Recovering Through Fantasy: How a Wounded Veteran Found Solace in Tolkien

In belated honor of Veterans Day, I want to talk a little bit about recovery.

Recovery can mean a lot of things. It can mean recovery from an illness, recovery from a disappointment, recovery from a lie, a hangover, an injury, an addiction. Some recoveries take hours; others, decades. There are some things from which you can never truly recover. But everyone knows that recovering is easier once you realize that you’re not the only one struggling, when a friend or a stranger reaches out and takes your hand.

For Jim Beverly, the strangers who eased his recovery were Aragorn and Frodo and Gandalf. Beverly was a private in the U.S. Army when he took shrapnel to the hand and knee in a 2003 attack, and in the period of frustration, rage and despair that followed, Beverly turned to Tolkien’s trilogy for solace and companionship. I found this story at TheOneRing.net, and I wanted to share it here.

A long-time reader of fantasy and familiar with interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world by Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi, Beverly’s doctor asked him what one thing he needed the most.

“Something to read.”

Knowing the soldier had enjoyed The Hobbit during artillery school, the doctor had something in mind.

“As part of his treatment plan,” Beverly told TheOneRing.net in Atlanta at the 2011 DragonCon, “He brought his personal copies of the Lord of the Rings to me.

“He told me, ‘This is not a loan, it is a gift.'”

The same books were once given to the doctor in a time of need and in Beverly he found someone who could use them and would treasure them appropriately.

“They spoke to me. They had elements that I was dealing with at the same time. Hope and dread, adversity, perseverance and an overwhelming enemy.”

It should not be surprising that Tolkien—himself no stranger to the terrors of warfare—could write of war and death and grief with poignant elegance. Tolkien served as a signals officer in World War I and witnessed such blood-soaked battlefields as the Somme. Nowhere in “The Lord of the Rings” is the duty and burden of the soldier shown more vividly than in the character of Faramir. In “The Two Towers,” Faramir tells Frodo, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

Tolkien once admitted that he identified most closely with Faramir, the beloved captain of Gondor who falls beneath the shadow of despair after fighting the evil of Mordor, and then is raised again to life in new hope. Hope, in its various forms, is a recurring theme of “The Lord of the Rings”—I would argue, the central theme.

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien proposed that every true fantasy offers the hope of escape. Some critics diminish escapist literature and scorn the desire to “escape” from one’s present reality, but Tolkien defended such desire as natural and just.

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? […]

For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products. […]

But there are also other and more profound “escapisms” that have always appeared in fairy-tale and legend. There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.

It was such escape that Jim Beverly sought after his warzone injury, and he found it in “The Lord of the Rings.” In the courage of Sam and Frodo as they labored against insurmountable odds and unspeakable evil. In the comradeship of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they united the free peoples of Middle-earth in Rohan and Gondor. In the valiance of Éowyn and the triumph of the Ents over Saruman and the gentleness of Lady Galadriel. In the beauty of the old world, now forgotten, and in the throwing down of Evil by the forces of Good.

For Tolkien, this is the solemn duty of the fairy tale—to lift the heart to joy after the promise of defeat. From “On Fairy-Stories”:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dycatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality… In such stories, when the ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

Fantasy can be a healer, if you let yourself go in it. In our world of petty differences and careless crime, of indifference, fantasy can remind us what we hope for and why we live. It’s not for a sense of melodrama that I say this, but for truth. It is one of the exclusive powers of fantasy that cannot be found elsewhere, as Jim Beverly discovered, and as many silent victims have discovered through their own recoveries. I believe that recovery is the purpose of fantasy, and by this measure works of fantasy should be judged.

Recovery is never easy; it can be agonizing. But everything is easier once it has begun, and with help in the right places—from doctors who admire Tolkien and from characters of fiction—the recovery can begin.

This blog post is dedicated to men and women, past and present, who fought to defend what they loved.

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