Of all the common threads in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, I propose that the uniting theme is hope. It can be found in his popular works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as his more obscure writings like The Silmarillion and Morgoth’s Ring. If one were to assign a theology to his writings, it would be a Theology of Hope. It is a multifaceted hope, with trust as the foundation—the belief that the end will bring joy as the state of mind that leads to sacrifice as the action. It is represented by light, and joy is the ultimate realization.
Tolkien was a Roman Catholic who created a mythology that was true to his beliefs without being strictly allegorical. He saw God as the creator and humans as potential subcreators and believed that writing and other forms of art were acceptable forms of subcreation, even worship, as long as you did not worship the creation.
Tolkien’s mythology has a single creator who, like most of hiss characters, has multiple names. The two that we need to know are Ilúvatar, the Father of All, and Eru, the One. Eru created angelic-like beings or powers, called the Ainur, divided into two types: the Valar “higher powers” and the Maiar “lesser powers.” As described in The Silmarillion, “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda [the world] is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.” Ilúvatar instructed the Ainur to create music, and from this, Arda was made. All of the Ainur helped in creating the world, but Ilúvatar alone created Elves and humans (mortals), which is why they are called the Children of Ilúvatar.
Foundation of Trust
Hope is a major theme in Tolkien’s writings, but we have to make sure that we know what he means when he uses the term. Hope is one of those words that can have multiple definitions, but the key to Tolkien’s definition of hope—and in turn what I believe to be the key to his entire mythology—can be found in the Athrabeth, a short connecting story found in one of his more obscure writings, Morgoth’s Ring. I would suggest that this is the most important piece he wrote. The story is essentially a debate between a human woman named Andreth and an Elven lord named Finrod Felagund.
Andreth gives the common definition of hope according to her and her fellow humans: “An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known.” This is similar to how many people use the term in our world—I hope I get a car for my birthday, or I hope the star quarterback asks me to prom. It would be good in our minds to receive a car or to be asked out by the football star. We also know that we will receive something for our birthday and the star quarterback has to ask someone. Therefore, even though it isn’t 100 percent certain, we hope that we will get what we desire. Finrod replies that the Elvish term for that would be Amdír, which means “looking up.” He then proceeds to tell her of the Elven definition of hope:
Estel we call it, that is “trust.” It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then he will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s Joy.
Translation: if we are the children of the creator, then he will not let himself be deprived of us by any enemy even ourselves. The last foundation of this trust is that in the end all the creator’s designs are for our joy.
The foundation of hope is trust in Ilúvatar and from this, to a lesser extent, the ability to trust in others besides oneself. Finrod goes unto explain more of the Elvish belief system to Andreth:
For Arda Unmarred hath two aspects or senses. The first is the Unmarred that they discern in the Marred, if their eyes are not dimmed, and yearn for, as we yearn for the will of Eru: this is the ground upon which Hope is built. The second is the Unmarred that shall be: that is, to speak according to Time in which they have their being, the Arda Healed, which shall be greater and more fair than the first, because of the Marring: this is the Hope that sustainith. It cometh not only from the yearning for the Will of Ilúvatar the Begetter (which by itself may lead those within Time to no more than regret), but also from trust in Eru the Lord everlasting, that he is good, and that his works shall all end in good.
The first part—“the Unmarred that they discern in the Marred, if their eyes are not dimmed, and yearn for, as we learn for the Will of Eru”—means that Ilúvatar did not design the world or his people to have flaws. Similar to the biblical fall of Lucifer, one of the Ainur rebelled and brought darkness into the world and there also into the hearts of its inhabitants. But for those beings who have Estel, hope, they see beauty even amidst the flaws. They also yearn for the Will of Eru (Ilúvatar), echoing the Christian sentiment of “Thy will be done.”
