Virtue of hope illuminates 'Lord of the Rings'
Americans are flocking to the new film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Enthusiastic movie fans are discovering what readers of Tolkien’s trilogy — published in the mid-1950s — have known for decades: “The Lord of the Rings” is a truly monumental work. Indeed, in a 1996 survey, British readers voted its three volumes the best book of the 20th century.
What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of “The Lord of the Rings”? Its creator hardly fits the stereotype of a bestselling author. Tolkien was a mild-mannered professor of Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Oxford University. Moreover, the trilogy’s plot seems unlikely to appeal to a broad audience. It is a fantasy — what Tolkien called a “fairy story” for adults — set in an imaginary land called Middle Earth. The book tells the story of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit (a short, comfort-loving human-like creature) who must battle the forces of evil in a quest to destroy a “ring of power,” and thereby save the world.
Some might attribute the trilogy’s appeal to its action-packed story line. It’s true that readers are fascinated by the struggle of the books’ feeble protagonists against terrifying and almost unimaginably powerful evil. But as Tolkien himself pointed out, to truly succeed with thoughtful adults — to please, excite and move — a tale must be about much more than mere danger and escape. It must reflect a transcendent truth about the human condition.
I first read “The Lord of the Rings” at 19. Though I loved “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” I didn’t grasp the trilogy’s true profundity until I reread it as an adult. I saw then that, among many other things, the story is a beautiful and extended reflection on the virtue of hope. It is hope — that is, a patient expectation that good will ultimately prevail — that inspires a small fellowship of hobbits, men, elves and dwarves to endure extraordinary suffering and fear as they journey to the heart of darkness in an effort to destroy the power of Sauron, the Dark Lord.
The fellowship’s refusal to succumb to despair defies all logic. Inspired by their regard for each other and their faith in the holiness of their quest, they plod on over mountains and through blizzards, always fleeing armies of terrifying orcs, toward the fire-belching crack of Mount Doom. Gandalf the Wizard explains the irony of their predicament: “That way lies our hope, where sits our greatest fear. Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while.”
Tolkien wanted “The Lord of the Rings” to be a gripping tale. On a deeper level, however, he wrote it to explore how human beings respond to extraordinary moral demands. Consequently, he placed his characters in a “sacrificial situation,” in which the common good depends on the behavior of a few individuals in circumstances that demand suffering and endurance far beyond their capacities. Human beings seem doomed to fail such a test. Their inherent weakness seems to guarantee that they will either fall to temptation, or be broken in spirit against their will. (In 1936, when Tolkien conceived his plot, he did not foresee that the Nazis would soon put millions to just such a test, warping or breaking many in the process.)
In “The Lord of the Rings,” the fellowship confronts its trials with hope, not despair. This is why its quest ultimately succeeds. Despair paralyzes man’s powers, sapping his energy and creativity, while hope inspires strength and resolve. Likewise, hope liberates human beings from the otherwise overwhelming distractions of fear and uncertainty. It gives them courage to pursue a great goal, and to strive to become worthy of it. Hope is a virtue because it directs man to his “ultimum potentiae,” enabling him to be the most that he can be. Tolkien signals this when, in an early draft of the book, he has the wizard Gandalf propose new, heroic names for the two central characters, Frodo and Sam: “Endurance beyond Hope” and “Hope Unquenchable.”
So hope gives life and strength to human beings. But in the real world, filled with suffering and injustice, is there actually reason to hope? Tolkien thought so. Few reviews of the new movie point out that Tolkien was a devout Christian, who believed that God, the Ultimate Good, orders the universe. In Tolkien’s view, human beings are children of God. Their hope lies in salvation, a beatific vision of joy that follows and banishes suffering. Salvation is possible even — perhaps especially — for the humble.
In the darkness of the human condition, hope often seems illogical. But Tolkien believed that man, by nature, turns toward the hope and joy of God. In “The Return of the King,” the character Faramir expresses the vision this way: “The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. In this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!”
— Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.