An Introduction

I am a Tolkienista.

I subscribe to the Tolkien worldview. I find it rooted in truth, and it is very hopeful even though he was described by his biographer as a pessimist. How could he not be? He was a devout Catholic living in England. He was orphaned at twelve years old, he fought in WWI, and then two decades later sent two sons to fight in WWII. Then there are the broader events of his time that would have influenced his worldview, industrialization, socialist revolution, the depression, and all the other 20th century satanism too numerous to mention here. History shows that mankind informed by expediency when making moral choices, inevitably has difficulty choosing the ones that have the best possible outcomes for society. How could one not be pessimistic in light of all that? He certainly saw materialist thought applied during his lifetime. If he was pessimistic it was only a reaction to his personal experience, and the times in which he lived. I call him a realist, but I will accept his biographer’s characterization. However despite his difficulties he wrote so beautifully about hope. He infused hope through all his works, and it is one of the greatest themes of Lord Of The Rings.

This is one of my favorite passages in LOTR from The Return of the King:

“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.”

He uses transcendent beauty as the means by which Sam finds hope in a moment of despair. Sam did not call out to God, but God found him in in the desolation piercing his soul, and giving him the will to resist. Pessimistic? Maybe in real life, but not in his work. Two reactions to the pain and brutality that he experienced in life would be to either fall into despair, or to resist despair by imparting hope. I am certain that in his case it was the latter. We cannot hide from death or history, and we all have to face them. There is no doubt his worldview was shaped by them. It is widely known that he disliked allegory in all its manifestations, and preferred history to allegory. With history the reader was free to take what they liked from the story. It is this preference that makes me believe he wrote in some sense as an act of resistance against the malice he saw in the culture, and that is evidenced by the hope he infused into his work. It is through hope that we are enabled to resist evil.

He knew that hope was the key. He was well grounded in his Catholic faith. He may have been pessimistic about what he experienced and saw in the world around him. He knew that Christian civilization succumbed to materialism and all its despair, and that it would over time play itself out to its bitter end. Rather than to do nothing, he created characters who resisted it in their world, and through hope and great effort overcame it for a short while. This is not to say that LOTR is allegorical in this sense, but we as readers are free to take from this world what we will.

If Tolkien was pessimistic in his personal life he certainly had good reason. If you read his personal writings they are not very hopeful unless he writing about his sub-creation. He writes quite a bit about the source of his pessimism in his personal writings. He must have pondered the question at some point, how do we resist the domination of something that is antithetical to our worldview? A lot of his work was intended for his children, and whatever benefit they would gain from it. In my opinion he answered the question in his account of Middle-earth. Resistance builds hope, and hope fuels resistance. He created a fictional world in which hope prevails over evil, so that these stories would help them (and us) to resist the culture and live as free persons.

Maybe he was a pessimist and struggled with despair. Perhaps he could not overcome the scars left by the deaths of his parents as a boy, and his best friends in WWI. We find in the Appendices some backstory that might lead us to an answer. After his father was killed, Aragorn was taken to Rivendell as a boy, and was given the name Estel which means Hope. Perhaps there is a clue here to his state of mind in the parting words of Gilraen, Aragorn’s mother:

“Onen i-Estel Edain, u-chebin estel anim.”
(I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself.)

Soon after their parting Gilraen died in her despair. It is probably a stretch, but I want to believe that he was revealing to all of us through Gilraen’s parting words to her son, his state of mind. He said that LOTR was written in his “life-blood”, and in many ways it captured on the page the Hope that was given to him–if one can do such a thing theologically. What is self-donation then if not a giving of all that we are, including all that which was given to us? All of his characters who resisted the evil speak of hope through their actions. Personally I think he left all that he had on the page, and that to me is very very optimistic.

