Go OR Stay?

Three Courageous Tolkien Concepts 

Too often, I can be a play-it-safe kind of person.

Good doors swing open. “Should I walk through?”

Roads diverge. “Which one shall I choose?” (Often, standing still and making no decision just feels easier.)

That unique invitation arrives. “Should I accept it?”

Go boldly, or play it safe? Move out in courageous perseverance or stay frozen in fear? Puzzling, pivotal moments of decision present themselves. A grand conundrum spins inside my head. When faced with the prospect of new opportunities—even a new season of life—will I leap or just sit back?

Know the feeling? Each of us faces such choices with new prospects, new ideas, new relationships, new challenges, and new years.

J.R.R. Tolkien was quite familiar with such soul-searching decision points. He winsomely utilized this conundrum as a recurring motif throughout his tales. It’s a deep-psyche dilemma. Upon probing analysis, we discover several rich concepts of development in both character and virtue. Consider just a sampling of scenes and three courageous concepts we might find helpful in our own “stay or go” scenarios.

A Decision Party

Gandalf and the hooded dwarves invaded the well-to-do hobbit’s home. Amidst the fire-side cakes, eggs, biscuits, ale, coffee, and stacks of dishes, the internal struggle commenced. Bilbo was “feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.” He was a steady-eddy, predictable, stay-at-home, play-it-safe sort of hobbit. It’s why the dwarves taunted him with their cleanup song: “Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Blunt the knives and bend the forks! That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—Smash the bottles and burn the corks! . . . So, carefully! carefully with the plates!” [1]

Bilbo’s unexpected party proved to be a decision party of great, uncharted consequence. The dwarves’ playful lyrics inform our grasp of Bilbo’s set-in-his-ways outlook.

In the next scene, smoke rings filled the air followed by the sounds of fiddles, flutes, clarinets, and Thorin’s golden harp. Then Tolkien tells us, “Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill. The dark came into the room . . . the firelight flickered—it was April—and still they played . . .”

Tolkien’s soul-searching, decision making scenes are often draped in descending darkness. As if the hobbit-hole was not already black enough, we are soon told: “The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played . . .” Famous dwarf lyrics include “the misty mountains cold,” “dungeons deep and caverns old,” “and caverns dim . . . To win our harps and gold from him!”

Immediately on the heels of their haunting, “deep-throated” song, Tolkien reports:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up—probably somebody lighting a wood-fire—and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

Bilbo suddenly came to his senses and considered fetching the lamp. The dwarves protested. “Dark for dark business! There are many hours before dawn.”

Right here in this classic contrast of darkness and light, Bilbo began vacillating over his decision. Internal wrestling ensued between the fierce, adventuresome, Tookish side and the oh-so-careful Baggins’s perspective.

Tolkien’s darkness-to-light theme was not really new material. It’s a common theme across historic literature, even holding biblical origins (see Genesis, chapter 1). While it was not a theme invented by Tolkien, it is masterfully employed in some of the most pervasive, compelling, and effective manners. Intriguingly, such a contrasting thread emerges in portions of his earliest material, including creation scenes in The Silmarillion. [2]

Tolkien very deliberately chose darkness and light to metaphorically mirror specific antithetical virtues and accompanying soulful emotions. The Lord of the Rings is replete with such scenic and emotive imagery. The Shadow, followed by darkness and then the Flame, followed by light frequently serve as proxy images for fear and courage, despair and hope. And they often factor into the pivotal decision making moments for key characters.

Pause for a bit of contemplation and personal application. Here’s an overarching, vibrant Tolkien concept: Go ahead. Let darkness do its difficult work, but then intentionally lean into the light.

Tolkien’s tales reflect the inevitable reality of life’s dark shadows, including heartache, failure, discouragement, fear, and despair. We all face them, and they have a strong bearing upon our predisposition toward new adventures, new opportunities, and new people. On our own, we cannot stop the darkness, but we can choose the direction we face. We each can choose to turn our gaze toward the light.

Decisions . . . Decisions. A little help, please!

Bilbo danced back and forth between his inner Took and inner Baggins. The next morning, Gandalf came prodding, pulling the play-it-safe hobbit away from his habitual second breakfast. Bilbo skedaddled out the door, finally off on the adventure.

Now ponder Frodo’s early decision scene in The Fellowship of the Ring. It conveys stunning similarities to Bilbo’s. Frodo and Gandalf were in thick dialog. Sam Gamgee was working—supposedly—in the grass just outside the hobbit-hole.

‘And now,’ said the wizard, turning back to Frodo, ‘the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.’ He laid his hand on Frodo’s shoulder . . . ‘But we must do something, soon. The Enemy is moving.’

There was a long silence. Gandalf sat down again and puffed at his pipe, as if lost in thought. His eyes seemed closed, but under the lids he was watching Frodo intently. Frodo gazed fixedly at the red embers on the hearth, until they filled all his vision, and he seemed to be looking down into profound wells of fire. He was thinking of the fabled Cracks of Doom and the terror of the Fiery Mountain.

‘Well!’ said Gandalf at last. ‘What are you thinking about? Have you decided what to do?” [3]

Note the pressing conundrum, feelings of fearful doom accompanied by flickering flames. The recurring dark shadows contrast again with flame and light.

There’s a deliberate mentoring feature woven into the dialog and characterization. Notice Gandalf’s prodding and his promise. Yes, the decision is Frodo’s. Only he can make it. But Gandalf will help him, support him, and guide him. Reality is, Gandalf was profoundly fulfilling his Tolkien-intended role. Back in the First Age of Middle-earth, Tolkien described Gandalf’s purpose: “In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.” [4]

Take special notice of those final Silmarillion clauses. Those who listened to Olórin (Gandalf) “awoke from despair.” Listeners would suddenly find their crippling, paralyzing fears no longer held them captive in slumber. And they would “put away the imaginations of darkness.” Here is promise of personal progress, a profound spiritually-emotive development of character.

