Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tolkien Study #2: Basic Ideals - Grace and Courage pt.1

Tolkien's two most prominent ideals, in my mind, are Courage and Grace. Most of the Lord of the Rings story is centered primarily on those two main ideas, along with a host of others. Courage and Grace, however, seem to be the most prominent. This section deals with the former, Courage.

Courage in the Tolkien legendarium is often without hope, cheer or any kind of positive backing. This stems from an understanding of the Theory of Northern Courage, which can be defined in one basic event: Ragnarok. Ragnarok was the day in Northern mythology when every good and every evil thing to have ever existed would fight, and evil would be triumphant. The idea behind this is that even though the right and good side was without any kind of final hope, it wouldn't do to simply let evil run unchecked. Good must oppose evil, with or without hope, because that is simply the way that things are. The moral backbone is one of Tolkiens greatest strengths in his stories; characters so utterly selfless and willing to oppose evil that, if need be, they willingly give their lives that others may reap the benefits of their sacrifice.

Courage here doesn't simply mean not being afraid or just trying to out-macho the opposing forces. It has more to do with a kind of willingness, even if it's a sad and resigned one, to oppose evil no matter what for the purpose of all that is good. As stated above, few if any characters in the legendarium ever have anything even remotely resembling hope. Therefore, courage cannot be defined by a simple hope for the best and ignorance of whatever opposing forces there are. It is defined by a willingness to endure any and all hardships necessary to oppose that which is not Good, whether a physical opponent or negative emotion.

When reading the legendarium, particularly LOTR, there is a real sense of sadness about the characters. Many people make the mistake of confusing sadness, a natural and healthy emotion, with depression and even despair. Despair is what happens when one abandons both hope (which, while not necessarily vital to courage is certainly vital to keep one's spirits up) and courage altogether. Take for instance the father and son duo of Faramir and Denethor, from the latter part of the LOTR story. Faramir says himself it is long since they(his people, the kingdom of Gondor) have had any hope; yet he does not make the mistake of falling into despair, precisely because he hasn't entirely given up on the idea that what he's fighting for is truly the right side. Denethor, on the other hand, loses all hope(due to his seeing Saurons plans in detail) and abandons courage, reason and hope in exchange for a fey madness; one that almost takes the life of Faramir. Faramir certainly had acess to nearly the same knowledge; his duty was a captain of Rangers, and his duty called him to scout far ahead of the main body of Gondorian soldiers to spy on the enemy and report on their numbers and movements. So hope/despair/courage isn't even really dependent on the knowledge of your enemy's strength, its a simple matter of remembering which side you are fighting for. As long as one can remain steadfast in ones cause, regardless of how hopeless it may seem, one will always have hope, and Courage.

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