The Lord of the Rings on the Experience of Trauma

How lived experience inspires fiction

Jared Barlament

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photo by Davidson Luna on Unsplash

The Lord of the Rings, having leapt back into our cultural consciousness lately, has always been subject of discussion for its complex, lofty, but touching themes. And while no shortage of “Tolkien’s philosophy” videos and articles seek to achieve an overview of his clearest and most major themes — I know, I wrote one too — the truth is that Tolkien was not a fan of writing to preach his thinking. He said, famously and directly, that he hated allegory, and while the breadth of his works and the Catholic faith that so obviously shines through them make it tempting to try to dissect his entire philosophical system, it may be both better and more accurate of us to just highlight those few times in his books where he makes his thought on some more specific subject clear. Here, we see him relaying through Frodo the gravity of the events that have just gone down and the inevitability of trauma succeeding them.

Near the end of The Return of the King — 3rd to last chapter, “Homeward Bound” — the hobbits are traveling with Gandalf and a company of men back toward the Shire after having destroyed the Ring and defeated Sauron. The journey is easy, following many celebrations, but Frodo stays weary and depressed. He laments:

“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?”

Simply, pointedly, and unsettlingly, Tolkien follows:

Gandalf had no answer.

And from these few words, he gives the audience a window into a world of trauma.

It isn’t any small thing to see Gandalf stumped, firstly, for this is not your average “wise man” figure. Really, Gandalf is supposed to be some kind of minor angel in service of Eru, the God of Middle-Earth and all of Arda. The fact, then, that Frodo’s grief is so great that even Gandalf, among the handful of wisest individuals in Middle-Earth, has no solution or so much as a hint for his friend would feel harrowing to any reader. And no real-world explanation would ever come, either; Frodo, in the end, has to leave his whole world for good to live in the…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.