I’ve written at length elsewhere about “hopeless courage” and why the theme of pagan doom makes Lord of the Rings so powerful. But there remains a common perception that Middle-Earth is a hopeful place and its heroes an optimistic lot. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters have this perception, and their film adaptations present a different world-view than the one in Tolkien’s classic.
My conviction is that the “long defeat” (mentioned by Tolkien in letter 195) is the key to understanding the theme of hopelessness which truly pervades Lord of the Rings. What follows is an analysis of the theme of hope in the books and films. The films serve as a control, highlighting by way of contrast what was originally intended by Tolkien, thus enabling us to see how Tolkien’s hopelessness has been translated into Jackson’s hope.
Tolkien: The Books
As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien viewed the history of Middle-Earth, like our own, as a “long defeat”, containing “samples and glimpses of final victory” but never more (letter 195). Heroes like Frodo Baggins are foreordained failures, because “the power of evil in the world is not finally resistable by incarnate creatures, however good” (letter 191). Frodo could not destroy the One Ring, and the quest to Mount Doom was hopeless from the start. The cause, not the hero, was triumphant only because of the euchatastrophe, the sudden and unexpected intervention of fate made possible by the mercy shown Gollum (letter 192). The long defeat is the key to understanding this theme of hopelessness in Lord of the Rings.
B. Hopeless Heroes
The most important statement about hope comes after the Ring’s destruction: “It’s like things are in the world: hopes fail.” (The Field of Cormallen) Frodo recites this as a general proverb, because it’s what the people of Middle-Earth know to be true. Hopes are doomed to fail, even after euchatastrophes. Evil can be resisted but not overcome, and it should be resisted for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. Courage, without the illusion of hope, is what kept Frodo and Sam going as they struggled towards Mount Doom.
Hobbits are quintessentially hopeless heroes. Sam “never had any hope in the quest from the beginning, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope; he had stuck to his master all the way, and he would continue to stick to him” (The Black Gate is Closed). There is something ironically liberating about the idea that since things must turn out badly in the end, they can only be better in the meantime. Later, at the very same place, Pippin laughs as he “dies” from the troll attack, saying to himself, “It ends as I guessed it would” (The Black Gate Opens). As Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey puts it:: “Those who need hope to keep going will fall prey to despair when their hope is ultimately withdrawn. But those like Sam and Pippin who feel from the start that the whole thing is going to be a disaster remain immune, even cheerful, when their expectations are confirmed.” (JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 153). This is why courage and cheer supplant hope as proper pagan virtues.
Examples of heroic hopelessness abound throughout Tolkien’s classic. Aragorn picks up the fallen banner after Gandalf’s fall in Moria without any hope for the quest’s success, rather for the chance of doing at least some good and avenging the wizard (Lothlorien). Treebeard expects that his race will be wiped out in the war against Saruman, a doom which is inevitable anyway (Treebeard). Frodo answers his own rhetorical question in the Dead Marshes by implying that hope for his quest is indeed foolish (The Passage of the Marshes). Faramir undercuts any hope for Gondor’s salvation by opining that the return of Isildur’s heir will only postpone Sauron’s inevitable victory (The Window on the West). He is certain that he will never see Frodo again, since the hobbit’s quest is a “hopeless errand”; yet he sends him off with a blessing anyway (The Forbidden Pool). Gandalf tells Pippin that there never was much hope for Frodo, “just a fool’s hope” (The Siege of Gondor). As Eowyn confronts the Witch-King, Merry realizes that she has come without hope to die on the Pelennor Fields; and her brother Eomer evokes apocalyptic doom when he cries for the world’s end and the death of everyone before charging back into battle (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields). When Frodo and Sam encounter enemy camps in the Morgai Vale, their expectations are simply confirmed: “It’s no worse than I expected,” says Frodo. “I never hoped to get across. I can’t see any hope of it now. But I’ve still got to do the best I can.” (The Land of Shadow).
