Hope without Assurance
One problem some Christians have with Tolkien is that they feel he was too much in love with the "northernness" he studied and admired, specifically the concept of "the long defeat." Ragnarok isn't the same as Armageddon; the pre-Christian northern tribes couldn't say, as some Christians do, that they'd read the end of the book "and we win." The Rohirrim are probably the best examples of this mentality in LotR; they go to battle because it's the right and honorable thing to do, even though they face (almost) certain defeat. That the Rohirrim resemble those early tribes in other ways is no accident. It's also important to note that Tolkien doesn't hold up the Rohirrim as an example to be followed. They're "good people" but in no way perfect. Tolkien doesn't treat their hunting of the hill people or the way their culture pushes Éowyn into an impossible corner as good things, and he doesn't applaud the sense of fatalism Éowyn acts under. He shows us the culture the way it would have been if it had developed within the reality of Middle-earth, not the way it should have been. (There's more on Tolkien's attitude toward the "long defeat" in the essay on salvation history.)
I see Tolkien's philosophy as differing from the pre-Christians' version of the long defeat in two essential ways. One is that "(almost)" in the previous paragraph. Even if the Rohirrim themselves believe defeat is certain, the story itself - which is the place we most hear Tolkien's own voice rather than that of the characters - tells us otherwise. Gandalf says at the Council, "...despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt." All other situations call for hope, even though it's usually hope without guarantee.
That kind of hope leaves room for other powers to work in unexpected ways, whether through other people in the story, or the Valar, or what we might call Providence. Despair, as Denethor finally suffered from it, is the pride of thinking we know the outcome of a situation without a doubt, which shuts off any consideration of things we don't understand and puts trust in nothing but ourselves. It seems to me that Frodo lost hope for himself during his Quest. In fact, I think seeing his own end without doubt was one thing that enabled him to give himself entirely, holding nothing back for what might come after. But he never lost hope that the Ring would be destroyed, even though he knew all too well that its destruction was beyond his power. It was that hope that allowed him to keep moving forward instead of giving up the task as impossible and either turning around or lying down to die; it left room for unexpected events and the action of other powers.
The other difference I see between Tolkien and the early northern peoples is that, for Tolkien, even what may seem like a long series of defeats will ultimately end in victory. The hope of the Dúnedain over many generations finally has fruition when Aragorn becomes king. The Men of the West don't offer themselves as a sacrifice at the Black Gate to hold off certain defeat for a bit longer, but to keep open the opportunity for victory through the still-hoped-for success of the Ring-bearer's task. LotR is a story of the triumph of hope, to the very end. We know that Frodo even regained some hope for his own future, or he wouldn't have sailed West. By accepting the invitation, he was leaving room for the possibility of things he didn't understand, and admitting that he didn't know the end of his own story beyond all doubt, something that he wasn't yet able to do during the Quest.
One reason the end of LotR is bittersweet is that we see it through the eyes of those being left behind, especially Sam. But another reason is that we don't see Frodo reach the end of his spiritual Road. It's one of those places where Tolkien draws a curtain of privacy, as if what follows is too intimate to share with the reader (as with, for example, the moment Frodo wakes in Ithilien to discover that Gandalf is alive, or the final parting of Elrond and Arwen). For those of us who interpret LotR as being dependent on the information in The Red Book, even Frodo's sighting of the "far green country" at the end is a statement of Sam's hope rather than an actual event. Frodo's departure is a place where Tolkien challenges us to accept hope without assurance. The fact that some people throw the book down in disgust or cry out in dismay at the ending shows that it is, indeed, a challenge, to say nothing of all the fanfics that attempt to follow Frodo into the West to try to create a satisfying end to his story (I even tried that one myself a couple of decades ago). We're used to fiction that has a happy ending, and to fiction that has a sad, tragic, or violent ending. But the only literary example I can think of that requires the reader to accept hope without assurance as strongly as LotR is the end of The Grapes of Wrath. It's interesting that Steinbeck also draws a veil of privacy over the physically and emotionally intimate event that will follow that final sentence. And our parting glimpse is of a small smile in the face of what looks like despair.*
Tolkien uses both of the phrases "hope without guarantee" and "hope without assurance" in his letters, seemingly with the same meaning. When we're talking about this kind of hope, it's important to look at how open the hope is. The hope that triumphs in LotR is the kind that's behind Galadriel's "That what should be shall be," or behind our own "Thy will be done." If Galadriel had limited her hopes to keeping Lothlórien in its timeless state, with herself as its Lady, she might have found herself in despair. Or, perhaps more likely, she might have accepted Frodo's offer of the Ring. Boromir is driven to take the Ring by his own despair, believing that without the power of the Ring Gondor is doomed; it doesn't help that all of his own hopes and fears are based on Gondor alone, even though Elrond assures him that "...there are other powers and realms that you know not..." that are fighting the same battle as Gondor.