The second part—“the Unmarred that shall be: that is, to speak according to Time in which they have their being, the Arda Healed, which shall be greater and more fair than the first, because of the Marring”—means that those beings who have Estel believe that in the end the world will be made anew and better. The third part—“It cometh not only from the yearning for the Will of Ilúvatar the Begetter (which by itself may lead those within Time to no more than regret), but also from trust in Eru the Lord everlasting, that he is good, and that his works shall all end in good”—means that those with Estel have trust that Eru’s will is for their good and eventually will come to pass, if they just yearned for Eru’s (Ilúvatar) will without any hope that it would come to pass then they would quickly slip into despair.
The Embodiment of Trust
There are many characters in Tolkien’s works who have this inborn trust without even knowing what it is, but out of everyone in Middle-earth, hobbits best exemplify an instinctual hope. In The Hobbit, Gandalf pulls the ordinary Bilbo Baggins into an adventure, helping a group of 13 dwarves regain their ancient treasure. There are many situations that cause the dwarves to despair along the way, yet despite the odds against them Bilbo remains ever hopeful: “But somehow, just when the dwarves were most despairing, Bilbo felt a strange lightening of the heart, as if a heavy weight had gone from under his waistcoat.” By the time the dwarves reach their destination, they are tired in all senses of the word. Even though the adventure was not his idea, Bilbo had more enthusiasm than the others at this point, and he did what he could to be useful pouring over maps and thinking of ways to get into the mountain.
In The Lord of the Rings, humble gardener and loyal companion Samwise Gamgee is another prime example. Many times during their journey to destroy the ring, Sam sees a bit of beauty in the middle of destruction and despair. From The Return of the King:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
Sam is the one who brings hope to Frodo, enabling him to go on even when his body and spirit are essentially broken. As Gregory Bassham writes in The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, “Of the four hobbits in the Fellowship of the Ring, only Sam remains absolutely undaunted and uncomplaining to the very end of the Quest.” He maintains his belief in goodness throughout the whole journey. Even after the ring has been destroyed and it looks like Frodo and Sam will perish at Mount Doom, Sam will not give up: “‘Yes I am with, you master,’ said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. ‘And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.’”
Frodo, meanwhile, is elected to be the ringbearer who carries the One Ring to Mount Doom to be destroyed, and in that position he has to trust others constantly. He has to trust Gandalf when he sends him on a seemingly futile mission. He has to trust in his companions to care for him because it takes all his strength just to walk and resist the ring. At one point in his journey, he even has to trust Gollum, a pathetic creature whose whole existence is wrapped up in the One Ring: “I will trust you once more. Indeed it seems that I must do so, and that it is my fate to receive help from you, where I least looked for it, and [it is] your fate to help whom you long pursued with evil purpose.” Frodo trusts so much in the power of good that he is able to trust someone who essentially used to be his enemy. This turns out to be the best choice, because in the end, Frodo would have been incapable of destroying the ring without some (unintentional) help from Gollum. As he says himself after the quest is complete, “But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.”
With trust comes a state of mind in which one is able to believe that no matter how dark it is now and how hopeless it seems, the final result, when all is said and done, will be better than we could ever comprehend. As stated earlier, “of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s Joy.” Arda (the world) was created by the music of the Ainur as directed by Ilúvatar, but partway through the music, one of the Ainur by the name of Melkor starts to sing his own song. His music slowly corrupts the rest of the singers so that the song strays from Ilúvatar’s design. Ilúvatar stops the music and shows how Arda will be a mix of both songs. This is how Arda came to have flaws and become less than it was supposed to be. Despite this, there is still beauty to be found, and those who have Estel can look forward to the “Second Music of Ilúvatar; the theme which is to be sung after the end of the world by the Ainur and mankind.”
In fact, the whole Fellowship was created because they have “hope in the vision of a future where good will prevail.” There is no guarantee of success or even survival on their perilous journey to destroy the One Ring, but it is the only chance they have to do the right thing. Gandalf constantly reminds people that even if this idea seems foolish, if they want a better world they must take the chance that is given to them. “Despair or folly?” asks Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the enemy.”