Pause again to ponder our own personal application. Here’s another courageous Tolkien concept to employ in our decision-making conundrums: When faced with the choice to hibernate or influence, choose to be a Gandalf and lift others’ hearts from despair. It’s true we can readily identify with Frodo’s frazzled situation: Bear the burden or quit the quest? But we also have ample opportunities to “be a Gandalf.” What would it mean for you in the upcoming season of your life to seek to lift others up, to encourage, to inspire hope in place of despair, and to truly help others?

Gracious Heroes

Now look at Frodo’s reply to Gandalf’s probing question:

‘No!’ answered Frodo, coming back to himself out of darkness, and finding to his surprise that it was not dark, and that out of the window he could see the sunlit garden. ‘Or perhaps, yes. As far as I understand what you have said, I suppose I must keep the Ring and guard it, at least for the present, whatever it may do to me.’

Though he was still wrestling, clarity was coming. The darkness indeed dissipated; there was sunlight to be seen in the garden on the other side of the window. Frodo was beginning to surrender to the light, and with resolve. Within several more lines of rich dialog between Frodo and Gandalf, we read:

He did not tell Gandalf, but as he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart—to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again. It was so strong that it overcame his fear: he could almost have run out there and then down the road without his hat, as Bilbo had done on a similar morning long ago.

Here is such an awakening, the flaming up of Frodo’s heart to run in Bilbo’s Tookish footsteps. It’s a gracious awakening, a wondrous spark of early eucatastrophe. Notice carefully: “it overcame his fear.” This overcoming power was so effectual that once the Fellowship embarked on the quest, Frodo modeled courageous tenacity. This decision-making moment with Gandalf proves to be a defining moment that woke up inside Frodo unyielding courage and perseverance.

Louis Markos has observed this classic virtue of courage in Tolkien’s characters. He notes: “For the true courage of the nine walkers (especially Frodo) consists precisely in their endurance, their ability to press on no matter the pain or adversity. They are all given numerous chances to turn back and abandon the quest. Instead, they slog on day after weary day, facing every obstacle with quiet determination.” [5]

Thus, Frodo’s character development included ferocious endurance, even in the face of great pain and extended seasons of sacrifice. His pivotal decision resulted in powerful, prevailing courage for the quest.

Bradley J. Birzer analyzes the heroic nature of Tolkien’s characters, including the vital relevance of emerging courage. He aptly posits that “one of the most prevalent and important themes in all of Tolkien’s work—whether academic or fictional—is the importance of heroism, not as an act of will, but as a result of grace. Through his mystery, majesty, and grace, God allows evil to happen so that the good may do good.” [6]

Birzer calls for grace-based, ordinary, everyday heroes. And after all, that was Tolkien’s own prevailing perspective. In an interview in 1971, Tolkien reflected: “I’ve always been impressed that we’re here surviving because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds: jungles, volcanoes, wild beasts . . . they struggle on, almost blindly in a way.”[7]

Both Bilbo and Frodo faced the quintessential “shall I go or shall I stay” courage conundrum. So do we. These two hobbits were indeed quite small people. So are we. Here’s another courageous Tolkien concept for personal application: When faced with the choice to play it safe or be someone different—choose to be an ordinary hero, radically reliant on God’s grace.

If we reflect deeply and honestly in the face of our darkest fears, we must admit we cannot survive or thrive based on our own resources and strength. The awakening, the lifting of the shadow, the dispelling of despair and darkness, and the resulting courage are all works of grace. And just like Frodo, the choice is ours. We can turn our gaze to the garden sunlight, allow a flame to awaken our hearts, and then courageously embark on the quest.

I have felt these concepts carry great import in my own heart and mind. November of 2017, I gathered in Greenville, South Carolina for the Celebrate Tolkien conference. This event was so timely as I was facing my own share of “do I go, or do I stay” choices.

At the pub party the first evening, we sang a raucous rendition of the dwarves’ after-dinner song. Chip the glasses and crack the plates! . . . That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates! The whole pub sang full-voice and clanged silverware on their empty plates and half-full glasses. There was so much mirth in those moments. It seemed like we time travelled and channeled the original scene from the Shire. And right there in those moments, I was stirred to live more adventuresome—less obsessive and exacting—more grateful and watchful for daily wonder. I was even stirred to be more watchful in the coming days for surprise guests on my doorstep.

Facing the divergent roads, the open doors, and the invitations to new adventures, will we be courageous, grace-based heroes? Will we listen to Gandalf’s gracious encouragement, dismiss our darkest fears, and look to the flaming light? Will we decide to carry the Ring, to run out the door, and embark on a new season of adventure?

[1] The Hobbit, 19-21.
[2] The Silmarillion, 9.
[3] The Fellowship of the Ring, 88-89.
[4] The Silmarillion, 22.
[5] On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, 66.
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 68.
[7] Gerrolt, 1971 BBC interview, as quoted in Birzer.

Three Courageous Tolkien Concepts 

Too often, I can be a play-it-safe kind of person.

Good doors swing open. “Should I walk through?”

Roads diverge. “Which one shall I choose?” (Often, standing still and making no decision just feels easier.)

That unique invitation arrives. “Should I accept it?”

Go boldly, or play it safe? Move out in courageous perseverance or stay frozen in fear? Puzzling, pivotal moments of decision present themselves. A grand conundrum spins inside my head. When faced with the prospect of new opportunities—even a new season of life—will I leap or just sit back?

Know the feeling? Each of us faces such choices with new prospects, new ideas, new relationships, new challenges, and new years.

J.R.R. Tolkien was quite familiar with such soul-searching decision points.

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