Tolkien and the Political Pleasures of Sadness

One of the things that always stands out to me upon reading Tolkien’s work, whether that be The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion, is the pervasive sense of sadness and loss that permeates his literary endeavours.   Time and again, the reader is made to realize that victory always carries with it a core of sadness and that, perhaps, this sadness is one of the defining characteristics of the human (and Elven) condition.  Indeed, Tolkien himself suggests as much in a letter to his publisher regarding his aspirations for The Silmarillion:  “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall–all stories are ultimately about the fall–at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (147).  For Tolkien, the fall, and all of the bitterness and strife that comes with it, remains an essential part of our humanity and is crucial to our way of making sense of the world.

Tolkien builds sadness into the very core of his created world, for it suffuses the ontology of both branches of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men.  For Elves, sadness comes from many sources, not the least of which is their immortality, but also from their love of the world and their agony at its hurts.  For men, sadness is of an altogether different nature, stemming from their finite nature, for though some are blessed with extraordinary long life, they nevertheless remain haunted by the fact that they must one day leave the world of mortals, and it remains unclear in the legendarium (even to the Valar, the chief servants of Iluvatar), what lies for humanity beyond the confines of the mortal world.  At its heart, then, Tolkien’s world is structured by and imbued with a profound sense of impending doom and sadness.

This is not to suggest, however, that it is a fatalistic sadness.  I would argue that it is precisely through sadness that Tolkien’s world offers the hope of salvation; it is through perseverance even in the face of ultimate doom that hope finds its way into many of Tolkien’s larger works.  Thus, Gandalf and Aragorn lead the attack on the Black Gate, knowing full well that they in all likelihood will not survive, but knowing that there is no other choice.  Frodo and Sam continue on their quest to Mount Doom, knowing that they may perish before they go there, but they do so anyway, soldering through the sorrow and despair they feel.

At the same time, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings suggest that, no victory can ever be fully complete.  Sauron may be defeated, but a new shadow will arise to take his place.  What is more, the downfall of the One Ring, though utterly necessary for the survival and flourishing of Middle-earth, will also spell the doom of the Elves and the fading of all that has been wrought with the Three Rings they bear.  Galadriel makes this clear to Frodo, when she passes her own test of temptation, knowing as she does so that she will diminish and go into the West.  The entirety of LoTR is suffused with this great sorrow, that at the end of it all the world of the Elves and all the beauty they bear will at last come to an end.  Even The Hobbit, light-hearted though it is, has in its ending a tinge of that sadness, not only with the death of Thorin and his nephews Fili and Kili, but also in the fact that Bilbo’s quiet life, and that of his beloved Shire, has been fundamentally changed.

Sadness also permeates The Silmarillion.  Even as the Valar endeavour to create things of beauty Melkor/Morgoth brings them to ruin, blighting with sorrow all that should bring nothing but joy.  Likewise, the  enchanted Silmarils, though jewels of surpassing and exquisite beauty, are themselves the source of uncounted sorrows for all that come into contact with them.  Beauty and sadness are constantly intertwined with one another in the connected tales of The Silmarillion; the text even suggests that not only can one not exist without the other, but that they are mutually constitutive.  Beauty can and does smite us with the sorrow of its own fading and failing and becomes all the more precious for  the ability to conjure up so many conflicting desires within us.

Whatever you think about Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien, I believe he has gotten this bit right.  To this day, the ending of The Return of the King, with Annie Lennox’s powerful and piercing rendition of the song “Into the West,” inspires in me an almost sublime sadness, a mingled sense of loss and hope.   That, to me, manages to make up for Jackson’s excision of “The Scouring of the Shire.”  Although I have not yet seen the final chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo’s haunting assertion in one of the trailers that he will tell the tale of those that survived and those that did not, paired with Billy Boyd’s hauntingly lyrical voice, suggests that this film too will into the profound well of sadness that lies beneath the surface of Tolkien’s upbeat novel.

Like Tom Shippey, who suggests that Jackson’s films are in some ways refreshingly different from traditional Hollywood fare, I applaud Jackson for his ability to evoke in us a sense of the sublime sadness that for me characterizes Tolkien’s moral and aesthetic vision.  Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly room for joy and optimism in our world.  But sadness does not always have to be seen in a negative light, for as Gandalf says:  “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  It can indeed help us to be more appreciative and more sensitive to the world around us, to the beauty of the nature and its inhabitants.  By realizing the fragility and impermanence, and thus the exquisite beauty, of everything around us, we can hopefully learn not to take things for granted.  Tolkien’s works have much to teach us about how to engage ethically and considerately with the pressing moral and ecological issues of our day, if we but have the wit to see it.

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One comment

  1. dandaviswrites · December 3, 2014

    This is a really lovely, considered article, thank you.

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