At the ‘Council of London’ held by the Tea Club and Barrovian Society in December 1914, J. R. R. Tolkien and his three dearest friends spoke of the call they felt to bring beauty and meaning back into a world grown desolate of it. In a letter to Tolkien, G. B. Smith wrote the role of the TCBS would be “too drive from life, letters, the stage and society that dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life and nature which have captured the larger and worser tastes in Oxford, London and the world…to re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast” (qtd. in Garth, Tolkien and the Great War 105). Rob Gilson in his own letter to Tolkien said that after the Council, “I suddenly saw the TCBS in a blaze of light as a great moral reformer … England purified of its loathsome insidious disease by the TCBS spirit” (ibid.). John Garth notes, “For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life” (ibid. 58). It was a moment, Tolkien wrote to G. B. Smith, of “finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 10). Indeed, Tolkien would stand within the Song of the world he discovered as Middle-earth for the rest of his life and carry brightest the torch of the TCBS.
In a letter to Milton Waldman describing the legendarium, Tolkien also spoke of what he believed about the nature of stories of his sort. “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth…. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear” (Letters 144, 147). Garth noted that some in Tolkien’s time “dismissed the whole concept of good and evil as a delusion of the weak or deviant. … that Tolkien saw value in traditions that most others rejected is one of his gifts to posterity” (Great War 292).
Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher, in 1944:
I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment…. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives…. But there is still some hope that things may be better for us, even on the temporal plane, in the mercy of God. (Letters 76)
This understanding of the nature of the powerlessness of evil to be anything but the instrument ultimately for the victory of good is present from the early days of Tolkien’s writing:
Now Ilúvatar spake to Ulmo and said: ‘Seest thou not how Melko hath bethought him of biting colds without moderation, yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy crystal waters nor of all thy limpid pools. Even where he has thought to conquer utterly, behold snow has been made, and frost has wrought his exquisite works; ice has reared his castles in grandeur.’
Again said Ilúvatar: ‘Melko hath devised undue heats, and fires without restraint, and yet hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of thy seas. Rather behold now the height and glory of the clouds and the magic that dwells in mist and vapours; listen to the whisper of rains upon the earth.’
Then said Ulmo: ‘Yea truly water is fairer now than was my best devising before. Snow is of a loveliness beyond my most secret thoughts, and if there is little music therein, yet rain is beautiful indeed and hath a music that filleth my heart, so glad am I that my ears have found it, though its sadness is among the saddest of all things.’ (Book of Lost Tales I 53-54)
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said, ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. (Silmarillion 5)
Instances of how evil works toward its own defeat and brings great good abound in the legendarium. I will only note a few here. The success of the terrible quest Beren took up to recover a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth, meant by Lúthien’s father to be a fatal mission to keep Beren from marrying her, brought the great good of that union from which Elwing came from their son. She married Eärendil and bore the Silmaril that her grandsire had wrested from the Crown.
The terrible oath that Fëanor bound himself and his sons to recover the Silmarils at any and all costs comes into play after the sons attack and killed many where Eärendil and Elwing lived. The great good that comes as a result is that after Elwing’s escape, she and her husband come to Valinor to plea for aid from the Valar against Morgoth. The Powers do not allow Eärendil to walk upon Middle-earth again, but rather they give that land a great gift through him. “Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth beheld it from afar and wondered, and they took it for a sign, and called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope” (ibid. 258). The Valar come with a great host to defeat Morgoth, while Eärendil himself slays the great dragon, Ancalagon. The light of the Silmaril from Vingilot is what Sam sees millennia later shining in the black night of Mordor, which gives him the grace-filled understanding that evil will not last forever and there are things it cannot spoil.
The malignant power of the Ring ruined Sméagol, but his wretchedness stirs pity in Bilbo’s heart and saves the creature’s life. Thus begins a long series of people who have pity as well, which culminates in Sam’s, and allows for Gollum’s all-consuming lust for the Ring to be the instrument of its destruction.
Gandalf’s fall in Moria is a disaster for the Company, but it later shows itself to be a great good in disguise as it allows the Maia to return with greater power.
