J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Handbook of Hope

“Where there’s life there’s hope, as my Gaffer used to say; and need of vittles, as he mostways used to add.”

In this weary world, two of the most formidable pitfalls lying in wait for our stumbling feet are the temptations of doubt and despondency. Whether the cause of discouragement lies within or without, it can be crippling to our spiritual lives. It is certainly no wonder if we feel disturbed and anxious at the prospects facing us. One need only recall the scandals racking the Church, the devious corruption that has spread throughout society, or the breakdown of the family, morality, and truth. Things look bleak and, indeed, only promise to grow darker. What course can we few take against such far-reaching evil which is taking hold and laying waste all around us?

To those discouraged by the current state of world affairs be they political, ecclesiastical, or cultural, a reading of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy The Lord of the Rings will serve as an excellent remedy to despair. Whether it be one’s first or twenty-first time taking them up, Tolkien’s message of hope in the face of overwhelming odds is a resounding rallying cry to call one back to the fray that is our lot in life.

A master of mythology, lore, language, and history, Tolkien creates a palpable world in which his tale unfolds. Middle Earth is beautiful, but in peril when the reader arrives on the scene. The Dark Lord Sauron threatens to destroy it, abolishing all that is good and submitting it to his malevolent will. There is only one way to defeat him and the chance of success is infinitesimal: return Sauron’s all-powerful Ring to the place of its creation and destroy it within the flames of Mount Doom before he can reclaim it.

Despite the hopelessness of the situation, a small band joins forces to take up the desperate task: Gandalf the wizard; the hobbits, Frodo, Samwise, Meriadoc, and Peregrin; the Ranger, Aragorn; Legolas the Elf; Gimli the Dwarf; and the Captain-General, Boromir. With Frodo as the Ring-Bearer, they journey towards Mount Doom as Sauron’s dominion and desolation grows, a tiny beacon of hope in the gathering darkness.

Hope for the Sake of the Future
Frodo and the Fellowship’s mission, much like Damocles’ sword, hangs by a mere thread. If the slightest thing goes awry and Sauron secures the Ring, all is lost. It is a daunting task and yet, time after time, the hodgepodge band of heroes continues on through the night only to be met by the glimmer of dawn and the promise of a new day with fresh prospects. “While the sun still rose … there was hope in the morning.” A brighter future is always there for those who seek it out and go far enough and wait long enough to find it.

The Fellowship has nothing to cling to except the knowledge that what they are fighting for is good, true, and beautiful in the face of evil, deformation, and death. “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world,” Gandalf says, “but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.” These words hold true for us as well who must face the present evils if only for the sake of our children and those who will come after us.

Hope in God’s Providence
“Hope is not victory,” says Gandalf. “Have patience. Go where you must go, and hope!” Sometimes all that is required of us is sheer effort, the mere choice to continue on rather than the ability to conquer on our own. God has given us free will, but He is certainly eager to help us in time of need; indeed, how many of us could claim that we are above such divine assistance? All God requires of us in this grace is our cooperation and willingness, that conscious decision towards the good, in order to turn our weak efforts into feats of strength.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep in the land of Rohan, after the Fellowship has been broken, is a stirring illustration of this principle. When the forces of Rohan are walled up in the fortress of Helm’s Deep, besieged by hideous orcs and Uruk-hai, morale begins to fade as the enemy horde begins to take command of the battle. King Theoden reflects on their seemingly-inevitable fate: “It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault, but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?” Aragorn responds to the King and his nephew, Éomer, with hope.

“Yet dawn is ever the hope of men … day will bring hope to me,” said Aragorn. “Is it not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it?”

“So the minstrels say,” said Éomer.

“Then let us defend it, and hope!” said Aragorn

As the night reaches its darkest point, Theoden resolves to make one last charge on the enemy, refusing to fall prey to despair. As he and Aragorn ride forth to fight and fall, succor arrives with the dawn and deliverance is at hand. As Gandalf reflects to Theoden afterward: “It is a thing beyond the council of the wise. Better than my design and better even than my hope the event has proved.”

Tolkien, a devout Catholic, never names any specific deity or divine being in his trilogy, but there is no doubt that his universe is guided by an all-knowing, all-powerful God who is good rather than wicked. Providence, “luck” as it is called in The Hobbit, comes through in manifold ways to deliver the protagonists. Seemingly insignificant choices made early on have momentous effect later in the tale. It is certainly no accident that the Ring of Power passes from the creature Gollum to Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo, before it falls to Frodo. Each character becomes their own separate thread in the hand of the Master Weaver who spins the grand tapestry, revealing a surprising world of hope and of the triumph of good over evil.

Hope in the Unknown
The most compelling case for hope presented in The Lord of the Rings is the uncertainty of the future. This uncertainty draws a dividing line between the hopeful and hopeless in Middle Earth. The protagonists carry on despite the appearances of things and are rewarded for their steadfast hope, whereas those who surrender before the final blow has struck are lost. The fate of Denethor, Steward of the Kingdom of Gondor, could have been different had he waited until the Battle of Pelennor Fields had ended. Sam and Frodo might not have continued their journey if they took the statue of the beheaded king they discovered in a war-ravaged country as a sign of the state of their quest. “Oft hope is born,” however, “when all is forlorn.”

So do the rest of the Fellowship labor on, unaware if Frodo and Sam are still alive, let alone still in possession of the Ring. Some would call it a foolish thing to continue on without surety, but as Gandalf wisely puts it: “It is not despair for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not!” We can never know the full outcome of our actions and it would be madness to claim that we do. Like Frodo, like all for whom hope yet springs, we must go on, even if to do so means to go blindly.

Hope Is Never Dead
Finally, The Lord of the Rings reveals to the reader that there is no situation so dire that we must give up hope, laying down our arms to die. Even when faced with failure in their meeting with the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gates of Mordor, the army of heroes remains steadfast. Though things may look desolate from our perspective, that is not necessarily the case in the grand scheme.

There is only one place in which hope is impossible. As Dante approaches the gates of hell in his “Inferno,” he reads the chilling inscription: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” Indeed, hope cannot exist in hell for it is the longing for the attainment of heaven. Hope is what keeps us going despite our sinful nature, despite the relentless attacks of our enemies, despite sickness, suffering and death. It is because hope is so crucial to our progress that Satan tries to plant the seeds of doubt. The greatest tool of the enemy is fear which snuffs out hope as a light and paralyzes us.

The cry of the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths and chief servants of Sauron, has this freezing effect on the inhabitants of Middle Earth:

[F]aint, but heart-quelling, cruel and cold. He blanched and cowered against the wall… For a time they sat together with bowed heads and did not speak. Suddenly Pippin looked up and saw that the sun was still shining and the banners still streaming in the breeze. He shook himself. “It is passed.” he said. “No, my heart will not yet despair … we may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees.”

Though the cry of fear is harrowing, it is powerless if we cling to hope and all its promises.

What course, then, do we take in the face of evil? Fly or stand firm? Flee or fight? Retreat or tread on? Like Theoden and Denethor, we may doubt in the darkest hour before dawn, but the choice to continue is ours, as it was theirs. We have been placed exactly where we are, in this time of history for a purpose and our actions matter. Besides that, we have on our side the greatest of victors. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christ Himself tells us that He has already won the fight, and The Lord of the Rings reminds us, though the going is often rough, “yet do not cast all hope away. Tomorrow is unknown. Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun.”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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