‘‘Where Shall I Find Rest?”: “The Sea-Bell” and the Post-Traumatic Stress of Frodo Baggins
by Anne Marie Gazzolo
Janet Brennan Croft states, “One of the grimmest lessons The Lord of the Rings teaches about war is that some of the mental wounds it causes never heal in this world. Frodo is Tolkien’s prime example of the heartbreaking effects of war on certain minds” (War and Works of J. R. R. Tolkien 133). Verlyn Flieger observes:
The peace won for Middle-earth through his efforts is not his to enjoy, and he gets no recognition of his achievement on his return to the Shire he saved. Worst of all, he has lost the Ring he carried for so long and that has left its indelible mark on him… Its loss cannot be made up, and Frodo is bereft of more than a finger. He is like the thousands of returning servicemen…who come back to a world that has no way to understand where they have been or what they have been through. In 1916 they called it shell shock… Now we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. (Interrupted Music 142)
The remarkable poem “The Sea-Bell” provides evidence of the Ring-bearer’s PTSD, if viewed through the lens of its subtitle, Frodos Dreme. Tolkien noted that the hobbit likely did not write the poem himself but that one can observe within it the “dark and despairing dreams which visited him in March and October during his last three years” (Tolkien Reader, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” [“ATB”] 9).
While on the Quest to destroy the Ring, Frodo receives several physical wounds, but the relentless mental traumas cause the deepest harm. From any one of them, he likely could have used the “amazing power of recovery” that Gandalf notes hobbits have (LotR III.11.580). But the Ring-bearer receives little time to do this. Even before he reaches Bree, he faces threats from the Black Rider and the barrow-wight. The Morgul-wound he receives on Weathertop places him in deadly peril until Elrond heals him.
More traumas follow from the Watcher in the Water, witnessing Gandalf’s fall in Moria, and the shadowy but real danger of Gollum’s pursuit of the Company. Frodo knows someone follows them, but he does not know if or when he will face betrayal and capture by Orcs or Ringwraiths. Lothlórien offers a respite, but Galadriel’s Mirror also reveals the Eye of Sauron that actively seeks him.
The damage to Frodo continues to mount after the Company leaves the Golden Wood. The threats to his life include the Orc attack on the River Anduin; Boromir’s fall to the lure of the Ring, the terrible struggle on Amon Hen, the search of the Nazgûl for him, the intense sense of vulnerability and naked exposure to the ever-present Eye, the stress of not knowing at first whether Faramir is trustworthy, the “deadly regard” (IV.9.704) and sting of Shelob, the capture by Orcs and whippings in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the unwitting re-capture on the way to Mount Doom, and the loss of his finger in the Sammath Naur. These multiple traumas meet Criteria A for PTSD, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] defines as “[e]xposure to actual or threatened death [or] serious injury” either by “directly experiencing the traumatic event(s) [and/or] witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others” (271).
Physically, emotionally, and spiritually the old moment [the original trauma] is relived, not just remembered. The unconscious cannot tell time, and when it projects the [trauma] onto the present moment, the time is both then and now. During some of these instances, the present is dimmed to the point where it is actually lost for periods of time. This is not a loss of reality, as is experienced in certain forms of mental illness. Rather, it is an experience of being captured by a past reality come to life in the present moment. (Horrific Traumata, emphasis in original 53)
Farmer Cotton witnesses the Ring-bearer’s first March illness upon discovering him “half in a dream,” lamenting the loss of the Ring. By the 25th, Frodo has recovered, though there is no mention of how long this took. The following October, Sam discovers his master in the throes of another flashback, “looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.” This time the illness only “seem[s] to pass” (LotR VI.9.1002). The next March, Frodo makes a concentrated effort to hide his illness from Sam. This time, the Ring-bearer shows more awareness of himself and his surroundings, but there is also no note of a recovery.
Criteria C includes “Avoidance of or efforts to avoid external reminders…that arouse distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s)” (DSM 271). Frodo does not wish to wear a sword after he wakes in Ithilien, but he reluctantly does so after both Gandalf and Sam say he should. He is adverse to cross the Ford of Bruinen, but he forces himself to do so. Once they come near Weathertop, he pleads for his friends to hurry and does not look at the hill.
