I have finished my annual re-reading of the Lord of the Rings and as usual find it better with every successive reading. This year I read it in conjunction with Matthew Dickerson’s book A Hobbit Journey, by Brazos Press. This is a wonderful companion to the trilogy (and to all of Tolkien’s writing in fact) as it clearly illuminates several key themes and leitmotifs running through all of Tolkien’s work. Of particular interest to me is the morality of Middle Earth. First, there is the division of the Wise and all others – and clearly the Wise are such because they in fact possess true wisdom, knowledge of reality and the way things really are. The Enemy, whoever that is, must always bend and deform what is real, what is true, in order to make it a lie. It is a touching moment in the book, very moving and intended to be that way, when Samwise looks up out of the gloom of Mordor and sees a single star in the night sky, breaking through the darkness. At that moment he realizes that there are higher things, and greater beauty, that can never be touched by the evil around him and which threatens to overtake the world. That is an important moral truth, though seldom recognized: hope sustains virtue, for without hope no true morality can thrive. This is why the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice must be accompanied by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Notice that the hope of Samwise (and all others) often seemed foolish, a ‘fool’s hope’ it is often called, yet it is not a hope in the strength of arms or the cunning intelligence of some powerful king. It is a hope that has its source among the stars and beyond – that there is good in Middle Earth that cannot be touched because there is a good outside of Middle Earth that can never pass away.
A striking example of the true morality of Middle Earth, and there are many, is found in the character of Faramir (not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s portrayal!). Faramir is accounted among the wise, perhaps the wisest left in Gondor, because he does not put his hope in strength of arms or in battle. He recognizes duty but also friendship – and he recognizes that it is better (it is good and right) to keep one’s word even when the simple breaking of it promises great power (and perhaps a false hope). Faramir will not take the ring (what was Peter Jackson thinking?), not were all of Gondor destroyed, and he did not boast idly to Frodo. He remains a man of his word, keeping his promise, and a man without guile, one who would not even ensnare an orc with falsehood. How could such a man, a captain in need in a beleaguered land, refuse to take the ring of power? We get glimpses of this source of strength (and wisdom) from Tolkien (and this is wonderfully spelled out in Dickerson’s book). The high men of Gondor look to the West, to what will ever be – essentially they are looking to their creator from afar, remembering that they are but dust, but also remembering that there lies the truth and their only sure hope. The darkness about them can never reach the Uttermost West – this is what Sam realizes when he sees that single shining star, and hope remains in them. As long as hope remains virtue can flourish, and hope must have a sure foundation or otherwise it turns to foolishness.