TOLKIEN AND PARENTAL LOSS IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Tolkien was born on 3rd January 1892 in South Africa. Four years later on 15th February 1896 his father, Arthur Tolkien, died which meant that Tolkien never really knew his own father. Further tragedy struck on 14th November 1904 when his mother, Mabel Tolkien, died from diabetes. Tolkien was then twelve years old. He was subsequently looked after by Francis Morgan – a friend of the family – who supported him both financially and educationally.
It is quite probable that such dramatic events in Tolkien’s early life had a deep psychological impact. For this reason I feel that Tolkien, either sub-consciously or consciously, created characters in his novels who have lost one or both of their parents at an early stage in their lives. Restricting my talk to the Lord of the Rings I will try to show that Tolkien was often describing his own upbringing via these characters or analysing the possible issues that can come from parental loss.
Frodo Baggins lost both his parents (Drogo and Primula Baggins) in a boating accident when he was 12 years old – the age when Tolkien lost his only remaining parent Mabel. He was then taken in by Bilbo who both supported him financially and intellectually with Bilbo becoming a surrogate father just like Francis Morgan was to Tolkien. Like Tolkien Frodo grew up to be a learned intellectual (in Hobbit terms), a keen student of Elvish languages and a creative writer and poet.
Another character who shares Tolkien’s experience of parental loss is Aragorn. He loses his father Arathorn when he is only two years old – so like Tolkien, could not have known his own father. He is then taken to Rivendell to be fostered by Elrond – a huge intellectual figure steeped in Middle Earth history. In this context Elrond could, in certain ways, represent Francis Morgan as Elrond would have taught Aragorn about Ilúvatar and the Undying Lands and the Elvish view of life, whilst Francis Morgan taught a Catholic view on life. The foster parent in this example had a wide ranging spiritual role to play in the child’s development.
Two contrasting examples of the possible issues arising from losing either one or both parents occur in Rohan and Gondor.
In Rohan Éomer and Éowyn lost their parents (Éomund and Théodwyn) when Éomer was, like Tolkien, 12 and Éowyn was 7. Taken in by Théoden they grew to love him as their own father and became loyal members of the household.
In contrast in Gondor Faramir and Boromir did not have such a happy upbringing after their mother (Finduilas) died when the former was 5 and the latter 10. Their father, Denethor II, was strict and demanding and did not have the fatherly skills held by Théoden. Faramir, the more intellectual, was generally ignored by his father in preference to the warrior-like Boromir. Perhaps Tolkien was trying to show the issues that can arise form a certain coldness in personal relations and strict behavioural guidelines or was he also (perhaps subconsciously) describing his own brand of favouritism with his son Christopher (see letters 60 and 323).
Of course I cannot finish without mentioning Gollum. Although not much is known about Gollum’s early life, the information we do have suggests he had no living parents at the time of the finding of the Ring as he seemed to be dominated by a matriarchal grandmother. It appears she was very strict and probably showed no great deal of love and tenderness – so one can only guess what influence this had on Gollum and whether this encouraged his aggression and the need to play tricks on his fellow hobbits. Perhaps if he had had loving parents Gollum would have been a totally different person.
There are more instances of missing parents in Lord of the Rings but the above is sufficient to demonstrate Tolkien’s obsession with this particular theme. There does not seem to be any particular reason why some of these characters need to be orphans or from single parent families in order to fulfil their role in the story. The fact that they are portrayed thus must be because Tolkien wanted it so.