J.R.R. Tolkien and the Discipline of Hope
- Dr. Stanley J. Ward
- 2012 12 Dec
J. R. R. Tolkien's childhood was less than ideal:
- Born in 1892 in South Africa, J.R.R. Tolkien's father died in 1896 when Tolkien was only four years old.
- As a response, Tolkien's mother moved J.R.R. and his younger brother to England to be near family, and in 1900 his mother converted to Roman Catholicism, estranging her from the rest of her family.
- Two years later, Tolkien's mother died, and Tolkien and his younger brother became dependent on the intercession and partial support of a Roman Catholic priest for their boarding and education.
This is one of the reasons I respect Tolkien so much. In spite of our modern cultural expectations that one must grow up in an idyllic setting, Tolkien demonstrated it is possible to have a dark childhood and yet still possess a remarkable and life-affirming imagination. Yet one must wonder, how could someone who had experienced such loss create an idyllic place like the Shire?
I believe Tolkien’s Christian worldview made the difference. That worldview equipped him to have the discipline of hope. To borrow from the apostle Paul:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
I am convinced that one of Tolkien’s greatest gifts to his readers is not the myths of Numenor, the language of the elves, or the post-dinner song of the dwarves (as impressive as all these things may be). Rather, his greatest gift is an example of the discipline of hope in the midst of overwhelming odds.
HOPE IN THE MIDST OF “HOPELESS” SITUATIONS
Life can be scary. Since our lives are like stories, they also include settings, conflicts, and resolutions. Sometimes those conflicts require us to have tremendous courage, exhibiting the discipline of hope. Otherwise, we despair and never overcome. What is fascinating about this discipline in The Lord of the Rings is who sets the clearest example.
Tolkien does not explicitly use Bilbo or Frodo Baggins, but rather, their unassuming companion Samwise Gamgee. The first time I started thinking about hope as a discipline was when reading the Lord of the Rings. In particular, this exchange between Sam and Frodo struck me:
Sam: It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.
Let me suggest that Sam is an easily under-appreciated character. For much of the story he is a humorous character and certainly a loyal friend, but when things become desperate his character becomes truly heroic. Even though I have read The Lord of the Rings multiple times, I still get a lump in the back of my throat when watching Peter Jackson’s cinematic version. In particular, I am moved when Frodo seems to have no hope of completing his climb to the top of Mount Doom. In that scene, Sam exclaimed to Frodo: “I can’t carry [the ring] for you . . . but I can carry you.”
What would compel him to go forward in the midst of an apparently hopeless situation? Certainly his loyal friendship with Frodo is a powerful force. But I think more is at work in this moment. Professor Ralph C. Wood explains in his book, The Gospel According to Tolkien, that the heroes of The Lord of the Rings exhibit a kind of hopeful endurance that is different from mere stoic endurance: “Stoics endure life both fearlessly and tearlessly, convinced that things could not be other than they are . . .” (p. 104). Unlike the stoics, Samwise is convinced that things can become “other than they are.” More to the point: Sam is convinced that his life is part of a larger story that will end well, no matter how his own story may end.
Sam exhibits the discipline of hope – a discipline that can empower us to see something on the other side of our present struggles.
LEARNING THE DISCIPLINE OF HOPE
To be honest, hope is not an easy discipline for me. I tend to get stuck on life's disappointments. Maybe that’s why I appreciate Tolkien so much. He had experienced great sadness in his life, but he was somehow able to exemplify hope in his storytelling. Because I'm so convinced of hope's value, I want to help both my children and my students intentionally pursue hope. So how can we pass on the discipline of hope to our own children?
If your kids are old enough, I suggest looking for it in the upcoming Hobbit movie. Certainly Bilbo has to exhibit a combination of hope in something beyond the present struggle, otherwise why not just give up when in the dark cave of Gollum or under the dark shade of Mirkwood Forrest? Likewise, try re-watching The Lord of the Rings movie and highlighting the importance of hope there as well. How is it that characters there were able to hold out against overwhelming forces and overwhelming odds? Courage? Certainly. But I think that courage was rooted in a faith that believed there was something beyond the present struggle.
Focusing on something beyond our present struggle is good advice for today as well. I recently had a conversation with a local community leader that was insightful on this issue. When one of his employees or family members struggled with fear, he asked them about another time in their life when they faced something fearful and overcame it. He then said, "Focus on that feeling of overcoming the fear. Focus on that - not the fear."
Learning to focus on hope and not fear - that’s good advice for both hobbits and humans.
Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also the author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.
The Letters of JRR Tolkien and JRR Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter.
The Gospel and Middle Earth: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth by Ralph Wood
Publication date: December 7, 2014