“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (10): Aragorn’s Back-Story

Aragorn was a child of promise. His father Arathorn loved a maiden named Gilraen the Fair. Dirhael, Gilraen’s fore-sighted father, initially opposed the union, believing that Arathorn’s life would be short. But he was overruled by the words of his wife Ivorwen:

“The days are darkening before the storm, and there are great things to come. If these two wed now, hope may be born for our people; but if they delay, it will not come while this age lasts.”

Arathorn and Gilraen marry, and she gives birth to Aragorn. When in fulfillment of Dirhael’s foreboding, Arathorn is killed by an orc-arrow, Gilraen takes Aragorn to Rivendell for refuge. There, in keeping with Ivorwen’s prophecy, he is called by the name Estel.

It is in Rivendell, of course, that Aragorn meets and falls in love with Arwen, but they recognize that much must take place before they can be together. Aragorn leaves Rivendell for nearly thirty years, during which time he undertakes many perilous quests in opposition of Sauron. During this time he continues to embody the rugged hope of humanity:

“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from a rock.”

Notice the interaction between doom (which I take primarily in the sense of destiny but also secondarily in the sense of curse) and hope: doom lies on him, but hope dwells in his heart.

Fate brings Arwen and Aragorn back together in the woods of Lorien, and there Arwen tells him of her confidence in him: “Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it.”

He responds. “Alas! I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me. Yet with your hope I will hope.”

It is worth stopping here to make a salient point. Many times when we are in the throes of despair we regard the hope-filled around us with envy or even contempt. What do they see that we cannot? How can they be so hopeful?

In so doing we turn great gifts into curses. Because the hope-filled are meant to be our greatest allies in our moments of despair. We need them to hope for us.

We hold onto them, while they hold onto something – or Someone – that we as yet cannot see.

“Yet with your hope I will hope.”

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (9): We Must Do Without Hope

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…

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (8): Gandalf the Grey

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

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (7): ‘This Old Hope’, or, ‘My Favorite Passage in Tolkien’

We have been looking at the themes of despair and hope in Tolkien’s legendarium. In the last post, we looked at the debate between Finrod (the elf-king of Nargothrond) and Andreth (a wise woman) on the subject. As representatives of each race, they discuss and debate the very idea of hope.

Finrod tells Andreth that he believes that one day, humanity will be instrumental in redeeming all of Middle-Earth. Andreth does not share this view of humanity’s importance. And so Finrod presses her:

“Have ye then no hope?” said Finrod.

“What is hope?” she said. “An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.”

“That is one thing that Men call ‘hope’,” said Finrod. “Amdir we call it, ‘looking up’. But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?”

This passage is profoundly moving, and the distinction between amdir and estel is essential for understanding the theme of hope in Tolkien’s words. It is possible to have lost amdir, to have no conception of how things could possibly end well, and yet to retain estel, to trust (against all appearances to the contrary) that evil will not have the last word.

To Finrod’s question, “does no Estel at all abide?” Andreth answers that there are some of the “Old Hope” who continue to hold onto estel that healing will still come for humanity. What is this Old Hope?

“‘They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through the years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.’”

The One himself will enter Arda. That sounds familiar.

For Finrod and Andreth, the very idea of the One coming down fills them with both incredulity and wonder: “Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?… Would it not shatter Arda, or indeed all Ea?”

Finrod concludes that it is beyond the reach of their minds, and yet he cannot conceive how else the healing of all things could be achieved apart from Eru’s direct intervention.

What is significant is that this Old Hope has never been spoken to the Elves. They only have access to it through Men, to whom it was sent, Men who struggle to believe that it is more than a dream. In the meantime, it remains a Hope without guarantees.

And yet for those who seem to understand the way that great tales go (like Finrod), it is a profound reason for estel.

Next: Leaving the Silmarillion, On to the Trilogy!

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (6): “Only Fears, or Dreams in the Dark”

Perhaps Tolkien’s most profound work on the subject of death is his “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”, found in Morgoth’s Ring. (The Debate of Finrod and Andreth). In Athrabeth Tolkien puts high elf Finrod Felagund in dialogue with the wise woman Andreth.

