Aug 31 2009 5:21pm

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 2

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back. There are some things that time can not mend. Some hurts that go too deep... that have taken hold.”
The Lord of the Rings, the movie 

In part 1, I talked about the characteristics of memories involved in PTSD, as well as a summary of what fiction often gets wrong about PTSD.

For this part and the next two, I’ll discuss more in depth specific examples of fictional PTSD I’ve encountered that mostly get it right. A little wrong, but mostly right (some more “mostly” than others).

To start off, here are two examples; one from a popular SF TV show, Babylon 5, and one from a very popular fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings.

Reliving the Battle of the Line
Babylon 5: “And the Sky Full of Stars”

“A career officer—like your father, and his father, and his father.... Smart money said you’d make admiral one day. So what happened, Commander? Where did you fall off the merry-go-round?”
– “Knight One” to Sinclair

For me, Jeffrey Sinclair was the coolest commander of Babylon 5, though he only lasted one season. Other fans called his character wooden, mostly pointing their fingers at the actor, and perhaps I would have thought so too, had he not said in the first episode, describing the “Battle of the Line,” of which he was the sole survivor:

“And the sky was full of stars. Every star an exploding ship—one of ours.”

and that was when I forgave the wooden acting, because a common reaction of people with PTSD is to attempt to stop feeling—the logic being that shutting down your emotions all the time means you won’t feel anything when the intrusive memories do occur. This works about as well as you can expect in real life, which is to say, not very well.

In fiction, it tends to work phenomenally well.

And so it did for Commander Sinclair, up until episode 8, “And the Sky Full of Stars,” when two idiots code-naming themselves Knight One and Knight Two decided to try a little futuristic psychology on Sinclair so they could get at a suppressed memory1 from the battle.  Using magic highly advanced technology, one of them to basically mind melds with Sinclair and pokes his memories in manipulative ways that only visual moving media can do justice. With it, they eventually manage to rip off the entire tarp2 covering Sinclair’s traumatic memories.

While one of them is still linked up in Sinclair’s mind.

I like to call this episode “Sealed PTSD in a Can” for various reasons.

Though there are certainly large aspects of Set Piece PTSD about this episode—particularly since, apart from the revelations of Sinclair’s memory blackout, nothing else carries through in the rest of the series—I think it’s a good place to start with when looking at PTSD depictions.

Most people don’t think of Sinclair’s actions here as PTSD-based, because in the episode we see the symptoms only after Sinclair has been kidnapped and hooked up to the machine, and simply put everything down to the magic machine. But I would call attention to the following:

  • We first see Sinclair in his bedroom (although it’s all in his mind) waking up from a nightmare involving the Battle of the Line. He doesn’t act as if this is the first time he’s had similar nightmares. That alone is not necessarily an indicator of PTSD, but juxtapose this with:

  • the vivid memories from the Battle of the Line, which is a joybox of PTSD-inducing truma, as Sinclair is in active communication with his squadron while they all die as the Minbari ships explode them out from under him,

  • and that he still sees the dead members of his squadron as blaming him for surviving. Significant to this is that Knight One and Knight Two can only play with what’s already in Sinclair’s head.  Along with:

  • the now recovered memory of his dead friend’s helmet spinning in space in front of his eyes just before being captured and tortured by the Minbari for several days,

  • all ending with him becoming something of a screaming maniac when the Minbari surrounded him in that circle thing of theirs.

We relive along with Sinclair the Battle of the Line again. And again. And again. Because of how well-paced the episode is, and the way that every run is analyzed from a new perspective, this doesn’t tire out viewers, but the constant exposure to the visuals is similar in feel to flashback episodes in their immediacy and inescapability.

Towards the last act of the episode, the Knights manage to push Sinclair into full flashback mode, resulting in him lashing out, causing permanent mental damage to one and killing the other, and escaping from the machine. However, to the creative team’s credit, Sinclair does not automatically recover, and instead runs through the station in full flashback mode until confronted by Delenn, and then fainting.

