“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

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (3): Are We Like the Cubs?

We’ve been speaking of curses, so here’s another one: The Curse of the Billy Goat.

As the story goes, in 1945, Billy Sianis (the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern) was asked to take his pet goat and leave a World Series game at Wrigley Field (who wants to sit by a goat?!). And in true Mandos style, Sianis pronounced these words:

“Them Cubs, they aren’t gonna win no more.”

Ostensibly, this meant that there would never be another World Series game played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs would be doomed to be lovable losers, defiant at times, but ultimately doomed.

Are human beings like the Cubs? Lovable losers? Defiant, but doomed?

Up until this point, we have only discussed the doom of Elves in Tolkien’s legendarium. So when do men come into the story?

They come from another place, and their origins are shrouded in mystery. But when Men come into the West, the Elves discern that something tragic has already befallen them. Men are in a sense already doomed: “a darkness lay upon the hearts of Men (as the shadow of the Kinslaying and the Doom of Mandos lay upon the Noldor).” This doom will lead the Eldar to call Men, “The Self-Cursed.”

This sense that Men are cursed, a recurring theme throughout Tolkien’s works, is nowhere rendered more powerfully than in the characters of Hurin and his son Turin. Hurin, a great human warrior is captured by the evil Morgoth. Despite torture, he refuses to reveal the hidden location of the beautiful kingdom city of Gondolin. In anger, Morgoth sets on him and his children a “doom… of darkness and sorrow”.

This curse is played out in the life of Turin who defiantly takes upon himself the name “Turambar”: Master of Doom. He is in this sense defying the curse that has been set upon him, and he becomes one of the most fearsome warriors Middle Earth has ever seen.

And yet, the curse chases him and fills his otherwise valiant life with shame, horror and grief. His story is one of the hardest to read.

In one of the most tragic scenes in the Silmarillion, Turin accidentally kills his best friend Beleg. Then, Turin accidentally falls in love with and marries his long-lost sister Nienor (who is suffering from amnesia). Upon learning that she has married her brother, Nienor leaps to her death. When he learns of her identity and death, he decides that he can no longer bear the curse, and he falls on his own sword. He is the only major character in Tolkien’s works to take his own life. The Master of Doom has been mastered by Doom.

[This is not the end of Turin’s story in Tolkien’s works! But we will need to wait several posts before we get there.]

But it is worth asking: is Turin meant to be a type of humanity as whole – valiant, but cursed, defiant, but ultimately doomed? We may not be as misfortunate as Turin, but does not a “doom” chase us as well?

By this I mean of course the doom of death, and to that we now turn.

Next: Death – a Gift or a Curse? 

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (2): The Madden Curse and the Doom of the Noldor

Here’s a question: do modern people believe in curses?

Ever heard of the Madden Curse? Every year, video game makers EA Sports put a standout football player on the cover of the popular Madden game, and curiously the player that they choose has a disappointing season or gets injured. This year it is Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson, although he says he isn’t worried. (Here’s a link to an interesting article and video on the subject.)

Many of the players interviewed say, “I don’t believe in curses.” But some do! And others say they hope the curse will be broken! But this article asks the question, “Is Calvin Johnson doomed?”

Did somebody say “doomed”? Enter Tolkien!

We are investigating Tolkien’s ideas on doom, death, despair. In the last post, I asked about the place of hope in the midst of the long, slow defeat that is The Silmarillion.

Early in The Silmarillion, a powerful elf named Feanor fashions three jewels called the silmarils. In each of these jewels he has captured some of the light from the Two Trees, the trees which gave light to the world before they were destroyed by the uber-Spider Ungoliant. (I know, try to keep up).

In any case, these jewels are so beautiful that they bewitch Feanor. After the trees are destroyed, he refuses to give the silmarils to the Valar, but they are stolen anyway by the evil Morgoth. Feanor and his sons swear an oath that they will pursue the silmarils to their deaths, and will never surrender the silmarils to any hands but their own. In their rage and haste to leave Valinor, Feanor and his followers (the Noldor) slaughter their fellow Elves, in what becomes known as “The Kinslaying.”

