CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1On the subject of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), there are those who have never read it, thinking that this is just children’s literature or for adolescents in search of role-playing; there are those who have tried it but gave up in the first 150 pages, somewhere between the passage about Hobbits and the Tom Bombadil episode. John Howe, one of the most famous illustrators of Tolkien’s work, used to humorously recount how he had discovered The Lord of the Rings (LOTR): “it was at the municipal library, I was around 12. I started with the second volume, since the first one was constantly being borrowed by people who would stall in the first 150 pages, without going any further” (…). There are those who have read it once, without any particular emotion or on the contrary with such an emotional upheaval that they were not able to return to it, for fear of being disappointed by a second reading; finally, there are those who have read it episodically. Irene Fernandez (2002) emphasizes that at least two different readings are required to acknowledge the full substance of the LOTR: a first reading for the sheer pleasure of the story and a second to take in the significance and the full depth of the work.

2How can this huge work be summarized, with more than 1200 pages, a prologue, six different books, an epilogue and appendices (Tolkien, 1954-1955, 1968)? This series, possibly for editorial reasons, was divided into 3 tomes: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers and the Return of the King. The LOTR describes how various groups of people save Middle Earth from final devastation, which will take place if Sauron, the embodiment of absolute evil, is able to retrieve a powerful ring that he forged thousands of years ago. More than twenty main characters, belonging to four different tribes, have their destiny intertwined in this fight. In this presentation I will make use of the pedagogical works by Bouthier Couqueberg (2002) and Labbé & Millet (2003).

3The prologue establishes a link with the first book published by Tolkien, Bilbo the Hobbit. Sixty years later, the adventure continues. This prologue adds some realism to the neo world created by Tolkien, as it describes in some detail the Hobbits’ living habits, a people to whom five of the main characters in the book: Bilbo, his nephew Frodo, Sam the gardener and Frodo’s servant, and Frodo’s two friends, Merry and Pippin.

4Book one describes the ever more perilous adventure leading Frodo, requested by Gandalf, a wise magician, to take the Ring his uncle Bilbo had acquired from previous adventures and take it back to the very place it was created, the kingdom of Mordor, to have it destroyed. In this book Frodo, meets Tom Bombadil, an eerie character, and Aragorn, also known as Strider, a king without a kingdom, a descendant from the great Numenor kings and heir to the throne of Gondor. In this book Frodo is faced with the first attacks from the Black Riders, the paradigmatic representatives of Sauron’s terrifying creatures.

5Book two describes the formation of the Fellowship of the Ring, whose role, given by Elrond, one of the major elves, is to accompany Frodo in his quest to destroy this uniquely malevolent object. Some new characters from the free people make their appearance and are willing to join forces to put an end to Sauron’s threat: Gimli, representing the Dwarves’ kingdom; Legolas, a minor Elf from the woodland realm; and Boromir, the representative of men, the first-in-line of the stewards of the kingdom of Gondor. It is also in this book that we learn more about Saruman, whom we meet for the first time, in Lothlorien. We are introduced to the High Elves, Galadriel and Celeborn; in this book there is also the dissolution of the fellowship, as well as some other dramatic events: the fall of Gandalf into Moria, and Boromir’s betrayal.

6Book Three has a more complex framework with two parallel plots. Merry and Pippin, having escaped from the Orcs, meet with the Ents who later on also take part in the fight against Sauron. The three hunters, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, searching for Merry and Pippin, happen upon Gandalf who has somehow survived his fall. Together, they join Eomer and his sister Eowyn and they help out King Theoden and the Men of Rohan. Together they come out victorious in the battle for Rohan and are finally reunited with Merry and Pippin.

7Book Four goes back in time, following the story of Frodo and Sam, heading towards Mordor alone on their perilous adventure. Then comes their meeting with Gollum, then with Faramir and finally with Shelob, in her horrible lair. The story continues with ever increasing suffering, despair, terror and loneliness until the end of the book. The suspense was intolerable for those who only had the LOTR in the 3-volume version, when at the end of The Two Towers, Sam discovers that Frodo ‘is alive but taken by the enemy’. It can be hoped that readers had rapid access to the ‘Return of the King’!

8Book Five is once again a step back in time, taking us back to the end of book Three, once again with plots running parallel: Gandalf and Pippin go to Minas Tirith to meet with Denethor, the steward of Gondor, in order to organize the resistance. Merry stays with Theoden, Eomer and Eowyn to fight the great battle of Pelennor. Aragorn goes through the Paths of the Dead, along with Gimli and Legolas, to face a set of initiatory threats, which eventually lead him to become the new king, acknowledged by all. Again, some great battles reunite them, giving the opportunity for all to shine in their exploits. Their commitment is necessary to contain the advance of Sauron’s forces. In drawing Sauron’s attention to themselves and away from Sam and Frodo, they are able to help the hobbits in their mission, but they all know that the final victory solely depends on the Ring bearer’s success.

9Book Six returns to Sam and Frodo’s story, exactly where the reader had left them, at the end of Book Five This is when the Ring is finally destroyed. Starting with chapter three, we witness the reunion of all the protagonists, with the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen as the culminating point. With chapter six comes the time for the main characters to go on their separate ways, and then the story is resumed in a minor mode, in a more familiar tone, with the key role the Hobbits have played in saving the Shire.

10With the Epilogue, the end draws nearer, stirring up mixed feelings. While we witness the achievement and happiness of Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, and Eomer, things are different for Frodo. Permanently wounded, he leaves for The Heavens, to reach the Western Territories, along with the HighElves, Gandalf and Bilbo. The legendary people leave Middle Earth: The Fourth Age, the age of mankind, can begin.

11The appendices add some psychological density and realism to the world of the LOTR, thus adding different colours to subsequent readings of the work, particularly concerning the story between Aragorn and Arwen.

