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Dark Legacies: Arguments for an Interpretation of Inherited Mental Illness in Middle-earth

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

From New Line Cinema. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is shown to develop PTSD that dramatically effects the character's personality.

From New Line Cinema. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is shown to develop PTSD that dramatically effects the character's personality.

Middle-earth is on my list of fascinating, fictional worlds for so many reasons. But chief among them is its indirect presentation of what I would call generational mental illnesses. It’s important to develop a distinction between personality traits and mental illness, and defines mental illness as “ health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

So I’m not just talking about a personality trait that is learned and repeated. Rather I'm referring to psychological and emotional patterns that cause tectonic shifts in the characters’ personality and thus their actions.

I don’t think this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, though he was a World War One veteran and one perhaps could argue he had some bouts with PTSD. If so, he more than likely kept them to himself and his wife, though inklings of it eek through in the Lord of the Rings presentation of the Dead Marshes. Believed by many to be a representation of his experiences at the Battle of the Somme.

Regardless, there are many characters who certainly qualify for this distinction and for me they added an amount of depth that was then multiplied by the inherent factors of some of the characters, particularly the Elves, being immortal and much more sensitive to the realities of Middle-earth. So for this, I wanted to look at three examples: the House of Finwe (I know Elves don't get sick and I’ll explain why I thought this), the House of Hurin, and from the Hobbit trilogy series, the House of Thror (yes I know half of the fans hate these movies, but I didn’t).

Creayed by SatoriLotus!. The sigil of House Finwe.

Creayed by SatoriLotus!. The sigil of House Finwe.

The House of Finwe

I know that Elves are not supposed to have any illnesses within themselves naturally. So it's just my interpretation of how some of these Elves behave as they seem very distinct from typical exhibitions of normal emotions based on the patterns. There was a definite deviation from the typical Noldor proclivity to over-confidence and violence. And other Elf families don’t seem to exhibit traits that cause sudden change in behaviors. The Elves are blessed, immortal, powerful, and beyond humanity in almost every way: but their stories bluntly exhibit that they are far from perfect. That said, here we go.

Hinted at in the Lord of the Rings books and expounded upon in the prequel, Silmarillion, the House of Finwe is not only one of the most legendary and eldest lines of Elves in that world, but one that also sets the precedent for a traumatic and crippling set of behaviors that affect their world.

The progenitor, Finwe, is one of three Elves from the first generation to awake in Middle-Earth during the primordial First Age. Finwe becomes one of the first three Elf-lords in their races’ history with his tribe establishing themselves in Valinor as the Noldor.

Dubbed the Eldar or High Elves, because they moved to the far west in Valinor, they thrive and grow in number. Finwe marries Miriel, a woman who was a renowned artist and Silmarillion implies that these were happy times for Finwe. Based on what he later becomes, during this time he seems optimistic, outgoing, and wanting nothing more than to help others and further enrich Valinor.

The epitome of this desire being the pregnancy of the couple’s first child. The couples’ ultimate goal is to establish a larger family. This desire however is struck down when it turns out that Miriel passes away after the birth of the child, naming him Curufinwe. Miriel’s death as she had quietly passed into the Halls of Mandos where all departed souls go, is the first in Valinor and thus entirely new to everyone there. Even the Valar.

The story has Finwe desperately appealing to the ruling spirits for some way to save his wife, but to no avail. From that point onwards, Finwe undergoes a drastic change. He becomes more withdrawn for a time and devotes all his love to his son, now known as Feanor, even despite his growing arrogance. From this point on there is no more talk about Finwe wanting to bless Valinor. Though he does eventually remarry and have two more sons, Fingolfin and Finarfin, it's implied that it's known to all the Noldor where Finwe’s greatest devotion went to.

As Feanor grows in talent and arrogance, so does the family strife between the three sons. Yet the High King of the Noldor does nothing to stop it. When Feanor is banished from the city of Tirion, Finwe follows him, giving up his crown to follow after Miriel’s only child. He is later murdered when the renegade spirits, Morogth and Ongoliant attack Feanor’s stronghold.

Finwe’s emotional torment and struggle establishes within the Noldor family a psychological pattern of extreme despair. That when circumstances become so great that there is no coming back from, or that the loss of something or someone so dear becomes so unbearable, that members of the clan can exhibit extreme personality shifts and behaviors.

This is first seen in his eldest son, driven to his own hell when with his father murdered and his prized silmarils stolen by Morgoth. Feanor was quick-tempered and arrogant, but his love towards his father was without question. These losses push him to lead a rebellion against the Valar to chase down Morgoth. They leave the perfected west and commit the first kinslaying at Alqualonde against their kind out of desperation to catch up to Morgoth. He soon afterwards abandons his step-family when their own doubts start to weigh his momentum down. And finally leads to his death where in pursuit of the first Orc army the Noldor encounter in Middle-earth, Feanor is mortally wounded. His last act of madness comes in the realization that he never had a chance to defeat Morgoth and yet still binds his seven sons anyway to their hopeless recovery at all costs.

