Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

It is Pippin’s cheerfulness that gives courage to Beregond, the soldier of Gondor. It was the kind of cheerfulness that Tolkien met among the soldiers from the villages of England in the trenches of the First World War. On July 1st of this year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme on which 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 40,000 wounded. Tolkien was present at the battle and survived. My great uncle, Tommy Young, was also present and did not survive. I shall think of him especially on that day.

Tolkien received what was known, amongst the soldiers, as a blighty wound during the battle. This was a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation. To receive such a wound was generally regarded as good luck among the soldiers. Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.

It is with this memory that Tolkien begins to describe the preparations for the great battle of The Lord of the Rings at the Pelennor Fields. It may not have been this battle that was to be the decisive action of the story. That was the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the events in the Sammath Naur. But if Minas Tirith had fallen to the armies of Minas Morgul there would have been nowhere to return to for Frodo and Sam.

Pippin’s cheerfulness before the overwhelming might of Mordor reminds us of Sam Gamgee’s reflection at the Black Gate when  it appeared that the journey was at an end. Tolkien tells us that Sam “never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

It is this spirit that enables Sam to bring Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom; that brings Merry and Eowyn to the place in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where they are able to slay the Lord of the Nazgûl; and which enables Pippin to save the life of Faramir in the face of Denethor’s despair and the passivity of his guard. It is not quite the same thing as the great joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf after the encounter with Denethor. Gandalf’s joy is a heavenly thing that Pippin, as yet, can only catch glimpses of; it is the inbreaking of another world into the world that Pippin knows and one that declares that even in the darkest of times the last word belongs to love and to joy and not to darkness. The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty. It takes a quiet pride in maintaining the right kind of face. This is not a kind of dissembling, a deliberate attempt to deceive, unless it is to deceive an enemy, but it is a kind of virtue, most closely akin to fortitude. Perhaps the last time it was seen in British life to a great degree was during the heavy bombing of British cities during the Second World War by the German Luftwaffe, an action that was intended to demoralise the civilian population but which failed to do so. Perhaps it should be noted here that the bombing of German cities proved to be just as ineffective in this regard.

Pippin’s cheerfulness will be needed much in the days that lie ahead for the “darkness has begun”. But it will be no mere whistling in the wind. It will be a source of strength that will enable him to do brave deeds and will prevent the doing of great harm. We will do well to honour this quality and to develop it ourselves.


10 thoughts on “Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

  1. I love Pippin and Sam’s cheer and hope even in hopeless situations. Indeed we need to nurture this quality in ourselves. I have such admiration for the British people in WWII.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

  2. “Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.” I can’t imagine. And I hope I never have to experience.
    The World Wars don’t have the same impact in the psyche of the States that they have in the UK and Europe, and even elsewhere in the world. Not that they don’t have a powerful presence (they do), but they weren’t fought (for the most part) on our turf and they didn’t eat up as much of our population. Despite how long ago it was, our Civil War, at least for the South, still carries more of that shock of devastation, of no family left untouched, and a generation of young men buried. That memory at least gives context, somewhere to begin to understand, the far greater devastation of two successive World Wars. But even so, I can’t quite grasp it. When Lewis speaks, so simply and yet so sadly of the Somme “eating up” most of the young men he went to school with, in Surprised by Joy, it’s like I touch the edge of an abyss.

    “The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty.”
    A truly powerful thing. There seems to be a disconnect in modern “developed” societies. Some… misunderstanding of the above kind of cheerfulness, as if it goes hand-in-hand with naivete rather than being, as it is, one of the most honest acknowledgements of reality possible for humans and by far the most rational way to live.

    • And, of course, it matters where our family roots are. I have been thinking about the battle of Jutland recently, the great naval battle of the First World World War, fought exactly one hundred years years ago, because my grandfather was there as a 16 year old boy sailor. I watched a documentary on it this week and learned that there were many boys like him there and try to remember how I was at that age. I remember him well although I was only in my teens when he died. I made a donation to a woodland being planted in memory of those who were in the battle. It feels like a good way to remember. A woodland will bless future generations.
      I also remember two uncles of my mother, both of whom lost their lives on the western front. She grew up with their faces looking down from the mantelpiece at her and did not know why her grandmother was so sad at Christmas. It was because one of her sons died on Christmas day. I think stories like this go deep into us. I don’t know how deep your roots go into the American South. The little I know of the story of that conflict suggests that the experience has similarities. The one major difference is that I think it matters whether you end a conflict as victor or defeated. Britain emerged from both wars weakened but on the winning side. That means that with the sadness there is also pride. That affects a national psyche.
      What matters most, it seems to me, is the learning of pity. I did not know of the connection, until recently, between Gandalf and Lady Nienna, the Valar who had pity for the peoples of Middle-earth. I wonder if Tolkien here expressed what he learned from his experience of war. If so then my respect for him deepens. His experience did not lead him to bitterness but to pity.
      And finally, Yes! to all that you say about our loss of cheerfulness in the developed world. Who could accuse Sam of naivety? Or Pippin for that matter? Especially after the encounter with the orcs.