C. Immortals, Elves, Wizards
Hope is shunned as a rule in pagan Middle-Earth, but it’s occasionally invoked by the immortals as a caution against seeing the end beyond all doubt. Elrond says that an attempt to destroy the Ring is the only hopeful option available, even knowing this really isn’t hopeful (“if hope it be”) (The Council of Elrond). Galadriel tells the fellowship that hope remains while the company is true, but Boromir fails the criterion. To say that the quest “stands upon the edge of a knife” indicates the precarious nature of this hope (The Mirror of Galadriel). Gandalf speaks of hope for the Ringbearer’s quest while undercutting it with doubts about victory, emphasizing in the end that “Black is mightier than White” (as in ancient pagan traditions, evil is more powerful than good and should be ultimately victorious) (The White Rider). His later warning to Theoden (“doom hangs on a thread”) is as ominous as Galadriel’s, though he too allows a measure of hope in the Ringbearer’s quest while qualifying it at every turn: hope lies east, but so does fear; hope remains, but only if the free peoples stay unconquered (The King of the Golden Hall). Arwen invokes Aragorn’s elvish name (Estel: Hope) ironically, goading him to take the Paths of the Dead, saying, in effect, that he has nothing to lose by attempting the impossible (The Passing of the Grey Company). In these cases hope is not entirely foolish — as long as one doesn’t hope “too much”, and only under the right conditions — but neither is it a virtue, and it is reserved for those who have enough wisdom to pronounce on the matter.
D. Exceptions Proving the Rule
Only on one occasion does hope appear reliably positive in Lord of the Rings, at the moment when Sam fixates on a star in the Morgai Vale. Here he succumbs to a moment of “pure” hope. In seeming contradiction to everything discussed above, evil is but a “passing thing”, and good can be counted on to prevail in the end (The Land of Shadow). Perhaps being overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst place on earth calls forth desperate optimism against the conventions of ordinary wisdom; it’s almost as though Sam has had an epiphany. Tolkien may have intended this as a pious anticipation of the distant future (Christ’s victory) through which death and evil would finally be defeated. Sam’s hope is not so much for Frodo’s quest in particular, but for a radical change which will someday break the cycle of the world’s endless suffering. It anticipates the end of the long defeat, or the final Judeo-Christian victory. Sam’s star of hope is thus the exception which proves the rule: that hope is indeed foolish in pre-Christian Middle-Earth.
Aragorn’s moniker (his elvish name), Estel (Hope), is a different kind of exception, proving the rule through irony and paradox. Aragorn is “sad and stern because of the doom laid on him, and yet hope dwelt in the depths of his heart” (Appendix A) — the inverse of hobbits like Sam, who “because of cheer need no hope”. Aragorn is the fool’s hope who must embrace that which is taboo and make it work. Such is his doom, to be hopeful, yet in the darkest hour he will need to transcend hope by relinquishing it. This is what happens at The Last Debate, where Gandalf declares (in agreement with Denethor) that a military expedition against Sauron is completely hopeless. All it can do is buy Frodo time and give the hobbit a “frail chance” of getting to Mount Doom. Aragorn agrees that things have become so bad that “hope and despair are akin”: they can no longer be distinguished from each other. The army of the west must give up hope or despair. Aragorn, Estel, has no hope for a military victory, yet he must lead his army straight into Mordor’s jaws. The people of Gondor must accept him as their hope only to relinquish it.
In Christian usage, hope is a confident though uncertain trust that good will triumph over evil. It is clear from the above analysis that such hope is foreign to the people of Middle-Earth. The way of things in this world is that hopes fail (says Frodo), while courage and cheer suffice in putting off the evil day. Aside from two exceptions which prove the rule (Sam’s star, Aragorn’s moniker), the protagonists of Lord of the Rings remain devoid of what Tolkien knew to be a theological virtue. Like lambs led to slaughter, they are pagan souls who sacrifice everything for the sake of friendship and goodness, without hope of victory, yet convinced that evil must be resisted. Hopeless quests suggest heroes who are able to attain a nobility of character unparalleled in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Tolkien admired such heroes, even if he was irrevocably Catholic and continued hoping for the triumph of good at the end of human history.
Peter Jackson: The Films
Irony confronts us when we turn to Peter Jackson’s films. Tolkien was a Christian who cherished hope as a virtue, but Middle-Earth is an essentially hopeless place. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters (Boyens and Walsh) seem to share more in common with pagan souls, yet they went out of their way to “optimize” Middle-Earth. The films are much more hopeful than the books, perhaps catering to the postmodern needs of today’s audiences.
