If "Lord of the Rings" is a parable for trauma, what can it teach us now?

Frodo's compassion for the PTSD-sufferer Smeagol lends a new humanist relevance to LOTR

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published August 18, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)

Elijah Wood in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line Cinema)
Elijah Wood in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line Cinema)

As the seminal fantasy novel with its own movie and video game franchises, “The Lord of the Rings” is generally slotted into the action/adventure genre — not exactly an introspective or cathartic category if there ever were one. Yet after re-reading the trilogy in our right-tilting political epoch, I had a bizarre revelation: What if the story is really a psychological parable, a novel primarily about trauma, by and for the traumatized?

If that sounds like fantasy, hear me out. The traumatic experiences ripped from Tolkien’s own life that appeared in the story, and the lack of precise terminology for psychological trauma in Tolkien’s day, speak to a reading of the novel (Tolkien insisted all three volumes were merely one book) as a psychological cautionary tale. Moreover, the book has an overarching theme of a sort of leftist-humanism of the breed that is sorely lacking today.

The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) did not exist until the 1970s; it came about as Americans watched Vietnam vets return home. That means that millions of war veterans returning home after the two previous 20th-century world wars had imperfect terms (like “shell shock” and “combat stress reaction”) to diagnose the severe trauma that many of them faced. My grandfather, a World War II Air Force veteran who flew in the Pacific Theater, described becoming an alcoholic for several years in the late 1940s as a result of an inability to cope with his (yet-unnamed) PTSD; later he was able to shed alcoholism in favor of yoga and meditation as coping mechanisms.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a World War I veteran and philologist who became the most renowned fantasy writer in history, seems to have suffered from PTSD from the war, too — although Tolkien would never admit it. (The recently-released eponymous bio-pic, which is slow-paced but accurate to Tolkien’s life, actually does a good job tying together his war-related trauma with his writing.) Indeed, just as Tolkien seems to have repressed his trauma at having many close friends die, he also denied that any of those repressed feelings or experiences would bubble up and appear in the context of the story of “The Lord of the Rings.” As he wrote in the introduction to that book:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. [...] An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.

It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead. Or to take a less grievous matter: it has been supposed by some that ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever.

Tolkien’s insistence that there is no “allegorical significance or contemporary political reference” in this specific parable, or in the book at large, seems laughable. Only a philologist and a "Beowulf" scholar like him would have (or could have) written something like “Lord of the Rings”; to say that it sprouted independent of him is absurd.

But I think that Tolkien’s lack of perception here is excusable in a historical context. Tolkien was a language scholar who lived before literary criticism became a more interdisciplinary analytic tool that incorporated psychology theory. Human beings do not exist in vacuums; we are sieves for the experiences, cultures and socioeconomic systems that entrap us. So many of Tolkien’s experiences come to light, distilled through the lens of fiction, in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Most curiously, the relationship of Frodo and Gollum, central to the book, seems to encapsulate Tolkien's own feelings about trauma. Gollum is a simpering, murderous homunculus who detests the sun, feeds on fish, and constantly argues with his "other" self, Smeagol. His motivations are that of a drug addict: acquisition of the One Ring, which he hates and loves, as multiple characters note. Despite being a nuisance and a huge risk to the party, and despite many instances in which various good guys could off him, they never do.

Frodo struggles to comprehend this. "I can’t understand you," he says to Gandalf. "Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death." Gandalf replies:

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end."

This seems to deeply affect Frodo. Later, in "The Two Towers," Faramir's archers have their sights on Gollum, and await the command to shoot; as they are about to kill him, it is Frodo who stops them. "The creature is wretched and hungry[,] and unaware of his danger," he says. "And Gandalf [would] have bidden you not to slay him for that reason, and for others. He forbade the Elves to do so. I do not know clearly why, and of what I guess I cannot speak openly out here. But this creature is in some way bound up with my errand. Until you found us and took us, he was my guide."

We live in an era of mental health awareness. Even ten years ago, talking openly about depression or anxiety was, for most Americans, largely taboo, a stain on one’s person. Now, it is a normal part of life, and naming one’s mental illness has become a token of identity. No longer does masculinity necessitate hiding one’s mental health issues; mainstream hip hop, a fairly masculine genre if ever one existed, has numerous contemporary male-identified rappers, like XXXTentacion (“SAD!”) and Kenny Beats/Zack Fox (“Jesus Is the One [I Got Depression]”), who are baldly transparent about dealing with mental illness. This suggests that mental health awareness has shifted the Overton window on masculinity, too.

Many of us have had people in our lives — often our own family — who are cruel or evil towards us, as Gollum is sometimes to Frodo. Some of those may also occasionally be loving, or at the least, piteous. Yet we have an interior view of the lives of the people with whom we are close — something we lack in chance encounters with a rude or hateful stranger. And in general, that interior view affords us a view of their trauma, too, and sometimes an understanding of how it molded them, and created their hate or their cruelty.

Frodo, intriguingly, comes to understand this about Gollum, but only after Frodo wields the ring for a while: the trauma of carrying it affects him deeply, makes him wan and tired. Thus he comes to better understand Gollum — who possessed the ring for over a millennium — and feel pity for him. That pity saves the quest in the end.

What makes this "Lord of the Rings" meta-theme especially relevant nowadays is that the message embodied in the Gollum-Frodo relationship epitomizes a sort of leftist humanism that is largely absent from the political conversation. What if many of the people who are seduced by evil, or who do bad or selfish things as a result, do so not because they genuinely believe in right-wing doctrines, but because they are suffering from deep trauma? In our case, that trauma likely comes from the receding welfare state, a lack of a social safety net, a failed school system or a vicious school-to-prison pipeline. These kinds of things can drive good people to ruin, to hate, and even to xenophobic politics.

Gollum is probably not a “good” person in the normal sense of the word. But he has been mutated, distorted by dealing with a thousand years of trauma from his proximity to the One Ring — a catch-all metaphor for the kinds of unintentional trauma that many of us, or our friends and family, may face.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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