At one point in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf, the great wizard-hero of the story, is asked by another character what hope there is that Frodo and Sam would fulfill their quest and destroy Sauron’s ring of power. “There never was much hope,” he replies. “Only a fool’s hope.” But this, as it turns out, is precisely the point.
It’s a striking thing that Tolkien’s Silmarillion is singularly focused on the deeds of great men and elves in the first age of the world. Then the high elves and the earliest men, still in many ways kin to the elves in those days, waged war against Morgoth, the first dark lord of Tolkien’s legendarium. Set that story next to The Lord of the Rings and you begin to notice a pattern.
The Silmarillion, given almost entirely to the great men of the world, is a relentlessly despairing story. Many of the greats are vain and proud and their greatness becomes a cause for tears, not laughter. Feanor, the greatest of all elves, is the chief example. It is Feanor who creates the silmarils (three jewels from which the book draws its name) and is so consumed with greed for them that he slaughters other elves when they hinder him in his attempt to win them back after Morgoth steals them. But Feanor is not alone; the great elf Thingol (the father of Luthien, ancestor to Aragorn, and thus something of a proto-Elrond) would sooner lock himself away in his forest kingdom than venture out and fight Morgoth. He would eventually die due to his own greed.
The Lord of the Rings, a book far less concerned with the great and noble, is also shot through with far more joy, hope, beauty, and light.
The point is not that Tolkien’s more famous work neglects the greats of his world. Elrond and Galadriel both feature in it and two of the book’s most significant heroes, Gandalf and Aragorn, would certainly be at home in the world of the Silmarillion. Further, it’s no over-statement to say that the quest to destroy the ring would have failed were it not for the aid of the greats of Tolkien’s world. Galadriel’s phial of light, which itself bears the light of a silmaril, goes with Frodo and Sam into Mordor itself and lights their way to Mount Doom.
Even so, most of the book’s heroes are not the great and obvious choices, but the fools of the story—fat, lazy hobbits who would sooner dish up another ale than go on any adventures.
The point can be pressed still further. Many of Gandalf and Aragorn’s most heroic moments are only spoken of after the fact in Tolkien’s story; we are not shown them but only learn of them as a character recalls them at some future point. So we do not witness Gandalf’s defeat of the Balrog; we do not see Aragorn’s meeting with Sauron after he takes the palantir. Even Aragorn’s confrontation with the King of the Dead is only fully relayed to us after the fact by Legolas.
Though he doesn’t want us to glide past these remarkable acts, Tolkien doesn’t linger over any of them, particularly the first two, both of which we hear very little about given their importance to the story.
The heroes of the story whose heroism is most apparent to readers are, in fact, all “fools” in their different ways. Pippin, savior of Faramir and a combatant at the last battle staged at the Black Gate itself, is repeatedly called a fool by Gandalf. Samwise, whose name literally means “semi-wise”, is Tolkien’s take on the classical holy fool trope.
Theoden of Rohan, meanwhile, falls prey to a charlatan known to many as Wormtongue yet, in his final moments, proves himself to be the greater lord of men in Middle Earth, far exceeding his counterpart in Gondor, the steward Denethor.
As if it were not clear enough, Tolkien further belabors the point by introducing a prophecy written about the greatest of Sauron’s minions, the King of the Nazgul, that says that no man can kill him. He is, of course, killed by a woman, Eowyn the shield maiden of Rohan.
If it is true that we are currently witnessing the unwinding of the American republic then we would do well to revisit Tolkien. In his book we see several theories as to how we might confront evil. We see in Boromir the indiscriminate embrace of power at any cost premised on the belief that we can submit ourselves to such a quest and not be radically perverted by it. In his father Denethor we see the response of despair, which is the response of the one who believes as Boromir did but lacks Boromir’s access to the ring.
But in Tolkien’s holy fools, the weak things of Middle Earth, we see the response that shames the strong and the wise. We see common, ordinary hobbits defeating ghostly kings and overthrowing dark lords.
They are able to do that for a simple reason. Their foolishness compels them to love small things, a trait which saves them from the pride of Boromir and the despair of Denethor. It is the memory of the Shire that pushes Sam and Frodo up Mount Doom and it is their contentment that helps them to bear the ring for so long without greater harm. It is the foolishness of these characters that renders them unintelligible to their great foe in Mordor. It never enters Sauron’s darkest dream that his enemies would seek to destroy the ring because he cannot comprehend a being who would possess the ring and not claim it. Sauron knew nothing of hobbits—but why would a being consumed only with a quest for power be concerned with such creatures?
Indeed, the thing which separates the greats who remain pure in Lord of the Rings from those who fall is that they themselves are capable of loving these holy fools. Gandalf takes an interest in the Shire; Saruman does not. Aragorn spends much of his life guarding the Shire and the nearby town of Bree; Boromir spends his days seeking glory as a commander of Gondor’s armies. Theoden asks to hear Merry’s herb lore and enjoys smoking with him; Denethor sees Pippin as an errand boy of no real value, albeit one whose courage is in some way touching. It is only those who are able to love the fools of the world that can save it.
For those despairing of our country’s future, there will be no shortage of opportunity to embrace big solutions to our problems. This, in fact, is likely the best way to understand the Trump phenomenon—populist conservatives have found their strongman to stand up to the strong men of Washington. They are, in other words, modern day Boromirs.
Yet this desire itself is corrupting—it is merely swapping one foul lord for another, as we may soon have occasion to learn. Our true salvation is not in grand political victories that make them—whoever “them” might be—hurt the way that we have hurt.
Rather, it is in giving our love to simple things, “to peace and quiet and good tilled earth… (to) things that grow.” If you would be of use to your place, to your neighbors, and, I suppose, to your country then this is what you must do: Do not begin with questions of (God help us) politics or business or whatever other lofty, influential path you might chart for yourself. Salvation does not lie in these things and, if you are not careful, damnation most certainly will. Instead, you must learn to love your home place, to enjoy the simple pleasures of an ordinary day in it. And you must learn to love those things so deeply that you can fight for them. In learning to love them, you will also learn that the weapons of the enemy are not yours. You will learn that your resistance will be firm and unyielding and yet incomprehensible to the enemies of the permanent things.
As he lies on the slope of Mount Doom dying and despairing, Sam Gamgee, the semi-wise fool, remembers the Shire’s springtime strawberries and cream. And so he gets up and carries his master up the mountain where the ring will be cast into Mount Doom and destroyed, thereby bringing about the ruination of Sauron.
The lesson: If you would destroy our world’s versions of Sauron and Saruman, then you must love strawberries and cream.