Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Despair or Folly?: The Faith and Heroism of Sam and Abraham

“’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.

E. Minehart

[i] All references to Kierkegaard taken from Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics 2003 edition.


  1. An excellent post, and I hate to tear into it, but I feel that you’ve founded your argument on a false premise. The quote you use by Gandalf is a response to the other councilors who question whether going to Mount Doom is “despair or folly.” Gandalf defends the course as not despair, but wisdom, noting that it might look like folly if one has false hope. The “false hope” in this case is the belief of the other councilors that Sauron can be defeated purely by force of arms, or that the ring can be delivered to the valar for destruction, or else that any one of the free peoples can wield the ring against Sauron. Trying to destroy the ring is explicitly not false hope.
    Destruction of the ring is itself seemingly impossible but necessary. It is incredibly risky and tactically near suicidal, but strategically essential and ultimately validated; it is a “fool’s hope”, as Gandalf later remarks, but never a false one.

    Unfortunately the journey not being a false hope undermines your argument, but I think it’s a necessary acknowledgment, both within the context of the legendarium and outside it. Catholicism, or indeed any religion, does not trade in falsehoods; it offers (supposedly) a real hope of salvation for its adherents. Faith lays in confronting uncertainty, in knowing that there is no proof of the truth of scripture, and that believing in it is a risk, a fool’s hope for salvation, but a potential one. False hope is definitive, it is a non-existent chance, and that certainty is as inimical to faith as a known future offering guaranteed hope, which is of course not hope at all, merely anticipation.

    David Gittin

  2. Excellent post! Your point about the Elves praising the deeds of Elbereth rather than invoking her name brings up some interesting questions. For the Elves, the Vala are not truly an article of faith - the Vala reside within the corporeal world accessible to the Elves, in their homeland of Valinor. If the Elves who came to Middle-Earth from Valinor, such as Galadriel, have seen the Vala, can they then possess faith in the same way that Men and Hobbits can? We see Elves who reject the will of the Vala, but none whom discount their power - if such a thing is even possible. I find similar problems within the Abraham story. If God has spoken directly to Abraham, and intervened directly in Abraham's life before, does Abraham possess the ability to doubt in the power of God? Somehow it seems to me that, by definition, one cannot possess *faith* if one has proof. This could be a reason why the faith of someone like Sam, who has never seen the Blessed Realm, comes across as stronger and more pure than the faith of the Elves in the story.

    Indeed, it almost seems to me that knowing for a fact that higher powers exist, and then witnessing the decline of the world and the fading of your kind in spite of that, could be a cause for despair. The Elves display this sort of despair often, and of all the kindreds they play the least direct role in bringing down Sauron. Though I doubt Tolkien intended this sort of reading, as someone reading the text without his highly Catholic worldview, I think one could easily draw that conclusion.

    Taylor Ehlis

  3. The quote you used is one of my favorite quotes in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. I agree with David’s comment above that the “false hope” is that any other course of action, apart from trying to destroy the Ring, could work. I still love what you did with the post. The idea I liked best was that the Fellowship, for example, would “know” that they were going to fail and still have hope that they would not. I think that is a good philosophy. It is sort of a pointless errand with a point. Pointless in that it will not do any good, and pointful in that it could make all the difference. Necessary, but silly. It is fundamentally different from what Denethor or Saruman did. They were convinced they knew, without quotation marks. The quotation marks indicate that there is still a chance, because no one can tell the future, that you are wrong. Really, it is the quotation marks that keep all the characters in The Lord of the Rings going. It is just a technicality. Technically, they do not know what is going to happen, so they have to assume anything could happen. Gandalf’s philosophy on wisdom seems to be, in a sense, the moral lesson of the story. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so do what needs to be done, don’t kid yourself about the potential outcome, and remember you don’t know what’s going to happen.
    Side note, Gandalf’s quote also reminds me of Spock. “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Not entirely sure how that fits in, but it seems to relate well.

  4. "The Elves display this sort of despair often, and of all the kindreds they play the least direct role in bringing down Sauron."