Criteria D is associated with “Negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with traumatic event(s), beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred” (DSM 271). These includes “persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself”; “persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others”; and “persistent negative emotional state (e.g. fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame)”; and lack of interest and withdrawal from activities (DSM 272). The guilt-inspired thought that an evil act was freely and actively willed by the person “may be the most devastating of all because it makes you doubt your own goodness as a human being” (Goulston 150). Though no one else blames Frodo for crumbling under the Ring’s demonic assault at the end, “what Frodo himself felt about the events is quite another matter” (Tolkien, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 327). Frodo carries not only the burden of “nightmare memories of past horrors...but also unreasoning self-reproach: he saw himself and all that he done as a broken failure” (Tolkien, Letters 328). Even after he tells Sam that he knows he is nearly in the Ring’s power, he still considers himself free to decide what to do at the Fire, and so judges his claim of the Ring as an evil choice of his own will. Tolkien noted that Frodo possibly had no memories of his own of that most terrible of all the assaults against his soul and will (Letters 252). It is no wonder then that he believed that he fully willed to claim the Ring himself after Sam told him what he had said: “I have come. But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” (LotR VI.3.924). He would consider as no consequence the fact that he spoke in a tone of voice he had never used before. But it is another hint that it was not truly his own voice and will. Tom Shippey remarks, “It is…interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to do’, but ‘I do not choose to do’. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him” (Tolkien: Author of the Century 140). Flieger observes, “His use of choose and will makes it clear that he believes he is acting freely. But the negative, the repeated not is telling evidence that his will has been perverted and his choice preempted” (Splintered Light 153-154, emphasis in original).
Frodo has not reached this point of understanding yet himself, and so he does not realize that his will was the least free then to make its own choice. With all the other memories stolen from him were the lessons learned after Weathertop, at Minas Morgul, and in Mordor, about the coercive powers of evil to subvert his will to its own. He would only hear those terrible words of seeming free choice echo over and over in his mind, and he would believe them to be his own. Whose else could they be? Anyone who has suffered guilt and depression over what they perceive to be a horrible weakness that they alone have will be familiar with how crippling this false perception can be. But while trapped by it, they do not realize it is false. Flieger notes this “deeper, self-inflicted” injury is Frodo’s “greatest unhealed wound” (“Wounds,” Green Suns and Faërie 291).
After the hobbits rout the ruffians and Frodo resigns as Deputy Mayor, the wounded Ring-bearer “drop[s] quietly out of all the doings of the Shire” (LotR VI.9.1002). Sinclair notes, “The emotional pain of PTSD engrosses the victim to such a degree that there is neither energy nor reason to reach out beyond the self; the inner warfare is profound and consumes from within” (Traumata 68-69).
A traumatized person may also have episodes of disassociation. On the way to Rivendell after the attack on Weathertop, in the Dead Marshes and beyond, at Minas Morgul, in Mordor, and in the grip of his first three anniversary illnesses, Frodo exhibits symptoms of this, either in the form of derealization or depersonalization. The former is “Persistent or recurrent experiences of unreality of surroundings (e.g. the world around the individual is experienced as unreal, dreamlike, distant, or distorted)” (DSM 272). As the shard of the Morgul-blade inches toward the Ring-bearer’s heart, dark dreams plague him. The real world around him grows more shadow-like, and the wraith-world becomes more real. In the Dead Marshes, after Sam tells him not to look at the lights, Frodo responds, “as if returning out of a dream” (LotR IV.2.613). After the hobbits leave the Marshes and the Noman-lands, they see the vileness of the land before them and stand as though “on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks” (IV.2.617). In the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the first thing Frodo asks Sam is “Am I still dreaming?” (VI.1.889). He asks whether he had truly heard singing below him or not. This dreamlike state passes after the vision of Sam as an Orc lusting for the Ring clears away, but it returns while on the tortuous way to Mount Doom. Sam notes that his master does not always seem aware of what is front of him. He also observes Frodo raise his hand, as though to fend off a blow from an invisible foe, which is perhaps a flashback to the Orcs whipping him in the Tower. He vividly describes to Sam that the world around him has become solely the world of the Ring: “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades” (VI.3.916).
