“The burnt hand teaches most about fire”: Applying traumatic stress and ecological frameworks to narratives of displacement and resettlement across cultures in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

— V. Elizabeth King, Graduate research assistant, University of Georgia

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

Refugee narratives and displacement are key themes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, with nearly every race and ethnicity in Middle-earth experiencing some type of forced displacement. Inherent to refugee narratives is trauma exposure, and Tolkien himself furnishes descriptions of character behavior and cognition (e.g., Maedhros, Aragorn, Frodo) that map symptomatically onto modern constructs of traumatic stress. Because psychological research indicates traumatic stress disproportionately affects displaced individuals and because experiences of displacement in Tolkien’s legendarium are epidemic, the power and centrality of the refugee narrative in Tolkien’s work must be considered. However, while some scholars have studied Tolkien’s personal- and legendarium-based writing on war and its stressors, these themes are generally only examined in light of Tolkien’s own experiences and personal beliefs. While these are important points that were likely influential in Tolkien’s representations — as he wrote, after all, the burnt hand teaches most about fire” — the ways in which displacement and traumatic stress function differently across cultures within the legendarium, and how those differences may impact reader experience, are unexplored.

This paper, therefore, proposes to integrate knowledge from refugee and stress research with Tolkien’s texts to address the following: the social-ecological impact of displacement and trauma on cultural groups and associated individuals; how differing cultural and historical responses to displacement modulate outcomes across groups, and, finally, associated implications for cultural meaning-making, personal decision-making, and interethnic interactions. Primary topics of interest for this study are the impact of childhood and prolonged trauma on Elrond’s lifecourse in Middle-earth; differences in occupation and colonization practices post-displacement in the Sindarin princes of the Silvan elves; and continuous displacement and trauma exposure in dwarven communities. Because Tolkien both implicitly and explicitly acknowledges the existence of traumatic stress in Middle-earth, an application of this different but related analytical lens may be illuminating.

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date recorded 📅2021-08-13
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