Hope and Despair

By now, you’ve likely noticed that there are certain themes that Tolkien touches on frequently in the Legendarium that I’m quick to notice and talk about during the podcast — or even here in our Ponderings. Not surprisingly, then, this is another one of those moments, as I finally have a chance to write briefly on one of the most recognizable themes in Tolkien’s works: hope and despair, and the choice we have to embrace one or the other. We’ll even touch a little on the fulfillment of hope in the eucatastrophe. Admittedly, we we’ve been spending the last year or so discussing The Silmarillion in the podcast, and there are plenty of moments of hope and despair in this work. But today I want to focus on two characters from The Lord of the Rings — Denethor and Théoden.

First, I want to start by defining our terms. We use ‘hope’ in the following ways:

  • As a verb to express a desire for something good in the future. For example, “I hope we win this battle against our foe.”
  • Similarly, as a noun to express the thing in the future that we desire. Or, “Our hope is to defeat the foe in battle this day.”
  • Finally, another noun that describes the basis or reason for thinking that our desire might be fulfilled: “A strong cavalry charge is our best hope of defeating the enemy today.”

When we choose to hope, we decide and act — we use it as a verb. This is why I believe that the absence of hope — hopelessness — is not the opposite of hope. Hopelessness is circumstantial and external — while hope is volitional and internal. No, the opposite of hope is despair — a willing embrace of a hopeless situation, perhaps, but it is a decision we make in contrast to the decision to hope.


Even if it might not achieve final victory,
hope is a purpose unto itself,
a thing of worth in comparison to despair.


As we observe Denethor’s tragic end in the Hallows on Rath Dínen, the Silent Street, I see the worst possible outcome from his loss of hope: not mere hopelessness, but complete despair. This takes me back to Gandalf’s words in The Council of Elrond. In talking of the goal of destroying the One Ring, Erestor asks:

‘What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’

‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.’

Did you catch that? Despair is only for those who see the end beyond. all. doubt. In other words, hope remains — or should remain — if the end is even the least bit uncertain. Is death 99.99% likely to occur? Then have hope! Since we are not omniscient, we must admit that there are none of us who can truly “see the end beyond all doubt.” Well, then we should all have hope — all the time. Then again, there’s Denethor — who thinks he sees the end beyond all doubt:

‘Pride and despair!’ he cried. ‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed.’

First, note that Denethor insults Gandalf for daring to have hope in such dire circumstances — in fact, he says that Gandalf’s “hope is but ignorance”. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge — and Denethor believes he has knowledge. Now let’s be clear: “The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dûr can make them do so”, but we know also that those who use the palantíri often draw the wrong conclusions from the things that they see, as did Denethor here. He saw only what Sauron allowed him to see: though the facts were true (massing armies; innumerable foes; and, yes, a fleet with black sails coming up the Anduin), these facts were entirely lacking context and Denethor became the willing victim of Sauron’s ‘spin’ on the facts. Here, I am reminded of Melian’s wisdom that “he that seeth through [evil] eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked.” Yes, the analogy between what Húrin endured, seeing truth through the eyes of Morgoth, and what Denethor witnessed, seeing truth through the eyes of Sauron, is strong.

Here, then, hope becomes more than mere hopelessness… Denethor chooses to allow that hopelessness to become despair. But that transition — from hope through hopelessness to despair — is, thankfully, not universal.

Let’s go to back to the battle on the Pelennor Fields:

It was even as the day thus began to turn against Gondor and their hope wavered that a new cry went up in the City, it being then mid-morning, and a great wind blowing, and the rain flying north, and the sun shining. In that clear air watchmen on the walls saw afar a new sight of fear, and their last hope left them.

“Their last hope left them”. The Corsairs of Umbar appear to have arrived: which means that all the support in the south of Gondor — Belfalas, Lebennin, etc. — is gone. ‘It is the last stroke of doom!’

Even Éomer, the new King of the Mark, “looked to the River, and hope died in his heart”. However, even in his hopelessness, unlike Denethor, he did not despair. Instead, he sought a valiant end, hopeless though it may have been.

His uncle, Théoden, had taken the reverse journey back in Meduseld: from despair — under the influence of Saruman via Gríma Wormtongue — into hope. There, after Wormtongue had “sprawled on his face”, Gandalf offered the king his counsel — but look very carefully:

[Gandalf] lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’

Gandalf could give no counsel to those that despair. Why not? Because those who despair desire no counsel — they have taken the volitional step beyond a mere absence of hope. Nothing more can be done for one in that frame of mind. But let’s see what happens with Théoden later in the chapter when he has decided to follow Gandalf’s counsel, and is encouraged to take his people to the Hold of Dunharrow:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the king. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

Hope has been restored. And though this hope does, in fact, lead Théoden to his death, it is a worthy death, an honorable death that served others. (Recall my last essay on the death of Boromir for a similar fate.)

Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!

Compare this to Denethor’s refusal to follow Gandalf’s counsel:

‘Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’

‘He will not wake again,’ said Denethor. ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’

This is the second time Denethor calls fighting “vain” or “vanity”. He doesn’t mean ‘prideful’ or ‘conceited’ as the word is most often used today, but ‘fruitless’ or ‘without purpose’. And yet, he’s still wrong: even if it might not achieve final victory, hope is a purpose unto itself, a thing of worth in comparison to despair.

But Gandalf reminds him:

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

It’s certainly worth noting that pride and despair go together here — especially after having written about humility last time. Since hope necessarily relies on something (or someone) beyond yourself, it requires a certain amount of humility.

Both Théoden and Denethor perish — but one dies honorably in battle, holding on to hope, sacrificing for his own people and for all the free peoples of Middle-earth… while the other embraces despair and takes his own life, a decision which, as Gandalf says, he lacked the moral authority to make.

But I don’t want to end on this note. I want to follow the story a bit longer so that we can see why we should always hope — to go back to Gandalf’s words at the beginning, it’s because we cannot see the end beyond all doubt.

‘[U]pon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.

Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells. But the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment, and a great wizardry it seemed to them that their own ships should be filled with their foes; and a black dread fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand.’

This incredible turn brings to mind one of the most important bits from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” He says:

But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

I’ll likely do a lengthy post on eucatastrophe someday — but that’s a Pondering for another time. For now, it suffices to say that the concept of a eucatastrophe — that is, a sudden and joyous turn, a miraculous grace that cannot be counted on, and can certainly never be counted on to recur — is something we see throughout the Legendarium. But, arguably, it reaches its pinnacle here: the arrival of Aragorn, the titular Return of the King. The ultimate eucatastrophe, the denial of universal defeat, the fleeting glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world. More than that, it is the reason for hope, even in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Through he originally wrote “On Fairy Stories” for a presentation in 1939, it is clear that the importance of this element had remained central to his thought when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. If you’ve never read “On Fairy Stories” and do not know about Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe”, read it and listen to our very first episode. Then take a look at Tolkien’s works again after reading it. I promise you’ll see something just a bit different this time: a reason to always have hope.

11 thoughts on “Hope and Despair

  1. Excellent Alan! I love the discussions on “hope and despair” and this certainly did not let me down. The comparisons between Théoden and Denethor are always astonishing to me, and one thing I picked up in your pondering that I hadn’t connected the dots one before was Théoden’s reversal from despair to hope. The Húrin and Denethor parallel was quite interesting, as well; “he that seeth through [evil] eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked” is one of Melian’s best lines, so glad that it can be applied elsewhere too. And you have a big YES!!!!!! from me, for a “eucatastrophe ” pondering someday! Can’t wait for that one!

    • Tolkien does a masterful job at giving us similar characters to contrast with each other — Théoden and Denethor, Frodo and Gollum, Tuor and Túrin, Fëanor and Fingolfin, and so on. The contrasts are usually obvious, but not all of the details are readily seen — Théoden’s mirror journey to Denethor’s is one of those for sure. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. Excellent work, my friend! The similarity between Denethor’s crooked sight and Húrin’s is one that’s never occurred to me before, but it’s very strong indeed. Hope is one of our mutual favorite themes, in the legendarium, and I always enjoy reading your thoughts on it. And it’s very timely, because we’ve got a bit of hope and despair coming up as we approach the end of The Silmarillion!

    • Thanks, Shawn — we’ve got a big bunch of hope, and a pretty nice eucatastrophe, coming up soon… can’t wait to work through it together with you!

  3. And I am reminded of what Aragorn says of Éowyn in the Houses of Healing: if she wakes “to despair, then she will die….”. I like to think that the presence of Merry brought enough hope to her spirit to keep her from despair

    • Indeed, that’s another beautiful moment of hope v. despair. She wakes with only the slightest hope — a hope only to fill the shoes of a Rider and die in battle. But eventually more hope comes: after the destruction of the Ring, Faramir tells he that “a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny.” Then, eventually, as Éowyn sees that Faramir’s love for her is not born of pity, “her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.” 🙂

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