The characteristics of derealization are “Persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one were an outside observer of, one’s mental processes or body (e.g. feeling as though one were in a dream; feeling a sense of unreality of self or body or of time moving slowly)” (DSM 272). The most vivid example of this is at Minas Morgul. Frodo feels detached from his own body, as he senses the powerful force that wishes him to put on the Ring: “It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck” (LotR IV.8.691). The Ring-bearer has an altered perception of time in Cirith Ungol. “It seems weeks” before Sam comes to rescue him (VI.1.889).
The severity of PTSD includes factors such as the cause of the trauma, their number, the chance they will reoccur, and “the degree to which the trauma violated your personal boundaries” (Goulston 36). Frodo suffers physical violations by Morgul-blade, Shelob’s sting, Orc whips, and Gollum’s teeth, but the deepest wounds are the ones the Ring causes. Ginna Wilkerson likens the torment the hobbit suffers as akin to domestic violence. But unlike a battered person who may escape, Frodo cannot step away from the torture. He can only resist it and bear it as well as he can. He must keep his assailant with him in the hope of destroying it before it destroys him. More and more he suffers the deprivation of adequate sleep, warmth, food, and water. The Ring creates within its Bearer a sense of isolation and loneliness that cuts him off even from his memories. Its weight is an increasingly unbearable burden. His ordeal slowly strips away every bit of himself, every layer of defense he has against his Enemy and leaves him feeling completely exposed. In the Dead Marshes, he senses “[t]he Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thin, the veils were become that still warded it off. Frodo knew just where the present habitation and heart of that will now was… He was facing it, and its potency beat upon his brow” (LotR IV.2.616). He does not know when the next full-scale attack from the Ring will come, only that it will and that he cannot hide or protect himself from it.
The closer Frodo gets to the Fire, the more the Ring tries to coerce his will. After it can no longer seduce him, it attempts to bypass his will altogether and force itself upon him, which in the end it does. It is no stretch to say that Frodo is brutally and repeatedly raped, not in the form of physical assaults, but in how such attacks affect the ability of the victim’s mind, heart, and will to make a free choice, as it forces one into a situation where one person exerts control over another. Such victims are at high risk of developing PTSD.
Of all these trials, Frodo leaves moving testimony within the Red Book, but he remains almost silent about his worst pain. Sam twice told him on the Quest not to speak of such things, but he could done so unknowingly. Given his propensity to talk in his sleep, as Gandalf noted in Rivendell, Sam could have recorded “The Sea-Bell” from Frodo’s own lips. Certainly the words haunted the unknown recorder enough to associate the words in the poem with the darkness of the Ring-bearer’s last years. Sinclair notes, “The most corrosive impact of emotional trauma is to be found in the spiritual fabric of persons. This is where the prolonged damage is created” (Traumata 65). This involves the “death of the spirit” and “fragmentation of the self,” which includes loss of hope, intimacy, future, peacefulness, healing memory, spontaneity, wholeness, innocence, trust, and awe (Traumata x).
The traveler in the poem suffers many of these losses, as does Frodo. If the two are one and the same, it gives heart-wrenching evidence of the depth of the damage done to the Ring-bearer. The call of the sea-bell and the arrival of the ship appear invitations to journey to a far land. A ship is ready to take Frodo as well, who receives the invitation to go West from the Valar via Arwen. The traveler’s arrival at a distant shore begins pleasantly enough. He drinks to his heart’s content and soaks in beautiful sights and songs. But it soon turns to a place of rejection and despair rather than welcome and hope, which brings about a keen loss of intimacy, as any time the sojourner approaches, the music ceases and the singers disappear. No one speaks to him even after his pleas that someone do so. Frodo would have known of the Mirkwood Elves fleeing Bilbo and the dwarves in the same manner, and he faces his own shunning by his fellow hobbits after he returns to the Shire. The hobbits who never left home have no idea what happened ‘out there,’ and they have no desire to know. They do not give the Ring-bearer any support or appreciation, and likely they thought him even more cracked than before. This lack of approval validates and reinforces the self-reproach Frodo feels and causes Sam’s heart to ache.
