Harkening to the Horns of Hope and Love: What The Lord of the Rings Teaches Us For Today
Hope and love are dominant themes in The Lord of the Rings. These are two of the most desperately needed virtues today in a world entrenched in a culture of death, despair, and lust, due to the instant and 24 hour access the media provides. Those in the Red Book are no more exempt from darkness than we, but the examples of hope, love, courage, and fidelity in the tale give us inspiration and strength to keep going.
One of the most important exercises of hope is Gandalf’s for Gollum. He acknowledges the small possibility of this, but it is still there. Because he refuses to abandon it, the Elves in Mirkwood treat him kindly, and Frodo actively works toward it also. We need to have this same hope for those who appear lost, for as Bilbo and Sam point out, “Where’s there life there’s hope” (Hobbit 288, LotR IV:7, 685).
Galadriel’s words, “on one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope” (LotR II:8, 367) are also powerful for Tolkien’s world as he and his family lived through the dark years of WWII and for our present day which has witnessed so many senseless acts of hatred and violence.
Dimitra Fimi makes note of the shared faith of Tolkien and the poet Francis Thompson and Tolkien’s admiration of the man’s mystical work, especially noting from The Kingdom of God:
O World invisible, we view thee,
O World intangible, we touch thee,
O World unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee! (qtd. in Tolkien, Race 43)
These words remind me of two more times during the War of the Ring where hope is strongly present. As the siege of Minas Tirith is about to start, with no sign of hoped-for reinforcements, Pippin perceives that Gandalf remains joyful inside. The wizard has faith in his Creator and His plans, so does not perceive just the dire straits of the present but beyond them to the future. Denethor says such “hope is but ignorance” (LotR V:7, 835). But it is not. It is faith and trust. Because Gandalf hopes, Pippin hopes. This also brings to mind the profound experience that Sam has upon seeing the star in Mordor, which shows him that while he and Frodo toil in darkness on the ground, there is beauty far above that evil cannot touch or mar. The words Thompson uses bring to brighter light the deep hope Gandalf and Sam both have that the present darkness is not all there is, and I am glad that Fimi included these in her observations of Tolkien’s faith.
One needs to remember, however, that Sam’s and Pippin’s expressions of faith and hope are in a pre-Christian time, so they do not arise from that religion, yet they still do rise. Contact with an agent of the divine is all that is necessary. A young Russian woman shows the truth of this in our day. “Soviet people were raised as atheists,” she says. “Tolkien’s books offered me hope for our world, the hope that Tolkien’s elves call estel. Tolkien does not mention God in The Lord of the Rings at all, but you feel something really wonderful when you read it. Later I recognized it as faith” (“The Fellowship of the Ring,” Wired.com).
After Beregond asks Pippin if there is any hope that Minas Tirith will not fall, the hobbit thinks first of the evil that Sauron has already unleashed. “Then suddenly Pippin looked up and saw that the sun was still shining and the banners still streaming in the breeze” (LotR V:1, 749). This is what we need to see. We need to close our eyes and ears to the constant bombardment of dire predictions of a future that cannot be known and open them to present beauty, as Pippin teaches us. Pippin’s response is among the most heartening in the tale: “No, my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us. We may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees” (ibid.). Like Sam, Pippin refuses to have adversity, real or feared, defeat him. It renews Beregond’s spirits and hope and ours.
Sam would agree with Blessed Julian of Norwich, who lived during the Black Death but who still said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This defiant hope Sam never truly loses, even while watching Orcs march toward him and Frodo in Mordor and the disaster of capture and discovery appears the only possible outcome, or while while caught in the midst of the cataclysmic destruction of Mount Doom. Because his hope dwells in the depth of his heart, he has it even in seemingly hopeless situations. He accepts he may not see with his physical eyes the golden dawn he has long gazed upon with the eyes of his heart, but all along he has actively willed to resist despair. His hope is not going to die any sooner than he is, and it is rewarded.
In Faramir’s talk with Éowyn, he acknowledges that doom may be about to fall upon their world, but his words also make it clear that he still hopes in the possibility it will not. As they witness in the far distance what could indeed be their doom, he states, “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. Éowyn…in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” (LotR VI:5, 941).
Aragorn’s faith-filled, last words to his beloved Arwen are full of hope. “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!” (LotR Appendix A, 1038). This trustful surrender to the hope of what lies beyond death is what we should all have if we truly believe love is stronger than death, and one day we will see our loved ones again and be with them for eternity.
