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A comment on "1904: tolkien, trauma, and its anniversaries".

I WISH TO COMMENT ON NANCY BUNTING'S PROVOCATIVE "1904: Tolkien, Trauma, and its Anniversaries" in Mythlore #127 (34.1, Fall/Winter 2015). There is much in her article that I agree with and that I believe advances Tolkien studies. However, despite Bunting's commendable care in pointing out that her conclusions are uncertain, I think that she reaches for more conviction about proposed events in Tolkien's life than can be supported with current documentation. In her Editorial, Croft comments that Bunting's article is "[a]pplying our current understanding of childhood trauma and its later effects, [and] definitions of abuse" (3). In fact, though, some aspects of trauma theory used by Bunting remain controversial.

To begin with what I find most useful: I am in complete agreement with Bunting's emphasis on childhood trauma. Although it is common knowledge among Tolkienists that his childhood was difficult, with the loss of both parents, I think the traumatic effect of his war experiences has tended to be weighted more strongly in the literature (for example Croft, Baptism; Garth). Different people react differently to the same potentially traumatic events, depending on their temperaments, personality structure, and past trauma history; Tolkien's difficult childhood is important not only in itself but because it undoubtedly contributed to the traumatic effects he felt from the war, so Bunting's focus establishes a more accurate balance between childhood and war experiences in our understanding.

Bunting provides informative analyses of the meanings and feelings that may lie behind a number of Tolkien's artworks and writings. For example, her analysis of his Eeriness watercolor is a tour de force. By carefully studying the manifest painting and linking it to likely associations, Bunting convincingly argues that Eeriness "is a representation of Mabel Tolkien [and] somehow death and evil, as well as salvation and redemption, are associated with her" (66).

The problem comes in when Bunting moves from explicating Tolkien's feelings, his experience, to reconstructing actual childhood events that may have formed these experiences. There is no clear consensus in the field over whether it is possible to make such reconstructions accurately, and I have previously described the cyclical nature of our society's beliefs in this regard (Rosegrant). During the "Memory Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s there was tremendous controversy in both the scholarly literature and the popular press regarding the veridicality of recovered memories of trauma, including bizarre memories of Satanic childhood abuse (Loftus). When investigated closely many of these recovered memories proved to be false, and researchers such as Loftus have demonstrated the malleability and unreliability of memory, such that significant portions of what people code as memory is actually fantasy (see for example Laney & Loftus, Loftus & Davis).

Bunting does not discuss recovered memories per se, but the larger question raised by the Memory Wars is the extent to which we can infer actual specific childhood events from adult memories, fantasies, and behaviors, which in Tolkien's case include his artwork and writings. My own belief, based on clinical experience and supported by Loftus's research, is that one must be cautious in reasoning from adult memory/fantasy/behavior to childhood fact.

There are several examples where I think Bunting takes this step unconvincingly, but for reasons of space I will focus only on her central argument that Mabel was abusive to her sons and that Tolkien's resulting ambivalence about her (as seen for example in his feelings behind the Eeriness painting) contributed to his complex traumatic reaction to his mother's death. Bunting draws together various pieces of circumstantial evidence, including among others that "thrashings" of children were common at that historical period, that governesses were especially strict and Mabel was a governess, that Tolkien's idealized image of Mabel did not include the "charity and forgiveness" (71) that he learned from Father Francis, and that Tolkien showed ten-year and twenty-year anniversary reactions to the year of Mabel's death.

Each of these pieces of evidence could be otherwise explained, but since a key part of Bunting's argument that Tolkien was traumatized in this particular way in 1904 is based on the anniversary reactions that she hypothesizes, let me focus on these. Bunting is certainly correct that trauma victims can find the anniversaries of traumatic experiences particularly difficult, although in my clinical experience there is nothing special about ten or twenty years; any year anniversary may be challenging. (Frodo had oneand two-year anniversary reactions to his wounding on Weathertop and the destruction of the Ring.) But despite Bunting's interesting analyses of Tolkien's thoughts and art during these anniversary years, I am not persuaded that he was having anniversary reactions. Such reactions are most easily recognized when they occur on or very near the date of the traumatic event, but Bunting proposes traumatic reactions throughout the tenth and twentieth years after Mabel's death, rather than in November when she actually died. (Bunting documents that other times in 1904 were stressful because both Tolkien and his brother were seriously ill, but she also documents that the summer was idyllic. Anniversary reactions are less likely to events that are not clearly delineated and include idyllic periods.) Furthermore, Tolkien's biography indicates that he was equally prone to pain at many other times. Bunting even gives an example in a footnote, Tolkien's near "breakdown" in 1938, thirty-four years after Mabel's death.

If Bunting's conclusions about childhood abuse are incorrect, whence came Tolkien's pain? I do not want to speculate much until we have more evidence, but we should keep in mind the centrality of loss and death in his writings--somehow, Tolkien grew to be intensely and poignantly sensitive to loss and death. Certainly his orphaning and World War I contributed to this. If these are not enough to explain it, we may not need to look at acute traumas for the explanation. Our society likes the idea that drastic discrete episodes explain the pain of life--witness movies like Ordinary People and The Fisher King--and sometimes indeed this is the case. I have had patients who wished they could identify such a trauma in their lives to give clarity, and sometimes it is there. But often the pain in life grows out of strain traumas like small but regular parental misattunements, and often these happen in preverbal years that are very difficult to access consciously.

I am grateful to Bunting for stimulating these thoughts. When the Tolkien archives are opened, we may find that her speculations are completely correct. We may find instead that Tolkien's pain is largely explainable by his orphaning and/or the war and/or strain traumas not yet identified. And we may find something else entirely. Until then, I recommend cautious humility in our conclusions. I also recommend that we keep in mind that what was most unusual about Tolkien was not the pain he experienced, but the creative transformations of it that went into his art.


Bunting, Nancy. "1904: Tolkien, Trauma, and its Anniversaries." Mythlore 34.1 (#127) (2015): 59-81.

Croft, Janet Brennan, ed. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 2015.

--. "Editorial." Mythlore 34.1 (#127) (2015): 3-4.

Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Laney, C. & Loftus, E. "Emotional Content of True and False Memories." Memory 16: 500-516.

Loftus, Elizabeth. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

--and Davis, D. "Recovered Memories." Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2: 469-498.

Rosegrant, John. "Three Psychoanalytic Realities." Psychoanalytic Psychology 27 (2010): 492-512.

JOHN ROSEGRANT is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst whose private practice is in New Orleans. John has published widely in the psychoanalytic literature on topics including psychoanalytic technique, short-term psychotherapy, play therapy, dreams, fairy tales, Harry Potter, and the World of Warcraft computer game, and his article "Tolkien's Dialogue between Enchantment and Loss" appeared in Mythlore 33.2, Spring/Summer 2015. John is also the author of Gatemoodle, Kintravel, and Rattleman, the first three volumes of The Gates of Inland Young Adult Fantasy series.
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Title Annotation:NOTES AND LETTERS
Author:Rosegrant, John
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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