Saruman shows his lack of understanding of this kind of hope by his words to Gandalf and Galadriel in "Many Partings":
I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.
He's absolutely correct in his knowledge that with the destruction of the Ruling Ring, the work done with the Three will fade. What he fails to understand is that the hope carried by Galadriel and Gandalf and their fellow travelers isn't tied to the power of the Three, but to a much greater Power. Later on, he says to Frodo, "But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither." Again, his knowledge of the effects of the Ring is on target, but his understanding of Frodo's type of hope is lacking. And because he has limited his own hopes to what he can accomplish himself (and also, I believe, because he has so distanced himself from love and mercy that they no longer enter into his thought process), he would have found it laughable that the Valar might allow a hobbit to seek healing in the West. If he believes that Gandalf abandons his tools when they "have done their task," he wouldn't expect anything different from those whom Gandalf serves. His "foretelling" is limited by his own limited vision of hope.
In With Open Hands, a book on prayer, Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest from the Netherlands, says this in the chapter titled "Prayer and Hope" (try reading the first paragraph with Saruman, Denethor or Boromir in mind; the second paragraph with Galadriel, Gandalf or Frodo):
Because he is so eager to arrange for his own future, the man of little faith closes himself off from what, in fact, might be coming. He has no patience with the unspecified promise and he has no trust in the unseen situations which the future has in store. Therefore, when the man of little faith prays, it is a prayer without hope...
......For the prayer of hope, it is essential that there are no guarantees asked, no conditions posed, and no proofs demanded, only that you expect everything from the other without binding him in any way.
Catholics certainly don't have a corner on this kind of hope, but I think it's one of those things that are so basic to our faith we don't always think about them consciously - which is possibly why it's one of the foundations of LotR. Some Christians would see Henri Nouwen's statement that we should ask God for no guarantees as a lack of faith, and they will possibly have a difficult time accepting LotR as a Christian work. Don't Catholics believe that "Whatever you ask for in my name will be granted to you"? Yes, but we place a high bar for what it means to ask "in my name." It doesn't mean simply using "in the name of Jesus" in our prayer, although we do that. It means asking for what Jesus wills, as a herald would proclaim something "in the name of the king." The herald's words have the power of law because he's speaking in the name of the king - but if the herald changes the proclamation to suit his own will instead of the king's, that's no longer true, even if the herald does it for what he believes is a good reason. The difference between Jesus and any other king is that we know that with our King we can truly "expect everything from the other without binding him in any way." When we're praying in the name of Jesus, we don't need to wonder if we should change the words of the proclamation to something we think is better; or, perhaps more to the point, we don't need to tell him what the proclamation should be.
I have to smile at Nouwen's use of the word "only" in that phrase; the trust needed to "expect everything from the other without binding him in any way" is hardly a small or easy thing, but, yes, putting "only" in front of it is a very Catholic thing to do. Rather than referring to something easy, in this context it would refer to what might be called "the one thing needful" - and that "one thing" can ask a lot of us, including surrendering to "what should be," even if it doesn't fit our own agenda. Tolkien would have understood it implicitly which, of course, is why Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond and Frodo understand it well enough to be guided by it.