A summary of the literary analyses of the work

12Following its first publication, the LOTR has given birth to numerous works, mostly in English-speaking countries with some French publications at the beginning of the 2000s, under the impulse of Vincent Ferré. These reflections dig into the literary, linguistic, mythological or religious dimensions of the LOTR. However, very few seek to go deeper into the ‘humane’ psychology of the characters, even though the LOTR can be interpreted on two levels, the epic and the intimate, as underlined by some analysts: As Vincent Ferré (2001) puts it: ‘One can find characters whose acts depend on the situations and conflicting tensions they are subjected to, but with a degree of uncertainty about their reactions.’ Irene Fernandez (2001) writes that ‘while the LOTR is an epic and heroic fantasy in which the heroes are caught up in an adventure in which the fate of the world is at stake, and where they are not only struggling with their own personal stories, one should not underestimate the importance of inner conflicts, emotions and relationships that are found in each of the heroes’. Finally, Catherine Bouttier-Couqueberg (2002) highlighted ‘the dual nature of the work, the solitary individuals’ collective epic and heroic actions, ranging from spectacular battles to the more intimate struggles against oneself.’

13As shown in the summary, the epic side of the LOTR is seen in the battle against Sauron. It is in this context that individual endeavours, such as Frodo’s and Sam’s quest and Pippin, Merry or Aragorn’s battle exploits take place. Alongside the war of the Ring, the characters, in both main and supporting roles experience personal itineraries which are as carefully described as the main story: for example, the love between Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn’s desperate quest for an identity and Faramir’s search for paternal love. Whatever their personal combat may be, each of the characters contributes to the greater epic of which they never lose sight.

14In these individual actions, two themes are particularly strong. The first is solidarity: ‘in this fight with danger and death’, Vincent Ferré (2004) writes, ‘only the strength of the bonds and the deployment of the heroes’ personal resources within this network of bonds enable them to overcome the challenges of events’. The second theme is mercy and pity, which, against all odds, leads to the destruction of the Ring.

15Talking about the characters’ individual behaviours logically brings us to discuss their psychology. This psychology is clearly not at the forefront of the LOTR, but it becomes clearer as we read and re-read the book Catherine Bouthequier-Coukenberg (2002) writes: ‘Tolkien does not care for psychological analysis. We can only guess that some characters have secret trouble that torments them, but you cannot read their minds, not in first reading in any case, but successive readings can enable us to go deeper into each, very real character and imagine what they may be living through. As if he had some reluctance towards the subtleties of intimate investigation, the novelist describes actions or reactions, or reports exchanges: he does not dissect the motivations and conflicts, which translate directly into acts.

16To believe that Tolkien was not interested in the psychology of his characters is to forget that he himself gave some indications on the subject of fairies, as he saw them, and which can apply to the LOTR: ‘the magic of the Fairy kingdom’ wrote Tolkien in 1949 ‘is not an end in itself; its virtue resides within its operations: among them is the satisfaction of some human overarching desires.’

17In two of his letters, Tolkien (1981) emphasized the importance of this psychological dimension. In his letter dated July 31, 1947 to his publisher Unwin, he wrote: “the actors are individuals: they of course all include some universality without which they would not live at all.’ In a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman in 1951, he wrote: ‘it is a study of ordinary, simple man, evolving in a sublime context.’ A whole page of the letter could be summarized in this sentence: ‘we should not forget the reality of people’s everyday lives, nor that quests across the world whatever they are should not lead us to forget that reality.’

18However, as already underlined, this psychological dimension which is perceptible in the intimate sphere in the LOTR has been little studied. It is possible that we are caught up in the same avoidance of over-explicit unveiling of emotions that can sometimes be observed in the LOTR. For example, when Aragorn has just received the banner made by Arwen, which he cannot yet claim or deserve until he has won his kingdom back, a goal that seems at the time impossible to reach: ‘…and he turned himself to face the North, under the big stars; then he became silent and talked no more as long as the night journey lasted.’

19Or perhaps we are caught up in a form of discretion that we find in Tolkien when he wrote to his son Christopher, in July 1972, about his own difficulty talking about himself intimately: ‘This goes against my nature, which expresses deep feelings through narratives and myths’.

An attachment-oriented interpretation of the LOTR

Tolkien’s biography

20Tolkien’s biography is analysed here using Humphrey Carpenter’s book (1977). This very sensitive and nuanced biography provides some emotional density and interpersonal information on this English scholar, born in South Africa from English parents, and arguably one of the major philologists of his time. Considering our focus here, we will put emphasis on Tolkien’s interpersonal and family links. What lay behind the social figure and mask of this 20th century English erudite? Tolkien was born in a period when nothing was known or said about a child’s emotional needs and feelings. And what a childhood he had! Tolkien had to face two ordeals as a child: his father died when he was 4, but he had already been separated from him as early as 3 years of age; then, his mother died from ill health and exhaustion when he was only 12. Tolkien and his brother, as orphans, found a surrogate father in the person of Father Francis, a friend of their mother’s. Tolkien was only 17 when he met Edith, who later became his wife. Carpenter describes the young couple as follows: ‘they were like two orphans, hungry for tenderness and they discovered that each of them could provide the other with it’. Carpenter believed that Tolkien and his spouse’s relationship was characterized by their emphasis on the family: ‘their utmost happiness came from the love they both shared for their family, a strong link they never lost, until the end of their lives, and which was probably the cement of their marriage… Tolkien was an immensely gentle and understanding father; he was not afraid to hug his sons in public, even when they were adults and he expressed his warm love without restraint’.

21This ability to give love and protection to his children, in a time and a country where such demonstrations were not encouraged, is illustrated by two of Tolkien’s books. One is Roverandom, a novella written to console one of his sons for the loss of his favourite comforter; the other is a compilation of letters to Father Christmas, expressing Tolkien’s constant preoccupation with providing his children with security in their childhood.

22Both his life, despite tragic losses, and his incredible resilience lead us to consider what the attachment theory tells us about the impact of losses, and the key role relationships play in surviving those losses, and in surviving everything that distresses and frightens us.

