(I recently received a comment on my post Tuor, Gondolin, and Our Life Mission that said the following:)
(My reply got a little long…so here is my open response to Sam – )
Hey Sam, thanks for the comment! I have been thinking about the question you posed, and here are some of my thoughts:
It’s true that Tolkien wrote many stories that contain lots of tragedy. I mean, he really puts his characters through the ringer:
- Frodo never really recovers
- Theoden’s son dies (and then he dies)
- Turin’s life is basically a study of how much one dude can suffer
- And literally everything bad happens to Elrond (ask me about it sometime)
Grander events in Middle Earth are also tragic: the elves are in decline and leaving Middle Earth, the great stories of the past are being forgotten, grand cities and nations and peoples are destroyed. Evil empires wage war against peace-loving peoples.
Evil seems to win a lot.
I don’t think this was just Tolkien being ~dark~ and ~brooding~. I think he did this on purpose. Life is often very tragic, no matter how you look at it. Sam, you’re a Christian – just look at the lives of Christ and His Apostles! Bad things happen all the time to good and bad people. This is no secret. This is something humanity has been dealing with since before Day 1.
BUT (and this is a big but) – that’s not all that is going on. Evil is not the only force at work.
In Tolkien’s stories (and in life), there are people fighting for Good. There are the Tuors, the Gandalfs, the Galadriels, the Aragorns and Faramirs, and groups of hobbits like Frodo, Sam and Bilbo. There are heroic deeds done by ordinary, small people every day that keep the darkness at bay. Not completely, because the battlefield is always shifting. But Good is working and fighting and winning on its own too.
It’s like that moment in Mordor when Sam looks up in the black sky and catches a glimpse of the stars. One could say the stars are small in comparison to the darkness, but that is not what Sam sees. He sees light – and hope – shining despite the the darkness, and that gives him the strength to carry on. There is light in the darkness – in fact, the darkness makes the light even brighter!
Tolkien had this idea of the “eu-catastrophe”. When we use the word catastrophe, we mean things were good until something horribly bad happens out of the blue and changes everything! But Tolkien believed that the opposite principle also occured – things could be going horribly bad, but then something wonderful happens all at once and changes everything! Eu = “good” – a “eucatastrophe” is a fortunate accident.
It was a fortunate accident that Bilbo stumbles upon the ring in the Misty Mountains. That Gandalf always shows up at just the right moment. That Eowyn takes down the Witch King of Angmar. That the Eagles always save the day.
The truth of the matter is that there is a Good Force at work in the world. People call it many things, but you and I would call Him God. This is a fallen world, so yes bad things happen. But this is also the Creator’s grand plan and divine work, so He is really running the show.
And how does he do that? Partly through eucatastrophe, but also through another act. And Somehow, God makes bad things weirdly lead to good things. He does this all the time – He takes mistakes that people make, or awful disasters, etc, and he makes something good come of it, as paradoxical as that is. That’s the definition of miracle if I ever heard one.
In Tolkien’s stories, a good example is the figure of Gollum. He is a malicious character with a tragic life, and in the end he gives in completely to the power of the ring. Yet somehow, that leads directly to the ring’s destruction. If Gollum had not bitten off Frodo’s finger to get the ring from him in the heart of Mount Doom, the ring would not have been destroyed. The grand plan would have failed. This character does something hurtful and greedy and evil, and yet that leads to the greatest eucatastrophe in the Lord of the Rings:
The ring and Sauron are destroyed, and peace is restored to Middle Earth.
To me, Tolkien’s stories are ultimately about Hope. Don’t be fooled by how hope is often discussed in his works. He’ll have characters say “There is no hope”, “Hope has run out”, and other such statements, but he meant the idea of optimism. A cheery attitude just isn’t appropriate for a lot of the situations his characters land in. Frodo can hardly have a positive outlook as he drags himself up the slopes of Mount Doom in Mordor. He doesn’t even think he’ll make it – none of them do! But Frodo keeps going: because he has hope, in its most fundamental sense.
Hope is important because it is trust in goodness despite the darkness. It’s looking to the stars and seeing the beauty and the light shining out, and being heartened by it. It’s experiencing the tragic things of the world, and staying the course all the same. And when hope seems to run out, it’s about doing good even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when you don’t feel like it.
Tolkien’s stories are about characters who do just that. Frodo, Gandalf, Elrond, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Aragorn, Faramir, etc – they all keep going and doing the right thing, even when they don’t see any possibility that things will work out well.
And that’s Tolkien’s implicit charge to all of us – and why his works make me feel hopeful and uplifted. He’s saying, through these characters and the tragedies they experience:
Do what’s right. Keep going. Look to the stars. Trust in Goodness. There’s no guarantee that things will work out (though they often do somehow), but there is a promise that if you do those things, then the tragedies will shrink to the background. They will be lessened. Evil’s day will end. The sun will rise.