Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Palantir problems... Tolkien on the evil of despair

That greatest of Tolkien scholars, Tom Shippey, noticed something profound yet hidden in the Lord of the Rings - which provides narrative 'evidence' for Tolkien's frequent theme that it is always wrong to despair

Despair is wrong primarily because we live in the ongoing creation of a God who loves us as his children; so this world is being-created, moment by moment, with an eye to the primary purpose of life: which is providing each of us with the experiences we most need to learn from in terms of our Christian choice of resurrected life in Heaven. 

 

(Conversely, this world is Not designed for atheist-materialists, who disbelieve in Heaven. Their lives are indeed, by their own assumptions, meaningless and pointless.)


So, 'general' despair is wrong, and a consequence of lack of 'faith' - that is, lack of trust in God's loving goodness and personal concern for each-of-us. But specific causes of despair are also a mistake; mistakes of inference. 

Why? Because despair is the certainty of bad outcome, such that one gives-up hope. And - simply put - despair is always wrong because we never have conclusive reasons to give-up hope. 

 

Despair is not based on probability, but certainty - and that certainty is always false. A high probability of a bad outcome should be called pessimism. It is not despair because it is a best guess, and estimate; and we realise that even the very improbable sometimes happens. 

Note: It is vital to distinguish between despair and pessimism; and between hope and optimism. 

Despair is a sin, and is always-wrong; hope is a virtue and (for a Christian) always-right. Optimism and pessimism are merely conjectural judgments about the likely future - constrained by individual ability, information and honesty...

 

But more fundamentally, despair is not even about strict-probabilities of the future of a known situation; since we are very unlikely to be framing, to be understanding accurately, the real nature of the situation.

Even if we know a lot about a situation, we never know every-thing about it; and some specific thing (some 'fact') that we do Not know, may have the capacity to transform our understanding. 

If we knew that particular fact, then our 'conclusive reason' for despair would go. 

 

In the Lord of the Rings, there is a seeing-stone device called a palantir, which may be used to gather information. Yet, whenever we see a palantir in use to gather more information and make a judgment, an error is made.

Always, something important about the user's assumptions are wrong, and some vital fact is missing; and therefore his interpretation of the factual information is in error. 

 

For example, when Sauron sees Pippin in the Orthanc stone, Sauron assumes this is the hobbit ring-bearer ('Baggins') who has been captured by Saruman - and he dispatches a Nazgul to collect this precious prize. 

This is a mistake, which happens because Saruman does not realise that the palantir is no longer in Saruman's hands - and because he assumes the stone is being deliberately used, rather than merely the object of hobbit curiosity - an 'accident'. 

Later, Aragorn shows himself deliberately to Sauron, after Sauron has discovered that Isengard was defeated and (presumably) the stone taken. 

Sauron then assumes that Aragorn, as the heir of Isildur, has taken the Ring and is learning to use its power. Sauron therefore 'hastily' launches his assault on Gondor before this has been fully prepared - and is defeated. 

 

A third example is easily missed (I missed it! - but this is where Tom Shippey contributed his key insight) because it can be inferred only by a careful calculation of chronology. It is that Denethor uses the palantir at the time when Frodo has been captured by Sauron - and sees a hobbit in the enemy's hands

Denethor assumes that this is the Ring bearer hobbit whom Gandalf sent into Mordor, and that Sauron now has the Ring. Denethor therefore despairs, his mind breaks, and he descends into madness, suicide; and the attempted murder of his son Faramir (who Denethor assume, also falsely, to be certainly fatally injured). 

What Denethor does not know is that although this is indeed Frodo, and he is indeed in the enemy's hands - at that time Sam has the One Ring; and is not in captivity. 

And it turns-out that this small unknown fact is enough to transform the entire situation from one of 'certain' despair - to the success of the quest. 


This warning of Tolkien's is of crucial significance to these times. 

There really has been a successful global coup, and the world really is ruled by an evil totalitarian government. And there probably are a large proportion of the population who have taken the side of evil. 

From what I know, according to my framing of the situation, the probabilities for the future seem extremely adverse: therefore I am a pessimist about what is coming.

 

Yet my understanding is at least distorted, and may be wrong; and my information is certainly incomplete. There are many facts of which I am unaware. So I have zero grounds for certainty. 

On the other hand, I know that this is God's creation and is being-created moment by moment; and that (since we are all God's beloved children) this creation is always taking into account each individual in ways that I cannot comprehend - but can guess-at based on the way that loving parents regard all their individual family members. 

God does Not see mankind as an homogeneous mass; but instead sees each person as a beloved son or daughter in relationships with other sons and daughters. 

And God is not trying to optimise our temporary, mortal earthly happiness (although that is a factor); but is instead primarily focused on our eternal salvation and life as participants in the work of divine creation.  


We do not have the advantage of a palantir, which always shows the factual truth. But even the palatir does not show the whole truth; and it cannot interpret what its pictures mean. So, even a palantir may well be deceptive - fatally deceptive. 

Our information is much less honest and reliable than that of a palantir; and we are even less 'wise' than either Sauron or Denethor...

So, as Christians we do not have grounds for general despair; and being poorly-informed fools, neither do we have specific grounds for despair - there may well be a transformative fact of which we are unaware. 

 

Therefore, be not afraid; be of good cheer! That is the only faithful and accurate way.

Trust in God! Follow Jesus Christ! 

And you cannot be wrong. 

 

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