23Two major themes arise, common to two books, Tolkien’s romanesque LOTR on the one hand and Bowlby’s scientific writings on the attachment theory (1969/1982; 1973, 1980) on the other: there are the themes of fear and despair that overwhelm human beings when facing danger or loss alone and the theme of their ability to overcome fear and despair using the strength of interpersonal relationships. The LOTR is a novel that can be clearly interpreted as a description of how to survive loss, fear and despair. Bowlby, the founder of the attachment theory, started his studies in a period when the particularities of children’s inner psychic life were being discovered, and when the effects of inadequate parental care on the psychological development of children were recognized. He based his theory on the disaster young children experience from the loss of a parent. In all his work, he sets out to describe the interpersonal factors at stake, particularly the role of attachment figures in protecting children from negative emotions such as fear and grief when they are overwhelmed by these emotions. Indeed, the attachment system is immediately triggered whenever the child is distressed.

24This paper presents a psychological reading of the characters in the LOTR, through the lens of the attachment theory, restricting the study of characters to those who are said to be “Free People” (i.e. the Elves, the Dwarves, the Hobbits and the Humans). The attachment theory relates to the ability of human beings to regulate their emotions (such as fear and sorrow) and to face danger and distress through relationships with specific attachment figures.

25The attachment theory also relates to the ability of those who are in a position of protection—the caregivers—to provide comfort to those who need to be protected (see Guedeney & Guedeney, 2010 a and b for a more complete description).

Fear and Sorrow in the LOTR

26In his presentation note of the novel at the time of its publication, CS Lewis, one of Tolkien’s great friends, wrote about ‘the sadness and even the anxiety or the deep melancholy nested in the LOTR’ (quoted by Ferré, 2004). This dual emotional theme—fear and sorrow—which is at the heart of the attachment theory, is widely present in the LOTR, occurring more than a dozen times in the same sentence, and linked to variants such as terror and death, horror and despair, grief and wariness, fear and sorrow. For example, during their encounter in Ithilien, Frodo complains to Faramir: ‘I am worrisome, tired, loaded with grief and I am afraid ‘. When everything seems to be lost in the battle against Minas Tirith, Tolkien writes: ‘… and then did we move from a stern day of fear into the darkness of a night in despair’.

27In the attachment theory, being able to contain fear and distress and learning how to control emotions to avoid being overwhelmed by these emotions are tasks that are central to the development of human beings. These tasks are learned through interactions with caregivers, through the search for proximity, pushing the newly born infant towards those who can protect him.

The paradigm of fear and alarm as keys to the LOTR

28Fear is everywhere, from mere wariness to the most disorganizing terror. No fewer than 555 times do we find references to the various emotional forms of fear. This concerns all characters, even the strongest, such as Gandalf and Aragorn. In the LOTR we find all the alarm stimuli activating the attachment system, particularly those stemming from the outside environment.

29The notion of danger and threat—more or less vital—pervades the LOTR. The words appear 283 times (Ferré, 2001), overwhelming the heroes as well as the reader. This is a reminder of what infants and attachment specialists have shown us. An infant or a young child is in psychological danger if no protective adult is able to provide him with the comfort he needs for his psychic survival when overcome by fear or grief. All the classic phobia stimuli in childhood—activating the attachment system through the vigilance/alarm system—are present in the LOTR, in mostly legendary forms: ferocious dogs on Old Maggott’s farm, Wargs, which are wolf-like demonic creatures, Snakes like the Watcher in the Water and spiders such as Shelob. There are also variants of spectral creatures: the Nazgûls, of course, but also the Barrow-Wights, the Old Forest, or monsters from the depths of the earth, like the Balrog. Night, the colour black, and darkness are very evocative and synonymous with danger in the LOTR and therefore stir up anxiety. Loneliness is generally considered as a danger situation in itself for the heroes. On Weathertop, during the first really close encounter with the Black Riders, Frodo’s feeling of loneliness is strong and heavy: ‘in this solitary place Frodo felt for the first time how dangerous and exposed was the place he was then’. Some very specific stimuli activating the attachment system can also be found in the LOTR, namely the uncanny, the unfamiliar and more generally, the unknown. When Frodo has to choose the way forward for the Fellowship of the Ring at the foothills of Amon Hen, Sam says about him: ‘but he is afraid. Now that we are at the foot of the wall, he is simply terrified… he has acquired a bit of experience… without which he would be so afraid as to simply throw the Ring in the river and he would sneak away. But he is still too afraid to move’.

30Finally, we note the alarming and distressing situations that are caused by separations lasting longer than the heroes can bear, or mere threats of separation, which are just as strong as signals of fear. Frodo discovers that his friends have done everything they could to join him, and Merry tells him: ‘…recently, we got very worried. We were terrified with the idea that you could sneak away from us and leave us alone, like him’ (Gandalf).

Emotions linked to distress and vulnerability are also found in the LOTR

31This section concerns despair (the word is used 103 times in the LOTR), or grief, sadness, tiredness, exhaustion, feelings of vulnerability and of being abandoned. These emotions appear 394 times. Again, all of the characters experience this kind of feeling, even the strongest, like Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond or Aragorn and other strong characters. The attachment theory has shown that every separation or source of distance from attachment figures is a cause of major distress for humans, and this remains true throughout life.

32The separation theme is constant in the LOTR. There are 91 separation scenes; it could be said that the second part of Book six and the epilogue are centred on the progressive separation of all the members of the Fellowship from their friends. The death of loved ones is everywhere in the novel, with those who died and are talked about or those whose tomb or corpse is found, as is the case for the dwarf Balin in Moria. We read about the death and funerals of prominent figures, such as Boromir, Theoden or Denethor. The deaths of secondary characters such as Hamas or Halbarad are talked about after the battles, dampening the joy of victory. Finally, there are those believed to be dead, but who are found to be alive after all, as is the case for Gandalf, Frodo, Faramir, Eowyn, and Pippin.

How can one survive grief and fear?

33Interpersonal bonds are at the forefront in the LOTR, as noted by Ferré (2001), who wrote: ‘the confrontation with it (death) throughout the adventures, according to whether it occurs alone or in a group, does not lead to the same outcome. How can they hope to triumph over the notion of danger? Solitary characters die, solidary characters survive: alliances lead to salvation’.