Krista, a reader of Korrektiv, is searching for hope, and her comment got me thinking about this subject in the first place. I wrote this little introduction to my worldview with her and others like her in mind. I try to read his works every year, because I find new nuggets of hope. It is the hope that keeps me coming back year after year. His work has always been a guide to me, and has given me spiritual tools to resist the malice of our times. So now we’ve been introduced . . . off to Mordor.


  1. Jonathan Potter says

    Nice intro, Cubeland. Thanks. It puts me in mind of this:

    • Cubeland Mystic says

      I love that ending. I’ve only watched that movie once. I don’t like the part with the “sisters” or whatever the nickname was so it has been hard to watch again. I think I might be able to do it again after seeing that. Beautiful.

  2. Cubeland, that passage is also one of my very favorites in Tolkien’s work. Every time I read it something in me comes alive, or back to life. I’d add one thing to your analysis: I think you may be creating a dualism between the man and his work that’s a tad too strong. I believe that in the end, Tolkien and his work were one. Pessimism is evident in his work, but is a very different kind of pessimism than nihilistic despair. Tolkien has no illusions about fallen human nature and the ways of this world, and that is shown in his work. Remember that the hope that appears in the LOTR is most often described as “hope beyond hope.” I think the perfect description of his worldview (and mine, for that matter) is found not in the LOTR though, but in the Silmarillion. There he talks about the “long defeat,” which characterizes the millennial war of the forces of good in Middle Earth, led by the elves, against Morgoth. They can never win of their own efforts, and over time all their glory proves short-lived, and they are beaten back by the enemy. The struggle against Morgoth is lost… until help comes to them from the Undying Lands.

    That’s the story I see myself in. Fighting the long defeat. We can’t win. But we will.

    • Cubeland Mystic says

      Hi Bernardo

      I have to roll out. More commenting later. I had to fight hard to keep the “Long Defeat” out of this post. I am not so sure Tolkien would agree with me on leaving no hope for himself personally. He may have said something like “obviously I am full of hope, look at all this writing I did blah blah.” I could see him or Christopher saying that. But you might be right about my dualism, which makes Gilraen’s quote all the more plausible that it is a reflection of his state of mind. More later, thx for commenting.

    • Cubeland Mystic says

      From Letter 109 to Sir Stanley Unwin (his publisher in July 1947 quite a few years before publication of LOTR. Unwin’s son had just read parts of the manuscript and commented on it as an allegory.)

      “But in spite of this, do not let Rayner suspect ‘Allegory’. There is a ‘moral’, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals — they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.

      Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth. So that the only perfectly consistent allegory is real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory. And one finds, even in imperfect human ‘literature’, that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easily can it be read ‘just as a story’; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it. But the two start out from opposite ends. You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot write a story about an apparently simply magic ring without that bursting in, if you really take the ring seriously, and make things happen that would happen, if such a thing existed.”

      • Cubeland Mystic says

        Hi Bernardo

        I want to go to the non-dualistic interpretation as you suggest but then I get this quote above. I want to say that LOTR is a reaction to the times in which he lived. (For that matter how can anything we do not be a reaction to the time in which we live.) If I do that I run into passages like the above where he refutes it. Also he was a professor of Anglo Saxon, and LOTR roughly maps to that mythic style. So he seems to be sticking to his guns about history and his characters are archetypes and when you stick them into the theater of “Story” they will play out in these ways.

        Then you have the ubiquitous

        “As for any inner meaning or ´message´, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.”


        “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

        And then there is this from the same letter 109 above.

        “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other. I fear it must stand or fall as it substantially is. It would be idle to pretend that I do not greatly desire publication, since a solitary art is no art; nor that I have not a pleasure in praise., with as little vanity as fallen man can manage (he has not much more share in his writings than in his children of the body, but it is something to have a function); yet the chief thing is to complete one’s work, as far as completion has any real sense.”

        I am reading some sense of dualism in that these works take on their own course in the sense that your child is their own person, but conversely his life-blood streams through the work. Well professor which is it? Did you or did you not leave no hope for yourself like your character Gilraen?