And then... the episode ends. For the rest of the season, Sinclair’s trauma doesn’t return, even though There Are No Therapists on the station, and any possibility that it might have returned and been managed and/or resolved was removed when they tossed Sinclair off the station (and permanently removed when he went back in time to found the current Minbari civilization) .

He was replaced by John Sheridan. Good old, never a day of PTSD, happy veteran John Sheridan, who obviously wasn’t at the Battle of the Line but did manage to explode an entire Minbari cruiser, thus side-stepping the whole “helpless, hopeless, terrified” trauma storyline.

Oh well. The rest of the series was still good.

Destruction-Tested to the Finish
The Lord of the Rings

“When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you, this will bring you aid.”
– Arwen bestowing the Evenstar to Frodo3

World War I mass-introduced shell-shock—what PTSD used to be called when it appeared in soldiers—across a wide streak of the young male population in Europe. In one of the worst battles of WW I alone, the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered over 57,000 casualties, with over 19,000 dead.

Thus it was that WWI veteran and Oxford professor, one J. R. R. Tolkien, wrote the following in “The Grey Havens”, the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings:

[Sam] was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.

“It is gone forever,” he said, “and now all is dark and empty.”

But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself.

Through bearing the soul-corrosive One Ring all the way from Rivendell to Mount Doom, one could say that the original Frodo Baggins was stress-tested until destruction. And indeed, this was the experience of the most unfortunate soldiers in the first world war; Robert Nichols said once, comparing the before- and after-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, “War has defiled one to produce the other.” Frodo’s trauma doesn’t involve war, but Tolkien recognized it as being no less traumatic.

The type of “fit” that Frodo has is more usual to PTSD sufferers; it’s outwardly quieter, but no less consuming than the Set Piece version that has people rampaging through corridors with weapons. Indeed, Frodo is so despairing and not at all psychotic that people who know only the stereotypes of PTSD would say that he’s more depressed than traumatized. Especially since everyone knows that he endured; these days it’s all too common for people to forget that those inflicted with PTSD have it because they endured in a situation others might have committed suicide over and did not, in fact, break entirely.

In fact, I’m convinced that Frodo’s susceptibility to PTSD was the reason why he, alone of the Ring’s long-term bearers, did not fall to temptation long before Mount Doom, which would have resolved a lot of his psychological tension. Were we to make Jack Bauer the ring bearer, things wouldn’t have turned out so well.4 Mind you, that doesn’t mean that PTSD is a good thing for him to have or develop.

Many people note that Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens can be thought of as a symbol for death. In his fit, clutching the Evenstar—his passage onto one of the boats heading into the West—he can be thought of as desiring to die, but mostly I find that the PTSD afflicted just want peace—dying not necessary (or it would have been done long before).

Frodo’s PTSD, given the length of time he was almost constantly exposed to the ring, is probably chronic—though not all PTSD cases are. But like many chronic conditions, PTSD is manageable, even though the days may seem dark.

Unfortunately for Frodo, There Are No Therapists in Middle-Earth. Perhaps there are some in Aman.5

While I love Babylon 5 and Lord of the Rings, they don’t present optimal presentations of PTSD (especially not Babylon 5), but neither are they derogatory, marginalizing, or too misleading.

Next time we’ll cover the varieties of PTSD presented in World War Z, which goes one step further than many SF books in developing an entirely new related disorder, alongside a well-done Very Special Episode of The West Wing, which is helpful for discussing triggers in PTSD. Lord Peter Wimsey is going to have a post all to himself.

In the meantime, Rachel Brown has more information and recommendations about PTSD and recommended non-fiction about trauma/PTSD and fiction (TV, manga, fantasy, science fiction, narrative non-fiction, and more).

For those who want a basic but thorough guide to PTSD, I add to her recommendations The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. If you’re a writer, I would start there.

1 “You have a hole in your mind.”
2 See part 1 about the tarp allegory with respect to PTSD.
3 In the movie it went to Aragorn instead. For some reason.
4 Given all the crap that goes down in 24 that’s done by him alone, it really, really wouldn’t have gone well.
5 The main continent of the Elvish “heaven”.

Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction and fantasy, and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at on a semi-biweekly basis, and normally dislikes zombies.