34How should we understand this notion of a saving alliance in the light of the attachment theory? The attachment theory has demonstrated the importance of interpersonal relationships with specific people who can be relied on in case of need. These attachment figures help children to regulate and overcome negative feelings, something they cannot accomplish alone on their own resources, beyond a certain level. This interpersonal basis for the negative regulation of emotions is still active in adults.

The attachment theory is built on a paradigm

35This paradigm could be phrased as follows: ‘Someone in an alarming or distressing situation seeks the proximity of someone else who is stronger and wiser and might be able to help’.

36This search for proximity is the initial objective of what is termed in the attachment theory as the “attachment system”. It has been demonstrated that infants are genetically wired to seek proximity, then availability, and then accessibility of the few privileged figures who raise them and who eventually become their attachment figures. Looking for help throughout life is the functional equivalent of this initial search for proximity.

The search for help is indeed permanent in the LOTR

37The word ‘help’ is encountered 156 times. All heroes, even those who seem the most invulnerable, are in need at some point in time of a stronger and wiser character’s help. They explicitly call for help, they suffer when no help is at hand in their hour of need and they express this need without any shame or any feeling of weakness. The search for physical proximity is systematically present in situations where the attachment system is particularly relevant: it can occur in an extremely threatening situation, as in Shelob’s den, where Sam and Frodo are terrified: ‘Sam left the rim of the tunnel to get closer to Frodo; their hands met and joined, and they kept on going together’. This can also happen in times of reunion, for instance between Sam and Frodo in Rivendell, when Frodo finally recovers from the stab wound, he received on Weathertop: ‘Sam came in. He ran to Frodo whose left hand he clutched clumsily and shyly’.

38When people become adults, physical proximity with attachment figures may not always be necessary for them to regain security, in case of wariness or distress. The mere mention of an attachment figure may be sufficient to bring comfort and a feeling of security. Several examples can be found in the LOTR, where the simple thought of the most protective figures, such as Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn, is able to give the Hobbits the energy to resolve their own problems. For instance, Merry, a prisoner of the Orcs: ‘at each time came the thought of the spontaneous vision of Strider bent on a dark track, and running, running behind.’

39The attachment theory also relates to the person who is in the helping position. They are ‘programmed’ to know and to be able to address calls for help. In the attachment theory, this is known as ‘the caregiving system’.

The caregiving system

40The caregiving system is one of the dimensions of parental care. This system is triggered by the needs of others. Those who are in a protective position help those who are in need of protection, either because of their immaturity or their vulnerability. Gandalf or Galadriel, representing parental figures, constantly express this protection, as do the royal figures of Aragorn and Faramir. Among adults, helping each other is one dimension of durable affective bonds: adults can help other adults when they feel they are in trouble or scared. Sam is the paradigm of the one who helps, helping Frodo to the very end, but all the characters, even secondary characters such as Pippin and Merry, may use this ability to take care or help others in need. For example, Merry helps Eowyn who is fighting alone against the Lord of Nazgûls: ‘his heart was filled with pity and with great astonishment, and suddenly his courage slowly rejuvenated, got inflamed… She would not die, so beautiful, so desperate! At least she would not die alone, without help.’

All the caregiving dimensions as described in the attachment theory can be found in the LOTR

41The caregivers who are physically distant from those whom they need to protect keep worrying about those they have to protect, whenever they believe they are in a difficult situation. Gandalf is constantly preoccupied by those he feels responsible for, as this passage shows, at the gates of Isengard: ‘…but in the very time he was uttering his last words to Saruman and as the Palantir was collapsing ablaze on the steps of Orthanc, his thoughts were constantly directed towards Frodo and Samwise.’

42Caregivers answer the needs for attachment by providing proximity and availability when, and only when, the other needs it. When a soldier from Gondor calls on him, saying he brings only news of misfortune and danger, Gandalf replies ‘because I come only when my help is necessary’.

43This ability to provide proximity is reflected in the frequent gestures of tenderness and/or the protective physical contact towards those in need or in a vulnerable situation. Putting one’s arm around a person’s shoulder, patting a child on the head, or taking someone’s hand are gestures that are often seen in the LOTR, as for example on Weathertop: ‘Strider put his hand on his (Frodo’s) shoulder’, or when Frodo is shivering with cold on the foot hills of Mount Doom: ‘He (Sam) ended blindly groping for Frodo’s hand… and lying down, he tried to comfort him in his arms…’. Gestures of support can also be found, such as preventing someone from falling, affectionate and tender gestures, such as a kiss on the forehead, taking someone onto one’s lap and stroking to soothe and comfort; these gestures are repeated throughout the narrative in the LOTR, thus giving the reader the feeling of a discreet but constant presence for those in need. This theme is movingly evoked when Pippin finds Merry, severely wounded after his fight against the Witch King: ‘he then let Merry slide slowly to the ground in a square of sunlight; then he seated himself close to him and took his cousin’s head on his lap. He gently felt his body and limbs and took Merry’s hand in his’.

44In attachment theory, people who care for others have the ability to comfort and to soothe. This protective attitude goes side by side with an attitude of compassion, sensitivity and pity, which is very present in the LOTR and often described in the more dramatic passages, when survival is at stake. Evidence of attitudes of concern, of ‘taking care’ and ‘looking after’ is shown by the heroes in times of need for the weakest. For example, Aragorn realizes that Frodo is no longer able to walk easily after the tragic episode in Moria: ‘the others stopped and Aragorn ran to him, shouting to Boromir to come along—I am so sorry, Frodo, said he, full of solicitude… we haven’t done anything to help you, as we should have, even though all Orcs from Moria be after us.’

