Choice is one of Tolkien’s great preoccupations in The Lord of the Rings. He is fascinated by the existential challenge that confronts one at certain moments in life. I do not think they come often. You’re presented with two options. In that moment, both options are open to you and both options contain within entire worlds of consequences and outcomes from that choice. But once you make the choice, one world is lost to you forever.
The nature of the choice varies. Sometimes it is between good and evil: Boromir comes to such a moment and chooses badly. In the end, he is able to find peace by choosing the good before his death. But the good he chooses then is not the good that had been available to him before.
More frequently, however, Tolkien depicts another pivotal but, I think, less discussed and probably less understood choice. Ultimately, he is less interested in the choice between good and bad and more interested in the choice between despair and courage. Nearly every prominent character faces such a moment over the final two books and especially in The Return of the King. And Tolkien draws out each moment marvelously. At the Battle of the Pelennor Field, Theoden sits in his saddle before the battle and nearly quails. But then,
After a while the king led his men away somewhat eastward, to come between the fires of the siege and the outer fields. Still they were unchallenged, and still Theoden gave no signal. At last he halted once again. The City was now nearer. A smell of burning was in the air and a very shadow of death. The horses were uneasy. But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age. Merry himself felt as if a great weight of horror and doubt had settled on him. His heart beat slowly. Time seemed poised in uncertainty. They were too late! Too late was worse than never! Perhaps Theoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills.
Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.
But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle: and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that he seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first eored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Theoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.
In contrast, Denethor faces a similar choice and chooses otherwise:
Denethor started as one waking from a trance, and the flame died in his eyes, and he wept; and he said: ‘Do not take my son from me! He calls for me.’
‘He calls,’ said Gandalf, ‘but you cannot come to him yet. For he must seek healing on the threshold of death, and maybe find it not. Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’
‘He will not wake again,’ said Denethor. ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?’
‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’ Then passing through the door he took Faramir from the deadly house and laid him on the bier on which he had been brought, and which had now been set in the porch. Denethor followed him, and stood trembling, looking with longing on the face of his son. And for a moment, while all were silent and still, watching the Lord in his throes, he wavered.
‘Come!’ said Gandalf. ‘We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’
Then suddenly Denethor laughed. He stood up tall and proud again, and stepping swiftly back to the table he lifted from it the pillow on which his head had lain. Then coming to the doorway he drew aside the covering, and lo! he had between his hands a palantir. And as he held it up, it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame, so that the lean face of the Lord was lit as with a red fire, and it seemed cut out of hard stone, sharp with black shadows, noble, proud, and terrible. His eyes glittered.
‘Pride and despair!’ he cried. ‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.’
Later, commenting on Denethor’s fall, Tolkien writes,
‘Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long ago I guessed that here in the White Tower, one at least of the Seven Seeing Stones was preserved. In the days of his wisdom Denethor did not presume to use it, nor to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess, since Boromir departed. He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.’
Note that it is Denethor’s greatness which both protects him from falling into league with Sauron, as happened to Saruman, and that causes his fall. It is Denethor’s pride that dooms him. It is his pride which leads him to say “if I cannot have Minas Tirith on my terms, then I will not have it at all.” He doesn’t become evil in the way of Sauron, driven by greed and a desire to consume and destroy. But he becomes evil in another way—his pride, when confronted by reality, drives him into despair. If he cannot have the world he wishes to have, then he will have none at all.
The fullest expression of this divide is likely found in Sam and Frodo’s journey in Book VI. Indeed, virtually the entirety of that book’s first three chapters is the story of their repeated confrontations with despair and their repeated resistance of it. Significantly, the resistance is never grounded in the sense that they themselves will triumph. It is, rather, grounded in two things.
For the most part, their resistance is a matter of sheer willfulness grounded in a commitment to duty and honor. Frodo vowed to take the Ring to the mountain and so that vow holds him to his task, even when nothing else can. Sam, meanwhile, is pledged to Frodo and so what Frodo is bound to likewise binds Sam. Their persistence, then, is founded on a pledge and by their commitment to honor that pledge, no matter what.
And yet if this alone was what pressed them forward we would have something little more than a kind of romanticized nominalism, perhaps even something like Camus’s imagined Sisyphus, smiling as he pushes his boulder. But there is something else that drives them on, though they are not always able to access it, which is why they need their vow to hold them to their path. But it is not the vow alone that guides them.
Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot.
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. 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 masters, 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.
So it’s not just a pure willfulness that drives them forward. This isn’t belief in belief; it isn’t the simple fact that they made a choice and that any choice they might have made could equally supply what they needed. It is that they made vows that bound them to the work of goodness and truth and beauty. Their vow placed them on the side of the stars, as it were, and so it gave them a security that could hold them to their work. Of course, it was the light of a star that saved them when all other lights were lost.
And so perhaps that is as good a place to end as any. For if you are a Christian, then the vows you take that place you on the side of the stars will hold you to your course. And when all other lights fail, it is the person once illuminated by a star who will be your light.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).