The Lord of the Rings,
or how to Survive Fear and Despair
This interpretation of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of John Bowlby’s Attachment theory by Dr. Nicole Guedeney, a child psychiatrist, assumes a fair knowledge of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book but no specific notions in psychology. It can also be read as an ‘introduction to the Attachment theory from the perspective of The Lord of the Rings’.
~ Article by Nicole Guedeney. ~
If I had to take a single book to a desert island, it would be The Lord of the Rings. I return to it very frequently, in times of great tension when I long for comfort and a sense of security. I’ve often wondered what compelled me to reread it so regularly, but I never could find an answer. Until, one day, as I read through Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, there superimposed itself in my mind another biography and another face: that of an English psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist some twenty years younger than Tolkien, John Bowlby. It was he who, between 1930 and 1990, developed the theoretical framework known as the Attachment theory, which is still shaping our current understanding of interpersonal relations, both in children and adults.
This revelation suddenly provided me with a new angle of interpretation. A common theme then emerged as central to both works, the one literary (Tolkien’s), the other scientific (Bowlby’s – in Attachment and Loss, published in three volumes between 1969 and 1982): that of the fear and despair that can seize a lone human being when confronted with loss or danger. But also the ability to overcome this fear and despair with the help of strong interpersonal bonds. Therefore, I hope to illustrate (to put it in Tolkien’s own words) the ‘varied applicability’ of The Lord of the Rings according to my ‘thought and experience’ as a reader, by offering an ‘attachmentist’ interpretation of the novel. My interpretation will be restricted to members of the Free Peoples who are instrumental in the destruction of the Ring – including, but not limited to, members of the Fellowship. I shall successively consider the negative emotions experienced by these characters, the attachment figures, the way help is granted and requested; so as to highlight the pivotal role of attachment – in all its modalities – including for the fulfilment of the ‘quest’.
Attachment theory is concerned with how a human being can, at any stage of life, regulate feelings of fear and sadness and deal with alarming or distressing situations by relying on bonds with specific people: the attachment figures. Attachment theory is not a general theory of human functionality; it is only relevant to situations where we are confronted with fear and distress.
Negative emotions in The Lord of the Rings
Fear is the basic emotional state triggered by situations of alarm. Danger and menace are a fixture of The Lord of the Rings; they are induced by the most classically anxiogenic stimuli. Anything that recalls the night, darkness, or the absence of light, is anxiogenic. Isolation, to the protagonists, amounts to a situation of danger. Lengthy separations (longer than wished for), or risk of separation, are also cause for alarm. As we can see, Tolkien plays the whole range of fear-based emotions, from mere uneasiness to paralyzing horror; and so hauntingly repeats them as to overwhelm both the protagonists and the reader. No character is immune from fear, even the most heroic, like Aragorn or Gandalf, or the strongest like Elrond.
Feelings of distress and vulnerability are also experienced by all: despair or sadness, sorrow, weariness, exhaustion, sense of vulnerability or powerlessness, feeling of abandonment. Fear and distress are often bundled together in a single phrase: ‘terror and death’, ‘horror and despair’, ‘grief and concern’, ‘fear and sadness’. As Frodo dolefully tells Faramir at their meeting in Ithilien: ‘I am weary, and full of grief, and afraid’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 5).
Attachment figures in The Lord of the Rings
Containing fear or distress, learning how to regulate them, and not to be overwhelm by them, are central tasks in the development of the human infant. Babies, on account of their immaturity, cannot manage it on their own. Adults, at first, will to this for them; and gradually, with their help, babies can build their own resources for true autonomy and self-management. Those adult caregivers represent the baby’s first attachment figures. Attachment to someone, in this theory, means looking to a particular figure in times of distress; a sense of security can only be found in its presence, real or evoked. Any form of separation from this figure brings a sense of discomfort and insecurity.
As a child grows through adolescence and into adulthood, it develops a number of interpersonal relations. These can fulfil various functions, attachment being one of the possible dimensions. Accordingly, one can have purely romantic, erotic, or friendly relationships, and not expect any of these to contribute to one’s feeling of security. Moreover, one can develop an attachment bond with different people at once. These sexual, security-inducing and/or affiliative dimensions can also be diversely combined in a single relationship, the typical example of this being, in Western societies, the stable romantic partnership.