There are many in our day who find hope and courage to endure their trails and to beat back despair using the strength those in the Red Book give them.
Frodo says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened.” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
This message is so important in the midst of this global crisis. We may feel powerless, but in fact we each have the power to choose how we will respond. Will this crisis become an opportunity for us, like the characters in Tolkien’s great work, to practice and to demonstrate virtues like hope and perseverance? (Baumberg, “The Virtues of Hope and Perseverance”)
The Lord of the Rings is a story of hope when all seems hopeless. It’s a story of how someone who can seem most insignificant can make a difference in the world…. It’s about friendship and love; it’s about recognizing and creating your Fellowship, which will help you get through it all. I love the fact that a person will pick up this book and find it relevant to the times they are living in, whenever that may be. We all have our own battles…. No one ever said it was going to be easy; but we are all in this together. (Shubert, “Concerning My Obsession”)
Frodo…inspires and empowers. However exotic his circumstances, I can relate to him. He is tired and scared, as am I. He has been promised no reward, no glory. Nor have I. Love propels him onward even when his heart is breaking, something I can understand. When I am defeated, when I am so exhausted and full of despair I don’t think I can carry on one more second, when I am tempted to give up, I think of Frodo.…Then I somehow find it within myself to take one step more. With Frodo as my inspiration, I know I always will. (Anderson, “One Step More”)
At this point in my life, the message of hope in the LotR means a lot to me. From Hobbiton to Mordor, they have no reasonable expectation of success, just a fool’s hope. They’ll have to meet unexpected friends on the way (which they do). They’ll need the help of providence (which they get). Their foes will have to fail to understand their plan (check). But they have to start out without any of those things in hand, just hope. …the Fellowship must part never to meet again in Middle-Earth, but with hope that they may meet again in the West or beyond. There are times when I need to take small steps of hope, not seeing what the providence is going to be. And I have seen Providence meet me. (Sean Meade, “Concerning My Obsession”)
If it weren’t for LotR and all of Tolkien’s creations, I would have killed myself. His world, characters, and stories kept me alive. They helped me see the light in the darkness and showed me that, “A day will come and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer.” (Lord of the Rings Confessions)
This is a little morbid and sad but last year on September 22nd, I tried to kill myself. The next day I was admitted to a behavioural center and stayed through the 29th. The only reason I remember those dates is because of Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthday is on the 22nd and Frodo meets Strider on the 29th. Knowing this helps me on rough days because my journey to recovery began around the same time that Frodo begins his journey to Mordor, and if Frodo can destroy the One Ring, I can recover. (Lord of the Rings Confessions)
As a teen when the movies just came out, I was so depressed from bullying that I wanted to die. Without The Lord of the Rings to make me smile and wonder I probably wouldn’t be around today. It really saved my life. (Lord of the Rings Confessions)
When I was 9 one of my closest friends died suddenly due to undiagnosed leukemia. Grief stricken, I retreated into myself. I wished it had been me instead of her, I even planned my own suicide. When I was writing a goodbye note to my parents, as if he had whispered it to me himself, I heard Theoden saying “No parent should have to bury their child.” He brought me back to reality. I had to stay strong. I hadn’t seen the movie for 4 years but Lord of the Rings still managed to save my life. (Lord of the Rings Confessions)
In T.L.O.T.R: T.T.T. when Sam said “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 will shine out the clearer.” This made me break down into tears because it made me realise that my depression will pass, that even this darkness inside of me will go. (Lord of the Rings Confessions)
As well as teaching us about hope, the Red Book also gives a doctorate level class in selfless devotion. Among the lessons taught are Aragorn’s pledge to Frodo that he will protect him by life or death, Gandalf’s sacrifice in Moria, and Frodo’s long suffering to rid Middle-earth of the Ring, and, of course, Sam’s devotion to Frodo. These examples of selflessness shine as bright lights at the end of the Third Age and in our own times.
