Monday 28 October 2013

Lord of the Rings: "Deeply sad, almost without hope..." True - but only in a literary sense


On page 200 of his (indispensable!) collection of essays Roots and Branches the greatest ever Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey describes The Lord of the Rings as "deeply sad, almost without hope".

Of course he is correct, right down to the 'almost' - but this quality is, to a very significant extent:

1. A contingent artifact of the publication history of Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion of 1977.

2. True of LotR as a literary work, but not true of Tolkien the man.


A. The sadness and almost-hope-less-ness of LotR is a contingent artifact of the last-minute deletion of the Epilogue

which would, to my mind, have left the reader with a most positive and less pessimistic sense of the story.


B. Furthermore, the original frame for the LotR - which involved some English (or proto-English) person receiving the legends of the Elves (or Numenoreans) by travel to Elfland, Faery or Numenor, was a more positive frame - in the sense of implying some special role or destiny for these legends.


C. When LotR is interpreted in the light of the Silmarillion, then the fact that the transcendentally hopeful Second Prophecy of Mandos was omitted from the Silmarillion of 1977 makes it an almost wholly sad story.


D. Also, the decision to omit The debate of Finrod and Andreth from The Simarillion of 1977, robbed it not only of what would have been perhaps its most moving piece of writing, but of its strongly implicit link to the incarnation of Jesus; and the ultimate optimism of Christianity.


And finally, Tolkien's works can be seen as exemplars of his philosophy of subcreation described in On Fairy Stories, which essay ends with a tremendous expression of Christian hope:


In conclusion, The Lord of the Rings, as published, and considered as a literary work, is indeed 'deeply sad, almost without hope; furthermore the available biographical information suggests that Tolkien was himself often deeply sad, and also pessimistic about the future of this world; but although both sad and pessimistic, Tolkien-the-man was not 'without hope' - and was quite the opposite - Tolkien was profoundly hopeful, convinced in his hope.



Christian in Hollyweird said...

Thank you for putting all my favorite posts on one page! Fascinating material.

The hope of Middle Earth is certainly dim -- but not dark -- as it would be in any fallen world without Christ. The folk of Middle Earth (like the Jews before Jesus and we ourselves before hearing the Gospel) have only an inkling of hope, resolving itself into a tender trust -- that God is good and perhaps there is more to come.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CiH - Glad to hear you like this line of argument!