Academic journal article Mythlore

1904: Tolkien, Trauma, and Its Anniversaries

Academic journal article Mythlore

1904: Tolkien, Trauma, and Its Anniversaries

Article excerpt

While a number of writers have examined Tolkien's reactions to the "animal horror" of life and death in the trenches, I would like to propose that the traumatic events of 1904 were far more important to Tolkien's thinking and writing than his experience of World War I. (1) In 1904 Tolkien, age twelve, and his younger brother, Hilary, nearly died, and their mother did die. Psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, and overwhelmingly intense emotional blow or blows assaults the individual. Traumatic events are external. However, a person probably will not become fully traumatized unless he or she feels utterly helpless during the event or events. This is documented in the pioneering work of Lenore Terr (8). Traumatic memories in childhood are "far clearer, more detailed, and more long-lasting than is ordinary memory" (171). Like Frodo's annual reaction to the anniversaries of his woundings by Shelob and at Weathertop, I will argue that Tolkien had delayed, recurrent reactions to his childhood trauma at the ten and twenty year anniversaries in 1914 and 1924. Anniversary reactions to trauma do not require conscious thought but are manifested in the need for people to memorialize important dates like 9/11 and Pearl Harbor Day (Inman). Because the death of Tolkien's mother, Mabel Tolkien, was part of this series of events in 1904, what we know about her and what is revealed about Tolkien's relationship with his mother are an important part of the anniversary reactions. I rely on some biographical sources that have not been previously utilized to their full potential.

Tolkien's official biography gives a sketchy history for the first part of 1904. In January, 1904 the twelve-year old Ronald Tolkien and Hilary, his almost ten-year old brother, became bedridden with first measles and then whooping cough. Next, Hilary contracted pneumonia. Their mother, Mabel, had been ill since the preceding December, and by April 1904 she was hospitalized with diabetes, which was incurable at the time (Carpenter 29).

Mabel Tolkien's letter of July 1904 documents the gravity of the boys' illnesses. She wrote during her post-hospital convalescence about her reunion with her two sons, stating that they were so "ridiculously well compared to the weak white ghosts that met me on train 4 weeks ago" with Hilary now looking "immense" (Carpenter 29; all italics are in the original). If in June 1904 they were "weak white ghosts" and Hilary at age ten now looks "immense," then what did they look like "by April" when she was placed in the hospital? Clearly they were quite sick, and this was particularly true of the younger Hilary. In a photograph in the Carpenter biography from May 1905, taken almost one year later, Hilary is clearly of average weight, certainly not chubby or plump or immense (Priestman 16). Therefore, Hilary must have been quite underweight, if not emaciated, in April 1904.

In addition, Tolkien independently indicates that he had believed he and/or his brother might die. In a sketch that was mailed to his mother 27 April 1904, twelve-year old Ronald Tolkien drew a sketch of himself and his soon-to-be uncle, Edwin Neave, sleeping in a shared bed in Edwin's lodgings. The picture is titled They Slept in Beauty Side by Side. This title probably comes from the first line "They grew in beauty, side by side" from the poem "The Graves of a Household" by Felicia Hemans, a very popular and well known poet of that time (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator [A&I] 12). The poem is about three brothers and a sister who grow up happily in a home where their "smiles lit up the hall" and "cheer'd with song the hearth." Perhaps most importantly for Tolkien, whose mother had converted to Catholicism and made sure her boys became Catholics, the children's "voices mingled as they prayed / Around one parent knee." Then the poem acknowledges that now the children's graves are "sever'd far and wide" in America, at sea, in Spain, and in Italy. …

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