Sacrifice as the Action
Because of their trust and their belief that the end result will be for good, characters who have hope, Estel, can see the necessity of sacrificing themselves for the greater good. This is a trait that a lot of Tolkien’s characters share; some sacrifice many years of their lives, and others sacrifice their lives entirely. One character who does both is Gandalf, who is a Maia and known in Valinor as Olórin. From The Silmarillion:
Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna [power of sorrow and pity], and of her he learned pity and patience. . . . In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the Imaginations of darkness.
Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth along with four others of his kind to help its inhabitants resist and, if possible, defeat the second dark lord, Sauron. He appears the body of an old man to portray wisdom; he cannot die, but his body can be destroyed. He counsels against despair and false pride.
While traveling through the Mines of Moria on the quest to destroy the ring, the Fellowship faces a Balrog demon left over from earlier ages. Out of all the members of the Fellowship, Gandalf is the only one who has a remote chance of defeating it, or even surviving such an encounter. The problem is that he is also the only one who could possibly defeat Sauron in a close combat situation. Sauron used to be a Maia (lesser power) like Gandalf before he followed the fallen Vala (higher power) Morgoth, the original dark lord. When the Fellowship encounters the Balrog, Gandalf only has two choices: he could possibly escape in order to live another day to fight Sauron, but this would most certainly end up with the death of the rest of the Fellowship; or he could sacrifice himself hoping that the others could somehow find another way to defeat Sauron.
In his fatal conflict with the Balrog in Moria, he is one of the supreme examples of sacrifice in Tolkien’s writings. In laying down his life, he gives up—or at least, he thinks he is giving up—the chance to play his central part in the resistance against Sauron when those who imposed him were at their most vulnerable. Because of his hope for a greater good, Gandalf is able to sacrifice himself even though it defies logic; for logic says if he is dead all hope to defeat Sauron would be lost. In turn, the Valar reward him and send him back in a new body to Middle-earth in order to finish his job as Gandalf the White.
However, it is not only Gandalf who embodies sacrifice in The Lord of the Rings. Each member of the Fellowship sacrifices the life that they could have had in service of a sliver of hope that they might make life better for everyone else. Gandalf says, “It is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.” Each of the members comes home from the quest changed, all ultimately for the better, but not necessarily in ways they would have liked.
One of the Fellowship, of course, doesn’t come home at all. Boromir is a valiant man, but his pride eventually puts the whole quest in danger. He is a captain of Gondor, at the forefront of the resistance against Mordor, and believes that instead of destroying the ring they should use it to fight Sauron. After the group’s sojourn in Lothlorien, the elven kingdom ruled by Galadriel and Celeborn, Boromir attempts to take the ring from Frodo; Frodo escapes and Boromir repents, but the damage is done. All at once, the Fellowship is attacked by orcs, disgusting corruptions of elves. Boromir is strong and can easily escape, but he stays to fight and gives his life for the two young hobbits, Merry and Pippin. He fights valiantly, and thus he is redeemed.
Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, sacrifice their innocence. They are the youngest members of the quest and the most naïve. They like hot baths, delicious mushrooms, and a nice long smoke of “Old Toby,” their favorite pipe-weed. Both are eager to be part of the quest and see it as an adventure: “We don’t want to be left behind,” Pippin insists during the Council of Elrond. “We want to go with Frodo.” They end up with more than they expected, coming up against a demon of fire and shadow, being kidnapped by orcs, getting separated from each other for awhile a while only to meet again on the battlefield. Merry joins the people of Rohan, horse riders, and helps Éowyn slay the Witch-king of Angmar; Pippin joins the people of Gondor and saves Faramir, from being burned alive by the steward Denethor. They return home as heroes, but they can not cannot erase the death and destruction they have seen.
Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf sacrifice their pride in order to save Middle-earth. There has been animosity between dwarves and elves since the second age, the races rarely getting along due to the perceived greediness of the dwarves and smug superiority of the elves. Multiple arguments over the course of the ages in which neither side would admit responsibility made it impossible for relations to be anything but strained, including a dispute that involved both Legolas’s and Gimli’s fathers—in The Hobbit, Legolas’s father imprisons Gimli’s father along with the rest of the dwarves after catching them trespassing. During the beginning of the quest, their constant bickering pushes even Gandalf’s patience to the end.