Now who are the attachment figures in The Lord of the Rings? Certainly Gandalf, Galadriel, and the regal personages of Aragorn and Faramir are the archetypal protective figures. The mere evocation of them is enough to comfort the hobbits and restore their sense of security, from which point they are free to devise their own solutions. One may think, for example, of Merry at the hands of the Orcs: ‘Every now and again there came into his mind unbidden a vision of the keen face of Strider bending over a dark trail, and running, running behind’ (LotR, Book III, ch. 3); or of Sam’s glimpse of the phial of Galadriel:
‘Then, as he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind … he saw the Lady Galadriel standing on the grass in Lórien. … And you, Ring-bearer, he heard her say, remote but clear, for you I have prepared this’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 9).
Knowing how to ask for help, and being able to grant it, are two equally important features of a quality attachment relationship in adults. Many characters form pairs that quickly become inseparable, one member being an attachment figure to the other. Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Gimli and Legolas and, to a lesser extent, Aragon and Éomer, are joined by unique and irreplaceable bonds which, by their sole presence, afford a degree of security. Each one in turn does his best to help the other; each one knows he can count on the other. Who else but Pippin could have found Merry in the ruin of the Pelennor? Isn’t Sam the unfailing support of Frodo – Frodo, who also supported him when he needed it?
‘Asking for help’ in situations of distress or alarm…
‘Asking for help when needed is a fundamental human motivation,’ wrote Bowlby in 1973. In a state of alarm or distress, one will seek the proximity or assistance of another, stronger and wiser, assumed to be able to help. This motivation is lifelong: adults continue to rely on a few select figures of their relational network – when seized by doubt, distress or fear, or when a problem proves impossible to overcome with their own personal resources.
The heroes of the book, at one time or another, all require the help of someone stronger or wiser than them. They freely express their attachment needs, that is to say, their need for help, without shame or sense of moral weakness. They explicitly request such assistance – which is a typical behavioural pattern of attachment; and they suffer when this help is not be found when needed. In distressing or dangerous situations, when the attachment system is most powerfully activated, they look for physical proximity as the only means to regulate their level of stress and anxiety. Here we are reminded of the beautiful scene in Shelob’s Lair, as Sam and Frodo cower in terror: ‘Sam left the tunnel-side and shrank towards Frodo, and their hands met and clasped, and so together they still went on’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 9).
… and knowing how to respond when help is requested: caregiving
This call for help is answered by an equally fundamental motivation in the person who is in a position to help. This is known as the caregiving system. The person with the power to protect helps the one who, on account of immaturity or vulnerability, is in need of protection. This is of course an essential component of parental care, yet it remains an active system in all human relations.
In The Lord of the Rings, the protective figure is constantly on the look-out for the one he seeks to protect, as soon as it is apparent that a difficult situation is at hand. This concern becomes all the more acute when the protector is not physically present. Such is the case of Gandalf as he stands in the circle of Isengard: ‘Yet even as he spoke his last words to Saruman, and the palantír crashed in fire upon the steps of Orthanc, his thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 3).
Meeting attachment needs is, first and foremost, to afford proximity – either physical, by drawing closer, or psychological, through emotional availability. Affectionate and/or protective physical contact or gestures, towards those in need or in a vulnerable state, are found throughout the novel. Putting a hand on the shoulder, stroking the hair, taking the hand, those are gestures that punctuate many a scene. Supporting actions (breaking the other’s fall, for example) appear in no less than seventeen instances. Repeated displays of affection (kissing on the forehead, cradling in one’s lap, soothing with caresses) convey a sort of inconspicuous yet constantly heedful ‘presence’ to the needs of the other – neither erotic nor romantic but altogether different in nature. Finding Merry grievously wounded after the encounter with the Witch-king, Pippin bears witness to this protective impulse: ‘So he let Merry sink gently down on to the pavement in a patch of sunlight, and then he sat down beside him, laying Merry’s head in his lap. He felt his body and limbs gently, and took his friend’s hands in his own’ (LotR, Book V, ch. 8).
