Frodo Teaches Us about Strength in Times of Darkness

If hope means to have some expectation that things will turn out well for the one who hopes then Frodo has little of it. He does not expect that he will survive his mission. When he awakens at dusk in the foul pit in which he, Sam and Gollum have been sheltering he prepares to go to the Black Gate of Mordor with no plan of how to get past it but only a clear sense of where his duty lies. He must do what the Council has asked of him. He must do all in his power to take the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom and there unmake it. If he has hope then it must mean that he believes that what he seeks to do has meaning even if he fails and perishes in the attempt and the Ring returns to the hand of its master and maker, the Dark Lord.

During his journey across the Dead Marshes the Ring has become a terrible burden to Frodo in his body, mind and spirit, and he has often lagged behind his companions, but when he awakens in the pit Tolkien tells us:

“Strangely enough, Frodo felt refreshed. He had been dreaming. The dark shadow had passed, and a fair vision had visited him in this land of disease. Nothing remained of it in his memory, yet because of it he felt glad and lighter of heart. His burden was less heavy on him.”

Others have spoken of such an experience; that when they have no strength left to endure a great burden they receive strength to carry on from a source they may not be aware of. In his reflection on his experience in the Nazi death camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes of the power that hope gave him to survive. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”, he says. The German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent the last two years of his life as a prisoner of the Nazis as they sought to uncover his part in the Resistance. After time in the Tegel military prison in relatively tolerable conditions he was eventually sent to Gestapo headquarters in Prinz Albrecht Strasse where he was tortured. He was given permission to write a letter to his parents at Christmas 1944 and enclosed a poem that he wrote and which is still sung as a hymn in German churches.

“With every power for good to stay and guide me,/ comforted and inspired beyond all fear” the poem begins and it ends with the words, “While all the powers of good aid and attend us,/ boldly we’ll face the future come what may./ At even and at morn God will befriend us,/and oh most surely on each newborn day!”

Bonhoeffer describes his own experience of receiving strength to endure the unendurable here and reports from reliable witnesses tell us that he continued in that way right until his execution in Flossenburg concentration camp just a few days before the ending of the war. So we learn that if we too live in hope that our actions for good have meaning, even in the face of death, then we will receive strength to endure, perhaps most especially at the darkest times.

On Learning to Receive Good News

It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.

The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.

And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.

He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.