“It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,” said Gimli. “I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,” said Legolas. “I have heard both,” said Gandalf, “and I will not give judgment now.”
After Gandalf falls in his fight with the Balrog, the rest of the Fellowship takes refuge in Lothlorien. Galadriel fully welcomes Gimli into her kingdom, which leads the rest of the elves, especially Legolas, to see the folly of endless feuding. Shortly afterward, Gimli and Legolas become fast friends, which brings healing to both races. Their friendship is so strong that Gimli is allowed to sail with Legolas to the Undying Lands—no other dwarf was given this opportunity.
Sam, paradoxically, both saves and loses his best friend. This is because the quest takes such a toll on Frodo that he has to sail to the Undying Lands, leaving behind a broken-hearted Sam. Sam had joined the quest for Frodo only; when he sneaks into the secret counsel deciding what is to be done with the Ring and hears Frodo offer to take it to Mordor, Sam exclaims to the elf in charge, “But you won’t send him off alone, surely, Master?” He is the only member of the Fellowship to follow Frodo all the way to Mount Doom, and his loyalty knows no bounds. When Frodo leaves Middle-earth, he takes a piece of Sam’s heart with him. Sam lives a long life without Frodo, and, because of his loyalty, he is eventually allowed to sail to the Undying Lands at the end of his life.
The whole journey is one big sacrifice for Frodo. As is mentioned many times in Tolkien’s writings, hobbits generally do not go on adventures—they stay at home and live simple happy lives. From The Lord of the Rings:
Their faces were as a rule good natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them). They were hospitable and delighted in parties, and in presents, which they gave away freely and eagerly accepted.
Frodo’s whole life is changed from peace to chaos. He goes from a sleeping on a nice bed and sitting by a cozy hearth to sleeping on the ground and eating whatever is available. He goes from enjoying birthday parties and drinking hearty ale to running from black riders and getting being attacked by creatures in the water. He does all this for his friends and for his home, but at the end of the tale he is too spent emotionally and physically to enjoy a quiet life. From The Return of the King:
“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you’ve done.”
“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
Shortly after the quest is completed, Frodo sails to Undying Lands along with his uncle Bilbo and Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf.
Aragorn is heir to the throne of Gondor—a king, though he may not look like one, having spent most of his life as a ranger. He has risked his life daily, hunting down the orc minions of Sauron. He lives in the woods and eats only what he can catch. He has spent months with only a cold stream for a bath and the hard ground and a cloak for his bed. Instead of taking the throne and living in luxury, he spends his life protecting all the free people of Middle-earth; he spends years separated from his true love and is always on the move. Like a true king, he bears the burden of responsibility. He sacrifices a life of ease and does not take the throne until Sauron is defeated.
One of the most poignant types of sacrifice is when an elf sacrifices himself or herself for a human. Elves are essentially immortal—they do not die of sickness or old age. At funerals in the real world, someone might say that the deceased’s life was cut short. For an elf, any death equals a life cut short. Finrod Felagund is a perfect example. Before the events of The Lord of the Rings, there existed a Dark Lord more powerful than Sauron, the fallen Vala known as Morgoth. He despised the Children of Ilúvatar and did everything he could to destroy them. He stole three jewels called Silmarils, made out of the light of the sacred trees that belonged to the Vala.
