Hope and Despair in Lord of the Rings – the Choice Facing Catholic Men Today

It has become an annual Christmas ritual that my wife and children sit down and watch the whole extended version of The Lord of the Rings. Hot chocolate, Christmas nibbles, dressing gowns and slippers – for about three days! I like the films, but grew up with the books, so it’s a great opportunity for me to slip off and get some peace and quiet, albeit punctuated by battle cries or one of the earworm theme tunes of Howard Shore’s film score.

The children love being re-submersed in the world of Middle Earth and are at that age where they both adore the fantasy and are beginning to see some of the allegorical themes woven through. Something they picked up on this year was the very different response to the crisis of evil faced by two of the key characters in the latter parts of the series: Theoden, King of Rohan, and Denethor, Steward of Gondor.

Theoden, King of Rohan and Denethor, Steward of Gondor

When we first meet Theoden in the film, he is under the thrall of the evil wizard, Saruman, who has used his powers to take possession of Theoden’s body, keeping him bound and bowed in his throne like a frail old man in a care home, inert, incapacitated and unable to rule his Kingdom. Saruman’s servant, Wormtongue, aids this bondage by pouring slippery words into the King’s ear to dull his mind. Theoden is only released from these chains by Gandalf the White exercising – or perhaps exorcising – a greater power as he casts Saruman out and restores Theoden to his right mind and his rightful position.

Gandalf then facilitates Theoden’s recovery by suggesting that his hands would remember their old strength better if they grasped his sword, implying both that he should get a proper grip on his manhood – gird his loins, as it were – and take up the symbol of his obligation to carry out the actions appropriate to being king. Which he does: he quickly comes to his senses, recognises his failings and puts his house back in order. He metes out justice to those who deserve it, he buries his dead son, he restores broken kinship and sonship, he gathers the clans, protects his people and then rides out to meet evil in mortal combat. Having put his own demons to the metaphorical sword, he dies a heroic, sacrificial death at the sword of a demon of Middle Earth.

Denethor, by contrast, first appears as a noble lord in absolute control of his household. He sits as Steward of the great city Gondor where his magnificent armies, under the leadership of his warrior sons, have been holding back the menace of Sauron’s hordes at the borders of Middle Earth. Denethor, however, has a dark gnawing secret – unbeknownst to anyone, he holds one of the palantir, a seeing stone, which provides revelations or visions of the world around him. However, Sauron manipulates the palantir to show Denethor scenes of his vast armies, his power, his destruction and his impending victory.

After the news of the death of his eldest son, Denethor spirals into despair (“You may triumph in the field of battle for a day, but against the power that has risen in the east, there is no victory”) and his final act is not to ride out to meet the enemy, but to take his wounded younger son into the mausoleum, set a funeral pyre and attempt to take both their lives. His son is rescued, but Denethor dies a dishonourable death, consumed by his own demons of doubt and hopelessness.

Hope and despair

The parallels with our own times and circumstances are stark. We appear to live in an age where men of faith are few and far between, and many of faith and none are hobbled like Theoden to their own weaknesses and lassitude, no longer masters of their own houses, made impotent by a supply of junk food, video games and other drugs, and fed a diet of watery platitudes about being metrosexual, about dealing with their toxic issues, about getting in touch with their emotions and letting go of the traditional masculine strengths of leadership, provision and protection.

Satan sees this as a watertight strategy for defeating the family of God: shackle the good men and when the time comes for the final attack there will be no one ready or strong enough to resist.

Even those men, like Denethor, who are battling hard on every moral and spiritual front, can suddenly fall prey to despair and give up all hope. When we look into today’s palantir, the smartphone, we can be tempted to give in to existential desolation in exactly the same way as Denethor, when we see not just the news: extremism, environmental meltdown, poverty, political and economic turmoil, but also the vivid demonstrations of the spirit of the times: the emasculation of men, the destruction of family life, aggressive atheism, unrestrained hedonism and an utter disregard for the truth.

The Palantir and its modern day successor.

Like Theoden and Denethor, we men have a choice before us. Either we arise from our stupor and put our houses in order, then pick up our weapons and join the battle, or we let the effluence of fear and despair creep deep into our souls and we give up entirely. Every individual man, in his own environment and with his own particular set of circumstances, has that singular choice to make: get a grip or give up.

For Catholic men today, that choice may not seem as glorious as a fantasy role in Middle Earth, but it is no less heroic: hold fast to the faith and resist evil, say your prayers, receive the sacraments, restore proper leadership in your household (or church), lay down your life for your wife (or parish), pass on the faith to your children (or parishioners), be self-disciplined, perfect the virtues, let go of material possessions and ambitions, exercise, read good books, be a light to the world. All this we do because we have hope, hope in the rightness, the goodness, the meaning and the fulfilment of all our actions. We also do it because we must: “I wish [this] need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and 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 us.”

But it’s difficult to do this on our own. Fortunately for King Theoden, Gandalf was the catalyst for his transformation. Still, Gandalf, too, doesn’t manage this task alone. In a joyous scene of masculine camaraderie – one of my favourites in the film – Aragorn the Ranger, Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf rock up with Gandalf to the doors of Theoden’s stronghold, stride weaponless through his Great Hall and beat his guards into submission in order for Gandalf to reach Theoden’s throne and rescue him from the clutches of Saruman. Bodies lie strewn behind them.

Those are the kind of friends I want!  Men who will smash their way in to save me from my captivity with no thought for their own safety! In this Catholic context, I mean men who will unashamedly pray with me and for me, men who will encourage me to Mass and to the sacraments, men who will challenge me to be a better man of faith, men who will stand by me as witnesses to the Kingship of Jesus Christ.


Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli fight the guards, allowing Gandalf to walk to Théoden.

J R R Tolkien was a man of great hope. He coined the word eucatastrophe as a fundamental concept of his mythology. Catastrophe is the point at which a wholly positive narrative is suddenly interrupted by a single, unexpected and calamitous event, plunging protagonists and plot towards a devastating conclusion. A eucatastrophe, on the other hand, is when an appalling and intractable set of circumstances are abruptly alleviated by an equally unlooked for happy turn of events.

In LOTR, we have that wonderful example of Aragorn’s small band of men grouped outside the Gates of Mordor for a final stand, having been told that Frodo is dead. The uncountable hordes of Mordor are about to be unleashed upon them when Frodo’s own intense drama suddenly reaches its conclusion. The Ring is destroyed, along with it the power of Sauron, and his armies flee the battlefield.

Aragorn’s army, surrounded at the Black Gate of Mordor

A eucatastrophe does not actually come from nowhere. It comes from each character in the narrative holding his ground, keeping his post, carrying out the duty given to him even when he has no idea whether anyone else is carrying out his duties, even when he thinks he is alone and defeat is upon him. If Aragorn hadn’t held his ground outside the Gates of Mordor and distracted Sauron’s gaze, Frodo wouldn’t have made it to Mount Doom; if Frodo hadn’t made it to Mount Doom, Aragorn would have lost the battle that distracted Sauron.

 Tolkien writes:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’ as the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. And I was led to the view that it produces this peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth. Your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible…”

So, keep being men of faith – because the moment you give up is the moment when victory is about to be secured; the moment you give up is the moment when you unwittingly halt someone else’s spiritual accomplishment; the moment you give up is the moment when the delicate balance of your spiritual ecosystem – your family, friends and fellow Catholics – most needs you to remain steadfast. Catholic Man UK has been set up to reassure men that in every parish, in every diocese across the country, there is a band of valiant warriors holding true to the faith. The war against Satan has, of course, been won, but there are many battles ahead against the remnants of his army.

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