        For me and in my life and like you in your life and the other who agree are fighting the long defeat just you he was. And in my case specifically, I have no hope AT ALL for our culture and life on this side of the vale. But with all the young people I encounter I am a hope dispenser. I will go out of my way to give them something Christian to hang on to for fear of the sin of despair creeping into their lives. If you fight a war in your life it is against that demon. Despair is my thorn. It is my constant companion. And it is a demon that I will personally wage war with until I die.

        If anything is true about me it is that I will dispense my hope to till it is drained, then I will head back into the desert to do battle in hopes that God will endow me with more. Perhaps that is not how it works theologically, but it is how it works for me. If I don’t have a war to fight, I have little purpose in this life, and team despair wins..

        I cannot believe that Tolkien wrote that as a pure amusement without some kind of intent to resist evil of his day. He can complain about allegory all he wants, but it works its way into the story just like as he says above it works its way into our lives as it works its way into our lives more perfectly perhaps than a story. We are the Christian allegory as we confront the Culture of Death. He had no guarantee that LOTR would be published, at best it would be a legacy to his family. That was the only thing he could guarantee. If it were me I would have left every drop of hope I had on that page to leave to my children.

        So I guess the dualism is something that I am trying to respect regarding the distance he seems to want to keep from his own sub-creation. But I am trying to and looking to prove that he did not separate himself that much from world he created. He’s in there fighting alongside of his characters against the enemy. I believe it, I just don’t think he does.

  3. I’m not a “Tolkienista,” but this post still says something to me, and against my better judgement, I’m going to try and verbalize it.

    A lady, that I “knew” via a few degrees of separation had eleven kids. The first time I saw her was at a fundraising event, where she and her husband were perhaps a little drunk, and yukking it up on the dance floor. They were so fun to watch, I thought that maybe I wouldn’t mind being like her. My husband and I were just married, maybe I was pregnant with my first kid. I had never before thought I could be the uber Catholic mother of a ton of kids, until I saw her. She made it look ok.

    Maybe five years later, her oldest child committed suicide. He was seventeen. A year after that, the mother also committed suicide.

    It doesn’t matter how many spiritual candies a soul receives, whatever consolations, even miracles–if there’s someone who has never doubted, I’d like to meet them.

    When I was younger, I would feed doubt–because if my faith wasn’t true, there were all kinds of fun sins I might be able to commit. As I get older, the stakes seem to rise. I no longer have the desire to commit a lot of the sins I used to be tempted by. One of the only sins that truly tempts me any more is despair, especially considering the wholeness of the investment I’ve made in my kids and our family–and the very thin line on which we all walk in the world. It seems one has to be either all in or all out.

    The terrifying part of it is that despair can strike in the most benign circumstances–hearing a dumb song on the radio, passing an adult superstore. There’s no “occasion” of sin to avoid, or if there is, it’s just the occasion of being alive in the 21st century. The best you can do is pray like hell, without ceasing, that it doesn’t attack, and you don’t concede, when you’re driving a car full of kids.

    To me, the hope beyond hope, is like Bernardo mentions–to keep living despite the knowledge that “we can’t win.” The world is lost. We will never defeat evil in the world, but hope in Christ, in a vague, but promised, afterlife, is our only recourse to overcome the sumptuous draw of death.

    If someone would like to put a brighter spin on this idea, please, do.

    • Cubeland Mystic says


      First this post is really beautiful. Did you ever consider that our hesitation to verbalize something profound is the devil’s way of preventing a great truth from being conveyed? If anyone reads it closely I think there is a book in it. Wow! I think you are a “Tolkienista”. Essentially what you wrote is what the story is about. You are living it.

      When I wrote this introduction post I had put this passage into it but thought it was too personal. It is not fully expressed. It was leading up to the long defeat and the subject deserves a post of its own.