      • I love the idea of planting a forest for such a thing. I remember back when I was in a choir, singing “In Flanders Fields” set to music. It was hard to sing without tearing up. It’s hard to process that much bloodshed. And now we’re in the midst of what seems, to me, to be our third World War.
        I’m “half Yankee,” but my mother’s family roots in the South go back before the Revolutionary War. I grew up Southern, but metropolitan. The result is a strong, but not monolithic Southern identity. Like most Americans whose families date back to pre-Civil War, I had ancestors on both sides (there was a lot of literal brother-against-brother, as one would expect from a civil war). Like most Southerners, I don’t consider the conflict to have been a simple matter of good-guys vs bad-guys, either (the rest of the country tends to over-simplify and shrug the conflict off, wondering why the South still cares so much. They forget that defeat leaves deeper scars on the consciousness of a people than victory).
        For the sake of ending the abomination of legal slavery, I am glad the Confederate States were defeated. Very glad. But at the same time, the devastation of that defeat, economically and psychologically, is still with us today. The death toll for Americans in all the other wars we have ever fought, combined, only exceeded the death-toll for our Civil War alone during the Vietnam War. In the South, where it was mostly fought, old buildings (the ones that were not burned down) still have bullet and cannonball scars, and old mansions used as emergency field hospitals have blood-stained floors. And there’s a consciousness of being subjugated and then despised. That anger persists. I wish with all my heart that it had turned to pity instead, but for the most part, there still seems to be anger on one side, and a comfortable self-righteousness on the other, and very few people in the gap between.
        I could be wrong, but it seems like much of the enmity bred by WWII has dissolved in mutual sadness over the overwhelming loss of life. Am I wrong? Or is that fairly accurate, at least from a UK perspective?
        I think it all comes down to the sin of Pride. Wounded pride in the South, and satisfied pride in the North. Maybe Pride is the antithesis of true Pity. Unless we get over ourselves, we aren’t able to look across at our enemies and see the things that link us, whether suffering or joy. I think pride may have had a big role in birthing the second WW from the ashes of the first. I hope and pray another civil war isn’t born from the embers still buried in its ashes.
        “I wonder if Tolkien here expressed what he learned from his experience of war. If so then my respect for him deepens. His experience did not lead him to bitterness but to pity.” I suspect it did. It’s something that always amazed me about Tolkien.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. My own reflections in response to your first comment were very much shaped by the fact that this week will see the first anniversary of the death of my mother. Her story and the story of the times ahead lived through are very much woven together. They are for all of us as you showed in your thoughts.
    The thoughts you share about living with victory and defeat are very helpful. We will live both with the experience of our people and our own experience too. As a young man it mattered to me terribly whether I won or lost. Now I am not sure, at a personal level anyway, whether seeing life through the lens of winning and losing really gets me very far. It struck me, a little while back, that in the charge that Jesus gave to his disciples in Acts 1.8 he talks about faithful living, being a true witness, and not about winning. The true victory is over the power of death in our lives. I could go on at length but I have found James Alison’s work very helpful here. He speaks of an imagination, transformed by Christ, which has nothing to do with death.
    This has, of course, a profound effect upon us individually, but also in our shared experience. I agree with you entirely in what you say about the self-congratulatory attitude of winners and the bitterness of losers. Contrast that to the behaviour of the disciples after they have experienced the might of Roman power allied to the determination of everyone within the Jewish world to rid themselves of a worrying problem.
    Here in Europe it strikes me that the biggest threat related to losing and humiliation comes from Vladimir Putin’s Russia who deeply resent the loss of the Cold War. Of course I should not forget the deep resentment of a section of the Islamic world too about many perceived humiliations. We live in worrying times. Perhaps too we might reflect on the dangers of winning wars!

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