In caregiving, proximity or closeness is associated with the ability to comfort and soothe. Caregiving is understood to be a warning system alerting to the needs of others, fuelled by compassion, sensitivity and pity.
Such protection is especially crucial to the fulfilment of the quest. All who have dealt with Gollum – whether it be Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn, the Wood-elves, Faramir, but most of all Frodo and Sam – have had pity on his vulnerable state, and ultimately chose to protect him; and it is because of this that Gollum car contribute, although unwillingly, to the destruction of the Ring. When Sam is finally given the opportunity to kill Gollum after the treachery at Cirith Ungol, he stays his hand: ‘But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust’ (LotR, Book VI, ch. 3).
Images of protection: when sleep comes
The Lord of the Rings is full of recurring images, repeated dozens of times, portraying moments of absolute protection, such as a parent affords a child in a security-inducing relationship. Scenes that describe the oncoming of sleep are the most typical. As Frodo slumps down in exhaustion in the refuge of Henneth Annûn, he is cared for by Faramir: ‘Then suddenly he caught him as he swayed, and lifting him gently, carried him to the bed and laid him there, and covered him warmly’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 5). One is repeatedly lulled to sleep by soft songs, soothing stories or comforting noises; or peacefully dropping off in a cosy bed, as in the house of Tom Bombadil: ‘Their mattresses and pillows were soft as down, and the blankets were of white wool. They had hardly laid themselves on the deep beds and drawn the light covers over them before they were asleep’ (LotR, Book I, ch. 7).
Such images of childhood bliss are not necessarily those of an idealized childhood. In the context of Attachment theory, they carry another significance: an adult representation of emotional and perceptual leftovers from the experience of total security in our first years – because our parents were looking after us; because we felt certain of their protection, whatever the circumstances, and knew we should never be left to ourselves any more than we could bear. Strikingly enough, when Frodo is reunited with Sam after his captivity from the Orcs, ‘he lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand’ (LotR, Book VI, ch. 1).
A Secure Base, hope, and eucatastrophe
Children who have received steady and adequate responses from their attachment figure, when in a state of distress or alarm, are said to develop a ‘secure’ vision of the world. ‘Secure,’ in this instance, refers specifically to the notion of psychological security.
Thanks to the reassuring response they receive when awarded the proximity they seek with their caregivers, children gradually develop a sense of security. Through their attachment bonds, they grow confident in their ability to survive chaos, despair and terror. Children benefiting from secure attachment to their caregivers feel free to explore the word and develop their own skills: the attachment figure is said to represent a Secure Base to the child. Children also know they can count on this person’s help if needed; in which case the figure is said to represent a Safe Haven.
In adults, the Secure Base may be considered more of a general phenomenon, not necessarily anchored in specific relationships. This is conveniently expressed, for example, in the way Frodo speaks of the Shire: ‘I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again’ (LotR, Book I, ch. 2).
The Lord of the Rings presents a secure view of the interpersonal world. Motivations as relate to attachment and caregiving are given secure expression in the characters’ behavioural patterns and thought processes. Each one knows that, should fear, affliction or despair overcome him, he can find someone dependable to help him do what he must. This unconditional trust of others, their presupposed trustworthiness, derives from the fact that they have always been there as promised, or come when they were needed. As Théoden says to Gandalf at the Battle of Helm’s Deep: ‘Once again you have come in time’ (LotR, Book III, ch. 6).
The pervading notion of hope, in The Lord of the Rings, is also characteristic of this secure worldview. There will always be a solution, and we are not alone: the benevolence and availability of others is presupposed; we are valuable to them and can derive a feeling of personal efficiency even in times of distress.
Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, so characteristic of The Lord of the Rings, is the perfectly realized literary manifestation of ‘secure’ scenarios – imaginings of children who, from difficult situations, make up all sorts of terrifying or disturbing incidents, which however always end well. A number of (more or less) frightening scenes, fifteen of which lead to extreme peril, end on a happy note, thanks to assistance that comes in the nick of time, after the heroes have spent their last resources. Such assistance affords a positive, if sometimes short-lived, resolution. We need only think of our relief and joy at the unexpected flood crashing upon the Ford of Bruinen, or the Riders of Rohan storming into the Pelennor Fields!
Secure attachment and the path to discovery
It would be a mistake to conclude that secure attachment makes one dependant: on the contrary, it favours greater autonomy – in our relationship to others. A child whose attachment needs have been met becomes fully available to exploring the world, understanding its workings and developing his or her own set of skills.
Characters of The Lord of the Rings who are in a position to help know how to protect while also boosting confidence: help is provided if needed, and only if needed or explicitly requested. To a solider of Gondor who brands him a bringer of ill tidings, Gandalf retorts: ‘Because I come seldom but when my help is needed’ (LotR, Book V, ch. 1). The caregiver accompanies the vulnerable character in the discovery of his own skills, protecting him from the more harmful consequences of his trials. Gandalf or the High Elves, for example, rarely give any advice but keep repeating they will remain available – to ward off the negative consequences of the choices being made for those making them. As Gandalf informs Frodo of all things concerning the Ring and awaits his choice, he says to the hobbit: ‘“the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.” He laid his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear”’ (LotR, Book I, ch. 2).
The evolution of the four hobbits over the course of The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of the gradual acquisition of this secure autonomy, from early childhood up to adulthood. In Books I and II, the hobbits show little autonomy to manage on their own in the face of adversity; they are assisted by characters held to be stronger and wiser, and this assistance is delivered every time the hobbits are in trouble. After being rescued in Rivendell, Frodo humbly says to Gandalf: ‘We should never have done it without Strider. But we needed you. I did not know what to do without you’ (LotR, Book II, ch. 1). From Book III onwards, the four hobbits become increasingly adept at finding inner resources to manage more or less on their own, while retaining the ability to find or request outside help. Frodo, for instance, after going through Faramir’s shrewd questioning, hesitates: ‘Almost he yielded to the desire for help and counsel, to tell this grave young man, whose words seemed so wise and fair, all that was in his mind. But something held him back. His heart was heavy with fear and sorrow: … he was in sole command of the secret of their errand’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 5). Ultimately, at the end of Book VI, it is the hobbits, now among the strongest and wisest characters, who come to the aid of their fellow countrymen in the Shire.
Separation and loss
Given the importance of attachment bonds to a child’s development and to the functional autonomy of adults, it will come as no surprise that loss or failure of those bonds can spell major problems for a human being. Attachment theory has shown that any kind of long-term separation or removal from our attachment figures can be a major source of emotional distress – at any point in life. Besides, it was from the harmful effect of separation and premature loss on the development of children that Bowlby derived his theory.
The theme of separation and its associated emotions can be felt everywhere in The Lord of the Rings, as a second dimension that coexists with the secure worldview. There are twenty-one scenes of separation, or risk of separation, in the first two Books, an additional ten in Books III and IV; and one might say that the second half of Book VI and the ‘Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ essentially revolve around the gradual separation of all members of the Fellowship and their friends… In all, no less than sixty scenes of separation from cover to cover!
In those pages, one finds the inevitable partings of the cycle of life. But sorrow is alleviated, because physical separation coexists with the certainty that the lost one will remain forever in our heart, or that a time of reunion will come. This is true for the deaths of those who are less close to us, or those that die late in the life-cycle. The death of loved ones is an abiding theme in the novel, with a subtle play between reminiscence of the deceased, descriptions of the heroes’ last moments and their funerals, and what I will call the snare of ‘false deaths’: Frodo (three times), Gandalf (twice), Faramir, Éowyn, and Pippin.
But the sorrow will be greater, indeed tragic or hopeless, if separation seems final, whereas it is unwanted or involves someone very dear. So it is with Arwen’s parting from her father: ‘None saw her last meeting with Elrond her father, for they went up into the hills and there spoke long together, and bitter was their parting that should endure beyond the ends of the world’ (LotR, Book VI, ch. 6). And Sam, thinking Frodo dead, stung by Shelob, ‘bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more’ (LotR, Book IV, ch. 10).
