“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (14): Eucatastrophe

This post will conclude the series. I hope you have enjoyed it! Published on the last day of the year, it is an important reminder of the hope that drives our purpose in the new year.


When I think of Tolkien, the first word that comes to my mind is eucatastrophe, a word he coined. Eucatastrophe is his word for those sudden and un-looked-for upheavals of joy that bring tears to our eyes. These moments afford us a rare and unusual grace, for as we experience them we are convinced that evil will not triumph in the end. This is the taste of Joy “beyond the walls of the world” that Tolkien wrote about so memorably in On Fairy Stories. Samwise Gamgee experiences this glimpse of Joy, when in the depths of despair in Mordor, he suddenly sees a white star:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Eucatastrophe, in literature and in life, is like that star! It fills us with hope because we know that in the face of such beauty, the Shadow is only “a small and passing thing”.  We experience eucatastrophe when Eomer lifts up his sword in despair at the coming of the Corsairs, only to find that the ships bear Aragorn himself: “Thus came Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind of the sea to the kingdom of Gondor….”

We experience it when Samwise Gamgee discovers at the end of Return of the King that Gandalf is alive. The passage is worth quoting at length:

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever knownBut he himself burst into tears. Then as sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

“How do I feel?” he cried. “Well I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” – he waved his arms in the air – “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”’

Sam’s question, “is everything sad going to come untrue” is at the core of the Christian hope, and Tim Keller writes: “The answer of Christianity to that question is – yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Eucatastrophe pulls our hearts towards evangelion, the good news that Jesus is Lord and He is returning to put the world to rights.

The inhabitants of Middle-Earth may have had a hope without guarantees, living with a fundamental uncertainty of what happens in the end. But we living on this side of the Great Eucatastrophe, have much more hope than that! Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to us as a deposit of our future inheritance (Eph 1:18). Peter tells us that we have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).

We may die, but Aragorn’s words at his own death are instructive: “In sorrow we must go, but not despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”

Our living hope denies, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, universal final defeat. It does not deny sorrow; it denies despair.

Have ye then no hope?

Take heart. There is hope – more than you could dream.



“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (13): To Play Our Parts Well

This series has largely dealt with the theme of hope in Middle Earth. But what of the free peoples of Planet Earth, living in the primary world? What vision of hope does Tolkien offer us? A few themes stand out.

First, he offers us a conception of hope that takes seriously the darkness and evil that we find in the world. In our world, as in Tolkien’s, there are plenty of reasons to lose heart. Hope does not mean that we can foresee or conceive how the injustices of his world could be put to rights. It is instead the trust, the estel of Elves and Men, that a world loved by its creator will not be utterly abandoned to darkness and destruction.

Second, Tolkien gives us a powerful portrait of the perseverance and courage that can come from this kind of hope. Sam’s heroism is that of the common foot solider who faithfully accepts his place in the mission, however great or small that place may be. We are part of a larger picture, and we have no way of knowing how significant our role is in the tapestry God is weaving.

bilbo gandalf

This is the lesson that Bilbo Baggins articulates so memorably at the end of The Hobbit.  After an amazing adventure during which he has performed great feats of bravery, Gandalf says to him: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all of your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all.”

Bilbo’s response is to laugh and to say, “Thank goodness!”  And we can say “thank goodness” with him, because we know that while we are called to play our part with all our might, the world does not rise and fall on our effort alone.  There are other forces at work, and after we do all we can, they may still have another move.

In fact, when responding to a reader who had complained about Frodo’s failure, Tolkien said that it was actually impossible for Frodo (or any incarnate mortal) to destroy the ring themselves.  And yet, Frodo played his part:

Frodo deserved all honor because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (as one critic has said).

This is what we are called to do as well: to use every drop of our power of will and body to do as much as we can do. To play our parts well, and then in humility to step out of the way, and allow other powers to act: to let God be God.

Next: Eucatastrophe (The Conclusion)

“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.)


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)

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (11): Sandy Hook, Sadness and Hope

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”.

Kyrie Eleison. 

“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?” (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!