Studying the impact of The Lord of the Rings upon its readers and the various interpretations of the love story of Frodo and Sam calls to mind the fifth point of Cary Nelson’s cultural studies manifesto: “Cultural studies is committed to studying the production, reception, and varied use of texts, not merely their internal characteristics” (“Always Already” 32). The bond between the two hobbits has been understood as master-servant; the brotherhood of soldiers enduring hell with and for each other; to the view in some, though certainly not all, fan fiction and fan art, which portrays them as lovers. This “jewel among the hobbits,” as Tolkien calls Sam (Letters 88), turns aside his own desires, faces down his fears, and repeatedly risks his life, so he can remain at his master’s side. “Wherever you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:17). He gives up much of his share of food, water, and sleep in order to give Frodo more. David M. Craig notes that, “The relationship between Frodo and Sam is the emotional centre of book, because their love is spiritual” (“Queer Lodgings,” Mallorn 16). Through their devotion to each other and to their task, we learn much of love, loyalty, endurance, perseverance, faith, goodness, and hope. Two scenes among many that bear out this “affecting and elevating” (17) love story are:
[Sam] was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger.… He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.” (LotR IV:4, 638)
[Frodo] was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags….
“Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!” cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. “It’s Sam, I’ve come!” He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast….
Frodo…lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand.
Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness…. He kissed Frodo’s forehead. (LotR VI: 1, 889)
These give such beautiful expressions of the hobbits’ blessed bond, but the first time I read the latter, due to our corrupt age, I was thinking in the back of my mind, “You’re holding a naked man in your arms, and you think that’s the greatest thing in the world.” That was just too strange. But Sam doesn’t see it as anything erotic. He sees it as I did after the initial shock wore off: he holds his beloved master and that’s the greatest thing in the world. This remains my favorite scene. The other scenes in Fellowship, the bath at Crickhollow and running around in the fields after the barrow-wights nearly had them, show how completely natural and unashamed the hobbits are around each other’s naked bodies. In their innocence and purity, they think nothing of it. It is our society that has grown so corrupt that nakedness has to equal sexuality. It does not and it did not in this story. The scene in Ithilien is my favorite in Book IV. What is most important is Sam telling himself that he loves Frodo no matter what. This is important to remember in our age where relationships are at times severed after betrayals. Sam’s love endures tests of faithfulness but withstands them.
There are many other admirers of the purity of the loving male friendships in the tale:
I don’t believe Sam and Frodo are homosexual. I really don’t…. To me, The Lord of the Rings depicts a powerful bond of love between two male hobbits, with the complete absence of sexuality. In that sense, it’s remarkably innocent and pure…. Despite the hundreds of interactions I’ve had with folks who prefer to see the bond of Frodo and Sam through a prism of homoeroticism, I remain convinced that the power of their friendship derives primarily from the purity and innocence of their love for one another (Astin, There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale 246, 248).
Nor is Tolkien squeamish about having Sam express his love for Frodo physically, as he kisses Frodo’s hands, holds the sleeping Frodo’s head in his lap, and places his own hand on the somnolent Frodo’s breast. Whether in ancient hyper-masculine cultures or modern homoerotic cultures, such gestures are suspect. Not for Tolkien. Instead, he depicts Sam and Frodo’s friendship as a thing of exquisite beauty, even holiness. (Wood, Gospel According to Tolkien 135)
To us today, the idea of intense male friendships is unfortunately almost always bound up with eros. But this is only a recent view, as through the first part of the 20th century and before, male friendship was seen as the ultimate expression of camaraderie…. When looking at these friendships, the background in which Tolkien wrote the stories must be considered – we simply can’t interpret them from a modern day point of view. The great friendships of Tolkien’s life were male…. Is it then any wonder that Tolkien wanted to add to his books the comfort and joy he himself found from these relationships? Is it then any wonder that today we can still look at the descriptions of the friendships and instinctively understand how deeply Sam loved Frodo…. Is it then any wonder that philetic friendship is put forward as the ultimate in comfort and joy? (“Tolkien, Friendship, and the Four Loves”)
Their [Frodo and Sam’s] relationship is a very intimate one but in a non-sexual way…. [Such relationships are] in many places throughout history and…between military men who serve together today today. A brotherhood forms and attachments grow deep and strong. Nothing can severe or come between those ties. It grieves me to see people thinking they can no longer have these intimate relationships. I grew up in a military environment and have a few very close friendships that mimic that of Sam and Frodo. Maybe seeing or reading about it can help to instigate a revival of these close intimate friendships we no longer seem to seek out, but desperately want. (Llama, GoodReads LOTR discussion group)
…tenderness between men is not stigmatized elsewhere the way it is now in modern America. I encourage you to visit…Europe…. People are very accustomed to seeing two women…arm-in-arm, or two men greeting each other…with an embrace and a kiss. And yes, they’re straight!… You certainly can’t find that here…. Americans are so emotionally constipated that they can’t accept…that people can touch each other, with nothing but innocence and caring…. Our minds are filtered through so much cultural detritus that anytime we encounter same-sex affection…we are distressed and offended beyond means. I think that’s a shame. Can you imagine yourself crossing the endless volcanic desert [with little food and water]? … Would you not then crave the smallest sign of care, support, and love from the only other human being near you…? …. The simplest touch, the kiss of your loving brother, would do more miracles to keep you alive and sane than anything else would. Yes, a miracle of hope is what we’re talking about here, and it breathes power into Tolkien’s work like nothing else. (Broadway 129-130)
Craig also notes the powerful combination of hope and love that makes the terrible journey to Mordor possible: “This final part of the story is deeply religious; it is about the ideal of love struggling against enormous odds, with only a slim glimmer of hope, and yet conquering. The intimacy and love between Frodo and Sam…is capable of saving the world from evil…” (“Queer Lodgings” 17).