    I'm not sure where this comes from. Dwarves definitely feature less in LOTR. There is one elf and one dwarf in the fellowship, but Elrond's two sons come along for the paths of the dead and Pellanor, and there are many more elves at the council of Elrond, where they play a larger role than Gloin. Plus all the action in Lothlorien.

    And you know, all those elves at Helm's Deep. ;)

    David Gittin

  5. It is folly to believe that the course of action Gandalf proposes will work, but only for those who hold to the false hope of worldly wisdom. I read this passage as echoing Paul's description in 1 Corinthians of the gospel or, rather, "the message of the Cross" as "foolishness to those who are perishing." God's wisdom often seems foolish to those who are wise in the world, like the Elves.

    That said, you do a beautiful job exploring the implications for Sam and Frodo of following this foolish path. Yes, it is absurd for them to take the Ring to Mount Doom, just as it is absurd for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. And yet, in trusting in what appears to be foolish, they find salvation and new life. Not because they have had a false hope, but because they have had hope even though the wise might consider it false or foolish.


  6. Fascinating post. I have been finding it interesting how the element of the hope of men and knowledge of elves continues to pop up in discussion. I think you did a great job in exploring the role of hope, especially in the lives of the hobbits, and I really appreciate the quote. Most notably I’d like to bring up the role of Gandalf in this post. Gandalf, it seems to me, straddles the position between the elves’ fatalism and the false hope of men. He, like the elves, is aware of the valar and illuvatar, yet in many cases his knowledge doesn’t stop him from pursuing almost impossible tasks.
    Worship through hope, and the ultimate worship of creation through the attempt to save it, seems to me to be a very significant part of worship in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf’s undying devotion to saving Middle Earth is in many ways an act of worship within itself. Gandalf’s actions and motivations in contrast with the rest of the characters teach us a little bit about worship and why there is so much religion within LOTR. The act of following your “destiny”, even if it falls into your lap, is a way to showing praise.


  7. I, too, find this quote difficult to understand. Oh Gandalf - always talking like a wizard. It seems to me, in this context, that Gandalf is insisting the Ring must be destroyed, but there are always others who say that’s impossible, we can keep the Ring hidden, we can use the Ring to defeat Sauron, etc. I think the false hope here is the belief that there could be peace without the destruction of the Ring: because it wants to get back to Sauron it will, somehow, given enough time, find a way, and until Sauron is completely and utterly destroyed, Middle Earth cannot be safe.

    You make a good point about the significance of faith to the quest. Like Abraham, Sam and Frodo have no reason to hope, except that in their case they are sacrificing themselves. They say with certainty that they don’t believe they’ll be going home, they don’t believe they’ll see the Shire again, but they are willing to accept that because what they do have left to hope for is something greater than themselves, an act of sacrifice based entirely on their faith in the ultimate supremacy of Good.


  8. Comparing Sam to Abraham raises a lot of questions. For one, we know that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. Would Sam have sacrificed Frodo if it was the only way to destroy the Ring? That’s a hard question to answer. If Gollum had never followed them to Mount Doom, Frodo, standing by the crack, would have said he couldn’t destroy the ring. “But you have to Mr. Frodo, you have to,” Sam might have said. He would have approached Frodo cautiously. “Let me do it for you, Mr. Frodo.” Frodo’s face would have darkened and as Sam stretched out his hand towards the ring, Frodo would have lunged at him. They would have fought and eventually Frodo would slip and fall into the Crack, screaming “Sam!”

    All that did not happen. But someone was sacrificed at Mount Doom: Gollum. It seems as though the destruction of the Ring demanded a sacrifice. If you recall, in the Sacrifice of Issac story, after the angel tells Abraham he doesn’t need to sacrifice Issac after all, Abraham sees a ram in the bushes. Abraham sacrifices the ram in the place of his son. In the same way, Gollum was sacrificed in the place of Frodo. There seems to be a theme, present in Christianity and adopted by Tolkien, that the destruction of evil demands a sacrifice. The destruction of original sin demanded the sacrifice of God. Whether it’s a ram being sacrificed in place of Issac, Gollum being sacrificed in place of Frodo, or Jesus being sacrificed in place of humanity, this theme is prevalent.

    Sam Diaz