“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.”

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“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?” (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!