In response to this, Mandos (the “doomsayer” of the Valar) pronounces a curse on the Noldor:

Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Feanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.

The Doom of the Noldor hangs like a shadow over the rest of the narrative.   Beautiful realms are built; but the Curse does its work in undoing the most worthy accomplishments in Middle Earth: “To evil end shall all things turn that begin well.” 

Has Tolkien just summed up his legendarium? Is the doom of the Noldor emblematic of the entire story? That no matter what characters do, no matter how good it is, that there is something – call it curse if you want – that will make everything go awry?

I once met a guy whose parents had divorced, due to infidelity. And he believed that the same fate awaited him, that it hung over him like a curse. He couldn’t escape the feeling that he was cursed. Years later he married. After a few years he divorced, due to infidelity.

I’ve also met people who believe that they are cursed with unbelief. Try as they might, they simply cannot bring themselves to believe in God.

What hope is there for those who feel cursed? Are curses real? And is it possible to break the curse?

As we continue, it might get worse before it gets better.

Next: Turin Turambar! Or, Tolkien’s Most Tragic Character

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (1): A Long, Slow Defeat is Still a Defeat

Before there was The Lord of the Rings, there was The Silmarillion. Or at least, the work that would become The Silmarillion. Tolkien began working on it very early, and he worked on it throughout his life, writing and re-writing it, trying to shrink it into a form that might be palatable to the public. His publisher was leery of it, and it would only be finished, edited and published after his death.

If the LOTR is the New Testament of Tolkien’s world, The Silmarillion is the Old Testament. Concerned with history and painstaking about the names, many readers enjoy the Creation Story but then quickly get lost in what follows. It is not uncommon for a reader to abandon the Silmarillion within the first fifty pages.

(On my first reading, I trudged through it with disappointment, not fully understanding why it wasn’t moving me the way that the LOTR had.)

On top of this, The Silmarillion is unmistakably tragic. It has been described as a long, slow defeat.  For all the wisdom and the valor of his heroes, all their efforts seem doomed. The most beautiful of Elven realms, Doriath and Gondolin, both are destroyed.

The Valar’s (Tolkien’s “Powers” – the angelic-like beings who co-create and govern the world) triumph over the evil Morgoth (a Lucifer figure) and this leads to the golden age of the Numenoreans (great human kings who lived for hundreds of years). But eventually the Numenoreans rebel against the Powers and worship Morgoth, and Numenor is buried beneath the sea (Atlantis!). The work of ages is obliterated in moments.

One kingdom rises, there is goodness and beauty, it is corrupted, it falls. Another kingdom rises, it is corrupted, it falls. Rinse and repeat.

Tolkien’s tale is one of valiant despair, so much so that Tolkien himself characterized the work as the passing from “the high and beautiful to darkness and ruin.”

Fast forward to the conclusion of LOTR. In his letters, Tolkien revealed he was discouraged to continue writing because he knew that Aragorn’s line would eventually be diminished and the story would end in defeat.

Well that stinks. So what was this whole War of the Ring for?

In the Norse legends, there was this idea of Ragnarok, that at the end of the world all of the heroes and monsters would be resurrected to fight this epic climactic battle. And the heroes would lose. They knew this. And yet, heroism for the Norse meant striving in the face of certain defeat, building their lives as philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, on a foundation of “unyielding despair.”

Doesn’t sound too promising to me.

Is Tolkien’s legendarium, like the Norse legends, driven more by despair than by hope? If all things seem to come to ruin, what is the place of hope in Middle-Earth?

And if his mythology is meant to shed light on the Primary World – our world – what is the place of hope on Planet Earth? What hope do we have that all we do will not come to ruin?

That’s what we are investigating in this series. Hold on!

Next: DOOM!