45This protective side of parental care is illustrated by a certain number of recurring images in the LOTR, illustrating periods of absolute protection that for instance parents provide for their child, particularly at bedtime. For instance, there is a scene in the Henneth Annun cave, when Faramir takes gentle care of Frodo: ‘then he caught him as he was vacillating and holding him nicely, he brought him to his bed where he laid him, covering him warmly’. Or when Frodo, a prisoner of the Orcs, finds Sam who has succeeded in joining him: ‘he let himself go into Sam’s sweet arms, closing his eyes like a child, reassured as when night fears have been expelled by a loved voice or hand.’ Twelve such scenes can be found where one of the heroes falls asleep, rocked by songs, soothing stories or by appeasing noises. In the realm of the Elves of Lothlorien, after the awe and horror of Moria, the Hobbits finally go to sleep, rocked by the wind and by the soft murmur of the Nimrodel falls below, Frodo went to sleep, as Legolas’ song wandered in his mind’. There are six episodes in which protective figures watch while the more vulnerable one’s sleep: in the tavern in Bree, as the Black Riders attack them: ‘in the dead of the night, Frodo woke up from a deep sleep, as if disturbed by some noise or some presence. He saw that Strider was seated, vigilant, in his chair; his eyes were lit by the reflection of the well-fed bonfire.’ There are ten scenes where the heroes sleep safely in cosy soft beds, as in Tom Bombadil’s house: ‘their mattresses and their pillows had the sweetness of feathers, and the sheets were made of white wool. As soon as they were lying on the deep beds and they had drawn the light sheets over them they were asleep’. There are thirteen episodes illustrating some brightly lit houses, providing a sense of safety from the darkness, as in Elrond’s palace before the Fellowship’s departure: ‘the light of the fire came through the open doors, and many soft lights appeared at many windows.

46This caregiving attitude enables the vulnerable to be accompanied in the discovery of their own abilities, while being protected from the negative consequences of this exploration. Gandalf or the High Elves, for example, never give advice, but they reassure the weakest characters that they will always be there, so that their choices in the end do not have consequences that are too negative for them. Those tutelary figures respect the autonomy and exploratory abilities of those they help. They help them to reflect, they comfort, they console or encourage them, but they do nothing in their place. For example, when Gandalf informs Frodo about the Ring and waits for his decision, he says: ‘decision lies in your hands. But I will help you forever (he laid a hand on Frodo’s shoulder). I will help you bear this burden, so long as it will be your task to bear it’.

The caregiving system is altruistic

47The attachment theory is based on ethology. The Caregiving/Attachment combination is an advantage for the survival of both human individuals and the human species. This altruistic dimension is expressed in the LOTR in two modes. The first one is that one person never lets another person down. For example, Aragorn hesitates on which way to choose after leaving Lothlorien: ‘in the Moria, Gandalf’s burden had been transferred onto him and he knew he could not drop the Ring now… yet what sort of help could he bring to Frodo, except going along with him blindly into darkness.’

48The other altruistic dimension is the notion of a superior interest. This can lead the protective parent to take on a sacrificial stance, if to respond to the needs of his child he has to renounce his own needs. In the LOTR, all the heroes (even Boromir) are willing to sacrifice themselves for the survival of others. Heroes do their duty not for themselves, but for future generations. This is exactly what Gandalf tells Glorfindel, at Elrond’s council: ‘…and this is not our duty here to think for one season only, for some generation of men or for some period of the world. We do have to look for an ultimate end to this threat, even though we may not even wish to reach it.’ Galadriel and Elrond, the last representatives of the High Elves on Middle Earth are willing to sacrifice their civilization for the survival of Men. In the same way, Treebeard, the oldest inhabitant of Middle Earth, is ready for the sacrifice when he addresses the Hobbits: ‘…of course, it probable, said he slowly, more than probable that we are going to our end: the Ents’ last march… Yes, whispered he, we can help others before we disappear.’

49This protection, so well-illustrated in the LOTR, becomes crucial in the success of the quest. Because Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn, the Elves from the Forest, Faramir and particularly Frodo and Sam—all those who have dealt with Gollum, have taken pity on his vulnerability and have protected him, Gollum’s contribution to the destruction of the Ring is important, even though Gollum contributes to that destruction in spite of himself. Then there comes the dramatic episode on Orodruin, Mount Doom, when Frodo has the opportunity to finally kill Gollum who betrayed them at Cirith Ungol: ‘But something held him back, from the deepest of his soul: he could not strike this being lying in the dust.’

The attachment theory describes the integration of attachment and of the caregiving system into attachment relationships

50To be able to seek help and to provide help for adults are both important aspects of attachment in adulthood. The expression of attachment evolves and changes throughout life. Unlike children, adults can tap into their own resources to face up to the difficulties of life. In adulthood, human beings create peer bonds, some of which will become attachment figures. In case of need, they are able to seek and receive help, which is the case for all the characters in the LOTR.

51We will limit ourselves to the description of progression among the four Hobbits, thus illustrating the evolution of the attachment system through their lives.

52In the first two books of the LOTR, the Hobbits are indeed not very autonomous, poorly equipped to face adversity, and requiring help from people assumed to be wiser and stronger. This help comes, as if by magic, each time they are in trouble. The Shire can be viewed as a completely safe environment, protected by Gandalf and Strider, whose existence is not even acknowledged by the Hobbits. After he was saved in Rivendell, Frodo says to Gandalf with humility: ‘…we never could have done it without Strider… but we were in need of your help. I don’t know what I could have done without you’. From Book three, the four Hobbits begin to find resources in themselves to overcome difficulties, but they are also able to seek and find help. For instance, Frodo hesitates, after Faramir’s questioning: ‘he almost gave in to the need for help and counsel, and to confide to this young man what he had in mind. But something held him back. His heart was heavy with grief and with fear: if Sam and he were all that was left of the Nine Walkers, as indeed it seemed to be the case, then the entire responsibility for their mission rested on him’.

53Finally, at the end of Book six, the Hobbits, having become wiser and stronger, are the ones who help their oppressed comrades in the Shire. As Gandalf puts it: ‘you have to deal with your own businesses.

