The boy is reading Lord of the Rings, perhaps for the dozenth or so time. At times, he asks me to read aloud, so I am revisiting occasional chapters with him, glad for the opportunity to indulge myself. As I do so, I am becoming more and more convinced that Tolkien ranks amongst the most brilliant of our writers in the English language both because of his craft and because of the richness and depth of his ideas.
After Frodo and Sam have escaped from the orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, they struggle to find their way to Mount Doom, hope dying daily. Even the change of wind and clearing of the sky that show the tides of war have changed do not unburden Frodo; he can only see that they themselves are still in Mordor on an increasingly hopeless quest. Sam, trying to keep himself awake one night on watch, looks out at the sky:
“Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. [. . .] Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
A professor of mine once mocked Tennyson’s poem “Two Voices” because the resolution was too simplistic: how could simply hearing the church bells and seeing a family on their way to church make the speaker choose life instead of death? But it is precisely in those simple things that we see hope. A star, a friend’s touch, a bell ringing us to rejoice.
Why do we keep struggling? Because we know -- by these signs that grace allows us -- that in the end is the beauty we have longed for all our lives.