Two passages from The Silmarillion stand out as my favorites. The first is the tale of Hurin’s last stand against an overpowering enemy force:
Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried: ‘Aure entuluval! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, until at last he fell beneath them.
The second is the account of Fingolfin’s final battle against the Great Enemy, Morgoth, and his death:
Now news came to Hithlum that Dorthonion was lost and the sons of Finarfin overthrown, and that the sons of Feanor were driven from their lands. Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him…. a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar. Thus he came alone to Angband’s gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came….
Thrice [Fingolfin] was crushed to his knees, and thrice arose again and bore up his broken shield and stricken helm. But the earth was all rent and pitted about him, and he stumbled and fell…. Yet with his last and desperate stroke Fingolfin hewed the foot [of Morgoth]….
Thus died Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, most proud and valiant of the Elven-kings of old.
These are powerful accounts–Hurin and Fingolfin are just two of the book’s many great heroes who, in the absence of any hope, fight desperately and fanatically to the bitter end. There is a dearth of hope in The Silmarillion, and this theme carries into The Lord of the Rings–you see traces of it in Theoden’s charge at the Pelennor Fields and in Eowyn’s suicidal stand against the Witch-king of Angmar. Hurin and Fingolfin know that their efforts are futile. In The Return of the King, Theoden and Eowyn (and Gandalf and most of the Fellowship, for that matter) know this as well. Things turn out reasonably well in the latter case–but they shouldn’t have, by any reasonable estimation.
The heroes of Middle Earth–like the very World in which they live–yearn for release from the pain and grief that taints Creation, and in that sense they carry with them a powerful hope that evil will one day be wiped away. I have read much about these themes of hope (often in respect to the Christian themes in Tolkien’s works). But I have read very little commentary on the undercurrents of hopelessness that often crop up side-by-side with these optimistic themes. Middle Earth is filled with heroes who look around them, see no hope at all, and yet choose to go on fighting–often to their inevitable deaths. Why do they do this?
Is it possible to have hope in the face of absolutely certain defeat? Is this hope, faith, or simple stubbornness? Is this an unconscious understanding that Good will triumph in the end, or is it a grim fatalism that sees Doom on the horizon and prefers to charge into it rather than wait for its inevitable arrival?