Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Hope

In the mounting climax of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins are caught in a physical and emotional maelstrom as they realize that their quest has been completed at the expense of their own lives. The reactions of our heroes provide a startling contrast. Frodo has resolved himself to death; he announces a final appreciation of Sam’s friendship and loyalty. Sam, however, feels only joy at witnessing Frodo’s restoration. He quickly asserts:
“Yes, I am with you, Master,’ said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.”
“Maybe not Sam,” said Frodo; “but its like things are in the world. Hopes fail.” (Tolkien, Return, 231).

Yet Sam’s hope has not failed. Rolland Hein reminds readers that there is in Tolkien’s legendarium an “overarching Power whose purposes will not fail” (Hein, Mythmakers, 208). This transcendent guidance is especially noted in the early exposition of The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf assures Frodo that he is meant by this Higher Power to possess the Ring. Sam has seized some understanding of this truth and has taken it a step further than Frodo—he believes in a grand conclusion to his existence based on divine orchestration.
Sam portrays aspects of the Christian’s future hope in eventual glory. Paul reflects on a powerful eschatological assurance in his Epistle to the Romans. The Christian’s hope is on the bases of his or her justification by faith through the resurrection of Christ. Hope is the Christian’s anticipation of ultimate salvation; a state which will not be fully realized until the redemption of our bodies (Romans 5:2-5). Our hope of glory is rooted in the promise of our future resurrection and eternal life.
The context for this hope is found in the midst of suffering (Romans 8:18-39). Like Sam, we are to endure our present struggles. Paul is not suggesting an escapist’s ignorance of real life. Instead, we wrestle through life with a deep assurance that our stories will end with what we have been promised through Christ’s resurrection. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28; NASB).” Christians find this hope in the promise of the Gospel. It is rooted subjectively in the historical resurrection of Christ and objectively in the power of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Douglas J. Moo concludes that Paul sees hope as an essential element for what it means to be a Christian. We are believers who exist in the tension of the “already, but not yet” of our glorification. “We are a people who are always looking forward to what is yet to come.” (Moo, Romans, 139)
Paul’s instructions, like Sam’s honorable example, bring with their inspiration a piercing challenge: Do we endure hardships with joy, hoping in what we see not? With faith, we can pray for the day when we will still have hope in the midst of sorrows. Our eyes will stray, like Sam’s, to where the “sky far off was clear, as the cold blast, rising to a gale, drove back the darkness and the ruin of the clouds.” (Tolkien, 232) In a way, we are better equipped than Sam to look through our present sufferings towards an ultimate closure to our life’s journey.

The Scarlet Monk


  1. It is encouraging to read about how Sam had such a joyful hope during such a difficult time in their journey. Though Frodo seemed to see no hope in the present moment there was still hope even though he did not sense what Sam felt. This joyful hope that Sam had comes to us in our present reality through Jesus Christ. Through his power over death and the guidance of the Holy Spirit we can be assured that things will work out for those who believe in him in the end. I think this setting in (LOTR) shows a realistic picture of the Christian life. We as members of the body of Christ are all on a journey and many of us are walking on similar paths or together on the same one. Just as Sam and Frodo were destined to travel together, so are we meant to support others when they are enduring suffering and we are strong and hopeful.

    Do you think that Frodo had lost hope in the fight of good against evil? Or was he simply caught up in his present circumstances and could not see past his personal situation? Also, from what or where do you think that Sam received his hope? Do you think he knew where his hope came from? Or, was he simply putting his faith in an unsure probability of their situation possibly working out in the end?

    Well done Nick! Your connections went deep and you made good reference to both Romans and the intentions of Paul. Your excerpt for your contemporary application was a short yet powerful and enlightening passage. Good choice and good ideas!

  2. The hope of Samwise, in the unfailing divine orchestration, illuminates a truth in Paul’s hope in the “not yet” eschatological glory. Those of us in Christian faith hold to some form of hope in the future, beyond even the end of our days. In some fashion, it provides a bearing that guides us in the here and now. The trouble sometimes is that this future hope is tainted with disputes between eschatological discussions on pre- tribulation or post-tribulation, pre-millennium or post-millennium. Now, I appreciate the effort and struggle that theologians throughout history, however, these discussions can cloud the issue and create disputes and ruptures in the Christian body. Sometimes it is simpler than that.
    Hope guides us. It speaks to who we are and who we are to become. Paul’s eschatological hope of the resurrection brought value to his present circumstances. This hope is what makes Paul different from Job and his trials. It is what allowed Paul to rejoice in his circumstances.
    In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo had given up hope, yet earlier it was hope for Middle Earth that drove him on to finish his task, even to the possible cost of his own life. Samwise, for the both of them held on to hope even beyond the completion of their task and while circumstances could not provide hope.

