We’ve been looking at the themes of hope and despair throughout Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and now we move on to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which, thanks to Peter Jackson, is much more widely known.
Despair is the opposite of hope, and the struggle throughout the Trilogy is to hold onto hope in the face of relentless despair. Characters are given seemingly impossible tasks and are expected to endure the difficulty to whatever end. Even before he is aware of the full extent of his destiny (or doom) in the Old Forest Frodo sings a song to encourage his fellow-hobbits: “O! Wanderers in the shadowed land / despair not!”
This resolve, which fades even in the darkness of the forest, will be tested as the “shadowed land” becomes literally the Land of Shadow.
It is because despair is such a threat, that the free people are given a gift: Gandalf.
The Silmarillion introduces him as Olorin, wisest of the Maiar, one who has learned pity and patience from Nienna. It anticipates his role in the War of the Ring thus: “in later days he was the friend of all the Children of Iluvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”
Indeed, this description is never so literal as in the case of Theoden, who when Gandalf finds him was “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf”.
Poisoned by Wormtongue, Theoden welcomes him as Gandalf Stormcrow, a bringer of evil tidings. Yet Gandalf replies that with evil tidings comes also the offer of aid, and thus hope:
“Now Theoden son of Thengel, will you hearken unto me? Do you ask for help?” Gandalf lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Would you hear them?”
Gandalf’s counsel cannot be heard by those who have given up all hope.
This is the difference between King Theoden – who listens to Gandalf and finds glorious redemption on the Pelennor Fields – and Denethor, High Steward of Gondor. The substance of Gandalf’s message to Denethor is similar as his message to Theoden: “Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while.”
And yet, for Denethor, who has been poisoned by what he has seen in the palantir, Sauron has already won. During the siege of Gondor, he prepares to burn himself and his (wounded but still-living) son: “better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must.”
This capitulation to despair is the supreme proof that in Denethor’s case at least, the Dark Power has already won. As Gandalf says, “only the heathen kings [the Numenoreans], under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.”
In other words, the only supreme failure is to give in to despair when there is still good to be done.
It is worth pausing here to underline this point.
You feel despair. But is there still good to be done, which you have the power to do? Then do it. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends”.
Next: How to Go on Without Hope