The context of the debate is that Andreth’s mortality has kept her from being able to marry the elf Aegnor (Finrod’s brother). Finrod tells her that Aegnor truly loved her, but refused to be united with her for her own sake, so that she would not be forced to experience the pain of growing old while Aegnor lived ever-young. Her grief precipitates their discussion on the fate of men and Elves.

In a letter, Tolkien writes that “it is in any case clear that neither side was fully informed about the ultimate destiny of the other,” and the dialogue illustrates this well.

Finrod begins by asking Andreth to tell him why the brevity of human life brings them such grief when it is simply a part of their nature. Andreth replies that some say short-life was not always a part of human nature, but it has become so “through the malice of the Lord of the Darkness whom they do not name [Morgoth].” 

After Death was imposed upon humanity, the fear of it plagued them, and they journeyed to Middle Earth in hopes of escaping it. To their great despair, they found that they had fled from the Shadow only to find themselves at Morgoth’s doorstep. Finrod replies that it is an error to confuse Death with Morgoth:

“But these two are not the same, Andreth. So I deem, or death would not be found at all in this world which he did not design but Another. Nay, death is but the name that we give to something that he has tainted, and it sounds therefore evil; but untainted its name would be good.”

Here again, we see a distinction between death in its original conception (as part of the natural order of the world) and death as twisted by evil.

Andreth’s response is to ask what the Elves know of death, since even their deaths in battle are not really the end for them, whereas for humanity death is an inconsolable loss. No matter how a man lives, whether wisely or foolishly, death will catch him like a hunter, and there will be no returning (as there is for Elves, who can choose to come back).

Finrod grants her the point, but then informs her that even the Elves are not truly immortal, since their existence is bound up with the lifespan of Arda, which will not endure forever. The Elves know that the end will come, “and then we must die; we must perish utterly, it seems, for we belong to Arda…. And beyond that what?” 

Andreth speaks similarly about the hope of men: “[We] have no certainty and no knowledge, only fears, or dreams in the dark”.

Both Elves and Men are found with a fundamental certainty of their deaths, and a fundamental uncertainty about what comes after.

This brings us to our theme, the question of Hope. If both Men and Elves are ignorant of the end, is there any basis for Hope after Death? If so, Tolkien writes, it is a “Hope without guarantees”.

And yet, Finrod says that he believes that some greater work of Eru (God) is in the future, some supreme moment that has been ordained:

“as may a master in the telling of tales keep hidden the greatest moment until it comes in due course. It may be guessed at indeed, in some measure, by those of us who have listened with full heart and mind, but so the teller would wish.”

In other words, Finrod believes that he lives in a story-shaped world. And in the greatest of stories, the storyteller keeps the greatest moment, the redemptive moment veiled in uncertainty and suspense – until it is time. But those who have listened well may guess how the story might end.

So what is this master stroke? Andreth asks Finrod where he thinks the story will go, and Finrod replies: “I was thinking that by the Second Children [Men] we [Elves] might have been delivered from death.”

This means that Humanity, far from being second-class citizens of Middle Earth, may actually be instrumental in the redemption of the whole.


Next: A New (Kind of) Hope!

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (5): Of Elves and Men

Though there is a small chapter devoted to Dwarves, the Silmarillion is mainly concerned with two races: Elves and Men.

Hopefully by now Peter Jackson’s Trilogy has gotten enough cultural traction so that we have some idea of what Tolkien has in mind when he says Elves. He does not mean this:

Or this:

Neither are Tolkien’s elves as androgynous as Jackson portrayed them. (When I watched the Two Towers movie, and the Elves arrived at Hem’s Deep, someone behind me whispered, “are those the fairy people?”)

In Tolkien’s vision, Elves were beings of power and wisdom, a picture of unfallen humanity. Humans believed Elves to be immortal, though in actuality their life-span was bound up with the life span of the world. When the world passes away, so will Elves. And what then? No one knew.

