“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (12): Tolkien’s Ragnarok

(I told myself that I would finish this series before the end of the year, and I think there are at least 2-3 more posts left. This post will touch on the eschatology – the end times – of Middle Earth.)

ragnarok

Tolkien wrote that eucatastrophe, the unexpected upheaval of good signifies that there will not be universal final defeat. So what kind of an end, if any, did he envision for Middle Earth?

Tolkien seemed reticent to speak of it beyond the tensions explored in this paper. Indeed, if the history of Middle Earth is supposed to be a pre-history of Planet Earth, then it follows that the eschatology of Middle Earth is ultimately bound up in the eschatology of the Primary World. There are, however, a few strands that we see in his earlier writings, which are worth examining. The first is the prophecy of “a greater music still”, which will be sung by the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Iluvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

Once again, this prophecy is from the Elvish perspective, and it is not spoken in terms of certainty but rather possibility: “it has been said…”.

There are also references to a final climactic battle at the end of days. Though Christopher Tolkien edited it out of the published Silmarillion, his father wrote to Milton Waldman that the Silmarillion

ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the ‘light before the Sun’ – after a final battle which owes, I suppose, more to the Norse vision of Ragnarök than to anything else, though it is not much like it.

The battle is not like Ragnarök principally because the forces of Good are not ultimately defeated!

At the very beginning of the Silmarillion, when Varda makes the stars, she puts two constellations in particular that anticipate a final battle at the end of days: Menelmacar (Orion), swordsman of the sky and Valacirca, the “Sickle of the Valar and the sign of doom.”

In later versions of this story, Menelmacar comes to be identified as none other than the cursed Turin Turambar.  While there are multiple differing stories as to who kills Melkor, in the end it seems that that honor goes to Turin:

Thus spake Mandos in prophecy, when the Gods sat in judgement in Valinor, and the rumour of his words was whispered among the Elves of the West. When the world is old and the powers grow weary, then Morgoth, seeing that the guard sleepeth, shall come back through the Door of Night out of the Timeless Void; and he shall destroy the sun and the Moon. But Earendel shall descend upon him as a white and searching flame and drive him from the airs. Then shall the Last Battle be gathered on the fields of Valinor. In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Fionwe, and on his left Turin Turambar, son of Hurin, coming from the halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Turin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Hurin and all Men be avenged.

It seems that Tolkien feels the need to vindicate his arguably most tragic character: who but Turin should slay Morgoth? This takes on added significance if, as discussed above, we see Turin as typological for humanity: valiant but self-cursed. This does beg the question, however, of how a human character like Turin is allowed to come back for this battle. But then the Author of the play is free to bring his characters back on the stage after the play seems to be over.

Might this be a hint of the hope of resurrection? If so, it is a “hope without guarantees”, at least for the free peoples of Middle Earth. At the very least, since Tolkien is writing a myth and not just a story, these impulses signify his attempt to give all his characters justice in the end.

Next: Hope in the Primary World (Some Applications)

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“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!