I’ve always thought Tolkien was essentially pessimistic, despite the happy ending of The Lord of the Rings. The power of Evil he describes, and the inevibatle comparisons to the horror of World War I make this a convincing point of view. The army of Gondor is forced to risk a suicidal attack against a formidable foe to even preserve their tiny ghost of a chance of victory.
More than this, the mood of the work is very bleak. The larger story arc about the Elves that includes The Silmarillion is in Elrond’s words a story about “fighting the long defeat.” The defeat of Sauron, a minor lieutenant of the world’s great evil, Melkor, means the end of the Elves’ rings of power and their final flight into the West, having finally failed to “make a go of it” in Middle Earth.
Even Frodo’s victory is bittersweet. His path to redemption was to press on through despair and hopelessness, and in the process receive deep spiritual wounds that would never heal. In the end, he has to forsake the Shire and leave Middle Earth as well. This is not really a happy ending, in the sense of Good people living happily ever after.
I can’t really say I’ve changed my mind, but reflecting on the book recently reminded me that there are definitely a few moments where Tolkien is saying something else, and I wanted to share them. These are small quotes from the books (in fact, all three are from The Return of the King and didn’t make it into the movie). I’ll present the context and the quotes, then indicate why I thought they are optimistic (though I think they’re quite crystal clear). When referring to chapters of The Lord of the Rings, I believe it’s customary to use notation like VI.1, meaning Book 6, Chapter 1. Recall that each of the three novels is divided into two Books each, for a total of 6.
In Chapter V.2, the orcs are attacking Minas Tirith. The orcs bring Grond, the giant battering ram, and bash the main gate open. The chief of the Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar, rides through the gate to take the first level of the city, but finds Gandalf on Shadowfax, who challenges him. This is a bleak moment for Gondor, when the military might of Sauron has utterly defeated the city. The Nazgul replies:
'Old fool!' he said. 'Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!' And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade. Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away beyond in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn. And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
In chapter VI.1 Frodo has been taken prisoner by the orcs after they find him wrapped in Shelob’s web. The orcs defeated, Sam and Frodo are discussing how to get some food, and Sam wonders out loud whether orcs eat poison rather than real food. Frodo replies:
No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they'll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.
In the next chapter, VI.2, when Sam and Frodo are hunkering down for the night, Sam looks up:
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. [...] Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him.
The first and third quote are quite similar. In both, events outside the context of the story’s characters remind the reader (and the characters) that all their important doings are taking place in a larger world, one where the battle against Sauron is a small matter. It is a small matter because that outside world is essentially Good. In both cases, it is a form of natural beauty that calls attention to itself, and I think Tolkien is using this beauty to indicate the Goodness of the universe.
The middle quote, Frodo’s remark about how Sauron can mock but not make, is drawing a distinction between God and Satan, I think. Tolkien believes there is an inherent power in Good that cannot be duplicated by Evil. This is a tenet of faith, a religious point of view, that makes Sauron’s defeat more of an inevitability. Note that I can’t reconcile this idea with the fact that Sauron forges a powerful ring, an act of creation that holds real meaning because it can only be undone with great difficulty.
Update: Two of the above scenes (the first and third) now appear in the Extended Edition release of the movie version of The Return of the King. The movie version of the first scene is missing the element I’m highlighting here, namely the crowing of the cock. Also, this same scene has the Witch King breaking Gandalf’s staff, which is inferior to the more mental struggle I think is portrayed in the text. The movie version of the third moment, where Sam sees the star in the sky, is changed only in that Sam points the star out to Frodo and shares his thoughts. I was very glad this was inserted in the Extended Edition, and there is even a companion moment where Frodo and Sam see an old king’s statue briefly lit by the sun with a wreath of flowers for a crown – a similar image of hope.