Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
Hopelessness and the Renewal of Strength
"Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured," said Gandalf.
"I fear it may be so with mine," said Frodo. "There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?"
Gandalf did not answer. (III: 331)
In a jocular moment shared by Frodo and Bilbo before the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell, Bilbo, who has taken it upon himself to write down the story of their adventures, asks Frodo if he has thought of a good ending for them yet. Frodo confesses that the only endings he can see are dark and unpleasant, and Bilbo returns with "Oh, that won't do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?" (I: 358, Tolkien's italics). Not much cheered, Frodo wanly agrees that would be pleasant, but the last word goes to Sam, the voice of common sense throughout the work. "Ah!" says Sam. "And were will they live? That's what I often wonder."
It is Tolkien's pretense that The Lord of the Rings was adapted from the chronicle begun by Bilbo in the "Red Book," which was continued by Frodo and finished by Sam, so the opinions of these three "authors" are not irrelevant. At the time when Frodo passes the book to Sam, Tolkien writes this about it:
[It] was a big book with plain red leather covers; its tall pages were now almost filled. At the beginning there were many leaves covered with Bilbo's thin wandering hand; but most of it was written in Frodo's firm flowing script. It was divided into chapters, but Chapter 80 was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves.... "I have quite finished, Sam," said Frodo. "The last pages are for you." (III: 379-80).
The Lord of the Rings, put together with The Hobbit, actually contains 81 chapters. Plainly, the part written by Bilbo is meant to correspond with The Hobbit, his own story, and it is indeed very thin and wandering in comparison with the latter trilogy. And consistent with Bilbo's recommendation, The Hobbit has a happy ending, of the ever-after sort, summed up in the final stanza of the poem Bilbo recites on his return to the Shire:
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known. (Hobbit: 283-4)
Frodo's quite different reaction to his own homecoming is given in the header quote to this chapter, and reveals that for him the ending is as dark and unpleasant as he foretold, despite the success of his quest. In fact, the 107 pages that follow the destruction of the Ring in the text are surprisingly somber. They contain the passing of the elves and Gandalf from Middle-earth, and the beginning of the new age, in which both magic and the untainted purity of the elves will be a memory. They contain the discovery of corruption and evil in the Shire itself, followed by the decision of Frodo to give up his life there in order to sail away with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the elves across the great sea. C. S. Lewis described the final impression left by these pages as "profound melancholy" (TAB: 204), and thought it to be the work's greatest success. Its burden is that all victories over Evil are impermanent; the struggles do not cease, and will not even always be won. Even Frodo, said to be the best of the hobbits, did not have the strength to destroy the Ring in the end, and tried to claim it for its own. Only the "lucky" intercession of Gollum prevented catastrophe, and the future has no such guarantees.
This is a strange charge to raise against a work that is supposedly "escapist," and as such should presumably avoid the ponderous negativity of hopelessness. And readers who remember the unusual strength and vigor that the work has lent them can righteously deny that the total effect of reading it is anything like hopelessness. Yet to understand its vigor, it is important to acknowledge that hopelessness not only pervades the book but is felt and accepted by the characters at every stage of the Quest:
[Gandalf:] "Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again." (I: 81-2)
[Elrond:] "The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength or wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong." (I: 353)
[Galadriel:] "Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away." (I: 472)
[Gimli:] "This is a bitter end to our hope and to all our toil!"
[Aragorn:] "To hope, maybe, but not to toil." (II: 36)
[Frodo:] And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go.... Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (II: 319)
[Gandalf:] "We must march out to meet [Sauron] at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.... We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lord, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age." (III: 191)
[Sam:] But the bitter truth came to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return. (III: 259)
The heroes of the trilogy make the decision to carry on even though they know their doom is sealed, and their death nearly assured. They demonstrate conviction that their cause has a worthiness that transcends their lives, even though the cause is doomed; and they choose to serve it in the small way they can. They win the ultimate victory of intelligence, capable of distinguishing good from evil, over the instinct for self-preservation. The effect of this choice is shown by Sam's reaction to his realization quoted above:
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (III: 259)
A simple mental step for Sam transforms him from most fleshy and comfort-loving of mortals (a hobbit) to a stone giant, a true hero, over whom death holds no fear or dominion. Tolkien's readers participate in that mental transformation, and it is stunning.