  3. To "the questioning travelers":

    I agree that too often our eschatology has not been viewed holistically in the scope of the broader biblical revelation. I can remember a time (which corresponds regretfully to the apex of the Left Behind series hype) when I was exposed to a new vocabulary—-rapture, millennium, tribulation, etc. The buy-in which came from the subculture of Evangelical circles was disturbing through hindsight! I noticed this past Christmas in my own Church Library a colorful, picturesque book which attempted to graph and synthesize the “end times”. I felt like I was reading an adult-sized, pop-up storybook. Sadly, it wasn’t a ‘paint-by-number’.

    No, I think our eschatology needs to come back to a healthy understanding of the Spirit’s role in the Christian community and in our joyful expectation in the fullness of the Kingdom of God coming to earth. For two thousand years we’ve been living in the “End Times”. The original Apostles were convinced that the Lord would return in their own lifetimes (hence why the Gospels were not written until later in their lives, when the Church realized the necessity to pass to Gospel accurately to the next generation). Our culture has also lapsed into a fascination with End Times talk.

    We should definitely be expecting Christ’s return—living with the hope and coming joy of our final resurrection and glorification with him. But are we fulfilling that hope by mapping out our interpretation of the procedure of ‘biblical end times events’? I’m not so sure. And even though it is good to study the Scriptures deeply, we need to be careful not to impose a linearity onto the Judeo-Christian story which it does not have within itself. Weren’t we told by Jesus himself that we wouldn’t know the time of His coming anyway?

    Our Hope shouldn’t guide us to flannel-graphs. It guides the smallest of persons on the greatest of journeys to the most beautiful of endings! How much more magnificent is the story of a hard life of suffering which is finally rewarded in ways beyond our world compared to the story of a group of individuals expecting the earth to burn? I pick the former.

    If we could come to a place in our own lives where we understood deeply what the Lord has done for us, then I think that we, too, would be compelled to the greatest of tasks—just like Frodo was, knowing that his quest would change Middle-Earth forever.


  4. To "knight of the blue yonder":

    One of the key components of Sam’s hope is in his understanding of Life as a Story. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” asks Sam in The Two Towers. Frodo replies, “I wonder, but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.” Sam agrees. It isn’t until the destruction of the Ring that Sam reflects, “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?...I wish I could hear it told! And I wonder how it will go on after our part.” Note Sam’s use of the past tense and his complete assurance that he’s fulfilled his calling.

    Tolkien has managed to capture many deep theological themes in the conversations between the hobbits. In our mechanistic, technological, and economically driven society, we seldom pause to ponder the idea that our lives are like stories. We are too readily consumed in our consumerism and our harsh, self-defeating autonomy! By simply observing the Lord’s plan for history: a beginning, a tragedy, redemption and completion, we find ourselves reading a Story: the Story of Israel. In turn, our Story. This is a beautiful thing which has been terribly shunned in our culture.

    Sam and Frodo have hope in a proper conclusion to ‘their tale’. The difference between them is whether that end will conclude in tragedy or comedy (sad-ending or happy-ending). Sam, because of his delight in the idea, seems to understand that their situation will eventually work out for the good because eventually things do! Frodo’s apparent loss of hope is perhaps not as weak as we sometimes want to make it. Hope has remained one of the driving forces behind the hobbit all the way to Mount Doom. By the end we can hardly blame Frodo for slowly losing his ability to imagine a fulfilling conclusion. There is, however, still a glimmer of the hobbit’s original hope in his words to Sam: “I’m glad you’re with me, Samwise Gamgee. Here at the end of all things.” Frodo knows that his tale has gotten a happy ending after all.

    I believe that Sam’s hope comes as a mixture of being both divinely given and internally mustered—very much similar to how the Holy Spirit works in our own lives. Tolkien would probably be hesitant to draw such a clear and obvious parallel as saying something like, “God gives Sam hope.” It’s much more mysterious than that.

    As to your final question, Yes and No! Sam truly doesn’t know if he’ll get back to the Shire, only that he wants to. He doesn’t know, that is, in a rational, objective way. He doesn’t have a list of facts which affirm for him that he and Rosie will get married. Honestly, I think that Sam illustrates an intriguing balance of faith and reason. Sam doesn't know in the same way a modernist would know. Sam uses a different epistemological framework to base his beliefs upon.

    Reading Tolkien provides one with numerous scenarios where light is slated against darkness; loyalty against betrayal; hope against despair. This is one of the reasons why it is so valuable to read: not simply because it is great literature, but because it reflects our human condition and reminds us that our lives are Stories, too.



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