A secure vision of the world

The concept of security

54The attachment theory postulates that if attachment figures adequately and often enough tend to children’s needs, the children can then build a secure vision of the world, particularly when they are alarmed or distressed. From this secure feeling of being close to the ones who protect them, children progressively develop a feeling of being safe. This concept of emotional security has been described in detail in the attachment theory: children, who are alarmed or distressed, with feelings of fear, chaos and psychological threat, feel that an intervention from their attachment figure takes things back under control and reorganises. Within their attachment bonds, children can experience faith in the idea that it is possible to survive chaos, despair and even awe or terror. Secure children—secure with their caregiver—feel free to explore the world and to develop their own abilities, as their attachment figure acts as a secure base for them. They also know that in case of need they can count on the help of their attachment figure, who represents a safe haven. Among adults, this inner representation of the secure base can be a more general phenomenon, which may not be linked to specific relationships. An example of this could be the way Frodo talks about the Shire: ‘…I have the impression that as long as the Shire is behind, solid and comfortable, I could bear being an errant: I would know that there is somewhere a steady base, even though my feet could no longer be on it’.

Relying on others when you need them

55This security-base concept gives securely attached people the conviction that they can rely on others when needed. This is present everywhere in the LOTR: all the heroes know that in case of need, whether because of fear, sorrow or despair, they will find someone to count on and who will help them do what they have to do. The notion of trust in others, a priori, comes from the fact that these people have always been there, keeping their promises when one is in need. As Theoden says to Gandalf at the battle of Helm’s Deep: ‘…once more you arrived in time’.

The emotions of secure relationships

56This secure view of the world is, among other things, illustrated by the quality of grief at times of separation, and by expressions of positive emotions during reunions, such as joy and laughter. A secure relationship is accompanied by expressions of distress when the attachment figure is inaccessible, and this is true throughout life. In the LOTR, separations are often inescapable, as they are part of the life cycle, as is the case at the end of Book six or in the Epilogue when the members of the Fellowship of the Ring have to part from one another and from their friends, as previously mentioned. Sorrow can be moderate when physical separation is accompanied by the conviction that the other will always be present in our heart, or if we know that we will see him or her again. Sorrow will be greater, more intense or tragic if separation is definitive. Gimli talks about the pain of separation from his loved ones, when he leaves Lothlorien: ‘…I now have received my worst wound in this departure’. When Sam believes Frodo is dead, stung by Shelob: ‘…he bent to the earth and drew his grey hood over his head; night invaded his heart and he did not remember anything’.

57All characters suffer from separation, even the igh Elves, for example, when Arwen has to leave her father: ‘no one witnessed the last meeting with her father Elrond, since they climbed the hills. There they talked for a long time, and cruel was their separation, to last until the end of world.’

58Men or women, heroes or simple people, all have the ability to weep without shame. As Gandalf says, when the Fellowship ends, in Middle Earth: ‘…I would not say: ‘do not cry’, for not all tears are evil’.

59Positive emotions such as joy, surprise and relief are expressions of attachment security, when they are linked to reunions with loved ones. The LOTR has 47 reunion scenes. These reunions, involving either minor or major figures, after long or brief separations, or after separation thought to be definitive, stir up the same joy and relief, as for instance when Pippin meets Aragorn again in Minas Tirith: ‘…at their sight he said loudly, from surprise and joy: Strider! I can’t believe it! If that is not the top of all things! Strider, or am I dreaming? Isn’t marvelous? …’

60These emotions include the ability to laugh for all characters, even the sterner characters. This laughter, occurring after periods of great tension, express relief and show the importance of bonds, with hope still present even in the worst periods. For example, in front of the gates of Moria, when no escape seems to be available, and after an interminable period of time, Gandalf finally finds the solution to the enigma allowing the gates to open: ‘with a sudden move which had them all startle, the magician jumped to his feet. He was laughing!’ In book Six, as the Ring has been destroyed, Sam is reunited with Gandalf, who starts laughing: ‘then he laughed and the sound of that laugh was like a music or like water on a parched soil; and as Sam was listening, the thought came to him that he had not heard a laugh, the pure sound of gaiety, for innumerable days and days. That caressed his ears as the echo of all the joys he had experienced so far.’

A secure view of the world—The eucatastrophe concept in Tolkien’s work

61In the attachment theory, a secure model implies that one can count on others in case of a problem, when one cannot cope on one’s own. This secure view of the world is represented in the LOTR by the notion of hope, this word being repeated 266 times in the novel.

62Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, so characteristic of the LOTR—can be understood as a romanesque way of describing this secure environment. Tolkien carefully described this way of constructing a narrative in his paper on the Fairy world (Tolkien, 1949): ‘the eucatastrophic tale’, he says, ‘is the strength of the fairy tale and its highest function; the consolation in fairy tales, the joy of happy endings or more accurately of the right catastrophe, the sudden ‘happy twist’ (as there is no real ending in a fairy tale): that joy is one of the things a fairy tale produces at its best, and this joy does not derive essentially from escape or from flight but rather, within the framework of the tale, from a sudden and miraculous grace, the recurrence of which can never be counted on. This grace does not deny the possibility of a dyscatastrophe, of pain or of failure, as their eventuality is necessary for joy and deliverance to occur; it (grace) denies the final universal defeat…’

63In the LOTR, numerous more or less threatening episodes—15 of which are extremely perilous—end on a happy note, in the form of help that arrives at a time when the heroes have used their last resources. Here are two examples. The readers of the LOTR will remember their relief when reading these passages again. We have chosen Frodo’s rescue by the flooding of the Bruinen, which Elrond made happen when he was falling into the hands of the Black Riders: ‘…then the chief, who was already in the middle of the fording, rose menacingly on his stirrups and raised a hand. Frodo was stricken with mutism. He felt his tongue glued to his palate and his heart running fast. His sword fell from his trembling hand and was broken. The elfic horse rose and shivered. The first of the black horses had almost put a hoof on the bank. At this moment a sudden rumble was heard, the noise made by the flood tumultuously rolling a great quantity of stones. Frodo indistinctly saw the river rising, and in its bed a cavalry of fuming waves was charging.’ The other great moment of eucatastrophe comes during the fight between Gandalf and the Black Captain, in a dying Minas Tirith; the fight seems to turn to the advantage of the Black Captain, but it is interrupted by the arrival of Rohan’s army, whom no-one was expecting any more. The lord of the Nazgul threatens Gandalf: ‘You die now and you curse in vain! He then raised his sword, with flames running down the blade. Gandalf did not move. At the same time, far behind in some back yard in the city a cock crowed. His song was clear and sharp, unconcerned by all the witchery and all wars, only saluting the morning rising into the sky after dawn, well above the shadows of death. And as in answer, rising in the far distance, came another note. Horns, horns and horns. The echo came back weakly on the somber flanks of Mindolluin. Great horns from the North, rang furiously. Rohan was coming, at last’.

