Delving into Tolkien’s Dark Sides (Part 1)
by John Pletcher

Fall season has arrived in my Shire. Along with the splash of my favorite leaf colors—burnt orange, apple red, and golden yellow—there’s a crisp chill in the air. Most mornings and evenings now call for a sweatshirt while walking my fine canine, Musti the Hound. And with all such autumn feels, I behold thick darkness descending earlier each evening. I must confess, walking the tree-line at the end of our road, I have slight twinges of fear. That stretch of field has been visited by rogue critters, and neighbors have even sighted a fox or two. Consequently, I grab a high-beam flashlight or headlamp for use on the walk. Bright light dispels the darkness.

During life’s wild seasons, fear can descend in a variety of devilish incarnations. Ugly darkness threatens us with daily political turmoil. Shadows of economic uncertainty loom with the market’s fickle volatility. Friends or family might be facing a bleak diagnosis. How do we cope? Can we find hope?

Even the most casual of Tolkien readers and movie fans readily observe the Professor’s strategic use of darkness and light. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf’s pick for burglar, wanted no part in an adventure. He was a play-it-safe, stay-at-home hobbit. After dinner at the unexpected party, the dwarves began to play their viols. Thorin struck his golden harp, and “Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons . . . The dark came into the room from the little window . . . they played on, while the shadow of Gandalf’s beard wagged against the wall. The dark filled all the room . . .”

Cloaked in magical, musical darkness, the dwarves sang their enchanting song with the result that

. . . 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 of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees.1

Such interplay of stars, moons, and darkness had a distinct effect upon Bilbo. From these early scenes of popular Middle-earth material, we readily see Tolkien’s use of the darkness-light motif. And we might conclude the author’s tonal purpose is convincingly classic, simply additional accoutrement to the scenery or a method for delineating the bad guys versus good guys.

Fall season has arrived in my Shire. Along with the splash of my favorite leaf colors—burnt orange, apple red, and golden yellow—there’s a crisp chill in the air. Most mornings and evenings now call for a sweatshirt while walking my fine canine, Musti the Hound. And with all such autumn feels, I behold thick darkness descending earlier each evening. I must confess, walking the tree-line at the end of our road, I have slight twinges of fear. That stretch of field has been visited by rogue critters, and neighbors have even sighted a fox or two. Consequently, I grab a high-beam flashlight or headlamp for use on the walk. Bright light dispels the darkness.

During life’s wild seasons, fear can descend in a variety of devilish incarnations. Ugly darkness threatens us with daily political turmoil. Shadows of economic uncertainty loom with the market’s fickle volatility. Friends or family might be facing a bleak diagnosis. How do we cope? Can we find hope?

Even the most casual of Tolkien readers and movie fans readily observe the Professor’s strategic use of darkness and light. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf’s pick for burglar, wanted no part in an adventure. He was a play-it-safe, stay-at-home hobbit. After dinner at the unexpected party, the dwarves began to play their viols. Thorin struck his golden harp, and “Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons . . . The dark came into the room from the little window . . . they played on, while the shadow of Gandalf’s beard wagged against the wall. The dark filled all the room . . .”

Cloaked in magical, musical darkness, the dwarves sang their enchanting song with the result that

. . . 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 of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees.1

Such interplay of stars, moons, and darkness had a distinct effect upon Bilbo. From these early scenes of popular Middle-earth material, we readily see Tolkien’s use of the darkness-light motif. And we might conclude the author’s tonal purpose is convincingly classic, simply additional accoutrement to the scenery or a method for delineating the bad guys versus good guys.

Across time and eternity, the greatest authors have oft employed this device, yet Tolkien’s usage is even more nuanced and fantastically unique. With darkness versus light, Tolkien aimed to do more than establish scenery, set a mood, or establish camps for his characters. He most deliberately utilizes the black-then-brilliant, shadow-to-sunshine technique in order to advance his wondrous theme of eucatastophe.

In this two-part article, we delve into Tolkien’s dark sides, both what they convey and what they set out to accomplish. Here in Part 1, we will explore the influence of Tolkien’s dark side from above the landscape of Middle-earth. Then in our forthcoming Part 2, we will discover the deeper impact from below—an impact even more diabolical. Along the way, we will unearth rich treasures—life lessons of applicability—from both the darkness in the sky and the thick darkness mined from cavernous depths.

When dark fears descend

Throughout Tolkien’s Legendarium, the Shadow and Darkness envelope characters from above with convincing repetition, like a thick blanket. During Bilbo’s adventure with the dwarves, at the pinnacle of conflict, we read:

Bows twanged and arrows whistled; battle was about to be joined. Still more suddenly a darkness came on with dreadful swiftness! A black cloud hurried over the sky . . . And beneath the thunder another blackness could be seen whirling forward; but it did not come with the wind, it came from the North, like a vast cloud of birds, so dense that no light could be seen between their wings. “Halt!” cried Gandalf . . . “Dread has come upon you all!” . . . Amazement and confusion fell upon them all. Even as Gandalf had been speaking the darkness grew . . . So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible.2

Hovering darkness permeates The Hobbit with effective fervor. However, this employment of darkness is even more foreboding in The Lord of the Rings. Upon his first reading of the pre-publication Book 1, Rayner Unwin wrote to Tolkien: ‘The tortuous and contending currents of events in this world within a world almost overpower one. . . . The struggle between darkness and light . . . is macabre and intensified beyond that in “Hobbit”.’3 Unwin recognized the fresh severity of this motif.

