How Fantasy Inspires Hope Part 1

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

JRR Tolkien-On Fairy Stories

I mentioned on my last blog post that fairy tales always teach a lesson. As cheesy and contrived as it sounds, I’ve always been drawn towards stories that are a lot more fantastical than realistic. When I was a child, I grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. Now that I’m an adult, however, the fantasy stories that inspire me and give me the most hope comes from two vastly different works: The Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Vox Machina (and the related adventures of the Mighty Nein on Critical Role).

These two works couldn’t be any more different. The Lord of the Rings is a very traditional, safe epic fantasy. The Legend of Vox Machina is crass and gory and chaotic. What these works have in common, however, is the hope that even the least likely of people can rise to the occasion and become heroes.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t shy about showing the horrors of war and how people with the best of intentions can be corrupted. There are three scenes from each of the movies that I want to talk about along with my favorite part of The Legend of Vox Machina and my thoughts so far of the Mighty Nein campaign. All of these moments that I’ll go into inspire hope in the most unique and strangest of ways.

My Favorite Parts from The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring

I can literally count the number of movies that made me cry on one hand. The moment where Boromir dies is one of them.

In the context of the book, this is the turning point, where all hope seems lost. The Fellowship has broken apart by Boromir’s betrayal. Merry and Pippin are taken captive. Sam and Frodo have gone off on their own.

And yet, it’s the exchange between Aragorn and Boromir that creates a glimmer of hope in the Fellowship’s first darkest hour. Boromir laments his despair, but Aragorn makes a promise.

Aragorn promises to protect Gondor and to honor Boromir’s desire to defend their people. This is when Aragorn finally accepts his calling to be the king that was promised. Then Boromir’s dying words are a vow. If circumstances were different, he would have followed Aragorn to the end of the line, serving his true king. And mind you, this was the same guy that earlier claimed “Gondor needs no king.”

Even though this scene makes me cry every time I watch it, Aragorn’s promise (and really Aragorn himself) is the spark of hope. This wasn’t going to be the end for the Fellowship.

The Two Towers

Tolkien fans pretty much have Sam’s speech memorized by this point. During the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Isengard, all hope seems lost again. But as Sam inspires Frodo, we see shots of the battles turning around.

The context of this scene is especially poignant. Sam and Frodo have no clue how everyone else is doing or how their journey will end. Frodo just tried to kill Sam in a moment of despair, but Sam takes it in stride. Sam and Frodo have no idea that Merry and Pippin are taking back Isengard with the Ents. They have no idea that Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf are turning the tide at Helm’s Deep. In fact, they assumed that Gandalf is dead because the last time they saw him, he fell to his death in the Mines of Moria.

And yet, in spite of all this seeming despair, Sam holds onto hope. It seems so foolish and yet it’s all that Sam has. This hopeful speech is enough to bring Gollum to tears and convinces Faramir to let them go on ahead to Mordor.

Now that’s what I call a Natural 20 on your performance roll.

Return of the King

There’s a moment in the original book that wasn’t included in the movie:

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.

I think this quote sums up how Tolkien creates heroes and inspires hope in his stories. Instead of taking the Beowulf/Might Makes Right approach and creating an ultra-strong, muscular protagonist who fights and kills his way out of every problem, Tolkien’s heroes are all clever, wise, and empathetic.

This extends to the prophecy/poem:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In this movie, Sam and Aragorn both shine as beacons of hope. My favorite moment of Aragorn’s is when he literally summons an army of ghosts and promises that when they fight on his behalf, their debt will be repaid and their souls will be laid to rest. This shows that hope can come even to those who have passed on.

Sam’s best moment, of course, is when he chooses to carry Frodo into the fires of Mount Doom. Even though a handful of characters resisted the Ring’s allure, Sam was the only one that the Ring couldn’t corrupt and this is way more evident in the book than in the movie.

You see, to quote one of my favorite musicals, the opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.

Sam’s desires are simple: to have a happy life in the Shire with a garden to tend to and a family to raise. This desire couldn’t be distorted by the Ring in any sense. So it’s no surprise that Sam willingly gives the Ring back to Frodo, even if Frodo couldn’t resist the Ring himself.

While a lot of people complain about how the last part of Return of the King went on for a long time with its multiple endings, I honestly didn’t mind because it shows the payoff to everything that the Company has been through. They finally get the happy reunion they deserve. However, Frodo is still unable to completely heal from his scars and so goes off to the West with Bilbo and the Elves from Rivendell. There’s an implied promise that Sam and the other Hobbits may soon follow Frodo into the west as well.

(Side note: It feels so poetic that the place where Tolkien passed away just happened to be a seaside town. It’s like the author himself decided to sail off into the West and join his creations.)

Come back here tomorrow for Part 2 where we go into the land of Exandria and meet a couple of different unlikely heroes.

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