J.R.R. Tolkien and the Necessity of Hope

The myth of “Pandora’s Box” has varied over time. Today it usually means inviting trouble by opening up something best left alone. In one version, what escapes Pandora’s Box (or “jar”) are different expressions of evil to afflict the world. In another version, it is the gods’ gifts to men that are lost. In all of those accounts, however, one item remains in Pandora’s Box: Hope (ἐλπὶς, elpis).

Whether in an ethical, a theological or a political context, the meaning of hope is often ambiguous. Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides a useful commentary on hope in his mythic saga, as the author illustrates the concept through his characters. Indeed, references to hope are surprisingly prominent in Tolkien’s magnum opus, occurring almost five-hundred times throughout the story.

Two types of hope appear in LOTR: false hope and genuine hope. The danger of the former is recognized a number of times in the story. For example, pausing with Aragorn during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Éomer observes that “hope oft deceives.” After learning that Frodo and Sam have traveled alone by way of the treacherous pass of Cirith Ungol, a troubled Gandalf admits to Pippin, “There never was much hope . . . Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.” The hope that beguiles and leads to despair is best represented by Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. After Faramir is carried back critically wounded from the attack on Osgiliath, Denethor bitterly complains, “The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts and all we do is ruinous.”

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