“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins
I ring in each new year the same way—with some Hobbits and a magical ring. On January 1, 2021, I embarked on my annual read-through of The Lord of the Rings, journeying from Bilbo’s jovial “eleventy first” birthday to Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens toward the Undying Lands.
There is never a bad time to read Tolkien’s beloved tale, but there is something fitting about doing so at the start of a new year. At its core, Lord of the Rings is about journeys. It’s about venturing into the unknown, experiencing new adventures, overcoming challenges, finding new friends and losing old friends, and finally reaching journey’s end deeply changed. “There and Back Again,” as Bilbo Baggins writes.
This year, I found the book particularly edifying, and I also noticed myself reflecting on the adventures that await us in 2021. There is much wisdom in Middle-Earth to equip us for the upcoming year.
For Such a Time as This
Last year was challenging: a pandemic, racial injustices, social division, and an endless bombardment of venomous politics. People are exhausted, confused, angry, and broken. So far, 2021 appears to offer more of the same. During times of evil and unrest, it’s natural for us to wish for change and lament our circumstances. In this, we are like Frodo, burdened both physically and spiritually:
Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
Gandalf’s wisdom is shared by Treebeard and the Ents, who resolve to march out and face the challenges head on rather than hiding in the temporary sanctuary of Fangorn forest:
“Of course, it is likely enough, my friends . . . that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.”
Both Gandalf and Treebeard are echoing an important truth in scripture. In the Bible, Queen Esther receives similar counsel:
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
We can bemoan the time in which God has placed us, or we can choose to face it and trust that we are here “for such a time as this.”
How Good Prevails Over Evil
Choosing to face the evils of our day is only one part of the story. Equally important is how we confront them. Lord of the Rings is often accused of depicting a simplistic battle between good and evil. This criticism does a disservice to the incredible nuance Tolkien infused into the story. More importantly, it overlooks a significant point of the story: evil overcomes good initially, or so it seems.
The wisdom of the elves diminishes into the West, and the might of Gondor—even united behind Aragorn as the returned king—is overcome and outmatched. Frodo, the book’s primary protagonist, stands at the Cracks of Doom and shockingly fails to complete his task, instead claiming the ring as his own. And yet, despite all of these setbacks, good ultimately does prevail.
The power of Tolkien’s work is not just that good wins; it is how good wins. It is not by strength of arms but by hope and mercy that victory is obtained. Frodo fails physically but not morally. In response to a fan letter that expressed disappointment in Frodo’s apparent lack of success, Tolkien wrote,
Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 246
In other words, Frodo was victorious. No, he did not storm the gates of Mordor, strike down the Dark Lord with his famous sword, Sting, and triumphantly hurl the ring into the fire. He was a humble hobbit, after all. Yet, because of his noble character and daily perseverance, he did all that was required. He pressed forward, trusting in hope even when all seemed hopeless. His mercy, like Bilbo’s before him, toward Gollum proved to be more significant than the power and strength of arms of men. Frodo did the right thing even when doing so appeared foolish, and he was instrumental in saving Middle-Earth.
Tolkien coined the word Eucatastrophe to describe a miraculous turn of events or a “happy ending” (“The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!”). The books have been criticized for this “convenient plot device.” Yet, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is not simply a contrived deus ex machina. The eucatastrophe always arrives for characters in motion, heroes doing the right thing and pressing on despite the odds. Characters experience unexpected salvation and providence precisely because they have dutifully put themselves in the middle of situations that require salvation and providence.
Think of Moses standing before the Red Sea, the water rising up on both sides; certain death was suddenly transformed into miraculous victory. God did not teleport the Israelites out of Egypt while Moses tended sheep in exile. Moses was faithful each step of the way until he (repeatedly) reached the end of his own strength and then God stepped in to complete the task. This story represents a eucatastrophe, and it is a glorious biblical reality. Gandalf is right in affirming that there are other powers at work besides that of evil. We’d do well to remember this fact!
There and Back Again in 2021
We do not know what all awaits us in 2021. Indeed, “there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” There is sure to be much good and inevitably much hardship and pain as well. An adventure lies before us. What will we do with the time that is given to us? We cannot hide from the evils of our day. Not forever. At the same time, we can take heart that the burden of victory is not placed upon our shoulders. Middle-Earth was not saved by the valor of men but by the unsung deeds of hobbits. Like those hobbits, we can do no more today than press on, trusting in the “fool’s hope” that we have and demonstrating the love and mercy of Christ to those around us and to our enemies most of all. In the end, we can find comfort in knowing that a Eucatastrophe is coming, and it will be worth the wait.