The same combination of hope and love can transform ourselves and our world, as Margarita Carretero Gonzalez notes in a survey she conducted with Spanish and British admirers of the Red Book:
Respondents found this eucatastrophic ending in the message of hope that permeates Tolkien’s work, in the importance given to the values of friendship, unity and courage required to face any situation and, especially, in the feeling of final victory against the forces of Evil.… [It] carries a message of final hope that most of them received after reading the book, the same message received by Sam when looking at the distant star in Mordor.
The same problems present in our world have to be faced by the characters in Middle-earth, and in both worlds, hope is always necessary to avoid falling into the hands of Evil. (Gonzalez 57)
Tolkien himself felt the inspirational power of his tale to push back darkness and despair. “… I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West” (Letters 413). May the light of hope and love shining from those in Middle-earth be a beacon to draw strength and inspiration from while we make our own journeys to Mordor or confront the Shadow in other ways and places.
Atalante. “Tolkien, Friendship and the Four Loves.” Council of Elrond. Accessed 8 June 2014. http://www.councilofelrond.com/content/tolkien-friendship-and-the-four-loves-2/
Anderson, Connie Marie. “One Step More: The Heroism of Frodo Baggins.” Knitted Souls. http://www.knittedsouls.com/One%20Step%20More%20by%20ConnieMarie.htm Accessed 8 June 2014.
Astin, Sean. There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.
Baumberg, Rev. Dr. Tess. “COLUMN: The Virtues of Hope and Perseverance.” Wicked Local. 12 March 2009. Accessed 3 June 2014. http://www.wickedlocal.com/x599193216/column-the-virtues-of-hope-and-perseverance
Broadway, Cliff, Erica Challis, Cynthia L. McNew, Dave Smith, and Michael Urban. “…And in the Closet Bind Them.” More People’s Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2005: 127-130.
Craig, David M. “‘Queer Lodgings’: gender and sexuality in The Lord of the Rings.” Mallorn XXX111 (January 2001): 11-18.
Davis, Erik. “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Wired. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/9.10/lotr.html. October 2001. Accessed 21 June 2014.
Fimi, Dimitra. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. New York: Palgrave Mamcmillan, 2008.
Gonzalez, Margarita Carretero. “The Lord of the Rings: a myth for the modern Englishmen.” Mallorn XXXVI (1998): 51-57.
Llama. “Relationship between Frodo and Sam.” Goodreads Lord of the Rings Discussion Group. 1 November 2007. Accessed 8 June 2014. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/6497.
Lord of the Rings Confessions. Tumblr. Accessed 3 and 9 June 2014.
Nelson, Cary. “Always Already Cultural Studies: Two Conferences and a Manifesto.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Vol. 24, No. 1 Cultural Studies and New Historicism (Spring 1991): 24-38.
Shubert, Susie. “Concerning My Obsession.” I Heart Lord of the Rings: Lessons from a Fellowship. Word Press. 23 Feb. 2014. Accessed 8 June 2014. http://iheartlordoftherings.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/concerning-my-obsession/.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Illustrated by Jemima Catlin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
———. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
———. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965-66.
Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. Louisville, KY: Knox, 2003.