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).