The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

A few days after the great battle the armies of the West gather once more upon the Pelennor Fields in order to march towards the Morannon, the same Black Gate that Frodo and Sam saw upon their journey to Mordor and realised was impossible to enter. Tolkien describes the march as a “hopeless journey”, one that must end in inevitable defeat and death, and this begins to weigh upon the hearts of the young soldiers.

For those who have lived their lives in the far provinces of Gondor and of Rohan, Mordor has been but a name only, albeit a dark and fearful one, now it is a living nightmare that is beyond their comprehension. Aragorn treats them with mercy, allowing them to withdraw and to fulfil a mission that they can comprehend. They are to recapture the island of Cair Andros that lies within the waters of the Anduin.

The rest of the army continue and so reach the impregnable defences of the Dark Land. There they encounter the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr who plays a game of negotiation while torturing them by presenting to them items taken from Frodo when the guard of Cirith Ungol found him by the road leading from Shelob’s Lair. A coat, a cloak and a sword.

A hopeless journey ends in a hopeless battle as the full might of Mordor and its allies breaks upon the small brave army arranged upon two hills before the gate. Peregrin Took, now truly the “valiant man” that Gandalf presented to the defenders of Minas Tirith just a few short days before, falls beneath the vast body of a Troll that he has just slain in defence of Beregond, his friend. Even though the last words that he hears before he slips out of consciousness are that “The Eagles are coming!” Pippin is sure that his story is come to an end and so too is the story of all that he cares about.

How do we keep going without hope? Tolkien often returns to this question in The Lord of the Rings. It was a major theme in the story of the pursuit of the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin at the Falls of Rauros when the Fellowship was broken. Aragorn knows that he is likely to fail in his attempt and so all that he has hoped for through his life will fail too. The hope that he has nourished that he will restore the honour and the fortunes of his people, the Dunedain of the West, a hope that is enshrined in the very name his mother gave to him, Estel, as she lay dying; the hope that he will restore the kingdom of Gondor; and the hope that he will win the hand of Arwen in marriage, all this is lain down in a task that is impossible.

At all points within the story hope is understood as something greater than simply that what a particular character is trying to achieve will be successful. Success, of course, is desired, but it is not the thing that is most important. Even the destruction of the Ring itself is not the thing that matters most. When we return to the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor we will come to a moment when Sam glimpses a star, perhaps the Silmaril in the heavens that is beyond the grasp of Sauron. And as he sees it he understands that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This is the difference, Sam understands, between hope and defiance. Defiance is brave and we saw it when we thought about Éomer preparing for a good death in battle before Minas Tirith. Hope goes far deeper and knows that there is a reality that is far greater than my part in the story and yet, somehow, will include us too in a way far beyond our comprehension but not beyond our love.

The journey is hopeless in so far as there is no expectation of a successful end to it. But true hope goes deeper than expectation. It is grounded in love for that which is highest and that enables us to keep going until the end.


15 thoughts on “The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

    • Hi, Tim, I am glad to give due acknowledgement to this piece of art work and apologise to anyone concerned for not doing it before.
      The piece was the prize winner in an art competition sponsored by back in 2002 for the 20 years old and older age group. The title is The Black Gate Opens and the artist is Kev Crossley. I chose it because it creates the impression of being overwhelmed by evil as it pours out of the Dark Land. It seemed to fit the theme of what I was trying to write about.

      It can be found at:

  1. I find the decision to march to the Morannon feels very stirring, but also very alien – heroism without hope of personal advantage is so against virtually every instinct I have. I love it, but it seems too far above me.

    And at the same time, it makes me think of the idea of ‘living by faith and not by sight’ – that sometimes the ridiculous or foolish option is somehow the Kingdom one. There is a Mother Angelica quote which says, ‘Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.’ Denethor recognised how ridiculous it was to send Frodo and Sam to Mordor, and despaired, rather than seeing that sometimes the foolish-looking option is the wisest and best.

    Side-thought: Growing up listening to the BBC dramatisation, I always loved the little wobble in the voice of Gandalf (Michael Hordern) as he says Frodo’s name (here: in the Last Debate. He’s pinning his hopes of defeating overwhelming might, power, numbers, and strength on the feeble chances of a frail hobbit, and he knows it.

    • Thank you so much for the quote from Mother Angelica. I want to write one last post on Book 5 of The Lord of the Rings before returning to Frodo and Sam in Mordor and I was going to pose her statement as a question, largely because, like you I do not feel that my faith is in the same league as this. Hopefully you will be willing to offer your thoughts next week too.

  2. This battle has always been interesting (it is after all a major turning point in the larger battle for Middle Earth – and one of the last.) I enjoyed your insight on it. Reblog ahead!

    • Great to have you back after a little while. I hope all is well with you and your family. Many thanks for the reblog. I really appreciate it.
      There will be one big difference between the way I deal with the battle at the Black Gate from the way Peter Jackson deals with it and that is that because I am following Tolkien’s book it will be quite a while before I get back to the battle again. That will be pretty tough for Pippin who is lying under a troll chieftain! I look forward to hearing from you again.

  3. I love this post and the art! Going on without hope, going on simply out of love for one person as does Sam, for strangers as the soldiers do at the Black Gate, and for all Middle-earth as Frodo does is so inspiring. Love Mother’s Angelica’s quote – indeed so true. Looking forward to returning to Frodo and Sam!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • How beautifully you link those three acts of loving sacrifice! In a way it is the men who fight at the Black Gate who are the most surprising. They know so little of the story . Tolkien shows how it must have been for so many when he speaks of those who have come from the Westfold of Rohan and from Lebennin in Gondor and for whom the whole thing is a living nightmare. But most men are in search of a captain to follow, a father to look up to, at least in their earlier years. In Aragorn they find such a captain which is why, when Peter Jackson’s films were released at the beginning of the century, so many wanted to vote for Aragorn as President. They saw in him what a true captain looks like and how rarely we seem to find them.
      Once again, thank you, Anne Marie, and God bless you.

  4. Really nice take on the situation. This attitude hits on a level that few other writers are capable of. A hope for good to prevail that is neutral to personal gain is something I really wish our leaders had even just a little bit of. Tolkien himself had a quote on our leadership that, to this day I have never heard a more true and contemporarily pertinent – “The most improper job of any man, even saints, is the bossing of other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, least of all those who seek the opportunity”. I’m sure you’ve heard it a trillion times, but man is that the truth.

    • Hi Kevin. Thank you so much for your comment. I did not know that quotation of Tolkien’s so thank you for it. I agree with it entirely. Tolkien’s great leaders are servants of their people who are ready to lay down their lives for them. It’s as simple as that.

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