Last week, I mused over themes of darkness and light in Tolkien’s works, linking them to the prevailing theme of light overcoming darkness that we recognize during Advent. This week, I move to the two themes represented by weeks one and two of the traditional Advent wreath: hope and faith.
Hope and faith are underlying in discussion of the conquering of darkness and evil; when faced with the harsh realities of the world and the evil in it, any anticipation for good seems fanciful, almost foolish. Yet, we keep going, wishing for more, greater, and better things to come.
“Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”The Return of the King
Themes of hope and faith run rampant throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Darkness has been building since the days of The Hobbit, with the ever-watchful Gandalf almost solely reading the signs that evil was coming again. He bides his time for many decades, trusting in the knowledge of those greater than himself (Saruman), before beginning to take action: seeking out the lore of Gondor, enlisting the aid of Aragorn and the Rangers of the North to protect the Shire, traveling far and wide to learn all he could that might help them in this trial. Still, it is left almost too late.
By the time Frodo sets out for Rivendell, Sauron has already made his move, sending the Black Riders searching for the place called The Shire and the man named Baggins. What might have been an easy journey a few months earlier has became an errand of urgency and danger. Still, hope remains. Frodo and his companions meet Aragorn and so come in time to Rivendell for the beginning of what will become a great quest.
‘”Strider!” I cried, shouting for joy. ‘”Yes, sir, I am afraid so, sir,” said Butterbur, mistaking me. “He got at them, in spite of all that I could do, and they took up with him. They behaved very queer all the time they were here: wilful, you might say.” ‘”Ass! Fool! Thrice worthy and beloved Barliman!” said I. “It’s the best news I have had since midsummer: it’s worth a gold piece at the least. May your beer be laid under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years!” said I. “Now I can take a night’s rest, the first since I have forgotten when.”The Fellowship of the Ring
From its very beginnings, the tale of Frodo and the Ring bounces back and forth between despair and hope; fear and faith. Moments of fear and despair seem never to end: from the trappings of the Barrow Downs to the Sacking of the Prancing Pony to the stabbing at Weathertop – and all before Frodo reaches Rivendell. But faith and hope always follow. Frodo’s faith that Tom Bombadil will come when called; the Hobbits’ faith that Aragorn was true and would protect them from harm if only they abided his advice; Glorifindel’s faith that his horse and the magic of the Elves would safely guide Frodo away from the Nine. Faith and hope seem always to be rewarded.
As the story continues, the circumstances grow ever darker; consequently, faith becomes harder and hope’s provision feels sweeter.
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”The Fellowship of the Ring
The company meets its first big challenge when passage across the mountains becomes hindered by spies and a cruel Caradhras and Moria becomes the only option. A sense of foreboding accompanies their travels, ultimately culminating in two dreaded events: the injury of Frodo (unto death, it is assumed) and the defeat of Gandalf against the Balrog. In both of these instances, hope is crushed. Both the Ringbearer and their leader are assumed to be lost to them. But it returns.
Frodo lives, much to the surprise of all the company. His hope, it is found, lies beneath his clothes.
Gently he stripped off Frodo’s old jacket and worn tunic, and gave a gasp of wonder…. The silver corslet shimmered before his eyes…. Carefully he took it off and held it up, and… the sound of the shaken rings was like the tinkle of rain in a pool…. ‘Here’s a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in! If it were known that hobbits had such hides, all the hunters of Middle-earth would be riding to the Shire.’ ‘And all the arrows of all the hunters in the world would be in vain,’ said Gimli…. ‘It is a mithril-coat. Mithril! I have never seen or heard tell of one so fair. Is this the coat that Gandalf spoke of? Then he undervalued it. But it was well given!’ ‘I have often wondered what you and Bilbo were doing, so close in his little room,’ said Merry. ‘Bless the old hobbit!’….The Fellowship of the Ring
The company sets off for Lothlorien, hoping for shelter and protection amidst the Elves. Though they bear many burdens and share terrible news, their time in Lorien heals some of their hurts and prepares them for the next stage of their journey. Though hope in the quest’s success is not fully restored, the words and gifts of Galadriel and Celeborn grant them the courage to move forward.
And, as it turns out, their time there plays a role in yet a bigger hope to be restored.
Galadriel and Celeborn are greatly distressed to hear of Gandalf’s fall to the Balrog. Galadriel, however, does not let it end there. When Gandalf returns in The Two Towers, he shares his story, ending with Gwahir’s arrival at the top of the mountain, where he lay naked and exhausted.
“Do not let me fall!” I gasped, for I felt life in me again. “Bear me to Lothlórien!” ‘”That indeed is the command of the Lady Galadriel who sent me to look for you,” he answered. ‘Thus it was that I came to Caras Galadhon and found you but lately gone. I tarried there in the ageless time of that land where days bring healing not decay. Healing I found, and I was clothed in white. Counsel I gave and counsel took.’The Two Towers
The hope of Galadriel and Gandalf lead to the return of Gandalf as a Maiar even stronger than he had been before: Saruman as he should have been. The fellowship is rightfully thrilled to have their leader back and Gandalf is able to continue work in his great task; indeed, that is the sole reason for his return – to defeat the darkness threatening Middle Earth.
