“’Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.”
So Gandalf tell us at the Council of Elrond, in response to Elves who claim contemplating the destruction of the Ring to be folly. (LOTR 269) This quote has always struck me. Essentially Gandalf is arguing that despair is the result of knowing all ends (as we discussed in class), and wisdom is knowing what must be done. That is clear enough. What sticks out to me, though, is Gandalf’s use of the phrase ‘false hope’. Is he saying that trusting in the success of something that appears impossible but necessary is to have false hope? And is this a bad thing? It seems that it is a negative thing, in Gandalf’s view, to have this false hope, as it makes wisdom seem a folly. But is that not what Gandalf is asking the Council to do? To have hope that the Quest they are formulating will succeed, despite all odds? This, then, would make it a false hope by Gandalf’s own definition. He then appears to be suggesting that it is folly to believe that it will be possible to destroy the Ring in the fires at the Cracks of Doom. And yet he asks that everyone present pursue the Quest regardless, for it is paradoxically the path of both wisdom and folly.
But what does this have to do with worship and the Catholicism of the story? During our discussion about Worship, and Sam and Frodo scaling Mount Doom, someone brought up Abraham. This seems like a valid comparison to make, and I would take it further. The themes of the Abrahamic story persist throughout the entire book; they are not exclusive to the end of the Quest. Kierkegaard comes to mind here[i]. He argues that Abraham is a hero of faith because he recognizes that he is going to lose Isaac. It would be absurd for Abraham to have hope that his son will remain in the temporal world, but he does believe this anyway; he believes the absurd while also knowing that Isaac will die. Abraham can do this because he has faith in the Christian God. And in the end, fully prepared to kill his only son, Abraham’s hand is stayed because of this faith.
Gandalf’s discussion of despair and folly echoes Kierkegaard’s argument for the heroism of Abraham. It is wise to recognize the need for the destruction of the Ring, just as it is noble for Abraham, according to Kierkegaard, to agree to sacrifice Isaac. And just as it is absurd for Abraham to believe that Isaac will be spared, Gandalf calls it folly to believe that the Quest will be achieved. For Abraham, belief in the absurd requires faith. For the Fellowship, belief in success requires hope, even false hope. Hope becomes a theme throughout the rest of the story, then. And this hope is, in a way, a manner of religious worship, and certainly not a negative thing at all, though it is a false hope.
Whenever Sam and Frodo edge toward despair, believing that they are sure to fail, they invoke Elbereth, most desperately so by Sam while he and Frodo are assailed by Shelob.
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanulios!” (LOTR 729)
As we discussed in class, this is clearly a religious invocation. After Sam exclaims thus, he is able to pull himself up and assail, and eventually mortally wound, Shelob. His hope, the force that lends him strength, is Elbereth. Similarly, when hope is giving way to despair in the plains of Gorgoroth, Sam finds rest and regains his hope when the light of Eärendil pierces through the great Shadow. (LOTR 922) Throughout all of these events, and the others that lead Sam and Frodo to Mount Doom, the hobbits remain ignorant of their end. This makes their hope false, and folly by Gandalf’s definition, but their recognition that they must keep going, seen through the emphasis Tolkien places on duty, is their wisdom. From this contradiction comes both their faith and their heroism.
Without faith in the power and the protection of Elbereth the hobbits would have lost their hope and their wisdom, and they likely would have become certain of their failure. They then may have despaired, and been nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, for their despair would lead them to the very failure that their certainty of the impossibility of their success would lead them to. When either Sam or Frodo invokes Elbereth she is being called on for strength, much in the same way a Catholic might invoke a particular saint. This element, of requesting help from one closer to God than the person in peril, is a particularly Catholic theme. The idea that Elbereth, for the hobbits, and a saint, for a Catholic, can act as an intermediary, proffering a fragmented bit of the grace of God due to that intermediary’s closer position to the One, be it Eru or God, allows a small, seemingly insignificant, person to draw hope and strength from the greatest power. This connection between Middle Earth and a Catholic primary reality is support for Tolkien’s claim that LOTR is a primarily Catholic work, especially because that notion of intermingled false hope/folly and wisdom is what impels much of the action in the story.
Gandalf first brings up this driving theme at the Council of Elrond. It is at Rivendell that the hobbits learn the high stories of the Elves, of Elbereth and Eärendil, and (presumably) other stories found in the Silmarillion. Later, at Lothlórien, Galadriel gives Frodo the Phial. It is after this event that the hobbits begin habitually invoking the help of the Vala. The instances in which Frodo invokes Elbereth before receiving the Phial are at Weathertop and the Ford of Bruinen, both times when he was being pursued by the Nazgûl, and both occurring after the hobbits’ initial encounter with Gildor and his Elven companions; they are singing of Elbereth when the hobbits come across them. Frodo recognizes that they are High Elves, for “They spoke the name of Elbereth!” (LOTR 79) Clearly, then, Frodo knows a bit of the story of Elbereth before encountering Elves, but his time with Gildor, Elrond, and Galadriel enhances that knowledge. Once Sam and Frodo begin to more fully understand the power of the invocation they use it in times of need. It bolsters their faith, and helps them to continue on.
The Elves, however, do not use Elbereth’s name in this way; they do not invoke her, but rather they praise her deeds. Perhaps this is because they know their fate; the Elves despair and do not need the false hope or faith that the hobbits do. The hobbits’, and especially Sam’s, maintenance of this false hope, what Kierkegaard would call the absurd, is what makes their deed so heroic. Sam never gives up; he does falter occasionally, but he always finds himself and rights himself on the path toward Mount Doom. Even though it is absurd, he always believes that he will return to the Shire. As Frodo is beginning to truly despair, Sam says, even as Mount Doom is spewing fire all around the hobbits, “But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.” And he continues to look to the sky to the North, whence comes their rescue in Gwaihir. (LOTR 950)
It would seem to me, then, that Sam is the most religious of all of the characters of the story. He is the one so fascinated by Elves, and their stories change him. He continues to hope, continues to call on Elbereth and look for salvation, even in the darkest and most hopeless moments at Cirith Ungol and Mount Doom. By Kierkegaard’s reckoning, Sam is a hero of faith, just as Abraham is. Sam constantly believes, while knowing that the task is impossible, that it will be done and he will return to the Shire, though folly it may seem. I think that, as a reader, the same applies: every time I read LOTR I want the hobbits to succeed so badly despite the odds, that I continue to believe they will (ignoring the fact that I already know the ending). Maybe this opportunity to believe against the odds, and see that belief come to fruition in Tolkien’s eucatastrophy at Cormallen, is what keeps bringing me back to the story. The strong concurrent belief that something is impossible, yet that it will be achieved, is rare and powerful, and gives Tolkien’s work both literary and religious force and keeps me returning to Middle Earth.