Saruman’s lust for the Ring causes him to send out troops looking for it and also to make the men of Rohan his enemies. The Rohirrim defeat the Orcs who capture Merry and Pippin, which allows the hobbits to encounter Treebeard, which rouses the Ents to destroy Isengard.
Frodo’s epiphany at the Cross-roads gives him the same insight Sam receives later. The hobbits see the defaced statue of the king, but Frodo realizes that evil had not had the last word with flowers crowning the fallen head. “They cannot conquer for ever!” (LotR IV:7, 687).
The Orcs again are unwitting instruments of good after they capture Frodo and Sam in Mordor. The forced march the hobbits are caught up in gets them to Mount Doom in time to save the army of the West at the Black Gate.
Tolkien also gives many examples of light and hope to combat the darkness and despair that evil brings, light that shines because of the blackness and through its long night. Galadriel’s words, “on one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope” (LotR II:8, 367) are just as applicable from the dark years of two world wars that Tolkien and his family lived through to our present day which again witnesses so many senseless acts of hatred and violence.
Gandalf’s mirth as the siege of Minas Tirith is about to start would make no sense if the hidden Maia did not have faith in his Creator’s plan and so can see beyond the dire straits of the present into hope for the future. Because he does, Pippin does also. After Beregond asks the hobbit if there is any hope, the tween thinks first of the evil that Sauron has already unleashed. “Then suddenly Pippin looked up and saw that the sun was still shining and the banners still streaming in the breeze” (LotR V:1, 749). He does not look into a feared future but the present moment. “No, my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us. We may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees” (ibid.).
Though Faramir never met the Lady in the Golden Wood, he lives out her words about darkness and hope. In one breath, he tells Frodo he has no hope of seeing him again, and in the next, he speaks of that occurrence happening after all is over and they can laugh together. In his talk with Éowyn in the Houses of Healing, he acknowledges the possibility that doom may engulf their world, but he also has hope it will not. “The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. Éowyn…in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” (LotR VI:5, 941).
Sam has the same outlook as Pippin and would agree with Blessed Julian of Norwich, who lived during the Black Death but who still said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This hope Sam carries defiantly in his heart, even while Mount Doom explodes around him, and his hope receives its reward. This is one of the greatest eucatastrophes in the story: “the sudden joyous ‘turn’. . . sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 68).
Aragorn’s final words to Arwen convey tremendous hope, especially profound for the pre-Christian time in which he speaks them. “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!” (LotR Appendix A, 1038).
These people all give life to some of Tolkien’s earliest words: “…even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure through Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to my great glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much the more wonderful and marvellous” (Book of Lost Tales I 52). They are all what Gandalf calls Sam, Harthad Uluithiad, Hope Unquenchable (Sauron Defeated 62).
Another great light Tolkien shines on the world is the portrayal of the tremendous courage many show in their embrace of the sacrifices necessary to combat the scourge of evil, just as those who fought in WWI and II did and those who fight today do. But it is “…through Hobbits…the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil)” (ibid. 160). Every war in any age is full of such moments of the ordinary ‘little man’ who goes off to battle something much bigger than himself and discovers in the end the devouring monster is the small one, and he is the dragon-slayer, though he may carry the scars of the struggle for the rest of his life. Beren and Lúthien demonstrate this and inspire Frodo and Sam in their own battle.
Tolkien shows that sometimes the greatest acts of valor do not take place on the battlefield but in the heart. Bilbo chooses to place his own self-preservation in peril by showing pity for Gollum rather than killing him and in his decision to go forward toward Smaug. Frodo does the same at Bag End and the Council of Elrond, in his own encounters with Gollum, and in each breath and steps he chooses to take toward Mordor. Though Tolkien speaks only of the younger Baggins, his words could be just as applicable to both of them: “the hero departs in a wholly new direction: to go and face [evil] at its source” (Letters 153).
