It’s true .We really do live in the “Golden Age’ of nerd culture. Look at the slate of comic book, fantasy, and sci-fi films that hit the theaters each year. Notice how superhero TV shows, which were once considered the death kneel of an actor’s career are now the crown jewel for a once struggling network? I watch pretty much every show available, and have even developed an appreciation for characters I didn’t like before like The Punisher thanks to Daredevil season 2.
But one of my favorites is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Despite their attempt to try and
make Suicide Squad the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Guardians of The Galaxy it is the Legends of Tomorrow, an occasionally irreverent group of rag-tag misfit c-list heroes united to defend all space and time that really hits that mark. I’ve loved time travel stories since I was a kid, having eagerly devoured Back to the Future on VHS. Add to it superheroes and you have a winning combination. To top it all off, Legends has been filling the TARDIS shaped hole in my nerdy heart that was left when Netflix didn’t renew the contract with the BBC to air Doctor Who. And just when I got hooked on it.
The reason why? Not only does Legends feature time travel, like Doctor Who, or alumni from the series in key roles, but like the good Doctor, they have the characters run into historical figures like George Washington, astronaut Jim Lovell, filmmakers like George Lucas, and writers like H.G. Wells. And recently they featured one of my favorite writers….
J.R.R. Tolkien! Three of my favorite things, The Lord of the Rings, time travel, and superheroes! All in one program!
For a brief two episode appearance they did an excellent job portraying him in a respectful and serious matter. He wasn’t a dottering fool, and he wasn’t an all out action hero either . They showed he was more than just “The Hobbit” guy, but alluded to his work as a literary scholar and a lover of mythology. Sure, they didn’t talk about his marriage to Edith, his friendship with C.S. Lewis, or his Catholic faith but in only an hour long time slot, and considering they were focusing on just one brief snap shot of his life, his time in the trenches of World War I, most of that wouldn’t come to play. Although if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could hint at Marcus Brody’s Catholicism in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by having him simply make the sign of the cross upon witnessing the healing power of the Holy Grail, then they could easily have had Tolkien do the same in Legend when he saw something equally miraculous or astonishing. Especially when they are trying to retrieve the Spear of Destiny.
But I digress.
On the converse, however , the writers, and the actor playing the once and future Ring Maker, Jack Turner, did a brilliant job playing out one of the often ignored aspects of Tolkien’s life. When he first began writing about Middle-earth he was recovering in a military hospital from Trench Fever, and suffered from what had been known as “shell-shock.” He was hardly the only one. His friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis also suffered from that same condition, numerous other writers, poets, artists, and composers who saw action during World War I had the same affliction.
Today that term has fallen into misuse and many misunderstand its meaning. Thanks to modern psychology we now possibly have a broader understanding of what Tolkien, Lewis and others like them suffered from. Now, they would most likely be diagnosed with PTSD. Back then, they weren’t encouraged to talk about such experiences. There was no “make it ok” campaign or Invisible Wounds of War Project, let alone a Wounded Warriors project. There was supposed to be glory in combat, and like Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, the greatest badge of honor came when you fulfilled your destiny and died in battle.
In the episode in question, aptly titled “The Fellowship of the Spear” we see the young Tolkien on board the time machine in the library with Nate Heywood, also known as Commander Steel. Nate drops a massive tome on a table and the noise actually causes Tolkien to visibly shake and become uncomfortable as it reminds him of mortar shells. It’s a small moment, but something Tolkien not only struggled with, but dealt with in his own books.Yes, despite their place in literature as fantasy epics, and not being as dark, graphic, and gritty as Game of Thrones, Tolkien actually had characters suffer from symptoms similar to a battle scarred veteran.
One need only look at Frodo Baggins to see this is the case. The rest of the surviving heroes are able to readjust to life after the War of the Ring is over. Aragorn assumes the throne of Gondor with his Elvish bride, Arwen by his side. Legolas and Gimli head off on world wind adventures throughout Middle-earth that based on their bond I can only assume would be like the Middle-Earth equivalent of a Hope and Crosby “Road to…” movie. Eomer assumes the throne of Rohan, and Samwise, Merry, and Pippin marry beautiful Hobbit lasses and assume roles in public office. Faramir becomes the new Steward, serving under Aragorn and Eoywn becomes his bride. Moreover, Eoywn, the shield maiden of Rohan sets aside her sword and learns to become a healer.
Some are quick to hurl accusations against Tolkien that Eowyn becoming a healer is “sexist”. After all, he did take this strong, empowered warrior woman, and had her settle into a more domestic role as a “healer” and a lover of things that grow. However, the war against Sauron is over. The Dark Lord has been defeated, his weapon destroyed, and his tower can never to be rebuilt. There is no need for any of them to fight anymore. So she, and the rest of the heroes of Middle-earth assume important roles in their new “civilian lives”.
Not so for Frodo. It was a theme Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens understood perfectly as the cinematic version of Frodo said,
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”
He is wracked with pain by the scars he bares both physical, emotional, and spiritual. This was someone who was stabbed by a supernatural blade and almost became a wraith, poisoned by a giant spider and left in a comatose state, nearly starved to death, had a finger bitten off and inhaled the sulfuric fumes of a volcano. Anyone who went through his ordeal could not be the same happy go lucky creature he once had been. Save Boromir dying, and Gandalf falling in combat against the Balrog and being sent back, Frodo suffered the most of any of the members of the Fellowship.
This is not the kind of reception we anticipate our heroes getting. We expect big ceremonies, huge accolades, and to read that they all live happily ever after. Even in the real world our “heroes ” get big parades and meet heads of state. But some heroes, after the parade ends, that is where the struggle continues. For them, the great struggle waiting for them isn’t against the forces of evil, but just finding the faith and strength to carry on in spite of the pain they bare.
For Tolkien writing became an outlet for him. In fact Faramir was based not only on Tolkien in personality, but espoused many of his views on war. The shriek of the Ring wraiths, and the reaction that many of the heroes had upon hearing it, was based on the reaction many service men had upon hearing the same shriek of the mortar shells in combat. The Houses of Healing offered restoration to Faramir and Eoywn and allowed them to deal with their condition in a way Tolkien wasn’t allowed.
More importantly, his faith gave him the strength to carry on. As he once acknowledged,
“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Thus, in the case of Tolkien, despite all he endured, he was able to go back to his civilian life, get married, raise a family, teach at a major university, launch the inklings with C.S. Lewis where they would enjoy a good pint of beer and a smoke while jawing about literature and their latest projects, and become the father of modern fantasy literature through The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is proof that traumatic experience doesn’t have to control you.
The scars may be there. The pain may never go away. The struggle may be never-ending. But one can always find hope and a means to carry on. As Samwise Gamgee observed in the novel The Return of the King,
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”