The Trauma of Frodo Baggins
John R. R. Tolkien was, like so many other soldiers of the Great War, deeply affected and traumatised by his experiences, especially regarding his close encounter with industrial warfare at the battle of Somme in 1916. Once Tolkien returned to England, he created the world of Middle- earth which was first known as The Book of Lost Tales with the famous Fall of Gondolin. Throughout Tolkien’s works, war, and especially Sauron’s warfare, often represented as an industrial one, is constantly present, causing trauma to so many characters in his masterwork The Lord of the Rings:
“ I fear it may be so with mine, ‚ said Frodo. ‚ There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem 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?‘ Gandalf did not answer. “ (The Lord of the Rings)
Frodo and Gollum are the most traumatised characters throughout the storyline because of physical wounds, horrifying experiences both caused by the warfare of Sauron, which reminds the reader of industrial warfare of the 20th century, but especially psychological torment by the One Ring. These traumatising moments of warfare and the big battles in The Lord of the Rings correspond with the Great War Tolkien himself fought in.
Trauma caused by War
As mentioned before, Tolkien came face to face with the traumatising experiences of war. Psychoanalysts have their very own theories about how trauma can be expressed by people who lived through them.
Artists try to express trauma through their artworks, such as Tolkien did consciously and unconsciously. Many artists find it difficult to express their trauma in some form of representation. From a Freudian point of view representation returns to trauma and the representation of trauma within the arts is closely connected. This makes sense as many artists have been affected by war and its consequences and express their issues within their work. Such as Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, or artists like Picasso in his famous Guernica. Later, trauma and representation were perceived in a different way:
“ Indeed, for psychoanalysts following in the footsteps of Lacan, there is no relation between trauma and representation, as trauma is by Lacan’s definition the very thing about which nothing can be said, written, painted or performed. “ (Isabelle Wallace, Trauma as Representation)
Clearly, it makes sense that no artist could recreate the horrors of a trauma such as trench war fighting of the Great War. Therefore, an artist must find other means to create a representation of trauma. When Tolkien returned from the war he started writing about his fairy world which would become Middle- earth. For him, it was a means to escape the horrors and the trauma he experienced at the battle of Somme. Thus, representing trauma can be perceived as escapism because, according to Lacan, nothing can represent trauma. Consequently, the artist must escape into something different like a newly created world. Yet, this world shows trauma through other means, such as the experiences of the characters that live within this magical universe.
From a historical point of view trauma is accompanied by innocence and irony. The impact and consequences of the First World War have been so huge that it changed the world forever. As Paul Fussil explains, everybody thought the war would be over by Christmas:
“ One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other is that its beginning was more innocent. “ Never such innocence again, “ observes Philip Larkin… the innocents of the remote Great War, those sweet, generous people who pressed forward and all but solicited their own destruction “
This light- heartedness of going into a war that is advertised through propaganda, as more like an adventure, can be found in The Lord of the Rings as well. The innocence of the hobbits, especially of Pippin and Merry are two such examples. They believe, once they join the fellowship of the Ring, they are about to go on an adventure like Bilbo Baggins. They do not yet understand the scale of the “ adventure “ they have been thrown into. After the fall of Gandalf, both realise the severity of the actions around them. It is in The Two Towers, after experiencing the horrors and death that traumatised them, they actively take part in the war that surrounds them and motivate the ents to fight.
Returning to the original quote concerning Frodo, the same happens to him. He knows most about the adventures of Bilbo and is eager to explore the world beyond the Shire. Like a soldier joining the Great War, he has no idea what is ahead of him, believing he is protected by Gandalf. His beliefs of Middle- earth are fairly innocent like a soldier’s perception of the world was in 1914. All of that would change within two years. All of that changed for Frodo after thirteen months.
After the World Wars, other deeply traumatising wars caused by industrial warfare changed soldiers, ripped them of their innocence and were thrown into a world of evil. One such example is the Vietnam war: “ Veterans speak of losing their innocence and longing to regain it “ (Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam). Shay addresses the same issue as Fussell does which the reader of The Lord of the Rings encounters at the end with Frodo. The explanation by Shay is a very simple but strong one, saying, that two so different worlds, the one the soldier grew up in and the one he encounters at war, are so fundamentally different that there is no going back from that:
“ To encounter radical evil is to make one forever different from the trusting, “ normal “ person who wraps the rightness of the social order around himself snugly, like a cloak of safety. “ (Jonathan Shay)
This is indeed true of an American soldier, leaving the safe and modern USA behind to go to a foreign country where he has never been before. The same can be said about Frodo leaving the sunny Shire, encountering a world of darkness that, when one compares the Shire to the plains of Mordor, one could think this is not within the same world but on two different planets all together.