The traveler’s self-proclamation as king of the land he comes to echoes the moment that in Frodo’s mind, he freely claimed the Ring.“I am the Lord of the One Ring - and of ALL Rings!” the hobbit exclaims in The Lord of the Rings musical (qtd. in Wagner, “Arresting Strangeness,” Silver Leaves 3). Sean T. Collins notes:
The dreme-Frodo additionally attempts to make contact with others by crowning himself a makeshift king, demanding with tongue in cheek that his subjects come forth. For this he is laid low by shadow a year, emerging grey and broken. The guilt of his self-betrayal in Mount Doom, the moment where the Ring finally corrupted him and he proclaimed it his, weighs heavily on him. … His stabbing with the morgul-blade on Weathertop, his use of the Ring – they are still with him, and the nightmare state of undeath they showed him is all his unconscious mind can see for itself in its future. (“Roots and Beginnings,” Vorpalizer.com)
After Frodo’s return to the Shire, he warns his fellow hobbits not to be deceived by the poison of Saruman’s voice, but is he deceived by it himself in the wizard’s prediction of a short life? A sense of a foreshortened future is symptomatic of PTSD.
Both the sojourner in the poem and Frodo suffer from a loss of peacefulness and wholeness. The madness that follows the traveler’s proclamation recalls Frodo’s memories of Sméagol-Gollum: “Like a dark mole groping I went, / to the ground falling, on my hands crawling, / with eyes blind and my back bent. /…/ wandering in wit” (“ATB” 59). The traveler, now more of a trespasser, remains in this pitiful state for a year and a day, then in winter, the boat returns him to where he came from. But there is still no welcome for him. He talks only to himself because those he encounters shun him as though he is not even there. Flieger observes, “He is changed forever, taken out of his time, lost from the otherworld and estranged from his own, very much like Frodo was after his return from Mordor to the Shire, not just ‘falling asleep again’ but caught in a nightmare from which he cannot waken” (A Question of Time 216).
“Where shall I find rest?” Frodo wonders on the way home (LotR VI.7.967). Even though he receives some temporary reprieves at Tom Bombadil’s house, Rivendell, Lothlórien, and Henneth Annún and even laughs and jokes along the way, the bludgeon of repeated trauma and the terrible burden of despair slowly break him. He has nightmares during the Quest and flashbacks afterwards. Peacefulness will not be his to find any longer in Middle-earth. Gandalf’s words about incurable wounds carry increasing weight, as Frodo endures the daily struggle to live in a world and within a shattered self that without the Ring is “dark and empty” (VI.9.1001). His guilt and sense of failure rob him of healing memory and also make him especially vulnerable to the fear that peace will not be available for him anywhere. “If the speaker is Frodo, the reader is being told that he sees himself as irrecoverably lost, condemned to a half life that is no life at all, suspended between two worlds. His sacrifice has led to no redemption. Something in Tolkien wanted the reader to hear Frodo in the poem and to link the poem’s situation with what might have happened to him” (Light 163). Tom Shippey notes that subtitle of the poem points in part to “a sense of ultimate defeat and loss in the hero of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo doubted his own salvation” (The Road to Middle-earth 285).
“I must find the sea! / I have lost myself, and I know not the way, / but let me gone!” (“ATB” 59). Though the traveler speaks these words after he loses his trust of the land where he first found haven but then rejection, Flieger notes, “His despairing cry…recalls Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings” (Light 162). The Ring-bearer’s reply to Sam that Rivendell held everything but the Sea demonstrates how much he already longs for it.
