So, I’m guessing you’re surprised. Tolkien, you say? But The Lord of the Rings is fantasy! It’s set in a medieval-ish world called Middle Earth, involves a Dark Lord, wizards, dwarves, hobbits, elves and a really sexy man called Aragorn! How could this POSSIBLY be on your list of War books?
Maybe I just really like talking about Middle-Earth. Maybe I actually have a point. Maybe I’m just crazy.
My thesis is on the depictions of shell shock/psychological trauma in WWI literature. So basically, I read the fiction, pick the traumatic bits out that affected the characters, look for symptoms of shell shock and see how the world/author treated them. I then read memoirs and do the same thing. THEN I go and read personal diaries of Australian soldiers and see how their writing differs from the depictions of trauma in texts intended for public consumption.
Am I making sense?
So, if we do this to The Lord of the Rings, we get a very interesting little case, backed up by Tolkien himself.
This is Tolkien, looking rather dashing in his Officer’s uniform. He fought in WWI, lost most of his friends and generally had a very rough time, as can be expected.
We have Master Frodo Baggins. He also has a generally rough time of it, as he sets off to take The One Ring to Mt. Doom. He gets stabbed, grabbed by giant monsters, loses his Grandad-figure, is betrayed x 2, leaves his friends behind, gets bitten by a giant homicidal spider, molested by Orcs… then finishes that up by getting his finger bitten off before being surrounded by MOLTEN LAVA ON AN EXPLODING MOUNTAIN. All the while, carrying a ring made by a Dark Lord that makes him go crazy. Do you even blame him for getting PTSD?
We then have Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful servant. He pretty much epitomises the stereotypical English Tommy. Faithful to his friends, from an agricultural background and generally a good person. He’s having to do things that totally go against his nature, while also serving his “Officer”, Frodo.
We have Merry and Pippin, the good mates that go off to war together while not really knowing what they’re in for, get separated but do everything they can to get back to each other. They prove themselves in battle and go home heroes.
Their story gets me every time, especially when they get split up. Tolkien perfectly captures the pain and loneliness this must have caused men on the Front, whether it be their good friends or their brothers. Are they alive? Are they dead? Will I die here alone and they won’t know? Tolkien himself understood this perfectly, I’m sure. He lost all his friends, bar one.
I’m not going to go into all the characters, or we’d be here all day… Not that I’d mind, but explaining that to my professors would be difficult.
“But sir, I really needed to explain how Gandalf is the General, with Aragorn his second in command!”
Not going to happen.
We also have the Nazgul, which Christopher Tolkien says was based off seeing (and fleeing) German soldiers on horseback, wearing gas masks. They make a sound similar to a shell screeching overhead. The sound of the Nazgul make people cower in fear- just like a shell.
One photo is Passchendaele. One is The Dead Marshes. Both have lots of mud and lots of dead bodies, and both stretch on for what felt like eternity. Both were horrible, horrible places to be. Tolkien was at the battle of The Somme, which was very much the same experience.
But back to Mr Frodo.
Frodo starts out as quite a nice Hobbit- he’s friendly, enjoys the company of his friends, a pint of beer and all the lovely, Hobbitty things that Hobbits do. Once he begins the mission, he thinks he’ll drop the Ring off in Rivendell, go home and all will be grand. Similar to men going off to the War, thinking they’d be home by Christmas. Once it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to happen, we start to see a very different Frodo emerge.
The new Frodo is a angrier and harder. He’ll turn on Sam if he’s pushed too far, or for no reason at all. We see parts of the old Frodo, particularly in his treatment of Smeagol and the mateship he has with Sam… but this is often overshadowed by lots of time spent brooding, not taking care of himself (eating or sleeping) and staring into space. On the way to Mt Doom, he experiences periods of temporary blindness, moments of violence, uncontrollable shaking, exhaustion and anxiety. Once he’s home, instead of adjusting back to life in The Shire like his friends do, Frodo becomes withdrawn and becomes a pacifist. He’s also struggling with horrible flashbacks and nightmares. His wound from the Morghul blade is still bothering him and he marks anniversaries of his most hopeless moments.
Frodo exhibits pretty much all the classical symptoms of shell shock. Tolkien treats him very sympathetically, which makes me love him even more. The men experiencing shell shock often didn’t get sympathetic treatment, as the medical world and the army generally believed them to be liars, weak or un-manly. Shut up and put up, you dirty shirker, basically.
“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not be the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”
If you haven’t read this series, you should definitely consider it. I’m a big fan of the movies too, so watch them as well!
I adore Tolkien and think his work is an absolute marvel- there’s an amazing amount of depth. It’s not just a story of war and I haven’t even scratched the surface- this is just one theme running through! This is a long book but it’s totally epic (literally and figuratively). It involves a ton of mythology, history, linguistics, relationships… I could go on and on.
Reading this as a War novel requires deeper thinking than what is on the surface. I hadn’t really even thought about it and this is what I do! There’s plenty of information out there if you’d like to learn more about this- ask me in the comments if you’d like any help!
Home is behind
The world ahead
And there are many paths to tread
To the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight
Mist and shadow
Cloud and shade
All shall fade
All shall – fade.