I remembered the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy several times while I was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi five years ago. When someone, upon encouraging me to read the encyclical, recounted to me the encyclical’s treatment of eternal life, death, immortality, and the human dilemma between not wanting to die and not wanting to live forever, I thought of the elves envying men for the “gift” of mortality, of Bilbo’s unusual longevity and feeling “like butter spread over too much bread”, of the “white shores and a fair green country under a swift sunrise” movie dialogue between Gandalf and Pippin about death. I knew then that Spe Salvi would be my favourite encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.
Both the encyclical and the fantasy trilogy illuminate many facets of Christian hope in parallel ways.
In the encyclical, the Pope comments on the biblical passage about faith being the “substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.” He reflects on the word “substance”, emphasizing its reference to something objective though unseen, as contrasted against a mere “expression of an interior attitude”. The Pope concludes that faith, on which hope is founded, “is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen.”
Therefore, hope is founded on something real – and what’s real exists even if we’re not psyched up to believe it. Thus, there may be hope amidst apparent hopelessness, since hope is not based on what we perceive but on what is.
In The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft points out that whenever the word “hope” is used in the LOTR trilogy, it is used in either of two senses: mere optimism, or real hope. “Nearly every time Tolkien uses the word,” Kreeft explains, “he means surface hope, and when it disappears, deep hope takes over and the result is not inaction or surrender but total commitment to battle and action.” Several times, the characters in the trilogy speak of there being no hope: after Gandalf falls in Moria, during the long search for Merry and Pippin after the breaking of the fellowship, when Frodo and Sam reach the Black Gate, right before the siege of Gondor, and during the tough slog up Mt. Doom. Yet despite the apparent hopelessness, the characters still fought, still carried out their quests as if they believed in a real possibility of success. In continuing to act despite the apparent pointlessness of acting, they exercised hope – the “hope in action” that the Pope writes about.
Many times during the trilogy, hope amidst despair was rewarded. One example is during the siege of Gondor. The “fool’s hope” that Frodo will finish his quest turned out not to be in vain. The tenacity of the Rohirrim to ride in Gondor’s defence – a ride that seemed to be to nothing more than “ruin and the world’s ending”, to “hope’s end” and to “heart’s breaking”, to “wrath”, “ruin”, and a “red nightfall” – was rewarded with the return of the king, in an emotionally eucatastrophic moment only Tolkien could describe.
So crucial was hope to the salvation of Middle Earth that the strategy of the enemy was to sow despair, as he had deceived Denethor in the palantir with “the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him” which “fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.”
What is that “something” in which the LOTR characters hope? In the movie version, Sam expresses it as all that’s “good in the world” that’s “worth fighting for”. The books are less clear, although they also communicate the existence of an object of hope which the characters know, and not feel, to exist. In one of the most beautiful passages in The Return of the King, where Sam sees the star in Mordor, it is said that “[t]he 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.”
Kreeft further explains, however, that in the end the LOTR characters pin their hopes on persons: on Gandalf, on Frodo, on Aragorn. Aragorn, in particular, personalizes hope. One of his names, “Estel”, means hope. Aragorn is both an object of hope and a model of hope, as many of the incidents in the trilogy showing hope in practice reveal.
As great the deeds of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn were, they could not totally wipe out evil from Middle Earth. As pointed out by Steve Greydanus in his essay on both the films and the books, despite the trilogy’s happy ending, a mood of sadness pervades it, as if lamenting for what has been which could no longer be. Middle Earth is not healed of all its wounds with the destruction of the Ring and the return of the king to Minas Tirith. In fact, in his May 13, 1964 letter to a certain Colin Bailey, Tolkien disclosed that he contemplated, but did not finish, a story set 100 years after the downfall of Mordor entitled The New Shadow, where evil returns to Middle Earth.
This is all consistent with Tolkien’s world view, which saw history as one long defeat with a few glimpses of final victory. Steve Greydanus notes that despite the victories at the end of the trilogy, “in Middle-earth there is still hard work to be done, future shadows to be fought, and, somewhere in the unspecified future, redemption still to be accomplished by the one whose saving work is only remotely echoed in the great deeds of Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn”.
The one perfect object of hope exists not in fantasy but in reality. In Spe Salvi, the pope writes that while “we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day,” “these are not enough without the great hope which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope, not any god, but the God who has a human face and who loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety.”
Our world needs to be inspired to hope, to be told that hope is real, and that that hope is Christ. Catholic thinkers and writers can give this to the world: a vision so grounded on reality that it is filled with hope.