Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tolkien and Trauma

So I said (or implied) in my last post that I probably wouldn't be blogging for a bit, but something really neat happened today, and I wanted to write about it.

Background: I've been having some trouble with job satisfaction lately. Partly this is because I've been through a lot these last few years and am simply tired. (That sabbatical can't come soon enough!) Part of it comes with the territory: all teachers have spells when they can't see if anything they're doing is making any difference to a soul. And part of it -- a lot of it -- is because of the hideous state budget situation, especially in terms of education. Our "no new taxes" governor is talking about cutting higher education by twenty-four percent, after a series of cuts that's already been disastrous.

I've long argued that our society claims to care about kids and education, but clearly doesn't, based on spending priorities. The current leadership of Nevada couldn't say any more clearly that it doesn't care about education. If you're a teacher, that's bound to make you feel, well, a little . . . undervalued? I think my job is safe -- lots of students major in English, and we're responsible for several courses all students need to graduate, and we're so understaffed right now that we're actually being allowed to make some new hires -- but let's just say that university morale in general isn't terrific at the moment. My personal fatigue, against that community background of despair and paranoia, has been a fairly toxic brew.

Fortunately, I'm teaching my Tolkien course this semester, which is always one of my favorites. (Tolkien's a great antidote to despair and paranoia!) Today my students read, among other things, part of the Foreward of Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Shippey begins by claiming that the fantastic is the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century, and goes on to observe that many fantasists are survivors of combat or other traumas, a fact he calls "strange." Talking to the class, I said that I don't find it strange at all; I gave them a brief overview of my theories about fantasy and trauma (basically, that the "strangeness" of fantasy allows writers to represent the strangeness of trauma more realistically than realism can). I mentioned that there's well-established research about writing and trauma, which I could talk about more later were anyone interested.

I'd thought there wouldn't be time to talk about that material, but it was one of those days when discussion never took off. I wound up with about ten extra minutes at the end of the class. All teachers know that this happens, but it can also make you wonder what you're doing wrong. Today, a bit desperate, I said, "So, is anybody interested in hearing more about writing and trauma?" (All teachers also know that we tend to keep material in reserve for just such moments.) To my relief, a few people nodded.

So I gave them the condensed version of my speech about why writing is the opposite of trauma, even though it wasn't strictly on topic. Most of them looked interested. One student actually seemed teary-eyed, but I assumed that was allergies or a speck in the eye or something.

After class, though, that student came up to me -- openly weeping -- and thanked me for the trauma lecture. This is someone who plans to go into healthcare. "My friends have been asking why in the world I'm taking this Tolkien class, because it has nothing to do with my field, but now I can say, 'Hey, she has some really interesting ideas about trauma!' Now I know that I'm supposed to be here." The student has experienced personal trauma, which made the lecture especially applicable (to use a favorite phrase of Tolkien's!).

During my office hours, another student showed up and thanked me for the trauma lecture. "That was really moving." This student, too, has a personal history with trauma, and has dealt with it partly through writing.

So, hey. Just when you think you aren't getting through and have nothing to contribute, it turns out you're saying something other people need to hear. It's a good feeling, I have to say.


  1. thanks for writing.

    you know i miss you when you're gone.

  2. FWIW I don't know that I would have been able to finish my undergraduate studies if it wasn't for your classes. They were some of the only times that my writing was taken seriously.

    You deserve a sabbatical in order to refresh your spirit, but your classes fed mine.

  3. Anonymous12:09 PM

    Dear Susan,

    Just started Tom Shippey's book, and I love it! I don't suppose there's any chance you'd tell us about some of the other stuff on your syllabus?

    Sorry to hear that your job is getting you down, but glad to hear that your class is picking you up,


  4. I think I would love that class.

    Glad you got great feedback.

  5. I am so jealous of your students. The contrast between trauma and writing is most definitely an interesting thought to play with.

  6. Thanks so much for the comments, everybody. Jean, mostly we're doing a very close reading of LotR, but I also have them read "Tree and Leaf," various of Tolkien's Letters, a few short snippets from Unfinished Tales, and The End of the Third Age -- a snippet of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth edited by Tolkien's son Christopher -- because it gives them a taste of Tolkien's composition process. Also Chapter 7 of Janet Brennan Croft's War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which ties in nicely with trauma theory and introduces them to Just War Theory. (I recommend the entire book.) Also a few critical essays: Le Guin's "The Child and the Shadow," which dovetails nicely with "On Fairy-stories," essays on rereading Tolkien by Michael Swanwick and Darrell Schweitzer, and Anthony Lane's "The Hobbit Habit," published in The New Yorker before the release of the first Jackson film. Oh, and just for historical completeness, Edmund Wilson's infamous (and clueless), "Oooo, Those Awful Orcs!" And, on a lighter note, Cassandra Claire's hilarious slash parodies of the first and second films.

    Mostly, though, it's LotR. Not much room for anything else in a semester!

  7. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Thank you, Susan, that sounds like a fascinating list and a phenomenal course! You can bet I'll be looking for that Janet Croft book at the library as soon as I can.

    Happy teaching,


  8. No reading of Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh" from his Wizardry and Wild Romance which criticizes Tolkien for his failure to truly grapple with mortality -- among other things?

  9. Tolkein's life is most interesting from a grief standpoint. I coordinated a grief recovery group for 17 years and his story has many unique duplicates. His father died when he was 3 and his mother when he was 9. She intuited his talent and connected him with the right person. Then a friend died in WW1 and he was asked by another to write about what the poet group talked about. He did.

    Dr. Pennybaker has researched writing and trauma. I have been in one of their research groups on the benefits of journal writing as a care giver for my wife, a cancer patient.

    Marlin Whitmer


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