In early scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf reviewed the One Ring’s history for Frodo, including the fiery Elvish letters emblazoned inside and outside the band. And we read:

Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him. ‘This ring!’ he stammered. ‘How, how on earth did it come to me?’ ‘Ah!’ said Gandalf, ‘That is a very long story. The beginnings lie back in the Black Years, which only the lore-masters now remember. If I were to tell you all that tale, we should still be sitting here when Spring had passed into Winter.’

Gandalf went on to describe the enemy as: ‘…Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord… That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’4 Thus, Tolkien develops character description of the evil enemy using “darkness” and “shadow.”

Frodo and Gandalf’s interchange unveils two insights of this motif. First, the knee-jerk emotive reaction to the dark clouds and shadow is personal fear. This is Tolkien’s bold intention throughout his writings. Over and over again, words of looming darkness, hovering shadow, and thick blackness sweep the story characters into attitudes and perspectives that are troubling, worrisome, anxiety-producing, and hopeless. And of course, fear arrives with a vengeance when the Shadow’s dark creatures, like the Black Riders and Nazgûl swoop into story scenes. They bring their swift, foreboding presence and evoke gruesome fear.

Second, such a motif has origins in a tale even earlier and longer than the Ring’s epic or the Hobbit’s adventure. Notice how Gandalf calls them the Black Years, and he mentions the tale’s length. Tolkien’s recollection of that particular tale is a not-so-subtle reference to his life-long work, The Silmarillion.

Amidst his early creation account, “The Ainulindalë,” Tolkien first introduces us to the dark, overwhelming specter: “But even as Ulmo spoke, and while the Ainur were yet gazing upon this vision, it was taken away . . . in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought.”5 From this ancient point of origins and then pressing onward into the tale, the blackness deepens across the pages of the First Age.

Throughout The Silmarillion we are introduced to

Sauron, greatest and most terrible of the servants of Morgoth . . . master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength . . . He took Minas Tirith by assault, for a dark cloud of fear fell upon those who defended it . . .6

Hence, Tolkien’s use of darkness rhythmically envelops his scenes and characters in pervasive fear. It is a very deliberate emotional device from the Professor’s pen.

But as is almost always true in Tolkien’s world, there is definitely more afoot. Much more.

Merry brightness, battling the darkness

After being rescued from the frightening terror of Old Man Willow, the hobbits arrived at the house of Tom Bombadil. They stepped over the threshold and were immediately greeted by a glowing scene. “They were in a long room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams . . . many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly. In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders . . .”
Goldberry got to the heart of the matter and encouraged them: ‘Let us shut out the night! . . . For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untame things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil.’7

David Rowe observes the deliberate motivation:

Holding in memory the reality of darkness as a malevolent force, Tom and the River-daughter see light and colour as an absence of evil, and have consequently filled their home with the full spectrum, making it a fortress against the encroaching dark of the Forest, the Downs, and the world Outside. Their colours—and the colourful nature of their melodic speech—become weapons, beating back the black of evil with fearless merry brightness.
In scene after scene, Tolkien’s dark-light motif is blatant, even at points redundant. The repetition is so pervasive that we might ask: How does he get away with this? We could conclude that rich characters pair with textured twists and turns of the plot, rendering the motif more plausible and excusable for readers. But in reality, there’s an even bigger method to the madness. Tolkien’s unique purpose proves substantially influential, carrying even greater impact than his complex characterization and plot. The motif serves as a very deliberate vehicle for transportation of characters and readers into the realm of eucatastrophe, that sudden “good turn” amidst dire circumstances that seem fearful and hopeless.8

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, shadow and darkness descend, creating greater layers of fear for the Fellowship. But as the battle unfolds across Middle-earth, the characters recognize new winds blowing and something brighter pushing back the darkness. Herein lies the glimmer of eucatastrophe.

In The Return of the King, the dark shadow of the Black Rider departed from Gandalf at the Gate. Denethor’s self-induced demise was unfolding, and the battle was unfurling across the Pelennor Fields. We read of Pippin and Gandalf: “They passed on; and as they climbed and drew near to the Citadel they felt the wind blowing in their faces, and they caught the glimmer of morning far away, and light growing in the southern sky.”9 Later in the tale, Gimli recounts:

But at midnight hope was indeed born anew. Seacrafty men of the Ethir gazing southward spoke of a change coming with a fresh wind from the Sea. Long ere day the masted ships hoisted sail, and our speed grew, until dawn whitened the foam at our prows. And so it was, as you know, that we came in the third hour of the morning with a fair wind and the Sun unveiled, and we unfurled the great standard in battle.10