Joseph Blaidd
1. SteelBlaidd
Reading this juxtaposed with the WoT Re-read made me realize just how many people in that series are dealing with PTSD in some form or another. And Robert Jordon as a Vietnam Vet knows how to do it right.

Thank you so much for covering this.
Nicholas Waller
2. Nicholas Waller
The figures you give for British losses at the battle of the Somme (almost 60,000, with 19,000 killed) are even more remarkable in that they are for the first day alone. The overall battle went on for several months, and in total there were 420,000 British Empire casualties of all sorts.
Matt London
3. MattLondon
Very interesting analysis. One related book that I found illuminating is Jonathan Shay's "Achilles in Vietnam," which examines PTSD with dozens of examples from classical literature.
Ian Gazzotti
4. Atrus
Though the specific episode was never brought up again, Sinclair's trauma was always present in the form of his death wish: always putting himself on the line, doing the heroic deed, saving people the way he couldn't at the Line - and somehow hope to die in the process, so to redeem his survival guilt. In the end, I think, that's why he did the spoilery thingie, as it gave him a literal chance of both killing off Sinclair and saving a great deal of people at the same time.

Also, replacing Sinclair with Sheridan on the station was not originally meant to kick him off the show: Sinclair was supposed to come back in several plotlines with the Rangers, but the actor was unavailable at the time and they got cut. So it does give the impression that the PTSD guy was replaced by the all-American-boy type, but it was not wholly intentional on the production part.
(One could also debate that Sheridan starts off as perfect boy and ends up several times broken and shell-shocked too by the end of his career, but that's a whole new topic)

As for Frodo (and Bilbo's) trip to Eressea, we can use Tolkien's own words to describe it as a sort of purgatory, a place where they can get some healing and restoration (but never become whole again) before they pass on. Maybe not in the modern sense of the word, but there *are* therapists in Aman. :)
Arachne Jericho
5. arachnejericho

I didn't know that The Wheel of Time did that much with trauma, and now I have an excuse to start that epic. :)

Nicholas Waller,

Yeah. It was an awful, awful war. Bad combination of trying to think about war in older ways mixed with dreadfully efficient ways of killing people in massive numbers.


That sounds like an excellent book. I shall have to find it.


Hmmm, you're quite right about Sinclair's death wish actions. That reminds me of Sassoon, in fact---he was well known for, later in the war, doing extremely heroic crazy things. Part of that was indeed driven by trauma.

I definitely think that Sheridan started off clean and ended up traumatized several times over. Z'ha'dum and all that.

Hmmm, I need to go over the appendices for Lord of the Rings again. I vaguely remember that description, and would be pleased to read it again (I don't know, one derives comfort sometimes from strange things).
Ian Gazzotti
6. Atrus
@arachne I think the mention of purgatory might be in the Letters rather than in the Appendices; it's been a while since I've read either so I'm not really sure.
Arachne Jericho
7. arachnejericho

I've never picked up the Letters before, so this is a good excuse. :) (I've run across a few excerpts in the past from essays and musings on LotR across books and blogs. It has all sort of melded into one extended "whoa he really planned this all quite out" experience.)
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. tonyz
The Letters do have a mine of stuff on Tolkien's view of Frodo's experience. And, yes, there are therapists in Aman (Lorien the Vala, and probably others), and one of the reasons why the three Ringbearers (Frodo, Sam, Bilbo) were allowed over-Sea was precisely so they could be healed of the hurts they had gotten by bearing the Ring.
Arachne Jericho
9. arachnejericho

Dang, I gotta get the Letters, then. Thanks for the information!
Nicholas Waller
10. zebarsuk
Another book to find and read re:LotR & the Great war is: Tolkien and the Great War. Reading just how many of the brightest and the best, literally, never came back is appalling.
And one wonders who the morphine addict Smeagol/Gollum is based on is...
Nicholas Waller
11. Janet Croft
There have been a couple of very good articles on Frodo's war trauma in the journal Mythlore recently. And if I may do just a little shameless self-promotion, there's a long section on it in my book War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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