“Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” -Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
It may seem a bit strange but Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” universe and the book of Ecclesiastes may have quite a bit in common. If you know me, you may know that I have a bit of an obsessive personality especially when it comes to random, niche fantasy universes like Tolkien’s. I don’t think I can overstate the fact that the lore of Middle-Earth was created by a perfectionistic genius. It seems that behind everything in this universe is a backstory and behind that backstory is another backstory. I expect all of of you probably know of Gandalf, but do you know of the Valar (essentially an angelic being) who taught Gandalf?
Nienna, the weeping Valar of Tolkien’s universe, is one of my favorites characters within the LOTR universe. Not only did she mentor Gandalf in the way of hope and wisdom and sorrow, but she indirectly (or perhaps directly) contributed to the sparing of Gollum which subsequently led to the destruction of the Ring of Power. Nienna, many argue, is the reason Gandalf was the only wizard among the five wizards who was not corrupted in his tasks within the realm of Middle Earth because her wisdom taught endurance. Here’s what the Silmarillion has to say of her:
“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. … and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.”
Nienna taught pity and endurance in hope. She had the strange ability of bringing strength from within sorrow and fusing sadness with wisdom. She does not eliminate sorrow but perhaps could be said she waters it as she watered the dying trees of Valinor to keep light and hope alive. She, among all other characters, perhaps best embodies “The Long Defeat” philosophy of Tolkien particularly because she is immortal and thus must remain hopeful until the end of all things.
The strange sorrow of Nienna always existed within the universe of LOTR. From the beginning Nienna saw the tragedy that would follow the Creation of Middle-Earth. She knew that horrible tragedy and evil would exist within the world thus her portion of Eru Iluvatar’s song which contributed to the Creation of Middle-Earth became one of lamentation:
“So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began.”
This song of Nienna was woven into the very foundation of Middle-Earth’s existence. But her song is not one of despair. As it is seen in Gandalf and those who visit Nienna, her song is one that moves sorrow in the way of hope and endurance not towards hopelessness or despair. She was perhaps the strongest and wisest of the Valar, yet her strength was mixed with sorrow. So great was her wisdom and thus great was her sorrow. The writer of Ecclesiastes seemed to know this too: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
To hold wisdom and sorrow together is a difficult task. It seems we’d often take the alternatives of (to steal a phrase from Augustine) “delusive happiness” or despair. But there’s no use talking of wisdom if there’s nothing in the end for us. That seems to be the mysterious hope in the character of Nienna and the writer of Ecclesiastes: if all is a vapor, why write about it? If the end of Middle-Earth is an end in terror and chaos, why grieve over it and continue in hope? If evil will win, why persist in the fight against it, like Gandalf?
Hidden away in some supplementary writings from Tolkien about the LOTR universe is a debate between two characters, Finrod and Andreth, about the problem of death, human destiny, and a cause for hope. With Finrod being an immortal elf and Andreth being a mortal human you might imagine there would be some difference of opinion. Finrod at one point asks Andreth if she has hope, which she responds, “What is hope?… An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.” To which Finrod responds:
“That is one thing that Men call ‘hope’,” said Finrod. “Amdir we call it, ‘looking up’. But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?”
Estel and Amdir seem to be reoccuring themes within Tolkien’s writings. A way I might distinguish them is by calling Amdir a temporal hope and Estel an eternal hope. Amdir may at times be extinguished, but Estel may still remain because it is rooted in something far deeper than human experience or present turmoil. But this hope must be rooted in something.
Andrel follow’s up this question with some remarks of those who still follow that which is called “The Old Hope”:
“They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through the years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.”
Sound familiar? This tale of the Creator entering into the world to bring about restoration? I imagine this Old Hope is what Nienna and Gandalf held within them. Nienna’s grief was real and saw all the horror that can exist in life, but still she held the hope of an eternal ending that would undo all the pain and all the evil. Here’s an ending of supreme joy, an ending Tolkien would say was derived from something greater.
“This [Christian] story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true…But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”
There is no ending better, and there’s no ending more true. Amidst the sorrow birthed by disappointments and tragedies of this present condition there remains still a hope rooted in something eternal, a hope in our Creator coming to us to bring us life everlasting with Him.