So there I was happily updating my Tolkien series on a regular basis, and the last six weeks of the semester hit me like a train. I am not beginning to emerge from the chaos and beginning to do things that have been otherwise left undone.
This post, which is a continuation of the last one (from October) seems particularly poignant given the horrific shooting at an elementary school which left 28 people, mostly children, dead. I place my hand over my mouth, no words to speak of that horror, only grief. This week in general has been emotionally exhausting, and my heart has been heavy with sadness.
But somehow Tolkien is always a tonic, and a short time spent in his world always gives me hope for this one.
Last time I stopped at the point where Arwen binds herself to Aragorn, foregoing immortality for the sake of love. Yet Elrond tells Aragorn that he can only have her hand if he reclaims the throne of both Gondor and Arnor. It is under this impossible doom that Aragorn strives for many years, valiantly opposing the enemy, but unable to foresee how his and Arwen’s hopes could be ever fulfilled.
After many years Gilraen (Aragorn’s mother) is “aged by care”, ready to die before her time, unable to face the encroaching darkness. Aragorn tries to comfort her, “Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness” but she replies with a linnod: “Onen i-Estel Edain, u-chebin estil amin” (I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself).”
In other words, her role was to bear, raise and protect the heir of Isildur. In doing so, she has given humanity its best hope repelling the darkness. And yet, no hope remains for Gilraen.
Gilraen’s statement is paradigmatic of Tolkien’s vision of the hero: a true hero surrenders to their role in the story. This is why Peter Jackson can put the line “I keep [no hope] for myself” in Aragorn’s mouth in the cinematic version of Return of the King without doing violence to the story (though he does so in other ways!). Gilraen, Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, firemen, parents, teachers at Sandy Hook and countless others keep no hope for themselves and yet in doing so they give hope to others.
The choice to call Aragorn Estel signifies the kind of hope that he embodies. Despite the prophecy, there is no careful campaign to restore Aragorn to the throne of Gondor. Estel is not the kind of hope that comes from experience, an expectation rooted in weighing the odds and calculating the chances. Aragorn embodies the hope that comes from an almost blind trust, rooted in a certain conviction about the nature of the world. It is the conviction that providence exists, and such providence only works through the obedient actions of heroes.
For Tolkien, to go on without hope (amdir) is to do the right thing even when you cannot possibly imagine how things could be put right after all the wrong that has occurred, even if you cannot conceive how things could work out for the best.
The rationale here is that even if consolation cannot be imagined, there are larger forces at work in the world, and when we come the end of our strength, when we have no more options, perhaps they will take over.
At a time like this, we need this reminder.
Every small action of love, courage and compassion is a refusal to give in to the darkness that threatens to swallow us all. It is the defiant choice to believe that despite all appearances to the contrary, hope remains for humanity.
For surely in a created world, loved by its Creator, there will not be “universal final defeat”.