The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 652,653
The moment is about to come when Gandalf will lead Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to Edoras and to Meduseld, Théoden’s golden hall in the realm of Rohan. At that moment the story will leap forward once again even as Gandalf and the three companions leap forward borne by Shadowfax and the horses that ran from the camp on the night before Aragorn and his friends entered Fangorn. But just before this great leap there has been a pause, a drawing of breath, as Gandalf speaks of how things stand at this point in the story. And there is also the conclusion of a theme that has run through the story ever since he fell in Moria in the battle at the bridge of Khazad-dûm.
Aragorn speaks to his grief-stricken companions.
It was Aragorn who spoke then to his grief-stricken companions.
“Farewell, Gandalf!” he cried. “Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?”
And then he added words that would both drive him on yet hang around his neck like the mariner’s albatross in Coleridge’s great poem:
“We must do without hope,” he said. “At least we may be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do.”
To do without hope. To carry on without any sense that at the end of the long road there will be a completion of the taskdone. To carry on because that is what must be done and for no other reason.
And step by step, from the emergence of the Fellowship from the dark of Moria “beyond hope under the sky” until the reunion “beyond all hope” in the forest of Fangorn Aragorn has journeyed hopelessly.
Now hope is restored. Surely with Gandalf beside them once more there is hope they will triumph. But Gandalf speaks once again of their hope of victory.
“I have spoken words of hope. But only of hope. Hope is not victory. War is upon us and all our friends, a war in which only the use of the Ring could give us surety of victory. It fills me with great sorrow and great fear: for much shall be destroyed and all may be lost. I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still.”
I am Gandalf the White but Black is Mightier Yet.
To follow a road hopelessly is a courageous act for it is to do what must be done simply because the deed is right and not for any sense that a reward of some kind might lie at the road’s ending. We might compare the way in which Aragorn and his companions journey onward from Moria to the journey that Thorin Oakenshield and his company make to the Lonely Mountain in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. There, we might say, a part of what sustains hope upon the journey is simply not to think too much about its end, upon the dragon that must be faced and overcome. The dwarves and their hobbit companion go from obstacle to obstacle thinking of nothing more than how to deal with each one as it comes until at the secret door into the mountain Thorin informs Bilbo that the time has come for him to do his job without any sense of how this is to be accomplished. Hope of treasure certainly drives them forward but in another sense they also travel without hope because hope of success lies too close to fear of failure and death in the flames of Smaug. It is best not to think either of success or failure.
Aragorn has also put aside all thoughts of triumph or disaster, only focusing on whether the deed is just or not. But now Gandalf is returned and his hope rekindled. Gandalf does not counsel that they should do without hope. Indeed he tells Legolas that he should go “where he must go and hope”. But he warns them that hope is not victory.
I am reminded of the grim and rather frightening deputy head at my school who, when he would lead prayers at the start of the day, would do so with these words of St Ignatius Loyola. They seem to have been written in very much the same spirit that Gandalf displays here.
“Lord Jesus, teach us to serve you as you deserve. To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to labour and not to seek for rest, to give and not to seek for any reward save that of knowing that we do your will.”
To labour and not to seek for rest. Yonatan Ayala depicts the labour of the three hunters in their journey across the plains of Rohan.