Matthew Dickerson astutely recognizes such creation of hope “born anew” through the agency of wind and light as the heavenly work of the Creator, Ilúvatar. There was a battle transpiring in the heavens, high above the battle physical beings were waging on Middle-earth. Dickerson asserts

. . . this is a war going on in heaven, or in the spiritual realm. Certainly no physical being within Middle-earth accomplishes this; these are the winds of Manwë, or of Ilúvatar himself. Ilúvatar’s power is at work to rescue the people of Middle-earth. Sauron may be powerful, and his power brings terrible despair to his enemies, but there is one who is infinitely more powerful than Sauron. Thus, Sauron does not have it all his own way. His darkness does not go unopposed.11

And such a hopeful turn, the eucatastrophic enlightenment, is not just a lovely occurrence for a breathtaking morning sunrise. It can even happen at night. Upon the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, we read:

And Frodo when he saw her come glittering in the evening with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’12

Tolkien’s darkness-to-light motif can have applicability beyond hobbits, dwarves, and elves. The effect of such scenes might serve as attitude training for facing our own foreboding fears and desperate battles. If we think more expansively, this motif can be a purveyor of hope in our own age.

How can our hope be “born anew” in Present-earth?

If you are in your own season where it seems like darkness has descended and fear is foreboding, two points for personal renewal are worthy of consideration.

First, choose color and light!

Our daily news is full of the Shadow, the drab, grey—even pitch-black events—the negative people and their evil purposes. Too often the raging pundits and what’s streaming from our smart devices is screaming vitriol, ugly, dark news. Why not choose to take a very deliberate break from all of the fear-mongering and flaming words?

Instead, go someplace reminiscent of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry’s house. Make the most of autumn, find a woodsy trail and hike like a hobbit. Or choose some quaint village with stone walkways, golden lanterns, and a great tavern. Go explore for an evening. Take along a few joyful, positive friends. Tell good tales together. Laugh and soak in the glow.

Harris III, amazing magician and leader of the STORY conference, recently tweeted this reflection: “Learning that one of the enemies of wonder is a lack of margin. We’re all so busy looking down at our phones that we don’t make time to look up at the stars.”

Second, look up! Open your heart to heavenly hope.

Beyond explanation of Ilúvatar’s heavenly battle, Matthew Dickerson also helps us grasp the solid Tolkien meaning of hope. He explains:

The word hope, like many of Tolkien’s favorite words (free, doom, freedom, steward, etc.), comes from the Old English. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word hopian. Some think of hope as little more than wishful thinking without any necessary grounding in reality, but it is more than that. Hope is a belief that something desirable may actually happen. It is not just a groundless wish, but an expectation of an event with some confidence in its possibility. Tolkien gives a definition of hope through the mouth of Andreth, a wise-woman of the First Age of Middle-earth. Hope, she explains, is “an expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known” (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 320).13

Masterfully, Tolkien’s dark-to-light motif serves as a vehicle for his character’s eucatastrophe that leads to such an expectation of good. Perhaps we can learn to look up and encounter such well-founded hope.

It might be tempting to skeptically say, “This spiritual realm interpretation of the wind and sun in Tolkien’s writing seems like a stretch, don’t you think!? What sort of leaf are you smoking?” It’s a fair question. We gain greater clarity by revisiting a conversation in Gondor. Pippin had grown weary of waiting for an opportunity to serve. He wanted action. He was “tired out with idleness and waiting.” So, he expressed his impatience to Beregond. Pippin complained:

‘Indeed what is the good even of food and drink under this creeping shadow? What does it mean? The very air seems thick and brown! Do you often have such glooms when the wind is in the East?’ ‘Nay,’ said Beregond, ‘this is no weather of the world. This is some device of his malice; some broil of fume from the Mountain of Fire that he sends to darken hearts and counsel. And so it doth indeed.’14

Beregond saw something very spiritual going on, beyond the immediate realm. He saw other forces, dark and evil, at work in the gloom and shadow. Tolkien painted this spiritual realm, this heavenly battle motif, into his world because he believed that such an unseen realm is at work in our present world. The themes of darkness and light find their origins in ancient biblical accounts.15 Tolkien was steeped in affection and devotion to such stories and teachings.

Whatever your own current spiritual moorings, you can benefit from opening your heart to Tolkien’s view. With his choice of words, he built a world that looks so much like our own, including dark fears and glowing sunrises. Would you dare to look up and embrace stronger, more confident hope?

Such hope can strengthen us to cope—even overcome—when we are journeying through your own dark seasons.

  1. The Hobbit, 21-24.
  2. The Hobbit, 291-92.
  3. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 119. 
  4. The Fellowship, 75-76.
  5. The Silmarillion, 9.
  6. Ibid., 182.
  7. The Fellowship, 159.
  8. David Rowe, The Proverbs of Middle-earth, 37.
  9. The Return of the King, 139.
  10. Ibid., 169.
  11. Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings, 193-94.
  12. The Return of the King, 280.
  13. Dickerson, 137-38.
  14. The Return of the King, 89.
  15. This darkness-light motif plays a dominate role in Genesis, chapter 1 and the Gospel of John, chapter 1.