Monday 3 September 2012

JRR Tolkien's psychological illnesses or 'breakdowns'


I have argued that in the period from about 1945-6, and again around 1948-50, JRR Tolkien was suffering from some kind of psychological difficulties which amount to 'breakdowns' ('nervous breakdowns' in English lay terminology of that era); and I have provided references from the Chronology of his life to back-up this interpretation.


I should clarify the key inference which I make: and this is quite simple. That when Tolkien has a period of time off work, leave of absence, of a few weeks, on psychological grounds - then this is strong evidence of psychological illness.

I believe this inference is correct, because (partly due to my training in psychiatry) I know that it was unusual in the mid-twentieth century to take time off work explicitly for psychological reasons. Indeed, it is still unusual - and the majority of people who are diagnosed with depression do not stop work.

It is even more unusual for people who have stopped work for psychological reasons in addition to take a rest cure away from home, a therapeutic holiday, as Tolkien did; but this difference may be more a matter of fashion.


Therefore, I consider it very highly probable that JRR Tolkien suffered significant psychological problems, and that these would at the time have been regarded as severe enough to be termed a 'breakdown'  (since he needed to stop work).

The diagnosis of these kinds of problem is not precise and has changed over the decades - the symptoms are mostly anxiety and depression, and the illness was certainly 'neurotic' rather than psychotic, and was an exacerbation of predisposing personality ('reactive') rather than coming out of the blue ('endogenous').

But during Tolkien's era the term 'depression; was reserved for severe illness requiring admission to a hospital. So the diagnosis of the 1945-6 episode at that time was probably some kind of stress-related anxiety state.


However, the presence of chronic infection from the teeth in the second illness (1948-50), and the way the problem seems to have been cured by removing the teeth, raises the likelihood of a 'malaise' depression due to immune system activation (this is common in many chronic infections: )


So my informed guess is that:

1. Tolkien did have at least two psychological breakdowns.

2. The 1945-6 breakdown was probably a stress-induced episode of anxiety, which could also be termed reactive depression or neurotic depression or dysthymia.

3. The 1948 depression may have been similar, but was probably mostly (or in addition) a malaise related depression, secondary to chronic (long term) infection of the teeth.


Note: for discussion of subtypes of 'depression' see:




Troels said...

I will leave the question of the 1946-6 period alone as I haven't had the time to study that in detail, but I have been studying the later period, 1948-50, in some detail in Hammond & Scull's The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, and I find no suggestion that the two leaves of absence that Tolkien was granted in that period were on psychological grounds. Tolkien's teeth are mentioned, certainly, as is at least one incident of a 'bad cold' (4 March 1948) and of picking up a 'germ' (4 May 1949).

With the present evidence, my impression is that the surmise that Tolkien suffered a psychological breakdown during that period is very shaky inference to make. It appears to rely only on the possible connection with chronic infection of his teeth.

This is, of course, not to say that Tolkien cannot at that time have suffered from some mild symptoms of stress and/or depression — such would be quite natural given the time he invested in finishing The Lord of the Rings and the pressure to finish other obligations (there is mention of him feeling tired and at one point 'disgruntled'), but even if such was true, it would seem to have left no evidence (without any hint of severity tiredness and disgruntlement is hardly evidence of a psychological disorder).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - it seems to me that you feel that there must be 'legal' standards of proof for the inferences I make; but in reality there just needs to be a balance of probability.

Psychological disorders severe enough to miss work are very common in the population - I would think something between at least 10 and 20 percent of the population have such an episode at least once in their lives. Writers are not exempt.

I suspect you might be thinking that it was a shameful thing for Tolkien to have some kind of breakdown, and that therefore it is a nasty thing for me to assert; and indeed there was and is a stigma associated with psychiatric problems - but this does not make it untrue.

The clear cut nature of the 1945-6 episode (with multiple sources of confirmation) has yet been left unremarked by Tolkien's major scholars - so it is clear that there is an element of covering-up or brushing under the carpet going on.

Yet these matters are extremely important for understanding Tolkien's creative life; and perhaps also understanding his personal life, since there seem to be many hints of marital problems at around this time going right back to Carpenter's biography - but there are not enough details to form a conclusion.

I think Tolkien scholars need to discard the long-standing 'notion' of Tolkien as a stodgy and solid and rather dull academic scholar - and recognize that he was an extraordinary and unique genius, with many strange and unusual aspects to his psychology, which at times tipped over into illness.

Samson J. said...

I think Tolkien scholars need to discard the long-standing 'notion' of Tolkien as a stodgy and solid and rather dull academic scholar - and recognize that he was an extraordinary and unique genius, with many strange and unusual aspects to his psychology, which at times tipped over into illness.

Definitely! Learning about this side of him makes Tolkien even more fascinating and likeable, if possible.

For someone who has read neither, would you suggest starting with the Chronology or Carpenter's biography?

On another topic (one that you visited several weeks ago), I've been re-reading LOTR lately, for the first time in many years. There are countless things that I now "get", or that convey deeper meaning to me than they did when I was a teenager. In particular, there's a dream sequence near the point where the hobbits are leaving the Shire, in which Frodo dreams of hearing the sea, and a white tower, and a sky split by lightning. I'm wondering whether this dream of Frodo's bears any relationship to any dream Tolkien himself may have had.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Samsom - I would start with the Biography and the Letters. The Chronology would be dry and 'scholarly' to anyone but the advanced aficionado!

I would guess that yes, this was a dream of Tolkien's in its essence - because the symbolism of the tower goes back to the Beowulf lecture, but I can't recall a specific confirmation of this.