Upon finding Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, he turns his attention to Rohan, which is floundering under a poisoned King Theoden. Gandalf the White brings light into the darkness of Rohan, returning Eomer to his rightful place, bringing counsel, and giving the Rohirrim hope that they can indeed stand against the forces striving against them. Their defeat of Saruman’s orcs (aided in part by the rousing of the Ents brought about by the hope of Merry and Pippin) spurs the people of Rohan into further action against Sauron, encouraging them to march to the aid of Gondor.
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?… I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’…. ‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.The Two Towers
But let us back up a bit. Prior to learning of Gandalf’s return, hope fades further in the death of Boromir, the capture of Merry and Pippin, and the severing of the fellowship as Sam and Frodo leave the others for Mordor. The hunters pursue the pack of orcs relentlessly, expecting little, but carrying on nonetheless. News from the Rohirrim that the orcs had been slaughtered nearly dashes that hope completely, but refusal to give up entirely leads them into Fangorn, where they meet Gandalf.
Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin endure torture at the hands of the orcs, hoping for some salvation from their friends, leaving trails in hopes that they are being tracked, but, in the end, finding it in the weapons of the Rohirrim, and then, the arms of an Ent. Treebeard takes them in, providing them with shelter and sustenance. The nigh unwavering hope of the Hobbits is rewarded.
And also they bring hope. Treebeard, having lived many, many ages, seems almost resigned to a fading Fangorn Forest and a fading race of Ents. But, with the news that Merry and Pippin bring, alongside their ever present faith in good, Treebeard is roused and the Ents march to war against Saruman, throwing down the walls of Orthanc, filling its pits with water, and wreaking destruction on his machinery and combatants. The downfall of Orthanc, as well as the recapture of the Seeing Stone Saruman has been using to communicate with Sauron, casts glimmers of hope that this war can be won. Sauron’s eye is drawn away for a time, giving Frodo and Sam the opportunities they need to sneak closer and closer to Mount Doom.
Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are enduring harsh, unhopeful circumstances of their own, attempting to find a way to Mordor. The weight of the ring bears mightily on Frodo, who has just enough faith to possibly finish the job; but very little for what should come after. Samwise, however, his hardy, unwavering gardener, approaches the situation as any good gardener would: he knows that darkness is needed before light. He knows that what you can’t seen in the darkness can grow to bounty. He knows that it takes a bit of faith.
“‘I’m afraid our journey is drawing to an end.’ ‘Maybe,’ said Sam; ‘but where there’s life there’s hope, as my gaffer used to say; and need of vittles, as he mostways used to add.'”The Two Towers
The reward for that hope is varied. Firstly, in the appearance and capture of Gollum/Smeagol who, due to his long possession of the Ring, can be bound as their guide by it: the one creature in Middle Earth who would rue its destruction to the level of Sauron, bound to aid in its undoing. Frodo, remembering the words of Gandalf, understands Gollum to some degree and never quite gives up the hope that he could change. Amidst Sam’s suspicions , Frodo shows kindness to Smeagol whenever possible, strengthening the bond between them as Master and Servant and, in some ways, ensuring that Smeagol will be faithful to his promise for as long as possible. Despite all suspicions, and even treachery, it is only with Smeagol’s aid that Sam and Frodo reach Mordor, first at the Black Gate and then via Cirith Ungol.
Their second reward is found in the men of Gondor and specifically in Faramir, Boromir’s brother. Remembering Boromir’s treatment of Frodo and his pursuit of the Ring for his own, there is suspicion of Faramir also. The Hobbits know not what will happen to them when they are found by him in Ithilien, searching for Cirith Ungol. Still, sensing an air of knowledge, “like a wizard,” in Faramir, they put their faith in him and are rewarded with shelter for the night, a hearty meal, provisions, and, perhaps most importantly, the good will and friendship of good men. The meeting of Faramir marks Frodo and Sam’s last encounter of friendship and last sense of comfort before the final stretch into Mordor begins. Through this meeting, some faith is restored and they are able to begin their final journey into darkness, not knowing what was to follow.
“‘It was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.'”The Two Towers
Tolkien’s story is one where hope often comes unlooked for, yet is never quite lost. As Samwise muses, in his steadfast Hobbit way, hope is not turning away, despite how dark it may seem. It is represented in each and every race: in the Hobbits, who can turn from despair to joy in moments; in the Elves, who endure ages of waning while awaiting Aman; in the Dwarves, who delve for beauty in the darkness; in Men, who continue to protect and build kingdoms for good. It is not represented as an idle emotion, as we so often think of it today, when “hopes and prayers” are criticized for their inactivity and insincerity. Rather, it is fuel for action that shakes loose the bonds of darkness and decay and leads, in the end, to light.
“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. “The Two Towers