There is Naught That You Can Do, Other Than to Resist, With Hope or Without It. A Reflection on Hope and Courage in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-236

Last week we thought about the story that Gloín of the Lonely Mountain brought to the Council of Elrond, of how the Messenger from Mordor had offered the friendship of Sauron and Rings of Power in return for news of hobbits. Gloín has come to Rivendell in order to warn Bilbo that the Dark Lord seeks for him and to seek counsel. How should they answer the Messenger when he returns before the ending of the year?

Elrond’s reply is courteous but blunt.

“You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it.”

The theme chosen for this year’s Tolkien Reading Day which takes place every year upon the 25th March the date upon which the Ring went to the Fire and Sauron fell into nothingness is Hope and Courage. Those who have read The Lord of the Rings with care will know that Hope is a major theme throughout the story but that it is never addressed with anything like naive simplicity. In fact there is little naivety in Tolkien’s great tale. Those who do resist the Enemy do so with a clear eyed certainty that there is little chance that they will succeed.

When Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli decide to follow the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin captive, Aragorn speaks for all three of them when he says: “With hope or without hope we will follow the trail of our enemies.”

Alan Lee imagines the pursuit across the plains of Rohan

Denethor of Gondor dismisses the mission of Frodo and Sam with contempt and fury. To him Frodo is nothing more than “a witless halfling” and the mission nothing more than “a fool’s hope”.

A Fool’s Hope!

And here at the Council of Elrond Gloín is offered no more counsel than to resist, “with hope or without it”. In other words we can find no evidence that any of the major characters in the story have hope in the sense of “hoping for the best”, that general optimism that keeps us going even when we are at our lowest ebb. It is not that this kind of hopefulness has no value. It does give to those who manage to maintain it a cheerfulness and courage that might otherwise be lost. In The Lord of the Rings the characters who manage to maintain this kind of cheerfulness the best are Sam Gamgee and then Merry and Pippin and far from this quality being held with contempt by their companions it is generally appreciated. It keeps their friends from falling into despair. So it is that Théoden keeps Merry close by him on the journey between Isengard and Dunharrow and even Denethor is pleased to have Pippin close by as he awaits what he is convinced will be his end. And without Sam’s cheerfulness and optimism there is little doubt that Frodo would have got very far. And he acknowledges this himself. When Sam imagines Frodo’s story written in a book Frodo response is to laugh without restraint and then to say: “I want to hear more about Sam… Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he?”

Frodo Wouldn’t Have Got Very Far Without Sam

But in the end each character in the story has to give up hope in this optimistic sense, even Sam, but none of them give way to despair. Not one of them, even Boromir after his fall, gives death and darkness their hopeless triumph. Without hope they keep on going, their courage coming simply from a determination to maintain their loyalty to one another and to do the good. In this sense their hope lies, not in a sense that a particular set of events will win out over darkness but in a belief that the good, the beautiful and the true are worthy of the sacrifice of our lives even if in that sacrifice we do no more than to declare their worthiness in their destruction. And this belief is the greatest kind of hope of all.

12 thoughts on “There is Naught That You Can Do, Other Than to Resist, With Hope or Without It. A Reflection on Hope and Courage in The Lord of the Rings.

  1. Beautifully written, Stephen! I love how you discuss several facets of hope here. There are indeed various kinds of it, displayed differently and rooted at different levels. Elves have the concept of estel — the kind of hope that no matter how many troubles befall the world, its Creator will not allow anything bad happen to it and His designs are always for the good of the world. Finrod said that estel “is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

    • I love your quote of Finrod! And thank you for your thoughts about Estel and the Elves. I really appreciate your knowledge of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is far greater than my own. When I set out to start blogging about The Lord of the Rings nearly ten years ago now I based my decision simply on the fact that I had been reading it for about 40 years. I am so grateful to people like yourself who have deepened my knowledge of Tolkien’s thought so much.
      Could you please let me know where the Finrod quote comes from?

      • It’s my pleasure, sir! There’s still so much to learn and understand for me from Tolkien’s writings as my experience of reading them is not as long as yours. Life experience and years do help to see the depths of the Professor’s books better. That is something you show truly spectacularly in your blog, and I am grateful for that!
        These words are from Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth — The conversation between Finrod and Andreth. It’s ever so deep and philosophical. This piece was published in Morgoth’s Ring, Volume 10 of The History of Middle-earth.

      • Thank you, Olga! It was thanks to you that I bought a copy of Morgoth’s Ring. I have a few days off just after Easter (in the Western Calendar!) and I will use them in part to read that part of the book. It looks so important.

      • I do hope you enjoy it! This volume has so much to offer in terms of insights into the world of Arda. Please, let me know what you think of it when you have a chance to read it.

  2. I like how you said, “[I]n the end each character has to give up hope in this optimistic sense.” Yet they do not truly give up because their hope lies in the “belief that the good, the beautiful and the true are worthy of the sacrifice of their lives.” Letting go of optimistic hope revealed a deeper, more valuable hope.

    • I agree with you so much here, Nicole, and of course I am thinking about my own life here. I realise that as I grow older it is too easy to slide into the kind of pessimism that Denethor displays and which leads ultimately to his despair and apostasy (the pagan funeral pyre). I no longer have the optimism of my youth about this or that particular kind of outcome but I am determined to replace it with something deeper. I tell the elders in my congregations that it is their task to teach me how to grow old well. The look on their faces tells me that this is a completely new thought to them. That they have this particular gift to offer.

  3. Has we put aside our own hopes and desires and exchange them for His plans for our lives we are sure to find hope and purpose in what we do.
    For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

    • I agree with your thoughts here entirely! I am reading Jeremiah each day at the moment and it has never struck me so much as now that this verse is addressed to the exiles in Babylon and that their first task before being able to receive this message of hope is to embrace what has happened to them, to build homes and raise families in a strange land, or as Jesus puts it in John’s gospel, to fall into the earth and die.

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