Light and High Beauty: The Virtue of Hope in The Lord of the Rings
We know God exists even though we can’t see Him, with as much certainty as we know the sun exists even when we can’t see it shine. We trust that He knows best even when we don’t understand why He lets things happen the way they do. The trouble is that on some days it’s hard to believe that the sun ever will shine again, and on those days, regardless of what we know intellectually, it can be hard to actually accept difficult circumstances beyond our control and leave them in God’s hands.
I’m referring to a particular day in my life following a political election, which dawned appropriately cold and bleak, the weather rivaled only by my gloomy thoughts. Being old enough to vote for the first time that year, I had been charged with enthusiasm and cautious optimism. The pencil trembled in my hand as I filled out my ballot, and a sense of exhilaration washed over me as I slid it into the machine. Then I went home and prayed . . . only for the crushing news to hit me full force the next morning that the vote had gone the other way, and in a way that was detrimental to the culture of life in America. Dazed and numb, I can’t deny the thought that seared through my mind: Why, God? Why did this have to happen?
I didn’t mean it, of course; I was simply overwhelmed. The feeling passed once the shock wore off, but I was still miserable. Meanwhile, the clouds blanketed the sky, dense and murky, looking as if the darkness of Mordor was spreading to Missouri. Weary and discouraged, I threw myself into praying a Rosary, trying to console myself with God’s triumph over sin embodied in the glorious mysteries. The Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit . . . I tried to focus on the light even though I was surrounded by darkness.
And then it happened. In the midst of the fourth decade, I raised my eyes to see a soft glow spreading across my bedroom door.
Astonished, I whirled around to face the window, and lo and behold, a brilliant shaft of light had penetrated the leaden clouds. It wasn’t much, but it was light, infusing some life into the dreary November landscape and making even the skeletal trees look beautiful. I finished the Rosary with a new vigor, then gathered my knees to my chin and gazed out the window in awe. My eyes soaked up the dazzling, nourishing light, and my mind flashed back to a scene in The Two Towers . . .
With Gollum leading the way, a weary Frodo and Sam finally reach the Crossroads in the desolate, weather-beaten land bordering Mordor. Here they will embark on the road leading to the mysterious Stairs of Cirith Ungol and into the Black Land itself. The hobbits stand there in the gloom, wary and apprehensive; beside them lies the massive head of an ancient king’s statue, fallen to the ravages of time and marauding orcs. Suddenly, Frodo looks up and sees one of the last rays of the setting sun cast itself on the statue and illuminate the trailing flowers clinging to its forehead. “Look, Sam!” he cries.“Look! The king has got a crown again.” There, even in the barren wilderness with Mordor’s ominous red glare flickering on the horizon beyond the foreboding mountain range, hope is swiftly kindled in the hobbits’ hearts – hope for their quest, for their friends, for the future, and for each other . . .
As I gazed outside my window, tears welling up in my eyes, Frodo’s next words rang through my mind with resounding clarity: They cannot conquer forever!
And they won’t, ever. It doesn’t matter whether our enemy is Sauron and his army of orcs or the moral travesties rife in my country or any other type of spiritual warfare facing us in daily life. Darkness never triumphs over the light, but the light always vanquishes the darkness.
That doesn’t mean it will always be easy to remember. There will be days when the darkness is so overpowering that all our efforts will seem to be in vain, no matter how hard we strive and struggle and labor and toil. We will be tempted to capitulate and succumb to despair . . . And during times like that, when we find ourselves questioning God, asking that universal why, we can look in the pages of The Lord of the Rings for comfort, utilizing literature’s profound ability to touch the human soul. It reminds us that no human being is alone in the age-long struggle against evil and offers us little moments of inspiration.
I see Frodo, sitting at the Council of Elrond, his mind in turmoil, summoning the courage to stand up and speak. With unwavering determination, he repeatedly declares his intention to persevere in his mission regardless of the consequences, knowing it may cost him his life. He clings to his convictions even when it’s inconvenient, refusing to yield to outside pressure. Filthy, starved, exhausted, and weak, he falls to his knees under the weight of the Ring and crawls up Mount Doom, scratching at the dirt with his bare hands, instead of giving up.
I see Sam, chasing after his master and refusing to let him go off alone to his death. Full of indomitable will and fire-tested faith, he exemplifies the meanings of unconditional love and loyalty. Never thinking of himself, he supports his stumbling friend, gives up his share of food, and watches over him as he sleeps. He never leaves Frodo’s side, even when he doesn’t know what to say, even if all he can do is hold his hand.
I see Aragorn, wandering through the Wild, living a harsh and lonely life. Enduring rejection and ridicule of every kind, he willingly dedicates himself to the service of others without asking for any reward or gratitude in return. He never overlooks even the smallest person, pledging his life to the protection of a hobbit from the Shire. Ultimately, he knowingly walks into a trap, facing certain death in a battle he cannot hope to win, because it is his duty.
I see Gandalf, facing the shadow and flame deep in Moria, his life of hardship and selflessness culminating in a final, supreme sacrifice. Resurrected to a state of even higher glory, he redoubles his efforts in the struggle against evil, everywhere inspiring humanity to new depths of courage. Without hesitation, he leads the way in a hopeless battle, risking utter annihilation in order to give a tiny hobbit time to find a way. It is Gandalf who reminds us that “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”
If they can do it, we can also. Through the grace of God, we too can stand firm and resist the forces of darkness. We are Catholic and have nothing to fear.
But sometimes we need a reminder that truth, beauty, and goodness still exist in the world. While an abundance of examples exist in history, especially in the lives of the saints, vivid and compelling ones are also found in fiction, particularly The Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t mean we’re hiding from reality, but rather that we are equipping ourselves to deal with it. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t distract us from God, but rather points us towards Him when we feel lost and confused.
And sometimes we need something even more concrete than that. So, on that dismal day, God gave me the ray of sunlight, shining like a promise in the sky and soothing the myriad fears gnawing at my mind.
Like in the Crossroads scene, it soon faded away . . . but it was enough. It was enough to remind me not to give up hope. As Sam observes in The Return of the King, “in the end the Shadow [is] only a small and passing thing; there [is] light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” Like the sun, God, the source of all light and beauty, is always there, even when He remains hidden, even when we don’t understand. I knew He was showing me a glimpse of glory to sustain me through whatever dark times lie ahead and reassure me of His presence and power. God is light, and light always dispels the darkness.
“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above the shadows rides the Sun
and Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.”
– Sam, The Return of the King
By Ellen Virginia