B. Where Credit is Due
Credit must be given for adaptations which remain true to Tolkien’s vision, even if they don’t derive from the text. Galadriel’s “edge of a knife warning” is pure Tolkien. Boromir’s line to Aragorn — “it is long since we had any hope” — comes from Tolkien’s Faramir, who spells out his thoughts more clearly to Frodo: “It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think that it will do more than put off the evil day.” It would have been nice to hear all of this from Boromir to get the full idea that Gondor is ultimately doomed, whether now or later. Galadriel’s telepathic communication to Elrond evokes Tolkienesque doom: “In his heart Frodo begins to understand the quest will claim his life. You know this; you have foreseen it.” Gandalf tells Pippin that there is only “a fool’s hope” for Frodo, just as Tolkien wrote him. The exchange between Elrond and Aragorn is reworked from Gilraen’s linnod: the immortal elf “gives hope to men”, while the mortal king “keeps none for himself”. This license is at least somewhat, though not precisely, consistent with Tolkien’s standards, since immortals occasionally counsel hope while mortals eschew such foolishness. (The problem is that in Aragorn’s case, he is not supposed to eschew his own doom.) At Dunharrow Gamling says, “We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor”, to which Theoden suitably agrees, “No we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless”. His “ride for ruin!” cry is well adapted from Eomer. At the Last Debate, the roles of Gandalf and Aragorn reverse from the book, but the essentials remain the same: one character allows an ambiguous measure of hope for Frodo at the expense of the army of the west, for which there is none. Gimli’s attitude says it all: “Certainty of death, small chance of success…what are we waiting for?” Finally, Sam’s star of hope is well used on the plains of Gorgoroth. The problem is that this epiphany is supposed to be an exception to a hopeless rule. We are about to see that hope has become the rule in Jackson’s Middle-Earth.
C. Cutting Against the Grain: Facile Optimism
Most of Jackson’s (Boyen’s/Walsh’s) adaptations cut against the grain of Tolkien’s vision, offering facile optimism. Boromir tells Frodo in Lothlorien that “Gandalf’s death was not in vain, nor would he have you give up hope”. Tolkien’s Aragorn said it better outside Moria: “Farewell Gandalf! What hope have we without you? We must do without hope. At least we may yet be avenged.” Jackson’s Aragorn has a howler at Helm’s Deep, where he tells the young Haleth that “there is always hope”. Always hope? The idea that hope springs eternal is an alien intrusion in Tolkien’s world. It’s true that Aragorn has a moniker to live up to (his doom), but he’s never so facile in the books to believe that there is “always” hope in general.
Gandalf too has become a facile optimist. Aside from the “fool’s hope” remark to Pippin (acknowledged above), his wisdom generally conflicts with that of Tolkien’s wizard. One scene from each film will illustrate the point.
(1) Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf advises Elrond that “it is men that we must place our hope”, to which Elrond rightly retorts that “men are weak”. Tolkien would have said the same. The Fourth Age became so hopeless and depressing that Tolkien gave up writing a story about it. The people of Gondor became “like Denethor or worse” (letter 256), and beings like Sauron were no longer necessary to bring out the worst in them. As Tolkien critic Greg Wright observes, the Age of Men “is not the age of men’s glory; that was in the past, the glory of the Numenoreans; some of that glory still exists in the person of Aragorn, but he is an exception, a mere reminder of the glory of the past, not a promise of the glory of the future” (Tolkien in Perspective, p 135). Jackson’s Elrond is quite correct in lamenting, “The blood of Numenor is spent, its pride and dignity forgotten”, even if Aragorn has a role to fulfil despite this.
