I’ll warn you when the lit crit goes into truly ugly autobiography. It’s likely to be triggering for anyone with PTSD. And it explains, again, one reason this fucking war is so upsetting to me – because it’s all being presented as an epic battle of good versus evil.
Over on truepenny's LJ, I've been reading a fascinating discussion on Faramir. There I posited my new theory of the LOTR. (Some of the following text is recycled from that post)
I was working on a theory that the hobbits are the only race that display what I can only call human-sized behaviors: their concern for comfort, plenty of meals, the state of the hobbitweed crop can seem petty. The long-lived elves are beyond mundane concerns, and all the humans are epic heroes or villains too noble or debased for the merely daily.
Alas, Michele, AKA gramina, suggested mildly that since almost the only humans we see are warriors or wizards, their professional demeanor is going to be disciplined, focused, and heroic. The non-warrior, non-wizard humans we see (such as Butterburr the innkeeper) do display ordinary traits.
New theory: The elves and humans are characters from an epic. The hobbits are characters from a novel. The LOTR is what happens when the forms clash — or, more clearly, what happens when a character who belongs in the pages of a novel gets caught in an epic.
I love novels and their humbler cousins the romances. I love fables, myths, psychomyths. Tragedies and comedies, satires and parodies, even anatomies: all the lovely forms with their ways of telling various truths.
Epics strike me as fundamentally — fundamentally untrue, I guess. Nowhere near what my actual life is like, or anyone's, and somehow disrespectful of my deepest values. Not that courage is unimportant to me — it is, in fact, a prime virtue. But epics present war as something that is grand and noble. They leave out the blood and tears and nausea, the clenched-gut terror, the guilt and grief, the pain.
Yet, now that I think about it, LOTR is honest in ways most war epics aren’t. Look at the Scouring of the Shire. Look at Frodo’s inability to go home. His life has been ruined. Yet the Quest was worthwhile.
This theory also explains why I read the saga when I was 14 and have never read it again.
Are you still speaking to me?
After nearly 30 years, I discovered that I had misremembered the climax — a slip so Freudian it almost makes me laugh. I remembered Gollum as deliberately sacrificing himself at Mount Doom. As having the courage at the end that would redeem him. And that's because I identified with Gollum — the ugly, outcast, crazy, desperate creature robbed of its humanity.
The Gollum of the film was brilliantly portrayed – I’m still mad that he wasn’t nominated for any Oscars.
No, no. Let’s talk about this from where it hurts.
Horrible Real-Life Stuff Ahead – Not for the Faint of Heart
I cried through much of the first movie because I always cry in battle scenes; toward the end I cried because Frodo would never be able to return home, and because I knew Boromir would die. In the second film, I cried the whole time Gollum was onscreen – not discreet trickling teardrops, but anguished wrenching tears. (No sobs. PTSD sometimes takes them from me, and these were the tears of trauma.) The strangers next to me must have thought I was crazy. (Not thought. Recognized.) The people I was with were worried about whether I would be OK. *I* was worried about whether I would be OK, or would have been, if I could have distanced myself from my own pain.
I was in a 3-hour-long flashback. It was unbearable.
Gollum looked like a starving baby, an image that carries great power for me. Oh God, I can’t go into that now. I *am* Gollum, or I fear that I am. His distrust and terror, his clinging to the one thing that possessed and destroyed him. His need for redemption. And I needed him to be able to be heroic.
Because, right around the time I read LOTR, I failed at my quest. These magniloquent words hide ugly brutal truths. At that age, I finally did what I had fantasized about for ten years and more. I picked up a knife to kill my abusive father, who seemed then as purely evil as any Orc. This was something I had wanted to do, but also something my mother expected me to do. We used to talk about killing him. And I was always the brave one.
I was over forty before I realized how unreasonable it was to expect a child to kill an adult – a child of any age, much less a child of 4. That’s how old I was when I first started being aware of wanting to kill him. That’s also when my mother first started to talk to my older sister and me about ways to kill him. It never occurred to me that I was being asked something far beyond my powers, or far beyond what children were supposed to do. It was my job to protect them by killing the monster.
I was supposed to be the epic hero. Joan of Arc, liberator of France, burning at the stake. (The very first book I ever took out of a library was about her. I was 4.) Part of me knew even then that I would pay my whole life (in several senses) for being the rescuer.
Recently I realized that not only would I have died in the attempt (my father was more than capable, physically and emotionally, of killing me), but that somehow I was supposed to die.
Partly this is just reasonable. What else can happen when you send a skinny little kid against a six-foot man? And my father had a fascination for killing things and ripping open their insides; he liked to make me touch and taste the still-warm viscera. The implicit threat was always there. Next time it could be you.
(That's why I never ate a chocolate bunny and still don't eat plain chocolate: I expected blood and guts to gush from the candy as I bit the head off.)
Partly, I think, my death was supposed to somehow make it fair. That if I died killing him, or trying to, my mother would have an excuse to leave, and be punished for leaving, all at the same time, and she could go on blaming others: me for killing the man she loved, him for killing her daughter.
Only now do I see the grotesque absurdity of choosing a clumsy, incredibly uncoordinated kid to be the slayer. And maybe that’s a clue, too. Maybe I became weak, clumsy, uncoordinated out of terror, to escape what I was supposed to do.
I lived with this expectation for ten years.
When I was 14, my parents’ marriage was in its death throes. The violence at the end was sickening, and most of the time we were alone with my father, since my mother worked 3-11 shift almost an hour’s drive away. I was supposed to cook his dinner, but my mother told me to refuse to do it, since he hadn’t given her any money for food. (There was often not enough food in the house.) She used me as a shield for her; she was safe at work, miles away, and I had to face him and tell him he didn't get to eat unless he handed over money for groceries.
The night. I'm not facing the night.
My parents were fighting downstairs. I could hear what was going on — the emotional and verbal and physical violence. (These words are too distant.) My father was always armed anyway. Now he was carrying around a nightstick and a submachine gun, as well as the usual other guns he had – a couple of revolvers, half a dozen rifles and shotguns in their unlocked case. Guns were his weapon of choice.
Instead of picking a gun, I took up a knife. A steak knife with an ivory plastic handle. I'd been carrying it in my purse for days, waiting for the right time. I crept down the stairs and listened to the screaming. I could slip into the room, stab him, and save my mother.
I cowered on the stairs and could not do it. Could not go in and slide the knife into the base of his skull, where I had wanted to stab him since I was four. It was fear. It was self-preservation. It was, a little, knowing that if I killed him I would become him.
So you can see why all those sword battles with evil incarnate, the moral simplicity of the epic form of Good versus Evil, would strike so deeply at my own inner shame. I had been chosen as the warrior maiden, the killer girl who was supposed to protect us all, and I didn’t do it. I was a coward. I refused to be heroic, to fight the battle I was destined for, to cast the ring into Mount Doom.
In addition to being the warrior maiden, I was Gollum the loathsome, hungry, starving, wretched child. I was Gollum on the stairs that night, when I willfully took up a knife to do murder, and failed. I was supposed to throw away my preciousss, yes, my own life. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Epics lie. Good guys and bad guys are rarely so clearly defined as in an epic. My mother’s madness was as destructive as my father’s. And I am both the wretched failure who could not kill, the scarred warrior who tries still to protect.
I am disabling comments in this. I don't expect any answers. I'm not sure I want them. If you want to reach me, e-mail me.
I really am OK. I spent years in therapy. This is one part of my life, but I've made a great deal of joy and meaning in the years since.