For perhaps the same reason that Inuit has a couple of dozen names for different types of snow, Tolkien's Elves have more than one word for hope. The highest, estél, could be said to go beyond the hope without guarantee that Tolkien's mortals struggle with. But the two don't seem to be mutually exclusive. When Aragorn's mother says, shortly before her death, "I have given hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself," she uses the word estél, even though at that time Aragorn's future and that of the Dúnedain is anything but certain. As Paul says, "Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance." I believe the Elves, Aragorn's mother, and Paul are all referring to the kind of hope Nouwin speaks of: expecting "everything from the other without binding him in any way." St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who we'll talk about more in a later essay, especially in comparison to Frodo, said, "To be little means recognizing one's nothingness, expecting everything from the good God, as a little child expects everything from its Father." Hope without assurance doesn't mean we aren't assured that God will care for us, but it does mean His care doesn't always come in the form we might expect; as a good Father, God doesn't give us everything we want, but he gives us everything we need - and so much more that we didn't even realize we wanted until He gives it to us. By the grace of God, Thérèse had the kind of earthly father that made this comparison come naturally to her. Most of us, whose fathers haven't been perhaps as good an example of God's love and care as hers was, will need to move beyond the image of our earthly fathers when putting our trust in the good God.** It's the kind of trust and hope that allows us to "only" expect everything.
Mortals who reach this level of trust can experience estél even if they don't know with certainty what the future will bring. An aphorism that made the rounds during my early years as a Christian was, "I don't know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future." Our holy pre-Christians of the Third Age don't have as clear an understanding of the "Who" in this saying as we do; but if we accept the Truth of John's New Testament letters, we know that those who align themselves with love are aligning themselves with God even if they don't know Him. They might even be able to join with Christians in singing: "No storm can shake my inmost soul, when to that Rock I'm clinging. Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?" Sam's response to the sight of the white star is a breathtaking example of estél that hopes, not for oneself but for "what should be":
The beauty of [the star] smote his heart... 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. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him.
It's been said that LotR shows the triumph of Providence over Fate. I'd disagree with half of this because, for Providence to triumph over Fate, Fate has to actually exist. And I don't believe Fate has any place in Tolkien's view of how the world and life work. LotR certainly shows the triumph of Providence, but that's made possible by the triumph of hope over despair in those on the side of good, and by their willingness to hope "that what should be shall be" instead of limiting their hopes to their own personal or national agendas. Prophecies aren't fulfilled because of fate, but because of freely chosen actions and the work of Providence. Providence, after all, knows those freely chosen actions from within the Eternal Now, and is able to weave any discord evil can cause into a music more beautiful*** than those who place their hope in Providence could even think to ask for.
[More on "hope without assurance" as a paradox]
*If this piques the interest of anyone who hasn't read The Grapes of Wrath enough to lead them to pick up the book, I'm glad. But I'll also warn that, like LotR, if you skip to the ending before you experience the story as it unfolds, you'll ruin it for yourself. (And, no, the book doesn't end the same way as the movie. If PJ's LotR movies had changed the ending of the book as much as the movie of The Grapes of Wrath did, his army of Elves at Helm's Deep would pale in comparison.)
**Thérèse was writing in French, where the phrase "the good God" is more commonly used than it is in English. There are some traditional childhood songs in French that talk about "the good God," when we might use a different phrase. The fact that Thérèse chose to use it so much in her writing emphasizes the way of spiritual childhood that she lived by.
***For those who don't recognize the allusion, it's from Tolkien's story of the Creation in The Silmarillion. Morgoth, who holds a place similar to our Lucifer, injects discord into the Song of Creation, but Eru uses the discord to make the Song even more complex and beautiful.