      “Tolkien coined a term “Eucatastrophe”, which could be very broadly defined as an unexpected happy outcome in a story. That barely touches on the depth of the word’s meaning. All of the ugly cultural things, the politics, the current oil war, the unsustainable dying systems, decision making without regard for humanity, and so on open us up for the opportunity to experience a Eucatastrophe. He said that

      “. . . Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible . . .”

      Yet still after so many years I still find it hard to believe that we will share in his resurrection, and that it is our greatest hope.

      I suppose that the greatest Hope for us is to share in Christ’s resurrection someday. I spent far too many days in doubt and darkness that now as a practicing Catholic it is very hard to believe that this is a possibility. Nevertheless in all those years of unbelief this one kernel did not die totally. It survived, and its survival is the Eucatastrophe of my life.”

      That is essentially what you said and it profoundly more beautiful.

      “To me, the hope beyond hope, is like Bernardo mentions–to keep living despite the knowledge that “we can’t win.” The world is lost. We will never defeat evil in the world, but hope in Christ, in a vague, but promised, afterlife, is our only recourse to overcome the sumptuous draw of death.”

      Maybe you should read LOTR and join us fighting the Long Defeat?

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Thank you for expressing these dark thoughts so beautifully, Hazel. I recognize them.

      For what it’s worth, the only thing like a ‘brighter spin’ that occurs to me right now is Walker Percy’s ‘new cure for depression’ from Lost in the Cosmos. But the ‘new cure’ might encourage a detached attitude, at odds with the properly Christian ‘investment’ you have made in your kids and your family. It could be, in other words, that you’ve advanced beyond the point that that cure might be really effective. Still, perhaps it could prove a healthful ‘korrektiv’ from time to time.

      • From the Gospel today (Mark 9:14-29): “I believe, help my unbelief.”

        Never used to make sense to me. If you believe, how could you have unbelief?

        It seizes you. Like the son seized by a demon, and his father says that it attacks him and tries to throw him into water and fire and take his life. The disciples couldn’t cure the boy, and asked Jesus why: “This kind can only come out through prayer,” he says.

        • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

          Good catch, Hazel. As for today’s reading, we mustn’t leave out the last part:

          ‘This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting‘.


          (Less practical, but also interesting to note and easy to relate to, is Matthew 28:16-17, where ‘the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.’)

  4. It’s all God’s way of saying it really isn’t about this world anyway.

    • Cubeland Mystic says

      Hey Mel

      If I could hire someone to ride around in my chariot all day to shoot that little bullet into my brain I’d be a good man.


  5. Looking at that first quote, I think I made the right decision not to read him.

    • Cubeland Mystic says

      Hi Churchill

      I think you made the right decision too. Syntax’s arbitrariness is used by educators to control access to higher levels of education. That is why it is never been fully defined. Or so that has been my experience.

  6. Krista Vanderburg says

    Just now caught up. Wow. Thank you for not forgetting my plea. Y’all have given me more than nuggets (how I regret that word choice, now), but an entire feast. I read LOTR during some of my darkest years–early teens. Maybe it’s time to go back, to learn more about the man who wrote the magic. If Tolkein could not only survive, but thrive, under his own blanket of despair, that alone could inspire us to remember that the impossible can truly be possible through God. He knows the number of our tears. He does not forget the flood, and paltry as it may sound, the rainbow appears even in our times. I also never thought about despair as a sin. A demon, yes, but not a sin for which I am culpable of feeding. During today’s prayers at mass, the priest used the analogy of removing from our hearts the “leaven of despair” as we prepare for the season of penitance. I really needed to hear those words, which is precisely why God allowed them to stand out in my poor excuse for a memory. The hardest thing to remember when we’re overwhelmed is to look for that sign of hope. We must pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of perseverance, for the will to keep our eyes open and just keep looking, with hearts unleavened.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Every once in a while — I’d say about once a week, on average — Korrektiv lives up to its name.

      Thanks for adding your own corrective, Ms Vanderburg.

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