For Tolkien, “the most important part of the whole work [is] the journey through Mordor and the martyrdom of Frodo” (qtd. in Hammond & Scull 615). Frodo’s terrible struggle against the Ring and the despair it induces in him tears the hobbit apart and leaves him without even his memories. Yet, he refuses to surrender and focuses every drop of his heart, soul, will, and strength into active battle on the spiritual plane. Frodo’s increasingly unbearable torment is also his glory. Peter Kreeft notes, “the self is saved only when it is lost, found only when really given away in sacrifice. True freedom comes only when you bind yourself to your duty” (“Wisdom” 46).
Though not speaking of Middle-earth, words of Fr. Jacques Philippe and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen apply to those who fought against fear and temptation in Middle-earth and won:
Every Christian must be throughly convinced that his spiritual life. . . must be viewed as the scene of a constant and sometimes painful battle, which will not end until death – a struggle against evil, temptation and the sin that is in him. This combat is inevitable, but is to be understood as an extremely positive reality, because, as Saint Catherine of Siena says, ‘without war there is no peace’; without combat there is no victory. And this combat is, correctly viewed, the place of our purification, of our spiritual growth, where we learn to know ourselves in our weakness and to know God in His infinite mercy. This combat is the definitive place of our transfiguration and glorification (Philippe, Searching 9).
Since man was free to love, he was free to hate; since he was free to obey, he was free to rebel. . . .
. . . The world has no heroes except in those battles where every hero might have been a coward; the nation has no patriots except . . . where each patriot might have been a traitor. . . . Triumphal arches are reared only to men who succeeded, but who might have failed in the trying; . . . monuments are erected only to the memory of those who might have turned back, and yet pushed on. (Sheen, God’s World and Our Place in It 28)
As with soldiers in any and every age, Frodo lives and breathes the lesson of perseverance without sight of light or hope of survival, showing how aptly named Gandalf names him Bronwe athan Harthad, Endurance beyond Hope (Sauron Defeated 62). They all show this torturous way is the true path, for through their labors, many gain a peaceful life they would not otherwise have.
Tolkien wrote to G. B. Smith in 1916:
… the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war (which is for all the evil of our own side with large view good against evil).
Of course the TCBS may have been all we dreamt – and its work in the end be done by three or two or one survivor… (Letters 10).
John Garth remarks on the truth of this. “…The Lord of the Rings…stands as the fruition of the TCBSian dream, a light drawn from ancient sources to illuminate a darkening world” (309). Tolkien himself felt the inspirational power of the retelling of the War of the Ring to push back darkness and despair. “…I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West” (Letters 413). A young Russian woman shows the truth of this in our day. “Soviet people were raised as atheists,” she says. “Tolkien’s books offered me hope for our world, the hope that Tolkien’s elves call estel. Tolkien does not mention God in The Lord of the Rings at all, but you feel something really wonderful when you read it. Later I recognized it as faith” (“The Fellowship of the Ring,” wired.com). Another admirer, also an unbeliever for much of his life, noted, “‘You…create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’” (Letters 413).
In 1916, Tolkien wrote to G. B. Smith about his belief that each member of the TCBS was meant to be “a great instrument in God’s hands – a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things” (ibid. 10). Decades later, Tolkien recounted in a letter to an admirer that another reader of The Lord of the Rings had asked him,
‘Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’
Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer.’ I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose. (Letters 413)
None of Tolkien’s myriad admirers would agree about his ‘lamentable unfitness.’ Rather they would celebrate his earlier words: “The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (“On Fairy-Stories” 73). Indeed it is so in Tolkien’s case. Eglerio! Praise him with great praise!
Davis, Erik. “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Wired. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/9.10/lotr.html. October 2001. Accessed 28 November 2015.
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Kreeft, Peter. “Wartime Wisdom: Ten Uncommon Insights About Evil in The Lord of the Rings.” Ed. John G. West, Jr. Celebrating Middle-earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2002.
Philippe, Jacques. Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart. Trans. George and Jannic Driscoll. Staten Island, NY: St. Pauls/Alba House, 2002.
Sheen, Fulton J. God’s World and Our Place in It. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Book of Lost Tales I. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine/Del Rey, 1992.
—. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
—. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, 1966.
—. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
––. Sauron Defeated: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part 4. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
—. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Illustrated by Ted Nasmith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.