The Turn of the Tide
Thoughts on a Momentous Week ...
“I come back to you now. At the turn of the tide.”
When Gandalf utters these words in the middle of The Two Towers, the second volume in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (you didn’t think I was done making Tolkien allusions, did you?) he meets our struggling heroes at a low point in their journey.
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have been separated from Frodo, the Ring Bearer and—in many ways—the entire point of their quest from the outset. While the three hunters, as they are dubbed, are not directionless—they track a party of Uruks across the eastern plains in an attempt to find their wayward friends Merry and Pippin—their mission feels relatively hopeless at this stage in a war between forces far beyond their control or intervention.
After all, even if they DO find the wayward hobbits they seek, neither of these hobbits is the actual Ring Bearer. They will have rescued their friends only for their seeming reward to be to watch the ending of the world in the company of a few more friendly faces.
In effect, while Gandalf was away, all Aragorn, the would-be King of Gondor and possible savior of humankind, could endeavor to do in the absence of his wisdom was to follow his heart, to stay the course he was put on and to fight to the last.
This sentiment is echoed later on during the Battle for Helm’s Deep, in what is widely regarded as the true low point for our heroes in the mythic series. While Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and King Theoden of Rohan valiantly fight against wave after wave of powerful, demonic foes bred in the furnaces of the earth under the betrayal of Saruman the White, Merry and Pippin are similarly trapped in a failure to pull a powerful group of allies into the war on behalf of their friends.
While Pippin wears his familiar optimism in this scene, telling Merry that everything will be alright, because the hobbits will always have the Shire to return to, Merry—ever the pragmatist—blankly informs him that, “the fires of Isengard will spread. There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”
Herein lies the darkness and even the seeming despair evident throughout much of Tolkien’s writing. Heroes die and villains win. George R.R. Martin was far from the first to embrace the struggle that heroism often entails in his popular A Song of Ice and Fire series.
But why have Tolkien and his characters stood the test of time in a way I would hazard a guess Martin’s will not? Leaving aside relatively subjective treatises on writing ability and worldbuilding, and even characterization, all of which both writers excel at, the heart of both series differs greatly, if not in subject matter, then in intent.
If Martin were to write the Battle of Helm’s Deep, there is little doubt most of our heroes would be left bleeding out in the rain and stones while armored Uruks marched over them en route to a dominating and savage victory over the West. Call this realism, if you will. But Tolkien saw that potential outcome for what it was: defeatism. Cynicism.
And his characters reflect that Western Flame he kept within his breast until the day the veteran English scholar died.
Before the eponymous battle fought on the very walls it is named for, Aragorn, believing there is little chance for victory, sees a young boy struggling with the very doubt that grips his own heart. Aragorn borrows from his mother’s wisdom to inspire the boy, telling him, “there is always hope.”
This line is revisited in spirit later in the series, when Lord Elrond repeats a line from Aragorn’s mother Gilraen, “I give hope to men. I keep none for myself.” This is a reference to a name the elves of Rivendell bestowed upon Aragorn as a boy. ‘Estel,’ which translates to ‘hope’ in the tongues of man.
It’s no secret that Tolkien embraces the everyman in The Lord of the Rings. Even if we leave aside Frodo, the quintessential underdog in the history of genre fiction, the mightiest members of the Fellowship—with the exception of a certain gray-beard we’ll revisit shortly—can do little in the face of Sauron’s overwhelming power and legions of corrupted.
What, then, is Gandalf’s role in the narrative?
Well, while he returns to rescue Aragorn, Theoden and the defenders of Helm’s Deep at first light on the fifth day, just as he promised, the true gift he bestows upon those whom he crosses paths with is to dare them to hope. To fight in his presence, but more importantly, in his absence.
Gandalf is the source of renewed hope throughout The Lord of the Rings. Hope to Aragorn and Frodo, Sam, Legolas, Gimli and even entire cities under siege. The White Wizard brings hope, but Aragorn and those like him carry it.
At this point, you’ll have little trouble seeing the thematic and purposeful connections I draw between a figure like Gandalf and one like Q, but in the end, it isn’t my goal.
After all, we have no control over Q, over Trump and seemingly over quite a bit in this Strange War we’ve chosen to take part in. An information war and an emotional war. A war of stories and of narratives. Of truth and lies, clarity and deception.