64These eucatastrophic events are a reminder of one of the most widely-used attachment tools, which assesses the quality and style of attachment, the Mc Arthur battery of stories to be completed. Children are given the beginning of a story involving characters and themes that are relevant to attachment issues: separation, reunion, alarm, distress, and they are asked to complete it. They are asked to give their views on the unfolding of the story and if possible, to give it an ending. Secure children are able to face difficult scenarios, may invent more or less incredible adventures, terrifying or worrying, but usually find a happy ending. They may invent a dramatic story but will find in themselves the resources to find a happy ending, with confidence in the fact that the other will always be there to help, with a happy ending to their story.

Does one always survive despair? Or rather, what is the price to pay for that?

65Bowlby particularly studied the traumatic impact of the loss of attachment figures among young children. His followers showed that these losses could leave unresolved trauma in the subject’s psychic functioning: subjects survive despair but they may be left with a wound, a flaw in their functioning. The LOTR is indeed characterised by extraordinary trust in others and in the future! Most of the characters—Sam, Merry and Pippin, Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn—do indeed have a happy ending, as in fairy tales (‘they got married, and lived happily ever after’). But Frodo’s permanently unhealed wound remains.

What trace of these traumas do we find in the LOTR?

66We have already focused on death, present everywhere in the LOTR, as the paradigm of eternal separation.

The orphans in the LOTR

67It is worth noting that the majority of the heroes are orphans who lost one or both their parents in childhood, or were separated from them, more or less early on, or for long periods. This information is given all through the LOTR, or in the appendices. Frodo lost his parents as a child when they were shipwrecked. Aragorn was two years old when his father was killed while pursuing Orcs. All clues lead us to think that his mother never recovered from her loss, while devoting herself to Aragorn: ‘for me there is no hope, I leave that to men’. Faramir and Boromir lost their mother early on, (Faramir was only five and he only has a fleeting memory of her, his first grief, as Tolkien puts it). Eowyn and Eomer lost their father very early on (respectively at eleven and seven years old), killed by Orcs, and their mother died from grief shortly afterwards. Arwen’s mother was wounded in an attack by Orcs when her daughter was still quite young (young for an Elf of course); she is only able to heal by leaving Middle-Earth, that is to say by leaving her two sons and Arwen, whom she entrusts to the care of her mother and her mother’s husband., Celeborn.

Unresolved trauma linked to the early loss of primary attachment figures

68Besides this emphasis on death, there are other elements in the LOTR that illustrate unresolved trauma. There are tragic separations, almost desperate, as they occur under constraint and are apparently definitive. The separation between Eowyn and Aragorn is a paradigm of this sort of separation, before Aragorn sets out on the Path of the Dead: ‘But Eowyn stayed still like a figure carved in stone, hands clenched on her sides and she kept on watching them until they had disappeared in the shadows… when she had lost sight of them, she turned around and went back to her home, stumbling as if blind. But none of her kin witnessed this separation’. As for Arwen, regarding her separation from her father, as mentioned before, Tolkien stresses the absence of anyone witnessing the immense grief experienced by Eowyn and Arwen: there is no-one to alleviate their pain. As for the character of Frodo, he is able to rest only by going away with Bilbo, who acts here as a paternal substitute, with Gandalf, the ultimate paternal figure, and with the High Elves, Elrond and Galadriel, ideal maternal figures. And Frodo is able to leave for the Grey Havens, a place of solace and eternal healing. It is worth remembering that in the attachment theory, when the attachment figure is the one towards whom one goes in case of distress, this attachment figure becomes a safe haven: the very same words are used in both romanesque and scientific works, expressing the idea of consolation for trauma caused by fear and distress.

The theory of attachment also describes certain psychological defensive modes

69These defensive modes are the proof of the subject’s efforts to circumscribe a potential attachment trauma, when the personal environment has failed to do so, taking on functions of comfort and help. In the LOTR, we have seen that the characters are generally able to display their emotions in times of separation and reunion; on several occasions a sudden emergence of avoidance can be observed when confronted with loss. Bilbo turns away to hide his emotion as he gives Frodo his mithril chainmail; Faramir does not turn around to salute Frodo whom he believes he will never see again. Merry and Pippin turn away to hide their emotion as they leave Rivendell.

70Some affects can also be transformed into their opposites: sadness into joy, sternness into lightness, and these are protective measures particularly illustrated by Merry and Pippin. For example, after escaping from the Orcs, both are described as follows ‘…as they were wandering, they compared their remarks, talking in a light tone in the Hobbit way of what had taken place since their capture. No listener could have guessed that they had suffered cruelly, had been in terrible peril, going without hope to torture and to death; nor that, still, as they perfectly knew, they had very few chances of finding their friend and some security again.’ Furthermore, after having been healed by Aragorn from the wound received on the Pelennor battlefield, Merry says: ‘I am awfully sorry, said he …since this very night in Bree, we haven’t been but nuisances to you. But this is the way my people use light talk in such moments and saying less than they think. We are afraid to tell too much. It deprives us of the right words when pleasantry is not the motto’.

