This series has largely dealt with the theme of hope in Middle Earth. But what of the free peoples of Planet Earth, living in the primary world? What vision of hope does Tolkien offer us? A few themes stand out.
First, he offers us a conception of hope that takes seriously the darkness and evil that we find in the world. In our world, as in Tolkien’s, there are plenty of reasons to lose heart. Hope does not mean that we can foresee or conceive how the injustices of his world could be put to rights. It is instead the trust, the estel of Elves and Men, that a world loved by its creator will not be utterly abandoned to darkness and destruction.
Second, Tolkien gives us a powerful portrait of the perseverance and courage that can come from this kind of hope. Sam’s heroism is that of the common foot solider who faithfully accepts his place in the mission, however great or small that place may be. We are part of a larger picture, and we have no way of knowing how significant our role is in the tapestry God is weaving.
This is the lesson that Bilbo Baggins articulates so memorably at the end of The Hobbit. After an amazing adventure during which he has performed great feats of bravery, Gandalf says to him: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all of your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all.”
Bilbo’s response is to laugh and to say, “Thank goodness!” And we can say “thank goodness” with him, because we know that while we are called to play our part with all our might, the world does not rise and fall on our effort alone. There are other forces at work, and after we do all we can, they may still have another move.
In fact, when responding to a reader who had complained about Frodo’s failure, Tolkien said that it was actually impossible for Frodo (or any incarnate mortal) to destroy the ring themselves. And yet, Frodo played his part:
Frodo deserved all honor because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (as one critic has said).
This is what we are called to do as well: to use every drop of our power of will and body to do as much as we can do. To play our parts well, and then in humility to step out of the way, and allow other powers to act: to let God be God.
Next: Eucatastrophe (The Conclusion)