The problem of pain: Portraying physical disability in the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien

— Clare Moore

Paper given 3 July 2021 at Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021: Saturday session № 1

Though J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium portrays numerous characters with various disabilities, scholarship has primarily focused on Frodo, such as Michael Livingston’s The Shell-shocked Hobbit’ and Verlyn Fliegers Frodo’s Body,’ which analyze Frodo’s physical and psychological injuries in light of Tolkien’s experience in World War I. Studies focused on characters from The Silmarillion, such as Irina Metzler’s Tolkien and disability’ and Victoria Holtz Wodzaks Tolkien’s Gimpy Heroes,’ utilize the social model of disability discourse in their analyses.

The social model of disability theory analyzes how societal structures treat people with disabilities, and counters a strict medical model of disability. However, more recent disability theorists argue that a strict social model does not account for the role of physical pain attached to some disabilities. Current disability study has not resolved the role of pain in understanding, analyzing, and representing disability in society or literature. This unresolved tension is also present in Tolkien’s work.

This paper will analyze how Tolkien portrays pain in relationship to physical disability in the legendarium. Frodo experiences physical pain from his injuries, but this pain is subservient to — and inherently connected with — his psychological trauma. He also departs the story before a sustained account of living with chronic pain is portrayed in detail. Beren experiences several injuries, but Tolkien does not portray a vivid experience of physical pain even after Beren’s most severe injury — the loss of his hand — and indeed Beren dies shortly after his injury. The primary characters whose post-injury experiences are documented for a considerable amount of time are Maedhros and Morgoth, where Tolkien describes physical pain at the moment these injuries are received, hints at sustained pain after the fact, but does not portray their experiences of living with chronic pain in detail.

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date recorded 📅2021-08-13
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