So then. Who are we to be in this series, for surely we are not Gandalf? We are not Q. We are not Trump, nor Trump-adjacent, and any claims by Anons who purport to be should be met with the same fury and fervor as we reserve for our worst enemies.
Nor, however, are we Frodo, an otherwise ordinary man burdened with glorious purpose by forces far beyond his control or reckoning.
Then it is the future King himself we should look to as our guiding light, for Aragorn Elessar was not always the King of Gondor, and while he has royal blood, it is not what makes him the quintessential hero of the Saga.
Aragorn is a man. He is a human, through and through. More so than his heroism, his resolve and his natural leadership instincts, what makes Aragorn a man worthy of the myth is that, when all hope had faded, and when his pledged and even spiritually-guided mission was lost to him, he followed his inner compass, which is made of his morality, and took on a new charge: to rescue the two friends he COULD from torment and death.
Aragorn could not have known that in the very attempt to rescue the seemingly inconsequential Merry and Pippin, that not only would he NOT succeed in this newest path, but that in the very act of trying, he would be swept onto the road that would eventually lead to his grand part in the opera that takes down Sauron himself, uniting the Kingdoms of Men under one unified banner for the first time in an age, before the darkening of the world.
Aragorn is hope incarnate. And while I grasped this on some level as a young man, what little piece I’ve caught in my older years is the role faith played in Aragorn’s steadfast resolve in the face of such overwhelming odds.
Faith born of action.
Not necessarily faith in a higher power, such as a God. Aragorn rarely references Tolkien’s pantheon, except for in the world’s internal myth. He is more concerned with worldly affairs. Nor, however, does Aragorn blindly follow the wisest figure that has ever crossed his fated path, that being Gandalf, the original inspiration for this piece.
The very reason Gandalf imbues his hope in Aragorn, in my view, is the very reason Aragorn does not put his faith in higher powers.
Aragorn believed in Gandalf, less so because he is a mythic white wizard, or, to stretch our analogy, some ethereal, sometimes seemingly-magical source of timely wisdom and advice, and more so because Gandalf was his friend. And he trusted his friend.
Still, the reason for Aragorn’s faith in Gandalf is less relevant for our purposes than the reason for Gandalf’s faith in Aragorn.
Why does the Grey Pilgrim, Stormcrow, the White Wizard and the Wielder of the Flame of Anor, one of the immortal Istar Wizards (Tolkien’s closest approximation to Angels,) imbue his faith, and that of humanity, in men like Aragorn, and, of course, in Frodo and Sam?
Because he knows that they are already possessed of everything they need.
All they needed was to realize it. Or, to put it in the Wizard’s own words, all they needed “was a little nudge out of the door.”
Q has come back to us now, seemingly at the turn of some tide we cannot yet see. Is this the final deep breath before the plunge? Hard to say. But something has shifted.
We should take heart in this moment. We should have hope.
More so, we should be resolved to ensure that, whether our personal nudge came from Q, or Trump or any number of sources we sometimes put on a pedestal in a community that prides itself on the journey for truth, what we should truly ruminate on is why THEY placed their faith in US.
You see, the reason I reference The Lord of the Rings so often in my otherwise analytical writing, and the reason it has remained entrenched in the collective imagination of Western Man has little to do with battles and orcs, heroes and villains and some of the grandest worldbuilding ever put to the page.
No. Tolkien’s greatest triumph as a writer is his ability to inspire hope in the chance of victory. In sowing seeds of darkness and doubt throughout his series and in the psyches of each of his characters—from a great heir to a fallen throne all the way down to the lowliest of the free peoples of Middle Earth—Tolkien understands that one’s quality comes through in how they strive against the darkness rather than how—or even if—they overcome it.
What do the momentous events of the last few days mean in the wider context? I won’t pretend to know, which is why this rambling, largely emotional piece appeals to my heart and yours more than the mind.
Here’s what I will say with some measure of confidence:
One stage of our journey is over. The next is about to begin.
Follow the guiding lights when they appear, and take hope and wisdom from others. But also stay rooted, stay focused, and take comfort in the qualities that brought you to the strange, shifting lines in this invisible—and not quite finished—war in the first place.
If I can play any small part in this war, perhaps I can give hope to men, even if only a few.
But I’ll twist Gilraen’s saying just a bit, because I do plan to keep some hope for myself.
Quite a bit of it, in fact.
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