The Importance of Old Tales and Songs

The sun is setting, and outside grows a spiritual darkness. With this darkness comes despair that the light will never come again, that the best is behind us and only a still deeper darkness lies before us. This darkness takes many forms – violence at home and abroad, a political environment seemingly devoid of anything approaching morality, and most troubling of all a society entirely divorced from the traditions, customs, and beliefs upon which it was founded. One worries if the old saying is true, if one really cannot go home.

Yet, even if there is never much hope, there is always a fools hope. As a Tolkien purist, it is important to approach the Jackson cinematic adaptations with an appropriate amount of skepticism and grace. They are not perfect, and they take their liberties. Very often they get it right, and occasionally (and if one includes the Hobbit movies, one might say often) get it wrong. Having written before of one instance in which the movies got it right, I write now a meditation on another melding of the literary and the cinematic, a moment of no uncertain gravitas which, I believe, serves well as the maiden essay for this newest endeavor.

Those familiar either with the books or the movies will recall King Theoden of Rohan very differently, as either a hardened and determined warrior and leader of men, or as a sympathetic figure haunted by his own failures and shortcomings. In one scene, Theoden the King (of Jacksonian reckoning) laments as he and the remnants of his host are barricaded in the halls of Helm’s Deep, “So much death! What can man do against such reckless hate?”[i] It often feels that the good in this world is tantamount to a single man trying to hold back the incoming tide. What is our man to do? What are we to do? In a word, endure. Patiently endure, as Saint Paul suggests in his second letter to the Corinthians.[ii] When suffering, persecution, violence, and dismay come, patiently endure. Of course, Paul writes this with the power of Christ as his support. In Middle Earth where no such Gospel as we know it exists, endurance must draw strength from other sources.

Near the end of the film adaptation of The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam find themselves in the middle of the maelstrom that is Osgiliath.[iii] They are but two of the small folk trying to navigate the almost unknowable conflicts of the world of Men and Orcs, while at the same time pursuing a mission of the greatest import which all-but-certainly ensures their annihilation. Already to this point they have not only been through more than even the most renowned of hobbits, but indeed through more even than the noblest of men. They are but two garden tending, pipe smoking, ale drinking Hobbits who seek to destroy evil incarnate in the world. It takes little imagination or empathy to feel for our beleaguered heroes.

In Osgiliath, Frodo breaks. He hits his Hobbit wall and his will begins to shatter. Drawing his sword to Sam’s throat, he appears to have succumbed entirely to hatred and despair. It is naught but the goodness of Sam’s spirit that brings Frodo back from the brink. It is at this point that one of the most poignant bits of dialogue, if somewhat overly sentimental, occurs. I quote here in full:

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the world ever go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. They meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What were they holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.

In the movies, there is perhaps no more humanizing moment than this. Anyone who has lived for any period of conscious time in this vale of tears will immediately recognize the feeling of utter hopelessness from Frodo, that painfully real temptation to surrender to the darkness, consequences be damned. So much have these two been through, and yet so much more must they still endure – so much that is unknown but surely awful. Frodo’s spirit is at the precipice, and rightfully so.

Sam reminds the viewer that the “great stories” all share one thing in common – the heroes in those tales had a choice, as do we all, of turning back or going forward, of patiently enduring or succumbing to sorrow. What made the heroes deeds heroic was not their great heroic deeds commonly understood, but rather their quiet Churchillian resolve not to give in. The last march of the Ents was heroic not because they destroyed Saruman’s machinery, but because they decided to fight for the good rather than surrender. And why do heroes continue to march forward, often to their doom? They do so because there is something worth marching for. And what were they holding onto, dear Sam? That there is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for.

The Tolkien passage from which Jackson draws inspiration for this dialogue is found as Frodo and Sam find themselves in an equally unsavory situation on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the pass through the Mountains of Shadow and into the very heart of the Dark Land. Here, Frodo laments that there is no good in this part of the world and here again Sam speaks up. Note both the similarities and the differences between Tolkien’s and Jackson’s dialogue:

“Yes, that’s so. And we shouldn’t even be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that is not the way of it with the old tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they would have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!”[iv]

Decidedly different from the cinematic version, but together a compelling idea is offered. Here, Tolkien, through the voice of Samwise the Brave, points out what Jackson neglects – that these heroes of the old tales and songs went on very often to decidedly unpleasant ends. For many, no Earthly home awaited their return, and for those fortunate enough to return home, as our Hobbits found themselves, home was not quite the same, nor would it ever be. Perhaps their home had changed in their absence, or perhaps it was the heroes themselves who had changed through their trials and so were unable to recognize the same creature comforts that existed before. Perhaps both.

More importantly, Tolkien points out – perhaps he is here writing with a mind towards the Christian saints of old – that these heroes did not often choose the paths on which they were landed, but rather were there landed and choose to follow them. This can be how it sometimes feels for we who, when tragedy rears its ugly head, feel that we do not belong here. We long for a simpler time in some far away fantasy of the Shire, for the comfort of the local tavern, for the pleasure of strawberries and fresh cream, but that is not to be for us, not now at least. Here we have landed, and this path is ours to follow. We may stay the course, or we may turn away therefrom. This is what separates the hero’s tale from the forgotten tale – whether the hero followed the path or abandoned it. Recall, with these thoughts in mind, the second version of Bilbo’s walking song:

“The road goes ever on and on,

down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the road has gone,

And I must follow if I can!”[v]

“And I must follow if I can!” It would appear that our dear Samwise was quite correct in his interpretation of the old tales and songs.

Now, these sentiments are easy to champion, but much more difficult to truly believe. What light can there be in a world so dark? That is beyond the simple scope of this missive, though I will offer one suggestion. Perhaps the good that we have to hold onto is the hope that there is, in truth, some good to which we may hold; perhaps our hope is a fools hope. The author of Hebrews[vi] writes that, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” It is difficult to see the goodness in the night of our time, but if we succumb to the deeper fear that there is no good left to pursue, then the Ring  will never be cast into the annihilating fire.

Earlier in the saga, Frodo and Gandalf share a moment of similar shades of despair. Here, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo grieves that the ring ever came to him. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” he cries, to which Gandalf responds,

“So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

No one wishes to see and endure evil. Such a wish is positively irrational. Nonetheless, evil exists and so we must bear witness. That is our curse on this side of Eternity, and we may either choose to confront it or to submit to its dominion. For the one who surrenders, to be forgotten is a great mercy; to be remembered as a coward is disgrace in memoriam.

The old tales and songs, as Samwise points out, remind us that ever before us lies a choice – to continue on to whatever end, or to turn back. To continue on to uncertain and very possibly dark ends is to acknowledge and hope for a greater good. To turn back is to give into despair. It was Gimli, of all the characters in Middle Earth, who said, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”[vii] Too right.

Do not despair. Hope that a new day will come. That alone is a good worth fighting for.

Notes:

[i] The author recognizes the fact that this quote comes from the self-doubting Jacksonian Theoden rather than the true Tolkien Theoden. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes will come from the books.

[ii] 2nd Corinthians 1.3-7, English Standard Version (ESV)

[iii] This is another Jacksonian addition that did not happen in Tolkien’s source material

[iv] The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, p. 696

[v] The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, p. ???

[vi] Hebrews 11.1, ESV

[vii] The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 274

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