Ironically, Men envy the Elves because of their “deathlessness”. And the Elves envy Men, viewing mortality as a gift, because it means escape from weariness and the circles of the world. Both races thus represent Tolkien’s thematic commentary on Death and Immortality:

“the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it [Men]; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it [Elves], until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.”


While humanity strives to make their lives endure in futility, Elves strive to make their works endure with equal futility. The former is the doom of mortality, the latter of deathlessness.

This dynamic of death and deathlessness is played out most memorably in the story of Aragorn and Arwen. Aragorn’s doom is to die; Arwen’s is to watch as all that she loves diminishes and dies. Tolkien’s message (communicated mythically) is “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity.”

Think of the weariness of Gollum, who has been stretched beyond his ordained lifespan by Sauron’s ring. To Tolkien, Death is not ultimately an enemy, because “serial longevity” would mean the weariness of enduring in a world in which all else is passing away.

Does this contradict the Christian vision of death as a punishment for sin? Tolkien did not believe so. He points out that the idea of death as a gift is an “Elvish view”, meaning that from the perspective of the Elves, freedom from the circles of world is enviable. Furthermore, however death came to be humanity’s fate, if accepted it can become a gift: “a divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”

Recall that in the Genesis narrative, humanity is expelled from Eden lest they take also from the Tree of Life, and live forever in a sinful state. Expulsion thus is judgment mingled with mercy, and death can be received as a gift for to live forever in a broken world would be a fate far worse.

Next: My favorite passage in Tolkien!

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (4) The Fear of Death and the Fall of Numenor

We’ve been talking about the sense of doom that plagues humanity. Most notable here is the haunting anticipation of death. As Ernest Hemingway put it: “Every true story ends in death.” Is this the case?

The subject of death is a complex one within Tolkien’s writings, and in several letters he states that death is the theme of his work. He says that he did not write self-consciously with this theme, but only discovered its prevalence upon reading the work with criticism in mind.

It does loom quite large in the Silmarillion, specifically in the story of the Numenoreans (the great line of human kings from which Aragorn is descended). After the defeat of the evil Morgoth, the Numenoreans rise to ascendancy, building a glorious civilization.

After years of peace and prosperity, their fall comes about as a reaction to their fear of death. Though the Numeroreans live many years beyond a normal human life-span, they are unable to “escape from the doom of death that Iluvatar had set upon all Mankind.”

What begins as mere “unquiet” grows into murmuring, which in turn grows into defiance and finally into outright rebellion against the Powers. By the time Sauron the Deceiver comes to Numenor, he needs only stir up what has already been fomenting in the hearts of Men. Death is their great fear and great doom from which they labor to escape.

But it may be that it was not always so. From the beginning of the Silmarillion, death is spoken of as “the gift of Iluvatar.” The Valar send Elven Messengers to Numenor to reason with them to forsake their quest for immortality:

But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the Doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Iluvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid….

There is a distinction here between death as originally intended and death as now corrupted by the shadow of Morgoth.  In response to questions from his readers, Tolkien expounds on this theme of death as a gift:

But the view of the myth is that Death — the mere shortness of human life-span – is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man’s nature. The attempt to escape it is wicked because ‘unnatural’, and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of Time. Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance. A good Númenórean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so.

In Tolkien’s conception, death (as originally intended) is a normal part of the human life span, an inherent part of human nature. Just like flowers bloom for a season before dying, so too do humans. It is simply our created nature, and is in this sense, a gift.

But now there is also “Death, in the penal sense”, which means that when we think of death  we cannot separate it from the darkness and uncertainty that surrounds it. What happens to us? Where do we go? Is there life beyond the grave?

When it comes to death, fallen humanity has no certain knowledge and no control. Our attitude towards death is thus full of fear, an unwillingness to let go, to grow old, an unwillingness to surrender, a desire to stay longer than the time marked out for us.

For Tolkien, this fear of death leads to great evil.

What do you think? Is there a difference between “fallen” death and “unfallen” death, death as part of nature and death in a penal sense?

Next: Elves Actually Aren’t Immortal and Why It Matters