The first time these two different worlds, the safety of the Shire and the darkness of Mordor clash, is on Weathertop where Frodo is deeply wounded in mind and body. For the rest of Frodo’s life in Middle- earth he is unable to cope with what happened on Weathertop:
“ … his behaviour almost perfectly fits the modern diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder,… He has been exposed to a traumatic event, which included actual or threatened death “, and his response included “ intense fear, helplessness and terror. “ (Janet Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien)
It is the turning point that changes Frodo from a curious and innocent hobbit into a traumatised, frightened hobbit, a soldier who experienced the reality and cruelty of war with death as its constant companion.
The only character in the story who, in a way, “diagnoses “ Frodo’s illness is Gandalf. He sums it up in one sentence: “ Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured, ‚ said Gandalf. “ (The Lord of the Rings) Although, it is just one sentence, it is one of the most relatable quotes for soldiers as this line truly brings out the reality and consequences of war injuries. Simply, a traumatised soldier is unable to return to a life before the war and must live with this knowledge for the rest of his or her life.
To bring this into relation to Tolkien, it is necessary to look at Tolkien’s war experience and how it altered his perspective on the world. As mentioned before, he was at the battle of Somme in 1916 and experienced everything within and around it. For every soldier it must have been deeply traumatising to dig the graves for comrades who did not survive the battle and there were many of them:
“ … but along the British front there had been 57,000 casualties: out of the 100,000 who entered No Man’s Land, 20,000 had been killed and twice as many wounded… In between training instruction, Tolkien’s battalion provided working parties to dig graves in the suddenly expanding cemetery. “ (John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War)
One of the most frightening and thought provoking moments for a soldier are those of burying the dead comrades, when the soldier alive realises that this could have been him in the grave.
In the Great War, with that many dying soldiers hit by bullets or struck by bombs without an enemy to be seen, death became pointless, every dead soldier was reduced to one of many, as there were no heroic deeds performed any longer that could be remembered. Of course, this is quite a contrast to the world of Middle- earth where one heroic deed follows the other but there is a moment when Frodo realises the war he has been thrown into has already been going on for much longer. The chapter The Passage of the Marshes shows the horrors of war and its machinery Sauron has used long before the War of the Rings started, in order to slaughter humans and elves. Their remains are a mass grave like in the Great War:
“ I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul , all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them. “ (The Lord of the Rings)
The way Frodo describes them in those two lines sound almost like a poem. Within the second line there is even a rhyme “fair“ and “silver hair“. It sounds as if Frodo mourns for them and feels deeply affected by all the loss that is long forgotten:
“ In the Dead Marshes the wartime dead refuse to be frozen into patriotic memories; instead, vacant faces linger in dark pools of water. Tolkien states that Frodo’s description of the marshes owed something to the battle of the Somme, its landscape of endless disruption, “ (Rebekah Long, Fantastic Medievalism and the Great War)
They do not have any names or stories to tell. They are just dead as Gollum describes:
“ They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping. “ (The Lord of the Rings)
Nowadays, along the former trench lines many forgotten graves can be found. Besides, as John Garth also writes, bones or bullets can still be found along the old trench lines. Nevertheless nature is growing over it and taking it all back in time. The same happens in Middle- earth within the Dead Marshes as an echo to the horrors Tolkien experienced in 1916:
“ The Dead Marshes act as a sort of war memorial, as a textual actualization of the process of memory, in which the dead refuse to be resolved into statue like icons, idealized narratives of victory or defeat traced across their frozen surfaces. “ (Rebekah Long)
The stated above and the things to follow may sound a lot like an allegory but it is necessary to clarify that all the themes argued are not an allegory to the World Wars but rather metaphors, influences on how Tolkien perceived the time he was living in and how the horrors and traumas altered his way of writing about war and trauma. Indeed he himself resisted any attempt by any critic to see his work as merely allegorical:
“ He snarled that if The Lord of the Rings had really been an allegory, it would have ended with the “allies“ of Gondor, Rohan and Eriador claiming the Ring and setting themselves up as competing little Saurons all over Middle- earth. “ (Christine Chism, Myth and History in World War II)
Clearly, regarding the ending of the books the story shows an alternative to the actual events of history. Frodo and Gollum destroy the Ring of Power and, therefore, give life and nature another chance to prosper in Middle-earth. Whereas, at the end of World War II many new conflicts emerged.
Nevertheless, the two wars find their way into The Lord of the Rings. Again it is Tolkien himself who says:
“ Writing to his son Christopher Tolkien, serving in the Royal Air Force in the midst of the Second World War, he gave a clear indication of how his own experience of war had influenced his art. ‚ I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering, ‚ he said. ‚ In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. ‚ (John Garth)
Clearly, the two wars were both curse and inspiration for Tolkien. He weaved his war experiences into the storyline but offering an alternative to war at the end. Throughout the books the reader encounters the traumatised soldier in the form of the hobbit, constantly being reminded of what war can do to a person and that one cannot return from those horrors experienced.
Part 2 to follow soon on the duality between medieval and industrial warfare and its correspondence in The Lord of the Rings