‘‘Where Shall I Find Rest?”: “The Sea-Bell” and the Post-Traumatic Stress of Frodo Baggins
by Anne Marie Gazzolo
Janet Brennan Croft states, “One of the grimmest lessons The Lord of the Rings teaches about war is that some of the mental wounds it causes never heal in this world. Frodo is Tolkien’s prime example of the heartbreaking effects of war on certain minds” (War and Works of J. R. R. Tolkien 133). Verlyn Flieger observes:
The peace won for Middle-earth through his efforts is not his to enjoy, and he gets no recognition of his achievement on his return to the Shire he saved. Worst of all, he has lost the Ring he carried for so long and that has left its indelible mark on him… Its loss cannot be made up, and Frodo is bereft of more than a finger. He is like the thousands of returning servicemen…who come back to a world that has no way to understand where they have been or what they have been through. In 1916 they called it shell shock… Now we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. (Interrupted Music 142)
The remarkable poem “The Sea-Bell” provides evidence of the Ring-bearer’s PTSD, if viewed through the lens of its subtitle, Frodos Dreme. Tolkien noted that the hobbit likely did not write the poem himself but that one can observe within it the “dark and despairing dreams which visited him in March and October during his last three years” (Tolkien Reader, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” [“ATB”] 9).
While on the Quest to destroy the Ring, Frodo receives several physical wounds, but the relentless mental traumas cause the deepest harm. From any one of them, he likely could have used the “amazing power of recovery” that Gandalf notes hobbits have (LotR III.11.580). But the Ring-bearer receives little time to do this. Even before he reaches Bree, he faces threats from the Black Rider and the barrow-wight. The Morgul-wound he receives on Weathertop places him in deadly peril until Elrond heals him.
More traumas follow from the Watcher in the Water, witnessing Gandalf’s fall in Moria, and the shadowy but real danger of Gollum’s pursuit of the Company. Frodo knows someone follows them, but he does not know if or when he will face betrayal and capture by Orcs or Ringwraiths. Lothlórien offers a respite, but Galadriel’s Mirror also reveals the Eye of Sauron that actively seeks him.
The damage to Frodo continues to mount after the Company leaves the Golden Wood. The threats to his life include the Orc attack on the River Anduin; Boromir’s fall to the lure of the Ring, the terrible struggle on Amon Hen, the search of the Nazgûl for him, the intense sense of vulnerability and naked exposure to the ever-present Eye, the stress of not knowing at first whether Faramir is trustworthy, the “deadly regard” (IV.9.704) and sting of Shelob, the capture by Orcs and whippings in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the unwitting re-capture on the way to Mount Doom, and the loss of his finger in the Sammath Naur. These multiple traumas meet Criteria A for PTSD, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] defines as “[e]xposure to actual or threatened death [or] serious injury” either by “directly experiencing the traumatic event(s) [and/or] witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others” (271).