In an attempt to regain one of these jewels, a friendship is forged between an elven lord, Finrod Felagund, and a man by the name of Beren. Beren’s father, Barahir, had once saved Finrod’s live life, and Finrod promised that if ever Barahir or his kin are were in trouble, he would do all in his power to aid them. As a token of his gratitude, Finrod gave Barahir a ring with his family’s symbol on it, which then was passed on to Beren. When Beren comes to Finrod for help, he shows him the ring to remind him of his promise; because of this promise, Finrod joins Beren in a reckless attempt to steal one of the jewels from Morgoth’s crown. They are captured by Morgoth’s chief lieutenant, Sauron, and thrown into a dungeon with ten other elves. Each night a giant wolf enters the dungeon and eats one of the elves until only with Beren and Finrod are left. Because he knows that Beren must go on and finish the task, Finrod kills the wolf but dies in the process.
Lo sudden there was rending sound of chains that parted and unwound, of meshes broken. Forth there leaped upon the wolfish thing that crept in shadow faithful Felagund, careless of fang or venomed wound. There in the dark they wrestled slow, remorseless, snarling, to and fro, teeth in flesh, gripe on throat, fingers locked in shaggy coat, spurning Beren who there lying heard the werewolf gasping dying. Then a voice he heard: “Farewell! On earth I need no longer dwell, friend and comrade Beren bold.”
Finrod had everything he could have wanted: a kingdom that was hidden from the enemy, a throne, subjects. He had a life and gave it all up for a greater cause. Because of Finrod’s sacrifice, Beren is able to steal back one of the three Silmarils from Morgoth’s crown and then marry his true love, an elven maiden named Lúthien Tinuviel. From their union comes a granddaughter who marries the grandson of another union between elves and humans. Their granddaughter inherits the Silmaril and, together with her husband, journeyed to the land of the Ainur to plead for mercy on behalf of elves and humans.
Another example of elves sacrificing themselves for humanity is the three elven maidens who gave up their immortality for the men that they love. Lúthien was the first. She was the daughter of an elf and a Maia and the most beautiful maiden to walk on Arda, elven or otherwise. She loved to dance in the starlight, and that is where Beren found her and they fell in love. She defied her father and followed Beren on his perilous quest, and her love enabled him to retrieve the Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. When Beren died, she followed him to the Halls of Mandos (the land of the dead) and pleaded for more time with him.
Idril was the second elven woman to wed a human man. Through their marriage a trace of elven blood has been mixed in with mankind. She married a hero of men by the name of Tuor, and together they had a son named Eärendil. “Of surpassing beauty was Eärendil, for a light was in his face as the light of heaven, and he had the beauty and the wisdom of the Eldar and the strength and the hardihood of the Men of old; and the sea spoke ever in his ear and heart, even as with Tuor his father.” He was the only being to survive a visit to the Undying Lands after a rebellion by the elves. Once there, he was able to plead for assistance from the Ainur in order to defeat the first Dark Lord Morgoth.
Arwen, a descendant of Luthien and the daughter of Elrond, was the final elf to marry a mortal man. She loved Aragorn so much that she would rather spend a short time with him than eternity without him. She was tied into Aragorn’s passion to rid Middle-earth of the second dark lord, Sauron; if Sauron won, Arwen and Aragorn would have never been able to be together.
Light as the Symbol of Hope
Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures.
In all of his writings, Tolkien uses light to represent hope and goodness, while he uses shadow to represent despair and evil. When Eärendil—the son of the elf Idril and the man Tuor described above—was seven, his home was betrayed, and the hidden elven kingdom was destroyed. He and his parents were some of the few to escape. When he grew up he ended up marrying Elwing, the granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien, whose marriage was the first union of elves and men. Some jealous elf lords attacked his home in order to obtain the Silmaril, retrieved by Beren from the Dark Lord Morgoth, that his wife had inherited from her grandparents. Eärendil and Elwing escaped, and, with the help of the Silmaril, made it to the lands of the Ainur, the Undying Lands. As described in The Silmarillion, the herald of the Ainur calls out to him: “Hail Eärendil, radiant star, messenger most fair! Hail thou bearer of light before the Sun and Moon, the looked for that comest unawares, the longed for that comest beyond hope!”