71Bowlby and the followers of his work stressed the importance of childhood idealization as a way of alleviating the effects of early trauma. This idealization of the world of childhood can be observed in several places. The characters of Goldberry or the High Elves appear as protective parental figures, despite being seemingly young, as if fixed in unresolved mourning for the loss and memory of loved ones. It can also be found in the idealized description of the hobbits’ stay at Tom Bombadil’s, in Crickhollow or in Lothlorien, where there is absolute security. The first famous pages of the LOTR, centred on the Hobbits’ rural world whose naivety and idealism, can be reconsidered in the light of what Carpenter (1977) wrote in his biography of Tolkien, on the way Tolkien reacted to his mother’s death: ‘…but Ronald, still dazed by his mother’s death, hated the almost uninterrupted view of the roofs with the chimney of the factory in the background. The green countryside was visible but at a distance, belonging in a past impossible to retrieve. The city had trapped him. The death of his mother had separated him from fresh air, from the Lickey Hill where he picked cranberries and from Rednal cottage where they had been so happy. As the loss of his mother had drained all those joys from him, he came to associate them with his memories. His feelings towards the country view, already strong at the time of the first separation from Sarehole, were compounded by an emotional load from his mourning. This attachment to the juvenile souvenirs of rural life was to find itself in the center of his later writings; it was intimately linked to his memory of his mother’.

Could the LOTR therefore be a work of solace from loss?

72Tolkien himself wrote that fairies enable ‘recovery, escape, and solace’. Fairy tales are, says he, the only prophylactic method able to address loss. For Tolkien, fairies provide escape, allowing the prisoner to bear his fate: ‘…there are other forms of escape, deeper ones, which have always been present in fairy tales and in legends, he says (Tolkien, 1949): ‘There are other things to escape, more sinister and more terrible than noise, stench, or the merciless extravagance of the combustion engine. There is hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, grief, injustice, death.’ Was Tolkien speaking for himself, without knowing it? It is probable that Tolkien harboured the indelible mark of unresolved attachment trauma. One senses it in reading what Carpenter wrote about the impact Tolkien’s mother’s death had on him: ‘and certainly (this death) had a profound effect on his personality. It made him a pessimist. Or rather it made him two different people. By nature, he was joyful, exuberant, with a very strong taste for life…but now another side of his nature showed a more secret one, and the one that is omnipresent in his diary and in his letters. Here he was capable of despair. More precisely,—and that is what is more closely linked to his mother’s death—he may have had the feeling of an imminent loss. Nothing would be safe. Nothing would last. No victory was forever.’ Carpenter goes on: ‘and indeed one can see his love for her as one of the main lines in his life as well as in his work. The death of his mother rendered him pessimistic, or rather rendered him able to feel some much contrasted emotions. In losing her he lost the feeling of security and his natural optimism was defeated by a deep uncertainty.’

73Finally, talking about the importance of emotion in Tolkien’s work, he notes that: ‘…each emotion would take up his mind, entirely, excluding other things; at that time nothing was able to modify this emotion. He was full of contrasts. When he had a dark mood, he could not find any hope, for him or for the world; and the fact that it was often this mood that compelled him to write in his diary tends to show the saddest aspects of his personality. But five minutes later, being with a friend, he would forget about this cloud and exhibit the brightest mood.’

74This hypothesis is also based on the content of two letters to his sons, after the death of his wife. In January 1972, he wrote to his son Michael: ‘…and then I felt like a shipwrecked mariner washed up on a naked island under an insensitive sky, after the great ship has disappeared. I remember I tried to explain this feeling… after the death of my mother (November 9, 1904) as I was only 13, waving vainly to the sky saying ‘It’s so empty and so cold’ and I remember having said to CS Lewis after the death of Father Francis, my second father (at 77 years old in 1934): I feel like a survivor lost in an unknown and foreign world after the real world has disappeared.’ In July 1972, he wrote to his son Christopher: ‘someone close to my heart should know about these things, but no archive is kept: the dreadful sufferings of both our childhoods, from which we both escaped, but unable to heal completely from wounds that would later become infirmities.’

75This essay ends on this idea. The LOTR, the work of a lifetime, was written by a superbly resilient Tolkien, an adult able to love, to teach, to create and to found strong friendships, and to console the child Tolkien, forever broken by successive losses. It may be this solace that has made The Lord of the Rings one of the most widely read novels in the world.


This paper presents a psychological interpretation of the characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR), in the light of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Since its publication, the LOTR has sparked many writings, mostly within the English-speaking world, but with some now appearing in French. These reflections go deep into the literary, linguistic, mythological and religious dimensions of the work, but very few seek to analyse the ‘human’ psychology of the characters. However, the LOTR does possess two levels: the epic and the intimate. The paradigm of alarm and fear is central to the LOTR. This work links these notions to Tolkien’s biography and suggests that the LOTR is a work devoted to coping with grief and loss.
The English edition used for this work is 2007 Harper Collins Publishers, based on the 50th anniversary Edition published in 2004. ISBN -13 0-261-10325-3; 1178 pages.

  • Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
  • attachment theory
  • fear and grief

Cet article présente une lecture psychologique des personnages du Seigneur des Anneaux (SDA) de Tolkien, à la lumière de la théorie de l’attachement. Depuis sa parution, le SDA a fait l’objet de nombreux travaux, d’abord en pays anglo-saxons puis maintenant en français. Ces réflexions approfondissent particulierement les dimensions littéraire, linguistique, mythologique ou religieuse du SDA. Très peu, cependant, cherchent à analyser la psychologie « humaine » des personnages du roman. Pourtant Le Seigneur des Anneaux comporte bien un double niveau : celui de l’épopée et celui de l’intime. Le paradigme de l’alarme et de la peur domine le SDA. Ce travail les met en lien avec la biographie de Tolkien, la vision sécure du monde, et propose l’idée que le SDA soit une œuvre de consolation à propos de la perte et du chagrin.

  • Le Seigneur des Anneaux de Tolkien (SDA)
  • attachement
  • peur et chagrin dans le SDA


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Nicole Guédeney
MD, PhDsci, Hospital practitioner (retired), child psychiatrist.
Translated from French by
Antoine Guedeney
Revised by
Sarah Verdier Leyshon
Angela Swaine Verdier
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