In the last post we looked at Gandalf as sent into Middle-Earth, specifically to give hope to the free peoples. Gandalf is not given foreknowledge of the end; he has no certainty as to how things will turn out. But his role is to encourage each person to do his part, because as he tells the Council of Elrond, “Despair is only for those who know the end beyond any doubt. We do not.”
Indeed, hope here is rooted not in an assessment of the probabilities, but in something deeper: a recognition that there are other powers at work in the world who continue to work even when lesser heroes fail. In other words, hope is rooted in providence.
This is why Gandalf’s sacrifice in Moria is so significant. It represents a supreme act of abnegation and faithfulness to the Authority that has given him his mission. So Tolkien would write in one of his letters:
“For all [Gandalf] knew at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his mission was vain. He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success.”
Gandalf gives up his life because it is the right thing to do, even if the Company is hopeless without him. Aragorn says as much:
“’Farewell, Gandalf!’ he cried. ‘Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors to Moria, beware! Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?’ He turned to the Company. ‘We must do without hope,’ he said.
And yet, Aragorn, in similar faithfulness to his vocation, continues to act valiantly without hope.Faramir too confesses the relative hopelessness of his endeavors, whether in Osgiliath or Minas Tirith:
“It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think it will do more than put off the evil day, unless other help unlooked-for also comes, from Elves or Men.”
And yet, despite his pessimism, he stands fast, holding the line and refusing even to take the Enemy’s Ring when it comes within his grasp. Hopeless Faramir may be; willing to surrender or compromise he is not.
Even while characters may go on without hope, they steadfastly refuse to give in to despair. As the quest nears its end we are told that Sam “knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them.”
It seems like there is a third way, a middle path between hope and despair. It is on this path that Tolkien showcases heroic virtues of courage and faithfulness. In this way, characters recognize the job they have been called to do, and endeavor to complete it, regardless of the personal cost.
This is the exact language that Frodo uses when Sam asks him about rationing food for the return journey:
“I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that. To do the job as you put it – what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? …I ask you Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to Mount Doom, that is all we can do.”
Whereas Frodo gives up all hope of returning, his lone thought is to do the job entrusted to him.
Perhaps the best example of this is when Sam submits to the fact that he will probably die on the quest:
“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,” thought Sam: “to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it…. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.” But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt though all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor endless barren miles could subdue.
When hope seems to disappear, a deeper hope takes over, which is a hope that compels action.
This highlights again the difference between amdir and estel. Amdir may not remain for the company once Gandalf falls in Moria. Estel, however, does abide embodied in the one who bears Estel as a name: Aragorn.
Next: Aragorn, son of Arathorn…