A Fool’s Hope
“When I was a kid, I loved The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s the moment when a stranger becomes a friend. It doesn’t matter who they are, every time I hear those words, I feel like I’ve just been let in on a secret we both know. And every time, I smile to myself, thinking: “Yes, I was lonely too.”
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, or one of my many ill-fated, informal attempts at sociology, but it’s difficult not to assume somewhat of my own experience in a shared love. The Lord of the Rings is about many things, but the two themes upon which it hinges are hope and friendship, and I’ve long thought that the things we love the most are those which satisfy the empty places in our hearts.
I was a lonely kid. Scrawny, talkative, desperate for attention, I was simultaneously arrogant and insecure, convinced I knew more about Life than anyone else. You see, I’d read a lot of books — I knew about dragons and things. I’d weathered the battle of Helm’s Deep and endured torture with Alex Rider and never revealed my true identity. More than that, I felt destiny very close at hand, either writing one of my innumerable melodramatic novels or waxing poetic in an English paper or worshiping on a Sunday. I remember leaning my forehead against the car window, imagining I was flying along outside, skimming the golden heads of grain. I had a need to turn everything into a romance.
The Lord of the Rings, more than any other book, fed right into this need. It revealed to me a world in which characters took real risks and made real decisions in a battle of universal consequence. It showed me a world, not only of magic but of fierce, romantic morality which I found intoxicating. And in a very real way, it led me to the Gospel.
Growing up in the South
It may seem strange that, in the Bible belt, I needed help finding God, but living in a sleepy Southern town, one’s Christianity was judged more by church attendance than theology. Life was a series of checkpoints. Get a job, have a few kids, go to church on Sundays and have your Get Out of Hell Free card checked off by Preacher Jones. It wasn’t a bad existence, but, far worse, it was an apathetic one. Into this world came Middle-Earth, in blazing, fantastical glory — its central theme the spiritual corrosiveness of despair (itself the ultimate end of apathy). It fed my hunger for a universe in which my actions mattered, which was itself full of wonders, and which was bound together by an invisible hope.
The story begins in a place not so different from my hometown. Its inhabitants might as well be my neighbors: they love comfort and food and neither know nor care about the dangers outside their borders. Frodo Baggins must shed his creature comforts and venture into the wild, fleeing death and danger, with little chance of success, into darkness, on nothing more than “a fool’s hope.”
A fool’s hope! The phrase makes my heart leap, even now. That was what I wanted in my small, boring town — a fool’s hope. That was what Tolkien gave me. In his world, there were elves and dwarves and castles and kings, but the soul of the story was in its eternal, irrational, unexplained drive towards goodness. And why? Why would Frodo, starving, parched, drag his broken body up a rocky slope towards certain death, to destroy a burden which could remove all his pain? Young and lonely, I didn’t know, but I knew I wanted it.
When Pippin, clutching his bloody sword in a city surrounded by a million demons, with fires raging outside the gate and fires of despair raging within, when this tiny hobbit, far from home, heard the sound of trumpets and knew salvation had come — what hope! My heart leapt and I didn’t know why. When, in Helm’s Deep, a white horse appeared on the crest of the hill and the sun rose and the Earth turned again: hope! I knew that this “sudden joyous turn” (what Tolkien termed a “eucatastrophe”) was something inexplicably sacred.
My reaction wasn’t a fluke — the story elements which appealed so strongly to me were the product of Tolkien’s faith. There’s another whole article in how The Lord of the Rings is definitely not an allegory, but it is nevertheless an essentially Christian tale, and like all great art, points people towards the truth.
But is it the truth? Didn’t The Lord of the Rings merely give me hope through escapism? Did it deceive me with beautiful tales of magic and high adventure?
Well, in one way it is quite escapist. Tolkien pointed out that materialists and purveyors of grim postmodern fiction portray a world so cruel and hopeless, devoid of miracle and mystery, that it seems like a prison. Therefore, “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories….Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” Tolkien knew that the most defiant literary act he could thrust upon the depressed 20th Century was the rebellion, the great escape, of hope.
Tolkien’s hope is in the Truth. Not only does the story free us from the cruel, reductive universe of materialism, but it does so by showing us the world as it really is. One day I looked out my window and realized I’d been living in Middle-Earth all along. This is a world of magic and destiny: dead men walking and blind men seeing, where every human being’s life is a story written by the eternal God.
And, finally, finally, I discovered the Gospel. It was the story that made sense of everything else, but especially everything I loved in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the sudden, joyous salvation, the incomprehensible urge to continue even into certain death, the desire for a life that meant something, for a world which was magical and mysterious, the fool’s hope, was made incarnate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was what J.R.R. Tolkien was pointing me towards, even me, an insignificant, lonely kid from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
“When I was a kid, I loved The Lord of the Rings.”
“Yes,” I think. “I was lonely too. Let us be fools together.”