Knowing that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, we might suspect that his characters are echoing the cry of the Christian martyr, "O death, where is thy sting?" whose faith in salvation has taught him contempt for the flesh. Yet all references to a higher power, faith, or religion are scrupulously avoided in the textthe heroes' decisions are not made any easier by the promise of a better life in the hereafter. Tolkiens Beowulf essay reveals that he was fascinated with the "old dogma" of the pagan, which he said celebrated heroism without a salvation: "despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance" ("BMC": 23). Tolkien proposed that the Beowulf-poet was capable of communicating this due to his historical proximity to pagan times, but, as Lee Rossi has suggested, Tolkien might just as easily have referred to himself, for the war-torn time that Tolkien lived in was pagan in spirit, if not doctrine. The Lord of the Rings celebrates the "value of doomed resistance" wholeheartedly. And Tolkien himself engaged in doomed resistance by speaking out against modern inventions like electric street-lamps, which certainly weren't going to disappear on the strength of his recommendation.
This principle is demonstrated and validated in the important chapter entitled "The King of the Golden Hall" (II: 140-165), which I believe contains the heart of what Tolkien hoped to express and achieve through his writing. The chapter achieves one of the emotional high points of the epic, one of the few scenes that really stood out in my memory of reading the trilogy as a child. Furthermore, the content of the chapter derives from a scene in Beowulf, a work to which Tolkien felt an extremely strong tie, and interprets and recontextualizes themes from Beowulf in Middle-earth. The correspondence with Beowulf indicates that Tolkien himself viewed this chapter to be very important, and it will assist us in reading and interpretation.
The event of the chapter is the visit of Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli to the hall of King Théoden in Rohan. The correspondence with Beowulf can be noticed immediately in two ways: first, the names of the Rohirrim (men of Rohan) derive from old Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf, to the point that several names are taken directly from the epic poem: Éomer, Háma, Guthláf. Secondly, upon their arrival at Théoden's hall, Edoras, the four travelers are greeted in a manner which is virtually identical to the reception that Beowulf receives upon landing at Heorot, the hall of Hrothgar, with his companions the warrior Geats. In the scene from Beowulf, the Geats are stopped by a watchman who demands their names, becomes informed of Beowulf's lineage, and allows the armed company to pass on to Heorot against all custom, because:
"The discriminating warriorone whose mind is keen
must perceive the difference between words and deeds.
But I see that you are a company well-disposed
Towards the Danish prince. Proceed, and bring
your weapons and armour! I shall direct you.
The companions in The Lord of the Rings meet a similar obstruction in the approach to Edoras, Théodens hall, when they are stopped by Háma, the door-warden. Aragorn, who as a great warrior corresponds to young Beowulf, takes charge, informing Háma of his lineage and the identity of his companions. Háma admits them with the words "In doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in" (II: 147), which would probably make a fair alternate translation of the lines from Beowulf cited above. Before entering the hall, both Aragorn's party and Beowulf's are asked to leave their weapons behind, though in Beowulf a concession is made allowing the Geats to keep their armor, and in The Lord of the Rings Háma allows Gandalf to retain his staff. Certainly anyone who had studied Beowulf closely (Tolkien might have said any properly educated person) would notice the similarity between the two scenes immediately. We may infer that he expected the comparison to be made between the two works, by at least some of his readers, and feel justified in using Beowulf to interpret the chapter's meaning and significance.
From the inside, the two halls are strikingly similar. Hrothgar built Heorot with the intention of making "a large and noble feasting-hall / of whose splendours men would always speak" (ASW: 75), and the hall is richly decorated in gold and barred from without by iron bands. Edoras is also barred with iron, and richly decorated, glittering with "gold and half-seen colours" (II: 148). Each hall contains an aged King. But we know that the most famous resident of Heorot is not Hrothgar, but Grendel, the hellish monster who enters the walls at night, murdering all stragglers he catches there. Grendel is the antithesis of the spirit of the mead hall; a creature full of hatred for the revelry and feasting from which he is perforce excluded, being a child of Cain, doomed to the spiteful isolation of the moors. Grendel is said to be the origin of "all evil-doers" (ASW: 76) and as Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest approach Théoden, we are already peering ahead to see what comparable beast lurks within the walls of the Golden Hall of Edoras.