However, there are several instances in the Notion Club Papers of Tolkien using his own dreams (specifically confirmed by his son Christopher) - I wrote about this matter in some of the earliest entries to this blog, collected in the Notion Club Papers Companion.

Verlyn Flieger's 'A Question of Time: JRR Tolkien's road to faerie' has a lot about dreams and is a first rate piece of critical writing.

Troels said...

It would seem that my reply yesterday didn't get submitted properly, so I will repost it today.

I am sorry that my first comment became unnecessarily confrontational — I didn't intend it that way, but reading it now, I can see that it is so.

I quite agree that we can at best come up with a probability (and a Bayesian one at that), and I should probably have phrased my comment differently: I want to understand what makes you think that this probability (or perhaps 'likelihood' would be a better word) is large enough to warrant the certainty that I sense (though this may be a misunderstanding?).

I don't particularly think it is shameful to suffer from stress and/or depression, but such a condition (certainly if severe enough to significantly impact friendships in a long-term way) is rather out of the ordinary. Therefore I think that there is a considerable burden of evidence to lift when making such a claim.

The evidence may be there, but I was (and am) not satisfied with the reference to the Chronology for 1948-50 and the two leaves of absence mentioned there, and I would like to understand the details of the argument and the evidence — I may have no training in medical disorders of any kind, but as a physicist I do understand the power of evidence and of Bayesian statistics ;-)

For my own part, I have speculated (I have no evidence whatsoever) that Tolkien may have suffered some degree of post-traumatic stress following his ordeal in the trenches of the Somme, and that this may have aggravated his trench fever at opportune moments (i.e. when he was in danger of being sent back), but as I have no way of confirming such a speculation, I tend not to base any further inferences on the veracity of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - thanks - and my reply was over-aggressive too. I shall try to be better mannered in future!

"but such a condition (certainly if severe enough to significantly impact friendships in a long-term way) is rather out of the ordinary." "I was (and am) not satisfied with the reference to the Chronology for 1948-50 and the two leaves of absence mentioned there, and I would like to understand the details of the argument and the evidence "

I shall have to take some time over this, because I will need to transcribe the relevant passages.

But the essence of the argument is that Tolkien often mentions this problem with infected teeth and in such a way that implies he is suffering from symptoms such as fatigue and demotivation.

At one point he says (quoting from memory) that his doctor suggested that about 10 percent of the problem was due to his teeth infection - that apparently leaves 90 percent of his problem as non-physical, ie.e psychological (or of unknown physical cause, which was not investigated further), and it implies that the problems were significant - but in fact it is now known that chronic infection can lead to chronic depressive symptoms *especially* when this link is not known, and the person puts down their lack of energy and concentration to their own moral faults (when it is really due to them being ill).

It is also surprising that he did not deal with the teeth problem for such a long time - that in itself suggests a significant inability to make and act upon obvious and necessary decisions.

In reading through this period of the chronology I therefore made the simplifying assumption that the problems of this period can be reduced to chronic depressed mood (fatigue, poor concentratino, demotivation) secondary to chronic infection. Once this assumption is made, 'everything makes sense' - and the assumption is not at all statistically unlikely or medically implausible - it is indeed exactly what would be expected: therefore I have adopted it as a working hypotheses.

Since it is a new hypothesis, and nobody else in the world (yet?) agrees with me, then obviously I need to fight for it, so that it is at least taken seriously!

And it is potentially testable - when the embargo on Tolkien's diaries and unpublished letters etc is lifted it may become clear.

But the hypothesis will not be evaluated if people are not considering it - and testing depends on where the onus of proof is laid.

I think our knowledge of Tolkien's personality has, post Carpenter, now shifted so much that the onus of proof is different from what it was 30 years ago - I think we now know for sure that Tolkien was an unusual man (by modern standards) who - for example - believed in ghosts, significant dreams and all the rest of what I have documented in the NCP companion - building on work by Garth, Flieger etc.

I'll take another look at Garth to see whether your ideas on PTSD seem to hold water from my perspective.

Troels said...

A follow-up comment/question about terminology . . .

I wonder if some of the problems I have with the idea may be a result of terminology. In my understanding the term ‘breakdown’ implies something that is both more sudden in its onset and more drastic in its effect than what I can find evidence for in the Chronology and the letters, but you may be using the term in a different sense?

I would, for instance, see no problems with a statement along the lines of ‘in the period 1948-50 Tolkien suffered from symptoms of what was likely a combination of stress and depression, the severity of which cannot be asserted.’

It is my understanding that psychiatric diagnoses are, under any circumstances, more uncertain than most physiological diagnoses (I am also under impression that some would say ‘debatable’ instead of ‘uncertain’).

If that is so, trying to establish a diagnosis some 65 years after the fact based on letters and other written historical records would, I think, involve a very great deal of uncertainty. In such a situation I would, for myself, be more comfortable by erring on the side of caution (that is, underestimating the severity of the symptoms) rather than the other way.

I think your comments on Tolkien's personality are very interesting, but they require a bit more thought on my side and in any case deserve a separate reply :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - I would regard a significant illness as that which imapirs function - anything which causes a person (who wants to work) to stop work for some weeks is a significant illness. If they stop work they have had a 'breakdown' - whether physical or psychological. The next, and important, question is whether this has any significant effect on their life trajectory.

Unknown said...

One of my teachers said that Tolkien had schizophrenia... I was wondering if you know if this is true..Because I could simply not believe her.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AC - no it is not true.