mind and not just responding with long-ingrained knee-jerk reactions.

But an interesting matter to ponder.
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Old 02-08-2009, 08:11 PM   #4
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Indeed, as it is also a personal matter for me, as I explained in my PM to you, I think I'm going to wait until I've had the chance to think and perhaps review my pyschology textbook before I comment indepth. I simply felt that this discussion is far too valuable to remain buried in the Fantasy thread forever.

The only thing I'm going to say is that sometimes I think that readers become so involved in a story that we forget that the author was a mere human like us, and therefore had his own feelings that deserve respect.
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Old 02-09-2009, 09:39 AM   #5
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Frodo had to face something none of the other Hobbits had to, indeed, none of the other Fellowship: his sense that he had failed, that at the last moment he would not relinguish the Ring and only chance/fate/eucatastrophe saved the day. Tolkien has written that Frodo should not be faulted, that he did what he set out to do, to put in place the events and situation which would lead to the destruction of the Ring. Yet that fact that Frodo is not healed suggests that Frodo himself cannot accept this interpretation, that he lives haunted by the knowledge that he accepted the Ring.

I don't know much about PTSD and so cannot comment on its applicability to LotR. What I say here about Frodo does not apply to the description of PTSD given in this thread. But Frodo's burden seems to me a much heavier burden to carry. Frodo has not only seen the face of horror and darkness that is war, as have the other members of the Fellowship, but he has looked upon it in almost complete solitude, with only Sam as support and sometimes not even Sam. And when Frodo looks inward, to his own psychological awareness, he sees that he had succumbed to that darkness. For all the terrible fighting which Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, Eomer faced, none of them came so close to the heart of darkness that they saw it within themselves. None of them know the self-loathing that Frodo, one surmises, might feel.

This is supposition, of course, as a way to explain the difference between the post war experiences of the Hobbits.

I recall that years ago Child of the Seventh Age had a thread about why Frodo cannot find healing, although not within the context of PTSD. Perhaps if I have time I will try to find it. It might offer some interesting insights for this thread.

The other character who might be considered here would be Eowyn. Perhaps another might be Celebrian, who of course we only read of.

EDIT: Here's Child's thread: Frodo's Sacrifice
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Last edited by Bęthberry; 02-09-2009 at 02:19 PM.
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Old 02-13-2009, 03:25 PM   #6
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I'd agree with Bęthberry that Celebrían's an obvious example - she passed into the West in the year after her traumatic experience, so obviously she couldn't bear to live with it any longer.
Another character who came to my mind in this context is Gwindor of Nargothrond from the Silmarillion. His life-story is one of the most poignant in the whole Legendarium. First he has to watch his brother being maimed and hacked to pieces by the Orcs at the beginning of the Nirnaeth. Then, when he allows himself to be provoked into leading a premature charge by this atrocious act, he is captured alive and dragged to Angband to endure sixteen years of slavery as Morgoth's thrall - an experience from which he never recovered.
When Beleg found him after his escape, he was but a bent and fearful shadow of his former shape and mood, and his own people in Nargothrond didn't recognize him, because he looked like one of the aged among mortal Men (sorry, no literal quote - I'm re-translating from my German version of the Silm). What does it take to make an immortal Elf look like that? I'm certain the damage done to him was more than merely skin-deep. Actually, now I think about him a little closer, I picture him like the Middle-Earth equivalent of a survivor from Auschwitz, and I'm pretty sure he awoke screaming from nightmares of Angband every other night during the rest of his life.
And as if all that was not enough, he had to watch Túrin ruining his home, his love and whatever else remained of his former life that was precious to him. Death in the Battle of Tumhalad must have come as a relief to him.
Poor guy. I hope he found healing in the Halls of Mandos.
Und aus dem Erebos kamen viele seelen herauf der abgeschiedenen toten.- Homer, Odyssey, Canto XI
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Old 03-10-2009, 11:54 AM   #7
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Interestingly, PTSD can have an opposite effect to avoiding thinking about the events survived, it can lead to near pathological obsession with that type of event. For some time after my car accident (I like to think of it, grimly, as carnage) I was quite obsessed with watching anything about road accidents, these police programmes, news reports, even rubbernecking like crazy if I chanced upon a real one. I'm not saying I went as far as what JG Ballard writes about but in my own way, I was trying to find reasons for why this thing had happened to me.

It could be that Tolkien, through undertaking this enormous writing project, was dealing with this obsessive aspect of PTSD.

And for what it's worth, yes, I do think it's likely he suffered this to some extent, though not in a debilitating one, and he certainly knew enough about it to create Frodo who certainly displays the condition.
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Old 03-10-2009, 12:41 PM   #8
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There is no quotable proof of it, but I have wondered if "the Black Breath" that struck down so many who had fought the Enemy in LotR was symbolic of "shell shock" or "battle fatigue" in the old parlance, PTSD in today's terminology

Certainly this passage, referring not exactly to the Black Breath but the aura and cries of the Nazgul, was informed by what Tolkien observed in the trenches:

Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.
The entire plot of The Lord of the Rings could be said to turn on what Sauron didn’t know, and when he didn’t know it.
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