Tolkien and Hope

Throwback Tuesday

I sit beside the fire and think
  of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
  in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
  in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
  and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
  of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
  that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
  that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
  there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
  of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
  that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
  of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
  and voices at the door.

—Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

We are firm believers in the clear-cut happy ending. Winter without spring is unthinkable. But what do we do when it comes? Suffering without foreseeable relief is very real when a spouse dies, when a teenage son or daughter gets into serious trouble, when a boss or coworker is intolerable. Once in a while, we crash straight into the wall, and fail decisively. Where do the happy ending and our picture of ourselves go then?

The life and literary work of J. R. R. Tolkien, born on this day in 1892, can offer a helpful example of how to deal with such facts of life. He lost his father at four in South Africa, his mother at twelve in England, and most of his friends at twenty-four at the Battle of the Somme in France. Death, betrayal, and human limitation are everywhere in his works. Good eventually wins the big battles, but even at those great victories, there is loss: many good men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits don’t return home, and nothing can get them back as they were. Even when Frodo arrives home, he can’t stay: he has been too scarred and has to direct his hope beyond Middle Earth.

This is not the type of hope that animates the simple adventure novel. At some point, we’re looking at real losses, and they can’t be spiritualized away or therapeutically erased, whatever your preference may be. The winter and its sorrows are there to push man deeper than the superficial. Tolkien’s realism shows us that only the virtue of hope, given directly by God and not acquired by any technique of positive thinking, can see to the far side of the sorrows.

Seeing light on the far side is a motif that pervades Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Both works illustrate a patience, a looking to the horizon, of a sort we’re no longer good at. Of course we don’t always mind difficulty, even intense difficulty, but we would like to be over with it on a timetable. And while it’s going on, we also have to know exactly what it’s for, what it’s producing, and why we’re going to be better for it when it’s over.

But life isn’t like that. The reason for our difficulties and suffering isn’t always clear. People can resist our love and friendship, and the circumstances of life can deal us cruel blows. Christmas time is particularly poignant in this way. Even if we don’t have the suffering of a first Christmas without a particular loved one or away from part of our family, the celebrations have to end with the kids back at school, the relatives gone, the decorations put away, and the quiet house.

The springtime we hope for can never come in life as we have it here. Rather than frantically and futilely trying to escape the wintertimes of life, we must bear them in patience—taking the time to “sit beside the fire and think” as Bilbo Baggins did—and in the hope of Christmas, that the Son of God whose birth we celebrate will, by his death and resurrection, bring us to the springtime of eternal life, where God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more” (Rev 21:4).

Image: Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Sitting by the Fireplace (Worn Out)

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Br. Edmund McCullough, O.P.

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Br. Edmund McCullough is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated with a B.A. is Spanish and International Studies from Mount Saint Mary's University in 2009. He worked in campus ministry for two years before joining the Order of Preachers in 2011. On DominicanFriars.org