Fingolfin too does not escape his father’s precedent. Throughout the first few chapters, Feanor’s step- brother is presented as being the more rational of the two though almost equally as fiery. He doesn't give into his grief to the point of madness like his brother did. He doesnt start a civil war when his faction catches up to Feanor’s at their arrival in Middle-earth, despite their tremendous losses due to their treachery. Made new High King, Fingolfin is willing to work with his nephew, Maedhros and never loses sight of the true enemy of the Noldor, though they can never fully capitalize on it.

Fingolfin was a stable guy until the Dagor Bragollach War. The first in a series of catastrophes that would plague the Noldor, Fingolfin is isolated from his allies and the war goes so badly that defeat now seems inevitable. Following in his family’s footsteps, he too goes mad with rage past the point of reason and rides off alone to challenge the evil Valar to a single-combat. Although he succeeds in wounding him seven times, Fingolfin is still killed.

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Turgon, Fingolfin’s son also succumbs. Never trusting of his cousins, yet following them under the banner of his father, Turgon is responsible for the greatest Noldor creation east of the sea in the founding of the city of Gondolin. Built to mimic their lost home of Tirion, Gondolin becomes famous as the hidden stronghold of Noldor that even Morgoth’s spies can’t locate. Because of this, the city and it’s citizens prosper greater than any other of the Noldor tribe in Middle-earth and are also considered to be the strongest.

Yet tragedy still follows Turgon as his rebellious sister is lost for years and then returns home. Only to then be killed by her husband, Eol the ‘Dark Elf’. He also loses his father as aforementioned and buries him in the mountains surrounding Gondolin. He participates in the lost campaign of the Nirneath Arnoediad where his brother, Fingon is also killed.

Loss hounds him and slowly Turgon changes, from being something of an adventurer when he first arrived, into a reclusive and isolationist king. Though not given to evil, all are forbidden from leaving the city if it is found on pain of death. He ignores the news of his allies’ fall at Doriath and Nargothrond. The only thing that comes close to moving him is the news of his long lost Human friend and ally, Hurin, thought killed in the last war. Upon hearing that he is near the city by the watchful eagles, Turgon rebuffs it. Yet he recants and sends for him, but by that time Hurin has already departed.

Despair finally claims Turgon during the eventual discovery and fall of his precious city. Facing the largest force yet seen in Beleriand, his people fight furiously, the best of any of the encounters with Morgoth’s armies up till that point. The fall is inevitable though and Turgon, perhaps seeing his vision of heavenly Tirion burning in the flames of hell, gives up. He is urged to fight and lead the remainder of his people from the city, but Turgon obstinately refuses. He makes his mortal son-in-law, Tour, leader of the survivors and tells them to leave. He is last seen in his great tower as it falls into the flames of the city below.

The other notables for the family sickness are Maedhros and Maglor. Considered to be the more likeable of Feanor’s faction, they were still their father’s sons. Thus they were guilty by association even as some of their brothers committed evil acts against the other Noldor. Moreover their father’s oath/curse still lies on them though, like their uncle, it seems to have had no effect at first. It’s not until after they commit the last massacre at the Mouths of the Sirion River that the first signs start to show themselves, as the brothers greatly despair at the depths of their own treachery.

Maedhros is thus moved to pity, adopting two of the survivors, the brothers Elrond and Elros, as wards. Yet even this last minute act of kindness doesn't save them. The War of Wrath occurs, where the armies of the West finally arrive in Middle-earth to vanquish Morgoth. The war is won and the silmarils retrieved, but not by the surviving sons of Feanor, who by this point are only two out of the original seven.

This fact torments Maglor and Maedhros. Both are sick of the murder, conflict, and series of catastrophies the their father’s rebellion had become. Yet Maedhros’ desperation compels him to complete the family oath even knowing certain death awaits. Maglor pleads with him to leave it alone, saying that the oath doesn't matter anymore. His brother however says that the promise was made to Illuvatar, the god of that universe and from him there was no release. They sneak into the camp of the victorious Elven army and steal the silmarils, killing more Elves in the process. Surrounded, they await their end despite still clinging to their father’s prize, but are spared and allowed to leave with them.

However their ‘victory’ proves hollow. The inheritance burns the sons of their creator and so burdened with blood, this proves to be the final straw for both of them. Maedhros commits suicide by throwing himself into a fiery chasm. And Maglor, now the last of the seven sons of Feanor, throws his silmaril into the ocean and is said to wander the coasts of Middle-earth alone in unending despair and grief, knowing no one will now take him in or forgive him.

Like I mentioned before, I saw a distinct pattern within this specific group of people that made me question if it was just typical Noldor behavior. After all, why do so many of the Elf-lords exhibit the same tendencies under similar circumstances?