For the moment there is naught to be seen but Théoden, his niece Éowyn, and the pale counselor, Gríma. It is easy to see that the years do not sit well on the King of Rohan, for he is slumped with age in his chair, and clutches a short cane. He can barely manage to stand and deliver to Gandalf and the others a curt greeting before collapsing again in his seat. Further communication is handled by Gríma, who is privately named Wormtongue by the King's other counselors.
Wormtongue is hostile to the visitors, and it soon becomes clear that it is his soft, alluring counsel ("do not weary yourself, or tax too heavily your strength") that has enfeebled Théoden and nearly crippled the realm. Wormtongue always urges Théoden to take the easy way out and shirk responsibility. Listening to this counsel, Théoden has collapsed into doubt and complacency, disbelieving his own strength and that of his realm. He favors Gríma's empty flattery to the coarser but truer voices that would guide him, such as that of his nephew, Éomer. His long inactivity under Gríma's watchful guidance has dulled him into spiritual weariness product of the stagnation of stale air, stale thoughts and stale news. He has been shut up for too long in Edoras, his only reports from the outside world being filtered through Wormtongue. The familiar dullness of discouragement and routine has shuttered his mind so that he readily accepts what Gríma tells him, without critical evaluation.
Gandalf wakes Théoden from his dullness by causing all lights in Edoras to be darkened through his magic. Then, as he speaks to the King, the natural light returns slowly to the room, and the King is enabled to see it freshly, as if for the first time. The sunbeams through the window that his eyes previously ignored revive him with the energy of their radiance, allowing Gandalf to convince him to walk outside, where his back straightens and he casts away his cane. He experiences the "regaining of a clear view" which Tolkien argued was the healing function of fantasy for its readers ("OFS": 57), whom he hoped to inspire with this example. As Théoden's will strengthens, he calls for his sword, and gripping it recalls the power of action, that gives purpose to the will. To the cheering of his men, Théoden calls for the mobilization of the Rohirrim for war, and promises to personally lead them into battle.
In the course of events Gríma is revealed to be a traitor, paid by Saruman to sabotage the King's resolve. But the Grendel of the court was not Wormtongue himself, but his influence, which sapped Théoden of his resolve and lead him into complacency, and the uncritical acceptance of routine. In his recovery, Théoden exceeds the highest expectations of his men, going off to war in his old age, just as Beowulf miraculously led his men to battle against the dragon at the end of his life, after a fifty-year reignboth make shining examples of heroism and sacrifice, and shame all those who stint in their service.
Like Beowulf, Théoden is killed in action, after slaying his own dragonthe winged beast ridden by the Lord of the Nazgûl. In both works it is the last feat of an ancient hero, who dies without an heir. But also like Beowulf, Théoden does not die alone. Beowulf, who normally insisted on single combat, was joined by Wiglaf, a well-meaning squire who was nonetheless unequal to the task of dragon-slaying; he bravely managed to distract the monster, but could not save Beowulf. In the poem Wiglaf represents the new generation that must carry on without a great hero to guide them. Though he will never be able to swim underwater for two days in full armor, battling sea serpents the whole time, he proves that the heroic ideal and courage of Beowulf will not be completely lost, and erects a barrow by the sea to preserve Beowulf's example for posterity.
Théoden's Wiglaf is Merry, a hobbit, and therefore a double for the reader (see Chapter Four). He helps Éowyn to slay the Nazgûl lord, but then returns to Théoden's side. Much later, at the King's funeral, where Théoden is placed in a barrow similar to Beowulf's, Merry speaks "As a father you were to me, for a little while. Farewell!" (III: 314). As Théoden's "son," he has inherited the ideal of the King's example, just as Tolkien hoped the English would come to see themselves as heirs to the example set by Beowulf.
As a young reader, these scenes carried me away, and this was part of Tolkien's intention: to empower his audience by casting glimpses of heroic greatness through the shuttered windows of their lives. Tolkien's work consistently underscores his belief in the value of striving, even within the context of the humdrum of modern life: so that we should find our limits, find the romance in our lives, and demonstrate our knowledge of right and wrong. The example of heroes strengthens the individual, by kindling the spark of heroism that we all carry inside. Tolkien sent his four provincial hobbits on such a grand journey to wake up their better natures, which were sleeping in the shadow of the ills of their time. It is plain that he meant for his readers to hear the call as well, and to find the makings of legend in their own lives. The sympathetic reader finds in Tolkien not only a strong tonic, but a cry for activism.