Once there, because he is half-elf and half-man, he is able to plead with the Ainur for forgiveness and for aid against Morgoth on behalf of both races. The Ainur agree to help but say that because Eärendil has set foot on the sacred land, he can never again return to Middle-earth. Therefore, the Ainur set his ship, Vingilot, in the sky with the Silmaril fixed to the prow as a sign of hope for all to see. “Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people from Middle-earth beheld it from afar and wondered, and they took it for a sign, and called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.”
Varda is the power of the stars. She listens to the prayers of her followers, mainly the elves. She made the stars and set them in the sky to bring hope to elves and men. She decided the paths of the sun and the moon. She uses light or hope to push the shadow or despair away. She is the queen of the powers and the spouse of Manwe, the power of the sky. She is made of light and represents hope to all who dwell in Middle-earth. And she was one of Morgoth’s greatest enemies: “Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men or of Elves; for the light of Ilúvatar lives still in her face.” In The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship takes refuge for a while in the beautiful land of Lothlorien, which that is ruled by Galadriel and her husband, Celeborn. Galadriel gives Frodo a phial contains the light of Eärendil, which was captured in Galadriel’s mirror. Because the light came from Eärendil, who besides his wife was the only being to set foot in the Undying Lands after the ban was imposed and not die, whoever bears this phial and has a pure heart will receive the courage and hope to face whatever darkness they encounter. When Frodo has to face Shelob, the giant spider of darkness, he uses the light from the phial to blind her temporarily.
In the beginning of time when the world was first created, one of the Vala created two trees of holy light: one was silver and named Telperion, and the other was gold and named Laurelin. An elf named Fëanor created the three Silmarils out of the light that emanated from the sacred trees, and the Valar them holy so that if anyone unworthy touched them their hands would burn. The fallen Vala Morgoth would destroy the trees with the help of a giant evil spider and steal the Silmarils from Feanor. Out of each tree came a single seed; one seed became the moon and one became the sun. The Ainur set them to travel the sky and fill the darkness of Middle-earth with light or hope. The events surrounding the trees and jewels are the focus of The Silmarillian.
Another example of light as a symbol of hope is Gandalf. After his fight with the Balrog, he returns as Gandalf the White. From The Two Towers: “His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand.” This represents his purity and makes him visible as a sign of hope. When Gandalf returns to the Fellowship, Aragorn says, “The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider.” It the midst of battle, Gandalf stands out for all to see: “Upon the hill-top stood Gandalf, and he was white and cold and no shadow fell on him.” It was Gandalf who freed from despair King Théoden, the king of Rohan whose mind had been poisoned by the lies of the wizard Saruman through the advisor Wormtongue. Gandalf breaks Saruman’s hold on Théoden and gives him hope; with this hope Théoden is able to lead his people to Gondor’s aid. Even though he dies in the battle, Théoden is able to leave Middle-earth in peace and not despair.
Joy as the End Result
Tolkien felt that fairy tales offered the consolation of the happy ending, coining the term eucatastrophe for the sudden turn of events in a story that offers a happy resolution. Just as tragedy is the true form of drama, its highest function, eucatastrophe is the true form of the fairy tale. It “is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive,’” Tolkien wrote in On Fairy-Stories, but in its fairy-tale or otherworld setting, it is a sudden or miraculous grace: never to be counted on to return. The final piece of this definition is joy as the realization of hope. In the midst of utter defeat, some totally unexpected good happens and turns events in favor of our heroes. As Finrod says, “This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s Joy.”
There are many points in The Lord of the Rings where it looks like the end, yet just at that moment, when all seems lost, something miraculous happens. In the Mines of Moria, Gandalf is lost—to everyone’s knowledge, he is dead, and the Fellowship is devastated. He was their leader and their inspiration. His wisdom set them on their journey, and he modeled examples of loyalty and pity. Following this loss, the Fellowship spends some time recuperating in Lothlorien. Shortly after their rest, Boromir tries to take the Ring and dies. Frodo leaves the Fellowship with only Sam hard at his heels. Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by orcs. The three remaining members of the Fellowship, Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli, decide to attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin. They follow the trail to Rohan, where they learn that the horsemen of that land killed the orcs and may have accidentally killed Merry and Pippin too. When it seems that everything that could go wrong has, however, the three get a pleasant surprise: they come upon Gandalf. Gandalf, who had died, stands before them, dressed in white and made anew.