Created by LorenzoCB. Sigil of House Hador

Created by LorenzoCB. Sigil of House Hador

The House of Hurin

While not as sprawling as the House of Finwe’s history, the tragic tale of Hurin’s family is no less equally as awful. Hurin being the greatest warrior of the Noldor’s human allies and leader of his people, the Edain of Dor-lomin, he is marked out as special, even by those that only know him by name.

He is fierce and quick-tempered, but also loyal, perceptive, and optimistic early on. His wife, Mowren is almost the exact opposite of him, being a refugee from the fallen house of Beor. Despite this though, the couple somehow make it work and give birth ultimately to three children: Turin, Lalaith, and Nienor.

Hurin is one of the leaders in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. During the disastrous conflict he leads his people heroically, finally volunteering as a rear guard against the soon-to-be victorious armies of Morgoth, while Turgon escapes with what survivors he can gather to fall back to Gondolin. Captured and the only survivor, he is taken before Morgoth himself and yet despite his defeat, still has the will to defy him.

Angered, Morgoth curses him to see the fate of his children as the Valar makes it a point to make their lives hell. Bound to a chair, Hurin sees what becomes of his children yet is still able to keep his pain hidden.

His son, Turin becomes an equally great warrior, but makes several critical mistakes that eventually result in him committing suicide. His second daughter, Nienor, likewise has a similar traumatic life, having been separated from her mother and brother, and her mind erased by the dragon, Glaurung. Though eventually re-educated under a new identity, she marries Turgon, being unaware of their relationship. Nienor later encounters Glaurung again, who then reveals to her the truth. Overwhelmed by the sudden revelation and the despair of it, she commits suicide by throwing herself into a gorge.

Witnessing all of this, Hurin is eventually released decades later, but is rejected by the remnant of his people. He takes vengeance on those responsible for his children’s fate, and chastises the Sindarin High King Thingol for failing to protect his family.

It's only after his eyes are opened by Queen Melian that he realizes what he’s become and this knowledge finally breaks him. He commits suicide by falling off a cliff into the sea. Though not taking place across centuries, the fall of Hurin’s family is considered arguably the greatest sin Morgoth has committed. Yet even with the external factors at play, it nonetheless stands out to me the similar resolutions that all three characters take. And it is why I considered it a mental illness, though one exasperated by external forces and personal choices.

From New Line Cinema.

From New Line Cinema.

The House of Thror

Though it's only through the movies, the Hobbit trilogies portrayal of mental illness is still powerful to me. The Dwarf king, Thror was King Under the Mountain and became so profitable that his kingdom of Erebor became exceedingly wealthy. Though the dwarves were known for their obsession with riches, Thror took it to another level. He hordes it, rarely- if ever- sharing and oblivious of the unwilling attention it's bringing him.

And it's not just from Smaug, who eventually sacks Erebor. Thror’s increasingly reckless greed becomes known to all his neighbors as well, the Human kingdom of Dale and the Elven kingdom of the Woodland Realm. The latter supposedly even tried to warn Thror, but to no avail and the descendants of Dale in Laketown still remembered the dwarf king for his greed.

When Smaug finally takes the Mountain kingdom, Thror seems determined to stay with his horde, though it will mean his death. It is only his grandson, Thorin who saves him by forcibly dragging him from the sacking. The desire never leaves Thror however.

Thorin is determined to return to Erebor, but is wise enough to know that he can't until an opportunity presents itself. That opportunity being the arrival of the wizard, Gandalf. Though Thorin is stubborn and hard to deal with, it's no more than any other dwarf.

Still, the legacy of his deceased grandfather haunts him as well, with both Gandalf and Elrond discussing the possibility of the grandson succumbing to the same irrational sickness that took the grandfather. Inklings of it show, like when Thorin refuses the peace offering of Thranduil and when he manipulates the people of Dale into supporting his quest, despite the risk to themselves. It doesn't come into full fruition however until Thorin’s company succeeds in retaking their home when Smaug is killed.

Having finally achieved the decades-long desire of his people, Thorin’s paranoia increases ten-fold, especially regarding the location of the ArkenStone. He refused the petition of the survivors of Laketown whom he himself was directly responsible for and had promised a portion of the gold to. He even begins to suspect his own companions of treachery and is willing to let other Dwarves die while he desires to defend his treasures.

Though it's at that point that he finally snaps out of his obsession and leads his allies to victory, Thorin still dies, in part because his previous actions had laid the groundwork for a catastrophe. And it was only prevented at the cost of his life.

Final Thoughts on This Interpretation

Though none of this was an intentional reference to mental illness directly, given what we the audience know now regarding how extreme experiences create PTSD behaviors, I find the likeness very telling. The characters I mentioned all undergo major personality shifts due to external and extreme events. They take actions that are completely out of character for those who know them.

Though the stories of these three families struggle with their mental issues is told within the tales of dragons, swords, and eon’s long sagas, the heart of their story lies in what was passed down. Not everyone succumbs, just like in real life, but somehow the...randomness in which those that do and the consequences of what follows is something I find very powerful. It is enough to enable or to accelerate a series of events that always end in tragedy, even if some redemption is found in it.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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