“At last there came light in my long night” (“ATB” 59). For the traveler, this means leaving the place that broke him. For Frodo, the possibility of the journey West remains before him and illuminates the dark places of his anguish. Arwen’s two gifts to Frodo signal that she sees the deep but invisible scars that he carries in his mind, heart, and soul. Galadriel’s wish/prayer in her song as the Company leaves Lórien that Frodo would find Valimar shows she sees them as well, far before they are as deep as they would become. These Elven ladies are especially suited to recognize Frodo’s wounds because centuries before they saw similar ones in Celebrían, who had suffered assault by Orcs and fled West to heal from the mental torment. The Valar bless their desire to give Frodo the same light in his dark night that Celebrían had.
The traveler says, “I cast away all that I bore” (“ATB” 60). He abandons the sand from the far land and the sea-bell that had called once and never would again. He has lost the awe of the far shore that was at first so marvelous and then become such an wasteland with no solace or peace for him. This loss is “the inability to believe that there can be anything greater than that which inflicted the original pain…All has been rendered insignificant by the awfulness of the trauma” (Traumata 72). If there was a more powerful presence in Frodo’s life than his torment, such as the love of friends, then he may have stayed. But no, the agony of his shattered heart and spirit is greatest. Christine Chism notes that the empty shell cast away “is what Frodo in his darkest moments feels he has become” (“Middle-earth,” Tolkien the Medievalist 71). The sacrifices he makes in offering his body, mind, heart, and soul to the Quest are so complete that what remains is not enough to sustain him in Middle-earth. Like the traveler, he must abandon the place where he hoped he would find haven. Flieger observes, “Whoever the voice in ‘The Sea-bell’ is intended to be…the words of the poem, the suffering of the speaker, describe an experience all too recognizable to anyone who lived through it, of alienation from the reference points of familiar experience, of a world gone past the point of no return, longing for something it once had and ought to have been able to keep” (Question 224). Frodo tells Sam about this, as it dawns upon the faithful gardener and guardian that his master is not going to Rivendell but leaving Middle-earth all together.
“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.”
“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” (LotR VI.9.1006)
Flieger observes, “[T]he speaker in ‘The Sea-bell’ (who may be Frodo, is certainly Tolkien, and very probably all humanity) is important to the myth precisely because he experiences change. He is a man of antitheses, both spiritually and literally between worlds, having lost one and not yet gained another. He is poised in the moment of greatest loss, which paradoxically will bring with it the experience of becoming” (Light 171).
Even though Flieger says the poem is of “such unmitigated alienation and despair as to negate hope of any kind,” she also notes, “The ‘dreme’ (if it is a dream) should be seen over against another dream which gives a considerably more hopeful…picture. This is Frodo’s last dream in the house of Tom Bombadil” (Light 162). “But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind; a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise” (LotR I.8.132).
On the Quest, Sam taught Frodo about the radical hope which refused to give up no matter how dark and despairing things appeared. If the Ring-bearer’s dreams reflected the fear that the blessing to come West was false, and that, as the traveler in the poem found, he would reach for it and find it empty and himself even more desolate and alone, his courage to make the decision to leave shows he did not allow his doubts to overwhelm him. Sam’s unquenchable hope and the reward it received would give Frodo the strength to believe that, unlike the traveler and unlike his own nightmares, he would not be forsaken by all but born to a new life, that he would not be a rejected trespasser but a welcomed guest. In casting away the empty shell, he readies himself to embrace the possibility of being filled again. In this hope, or the desperation of the traveler, or both, he flees and takes the chance that his fears are not reality and that instead healing and peace await him. The Ring-bearer would no longer be trapped in the Sammath Naur at the moment of his greatest violation and loss, but he would descend the Mountain at last, free at last from the crushing burden of guilt and failure. Let us hope it was so.
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Anne Marie Gazzolo is the author of Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings (WestBow Press, 2012), which also includes a chapter on The Hobbit. For more details and to order the book, please visit http://ow.ly/ez2dT. Sign up for her mailing list at www.annemariegazzolo.com and get a free copy of her ebook, Pathways Through Middle-earth: A Guide for Heart, about applying to your life the lessons taught by Hobbits, Wizards, Elves, Men, and Dwarves. Find her also at www.facebook.com/annemariegazzolo and www.pinterest.com/authorannemarie.