Gondor has been under siege. The last ruling steward, Denethor, has succumbed to madness, and his only remaining son, Faramir—brother of the late Boromir—is on death’s doorstep. The people have no direction, and Sauron’s army is determined to succeed. In this dire hour, however, they are saved: “All of a sudden the ringing sound of horns and the sight of six thousand Riders of the Rohirrim appear on the horizon.” Despite all odds, Rohan has come to the rescue, led by King Théoden, who, by listening to Gandalf, has been transformed from hopeless to hopeful. He fights valiantly but is taken down by the Witch-king of Angmar, Sauron’s servant. The tide has once again turned to favor the enemies; the Witch-king is about to feed a dying King Théoden to his winged beast. Pirates are coming up the river, and men riding elephants of war are all there to help Sauron. All of a sudden, two things happen to change things for our heroes. First, Éowyn, the niece of King Théoden, and Merry the hobbit kill the Witch-king. Prophecy stated that no man could kill the Witch-king, and he became cocky. He does not think on the fact Éowyn is a woman and Merry is a hobbit, therefore neither one is a man, and that is how they are able to kill him. And second, right about this time, the pirate ships have landed, except they aren’t are not carrying pirates. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and some rangers from the North have defeated the pirates by teaming up with an army of the dead, then using the pirate ships to get to Gondor as quickly as possible. Once there they join the fight, and soon Sauron’s army is defeated.
After months of grueling physical activity, Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom. They are starving, dehydrated, and fatigued. Frodo is so weak that Sam has to carry him up the mountain: “And I’ll carry Mr. Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and heart.” Once at the top, Gollum appears and attacks Sam, causing him to drop Frodo. With an unexpected burst of energy, Frodo breaks free until he is near enough to throw the Ring in the volcano, yet in an instant he changes his mind. He claims the Ring as his own and places it on his finger, disappearing from sight. After everything they have been through to get this far, Frodo succumbs to the Ring at the last moment. Just as all hope seems lost, Gollum lunges at Frodo to get his “precious.” In a desperate attempt to get the Ring, Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off. But in his moment of triumph, Gollum falls into the volcano, taking the Ring with him. The most unlikely creature, the one who perhaps wanted the Ring the most, is the one that ends up destroying it.
At this point, Frodo has come back to himself. He remembers the Shire and his life before the quest began. Sam and Frodo lie down on a rock as the mountain begins to fall down around them. They are suffering from shock, and it seems that even though the Ring is destroyed, it really is the end for Frodo and Sam. In a final eucatastrophe, however, Gandalf arrives with the eagles. They pick up Frodo and Sam and bring them to safety.
This isn’t is not Tolkien’s final word on hope. At the beginning of this article, I talked about the debate between Finrod and Andreth about how elves and humans define hope differently. Throughout most of this debate, it would seem like Finrod was the one who was teaching Andreth. At the very end of the conversation, Andreth brings up a final concept, which she says is called the Old Hope. A select number of humans believe “that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth says that she herself does not see how this could happen, but, though Finrod has never heard of the Old Hope, he does not doubt its viability. He once again shows that he has this Estel, hope, by giving Andreth a hypothesis on how this Old Hope could come to be:
“Since Eru will surely not suffer Melkor to turn the world to his own will and to triumph in the end. Yet there is no power conceivable greater then Melkor save Eru only. Therefore Eru, if he will not relinquish His work to Melkor, who must else proceed to mastery, than Eru must come in to conquer him.”
This is what ties together Tolkien’s mythology to Christianity. For Christians today are living in a time after the One has entered the world and started the process of healing. If we truly have Estel, there is nothing on this earth or outside of it for us to fear. Without this fear, we are free to better serve God and our fellow man.
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