Separation can also mean the premature loss of attachment figures. Bowlby, in 1980, was the first scientist to study mourning in children, the severity and impact of which had been ignored or obfuscated up to that point. He underscored the traumatic impact of the loss of attachment figures in young children, and determined that such losses can lead to unresolved trauma in the subject. In other words, despair can always be overcome, but can also leave a flaw.
Most protagonists of The Lord of the Rings are orphans, having lost one or both parents during childhood, or endured more or less premature, long-term separation from them; information pertaining to this history is scattered throughout the book or in the Appendices. Thus Frodo, being but a child, loses his parents in a boating accident. Aragorn is two years old when his father is slain in an Orc-raid, and it is suggested in The Lord of the Rings that his mother never recovered from this loss, while dedicating her life to Aragorn. Faramir and Boromir lost their mother at a young age, Faramir being only five: she was ‘to him but a memory of loveliness in far days and of his first grief’. Éowyn and Éomer were still quite young (respectively 7 and 11) when their father perished in an Orc-raid; their mother died of sorrow soon after. Arwen’s mother was wounded in an Orc-raid when her daughter was still young (as reckoned by the Elves, of course): she could only be healed by leaving Middle-earth forever, abandoning her two sons and Arwen, whom she entrusts to her own mother, and to her spouse.
It remains to notice the moral and relational obstacles that emerge in the adult lives of Faramir and Éowyn, who have not only lost one parent (or both), but also suffered abandonment by the one attachment figure who could have replaced the deceased: Denethor in the case of Faramir, Théoden in the case of Éowyn.
From Frodo to J. R. R. Tolkien
Admittedly, The Lord of the Rings radiates with formidable confidence in others and in the future. Admittedly, most of its characters (Sam, Merry and Pippin, Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Éowyn) encounter a rather fortunate end. But The Lord of the Rings also describes more or less persistent, sometimes permanent, wounds. Two characters thus ‘end’ in a way that is as upsetting as it is surprising: Arwen; but above all Frodo, who bears an indelible wound, both physical and psychological. Frodo’s only hope of finding rest is by leaving with Bilbo, his surrogate father; with Gandalf, the ultimate father figure; and in the company of the High Elves – Galadriel among them, an ideal mother figure. Now Frodo sets for the Havens, where he can go to a place of eternal soothing and healing: I would point out that in the Attachment theory model, when the attachment figure is solicited in times of distress, it becomes the Secure Haven. Identical wording is found in both works, both literary (Tolkien’s) and scientific (Bowlby’s), to represent the healing of trauma stemming from fear and distress.
In view of Frodo’s alienation amid the general euphoria, or the solitary end of Arwen, I cannot help but think, as a child psychiatrist, of the desperate child that cries out in two letters, to his son Michael, written by J. R. R. Tolkien after the death of his wife. There, he describes himself as ‘a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship,’ and recalls trying to explain ‘this feeling … after the death of my mother’ (1904) at the age of twelve, ‘and waving a hand at the sky saying “it is so empty and cold”’; but also, after the death of Father Francis, his ‘second father’: ‘I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away’ (Letters, no. 332; the full text can be found here).
It is probable that Tolkien’s inner, mourning child (who because of the times was never properly soothed or listened to) could not come to terms with the repeated trauma of untimely losing both his parents. He was however lucky enough in his misfortune to find other attachment figures after the loss of his mother: Father Francis and his future companion, Edith, the main attachment figure of his adult life. Is this what caused him to retain, fully intact, the ability to soothe? More especially, comforting his child over the loss of his toy dog (a gesture of immense worth to a child psychiatrist; see Roverandom), or writing in a literary genre of which he wrote: ‘Fairy-stories are the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss.’
The Lord of the Rings, then, the work of a lifetime, is the product of an adult Tolkien: admirably resilient and capable of love; teaching, creating, building solid friendships, and above all, offering us what is surely one of the most beautiful works of consolation in existence.