(2) Two Towers After the battle of Helm’s Deep, Gandalf states without ambiguity, “All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits somewhere in the wilderness.” In the book his ominous remarks in Fangorn and at Edoras are not so optimistically one-sided; Tolkien’s Gandalf is always careful to court doom and ambiguity in equal measure: hope lies in the east, but so does fear; Black is mightier than White; etc. The same is true at the Last Debate, where he allows only a “frail” hope for the Ringbearer in relation to the complete absence of hope for the army of the west. But in the film, his unqualified remark at Helm’s Deep translates shady hope (or ambiguous hope) into the robust hope of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
(3) Return of the King The most aggressive example of Gandalf’s facile optimism is seen in the “death and distant shores” scene (cribbed from Tolkien’s Grey Havens), where the wizard feeds Pippin delusions: “Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, all turns to silver glass, and then you see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” The problem is that many people in Middle-Earth do not die (the elves), and it is precisely these immortals who go to Valinor. Mortals like Pippin will never see the white shores of Aman. This scene is an extreme violation of Tolkien’s mythology — all the more disappointing for being elegantly acted by Ian McKellan and Billy Boyd — promising mortals something they will not obtain.
Sam is another facile optimist, given disappointing revisions at Osgiliath and the Cross-roads:
(1) The Tales That Really Matter The Osgiliath monologue goes contrary to what Tolkien presented on the stair of Cirith Ungol:
Book: “The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo…the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them. I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you.”
Film: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered… the ones that stayed with you… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something…that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Cliches about the “good in this world worth fighting for” are out of place in Middle-Earth. Whatever happened to the heroes who “just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you?”
(2) There and Back Again Related to the Osgiliath blunder is Sam’s “there and back again” remark at the Cross-roads. The quest to Mount Doom is certainly not an expedition like Bilbo’s, and in the book Sam distinguishes between swashbuckling adventures and the hopeless missions of Beren and Frodo. “There and back again” undermines Tolkien’s theme of hopeless courage, which is supposed to be about carrying on simply because it’s the right thing to do, without the illusion of hope for a successful outcome, let alone a return journey. As if this error wasn’t bad enough, the roles reverse on the plains of Gorgoroth, where Frodo laments no water for a return journey, and Sam — who for whatever reason has come to his senses — believes that there will now be no return journey. In the books neither Frodo nor Sam entertains hope for a return journey after Frodo puts the idea to rest in the Dead Marshes.
The ironic result of the above two scenes is that Sam’s “star of hope” in Mordor (itself well used, acknowledged above) becomes somewhat trivial. Tolkien’s star is powerful precisely on account of it being exceptional: everything is otherwise hopeless. But with Osgiliath enthusiasm and “there and back again” optimism in place, the star becomes redundant.
I’m a fan of Peter Jackson’s films, but I do object to certain liberties he took with Tolkien’s text, not least in the way he treated the theme of hope. While rightly emphasizing the weakness of men, he undercut this (compensated for it?) with a level of optimism that damages Tolkien’s meaning. To be fair, he remained true to the euchatastrophe — where Frodo is most likely trying to get the Ring back, not save Middle-Earth by pushing Gollum over the edge — thereby preserving the role of fate (Eru) as the victor. But on the whole his interpretation of Lord of the Rings offers too much light at the end of the tunnel, light which can be reached by the power of courageous effort. In Tolkien’s story the light is so remote it cannot be seen, only glimpsed fleetingly when a higher power intervenes. In Tolkien’s story courage is noble but hopeless, and hope itself is foolish.
Some Last Thoughts…
Tolkien intended his classic story to be “consonant with Christian thought and belief” (letter 269), but he made clear that the actual appearance or presence of the Christian myth in his work would be “fatal” (letter 131). The story is pagan, but pre-Christian pagan, anticipating Christianity without encompassing it. In an online interview with Claire White, Tom Shippey states:
“There is almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in Lord of the Rings … Middle-Earth demonstrates the need for Christianity, without which the whole of history will only be the long defeat.”
This would indeed appear to square with Tolkien’s intent in creating a mythic pre-history to our own. The many Tolkien scholars who analyze Lord of the Rings in terms of Christian belief puzzle me; and even among those who argue for a predominantly pagan Middle-Earth, only Greg Wright (to my knowledge) gives proper heavy weight to the long defeat theme.
Post-script: For the last couple of years I’ve been inclined to see a parallel between the way Tolkien uses the character of Sam and the way the apostle Paul uses the figure of Abraham. One is an exception to a hopeless rule in a pagan era, the other an exception to a faithless rule in a Judaic one. Philip Esler’s Conflict and Identity in Romans, in its treatment of Rom 4 and 9-11 in terms of “salvation history”, has convinced me of this nearly beyond doubt. But that will be the subject of a post to come at a later date.