Happy belated Hobbit Day! In commemoration of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ shared birthday of September 22, Middle-earth lovers from our own world celebrate this most wonderful day. I have told this story before on this website, but I was introduced to The Hobbit in fourth grade. After falling in love with that story, I was handed The Lord of the Rings, and I devoured those immediately as well.
I want to revisit them yet again today with you because these stories are incredibly important for our time. Do you ever feel hopeless with the state of the world? Do you ever feel that things are going so wrong that you might as well just surrender? The darkness seems so impenetrable that we have no chance of making a difference much less making a positive difference.
I think that we often feel that way at times. Some of you may feel that way because of our current political climate (and interestingly, I have heard that same sentiment from both sides of the aisle). Some of you may feel this way because of your social situation. Your family, which ought to be one of the most loving societal institutions, might tragically be a cause of great darkness. It could be just about anything really, but when you find yourself in this place of darkness, there is extreme pressure to lose hope. I don’t know where you have been, but I have a feeling that you can probably identify with this type of feeling.
At least for me, when I open The Lord of the Rings, the feelings that the characters have resonate with me. They experience a very difficult time. They find themselves fighting a battle that they have no chance of winning. Their entire hope is not based on actually defeating Sauron on the field of battle. They realize they can’t really do that. The numbers just don’t add up in their favor, and even with the assistance of many great heroes, any type of face-to-face combat seems futile.
Even after a most triumphant victory on the fields outside of Minas Tirith where the armies of Gondor and Rohan overcame tremendous odds, Gandalf advises that any type of march on the Black Gate is not going to do very much. “I said victory could not be achieved by arms. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dûr, and the hope of Sauron.”
The only way that they have any type of hope to defeat evil is by sneaking past it. Gandalf explains, “His Eye is now straining towards us, blind almost to all else that is moving. So we must keep it. Therein lies all our hope.” Rather than the epic collision that we would expect on the field of battle where the forces of good finally put an end to the barbarian hordes, the most significant battle at the Black Gate turns out to be nothing more than a diversion to bring about the deliverance of actual hope. Frodo needs to destroy the Ring to bring any type of hope. The result of the battle is probably going to be unfavorable, but that is largely irrelevant.
Despite the fact that there was no realistic hope to win the battle at the Gate, everyone understood that they had to nevertheless charge into that darkness. They had to continue to fight and resist hopelessness despite overwhelming odds because they were just one piece in a larger puzzle. They were one moving part, and they had to do their jobs so that the entire machine would function effectively. Gandalf explains the entire purpose of the battle this way. “We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty.”
Consider it this way. The ultimate mission for all of the free people of Middle-earth is to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo could not complete that mission by himself. There would have been extraordinarily limited hope if that was all that the mission entailed. However, that was not the only thing that was happening at the time. Rather, there were operations going on that would assist Frodo in the completion of that mission. Therefore, because of their commitment to the mission, even though marching on the Black Gate seemed like a rather suicidal mission, the soldiers marched. Despite their own hopelessness, they were contributing to what was actually the true hope of Middle-earth. The fight was to return Middle-earth to the ordinary as I recently argued in the fall issue of An Unexpected Journal.
We need to consider that in our own world then. Our current situation may seem hopeless, and it may be really tempting to throw in the towel. We may seem to be trying our best, giving it everything we have, and despite all of that effort, it just isn’t working out. We wonder then why it is worth continuing. We can’t help but think that everything is so bad anyway that if we stop trying, it really won’t make much of a difference.
However, we never know what impact our efforts are going to have on the larger mission. It is tempting to look at humanity as tons of people isolated with no sense of unity. However, that’s not how it really is. The hope comes from a cooperative effort of many people who do what it takes to overthrow the evil that they find themselves surrounded by.
You may say that all of this is fantasy. Really, you might like the sound of everything I have said so far. It sounds awesome to have a group of people that are willing to dive into the unknown and fight for the greater good. Even if there is no hope for their own survival, there is a higher calling and a reason to continue fighting.
That being said, you might wonder why we don't seem to see this kind of thing happening in our own world. It works in Middle-earth, but it doesn't work here. It doesn't seem like all of our own fighting against the darkness is making the type of difference that brings about the happy ending we see in The Lord of the Rings.
What strikes me as fascinating nevertheless is something that you cannot overlook. It is what makes these stories so important for our world today, and it is what I believe accounts for their popularity. Something about these stories echoes inside of us and inspires us. Yes, all of these events are taking place in a universe that is not quite the same as ours, but it feels like ours. The people act like we do. Even the languages feel authentic.
Therefore, because it feels like our world and we witness things happening in that world that seem like ours the entire way through, we want to have that hope in this world as well. We want to know that when we charge into a hopeless scenario, there is a higher purpose to continue trying to do the right thing. We want to know that even if our efforts ultimately fail, by doing that, we have still made a move in the right direction. We have perhaps helped someone else succeed or have perhaps helped make the world a better place even if we can't see the fruit of that endeavor at the time. Our courage and effort are serving a greater purpose.
Tolkien realized this. He knew that people wanted this type of resolution, and in his essay, "On Fairy Stories," he reminds us that this kind of story happened in our own world as well. We don't have to limit it only to these secondary worlds that people like Tolkien created. "The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits."
Why then would I suggest that The Lord of the Rings is so important for a world that is devoid of hope? Why is it important for us to read stories like this? It is important because it reminds us of something about our own world. It likes this fire inside of each one of us that there is something higher. It reminds us that our lives are not only our own business.
Before you suggest that I am only proposing that Christianity is nothing more that wish fulfillment, nothing could be further from the truth. All I am suggesting is that there is a human desire for hope. I don't think anyone will deny that. If that hope exists, we can attempt to find it in a variety of different ways. We might believe that our government can provide it. We might decide that our family can provide it. Again, I don't think this is controversial. Everyone puts their hope somewhere unless they are a pure and intellectually consistent nihilist, and I really don't know that I have ever met one of them.
If all of these efforts are insufficient, then these books are an inspiration to continue looking for that hope. That's why they are so important. I don't want people to descend into hopelessness. Rather, I want them to remember that there is hope, and they need to try and find it. As a Christian, I believe that when they really get down to the bottom of it, they are going to find that God's story is not only true but also fills that need. It will serve the dual purpose. Therefore, I am not suggesting that we just plug in Christianity because it is convenient. I suggest it is true, and it has the dual benefit of providing hope as well.
If it is a good thing that people fight for that which is good even against terrible odds and perhaps personal cost, they need to have that hope, and if reading The Lord of the Rings gets people back in touch with that pursuit of hope, then I think that is a good thing. That is why we need these books today.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 878, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 880.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” http://www.brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf, 23.