The Peterson family just started reading The Lord of the Rings aloud this summer and I’ve been nerding out a bit more than usual (which is saying something). I thought I’d re-post this piece from four (four!) years ago.
So my nine-year-old son Aedan just finished reading Tolkien’s The Return of the King for the first time.
He came downstairs after he finished and we talked about the ending, about the mysterious Undying Lands to which the elves were compelled to go; about how happy and sad he was for Sam, who had a family and a home in a restored Shire but who had to go on without his dearest friend; the bittersweetness of Frodo’s farewell at the Grey Havens. I can’t imagine a more poignant or complete ending to the story.
I told him that Ben Shive wrote a song about the Grey Havens, and I played him that song from The Far Country while he read through the lyrics. (I don’t normally push my own music on the kids, so he wasn’t too familiar with it.) I was impressed all over again at what a great writer Ben is, not to mention Tolkien.
What is it about that idea of being wounded and ill-at-ease in our present condition that resonates with me so? Obviously, it’s because I’m wounded and ill-at-ease. Much of the time I feel content with my lot, and why shouldn’t I? Most of the people reading this have been blessed with the means at least to own a computer, and the leisure at which to browse websites with it. You have the ability to read, to see, to think, to type. What could we complain about? Well, about the fact that our hearts are crippled and weak. Our literal eyes may be able to see, but the eyes of our hearts are often so bloodshot and weary that our souls trip and fall.
Sunday’s sermon was about Hope. Hope is not the same as optimism, the pastor pointed out. Optimism has its place, but it is at its core the name given to a way of looking at things. The glass is either half full or half empty–our opinion of it doesn’t change the amount of water in the cup. Sure, it changes our disposition, and of course an optimistic one is the better of the two. But Hope goes deeper. Hope gives thanks that there is such a thing as water, and remembers that whether the glass is empty or full, there is a greater story being told. If there is water in the glass, then somewhere beneath the earth, in cathedral caverns where no eye has yet seen, a clear river courses. I may cry out in pain or sorrow (which seems to me anything but optimistic), and yet have hope, though I cling to it feebly.
Hope lies deep and silent.
Aedan’s reward for finishing the book was that we all watched The Return of the King–all seventeen million hours of it–Saturday night. The book itself is so precious to me that the movies, though they’re perhaps as good as they could ever hope to be, pale in comparison. But I was moved to tears several times this Saturday night, sitting next to my wife and my boys with the volume turned up way too loud. The couch rumbled. I didn’t marvel so much at the movie (though it really is a marvel in so many ways) as the story itself. This has been beaten into the ground, I know, but–what a story! What a gift Tolkien gave us.
I kept watching Aedan and Asher’s faces during certain parts of the movie, like when Shelob poisons Frodo and Sam feels that all is lost. The boys were looking upset, so I paused the DVD and talked to them about eucatastrophe. It’s a word Tolkien coined in his essay “On Fairy Stories” which means, basically, the opposite of catastrophe. He calls eucatastrophe the “sudden joyous turn”. It’s that moment when all seems lost, when evil seems to have finally overcome every good thing, when the hero can go no further. Then light prevails against the darkness. The good guys win.
When you’re writing a story, like I am now, you realize that there’s not much story if there’s nothing at stake. If there’s no evil, no enemy, no point at which the hero is at the end of his rope, then the thing falls flat for some reason. But if we want the good guys to win (and almost universally we do), why do we put our heroes through so much? Because we grow into what we are meant to be by walking through the fire.
I told the boys about how the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate eucatastrophe. When Jesus, the perfect man, God made flesh, cries out and exhales his dying breath, the sky is black and roiling, the ground shakes, the dead emerge from their tombs and haunt Jerusalem, and the sheep scatter. But Sunday morning, more than just the sun rises. Everything changes. It’s not just a story, it’s the story. A sudden joyous turn, indeed.
Gandalf is sitting with Pippin beside a bulwark, a scared and weary Pippin says, “I didn’t think it would end this way.” Ian McKellen, who as far as I have read is hostile toward Christianity and Christ, speaks through Gandalf such a moving description of Heaven that I pause the movie again. Rewind. Turn on subtitles so the kids can read it. Play.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.
Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores…and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. It isn’t.
Then comes the sound of the door being battered down by trolls and orcs. Pippin and Gandalf are snapped out of the dream back into the present, and Pippin closes his eyes and swallows. How well I know that feeling, the feeling of taking a deep breath and bearing up a little longer for the sake of the hope and great joy that lies before me.
The kids looked at me sideways, wondering why their dad was sniffling.
Finally, Frodo bids his friends goodbye at the Grey Havens. I didn’t pause it this time, but as soon as the film was over I talked with Jamie about the wound that we all carry. Just like Frodo, we have wounds that are too deep to heal this side of that grey rain curtain; the wounds of the Fall, of our daily sin, of our loneliness and selfishness and tendency to believe the lie over the Truth. I ache to board that ship and sail away to those white shores and that far green country.
Hope holds me up. It’s what I cling to, and all I ever want to cling to.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans)
Lord, give us patience.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.
In the beginning, I had hope, because I had nothing else to lean on. As I consider your pastor’s words on hope and optimism, I can really see where I’ve let hope yield to optimism. Now that I’ve matured in my faith, I sometimes persevere for uninterrupted minutes. Shoot, I might even make it a whole fortnight without a major setback. Well, not a really major one anyway. But the I blow it, I fall flat on my face, and
Somehow, there in that moment, hope and optimism go to battle. If hope wins, then in my failure I can look up and hold to the only hope I have – hope that there is mercy for sinners.
When optimism wins, I get up and thank God that I chalked up two whole weeks of pretty good living. I thank God that I didn’t fail worse. Give me a ‘worse’ sinner and I’ll be ready to thank God I’m not like him.
So in my optimism I look in the mirror, call the cup half full and consider the situation to be pretty good, all things considered. Don’t look in the mirror for hope — you’re not going to find it there.
Un-pause life: …and I get up and run to the mirror. Yes, sad to say, hope hasn’t been winning enough lately. Many thanks for your wonderful post, I needed it. Here’s to hope. [lifts a proper cup of tea]
Wow. You have put words to so many of the thoughts I’ve had as I read and watched this story, and lived the reality in life. Thank you, again.
Sounds like a great night. And I agree, the movies were good but could never hope to match Tolkien’s prose.
You are right, Tolkien was masterful at explaining things in a story that just let your imagination run. i have enjoyed these stories and cannot wait until my daughter can enjoy them herself….It is great to be able to take this story and explain redemption, and heaven in regards to Christ. O to be able to have sat with Tolkien and Lewis together…..maybe on the otherside….
The thing of that sermon that got me and keeps getting me is the permanence and the surety of hope. The absolute certainty that Christ’s glory will be revealed and that we absolutely will know fully as we are fully known. We are not guessing. We are waiting. It is often nothing more than my weariness in carrying that hope, or my fears of looking the fool that keep me from it. But God, I want to be willing to be a stranger and an alien here. And to remember that all of the waiting is small and light compared to the glory of Christ. I want to carry faith; the means by which God shields us until salvation comes. So often scorned as simple and foolish, it guards us until Christ is seen. Sometimes I can hardly stand it I long for him to come so badly. Its an ache that rages and rips me right through reducing me to doubled-over weeping. But all of this speaks of how wonderful that day will be and how worthy Christ is as the satisfaction of our souls.
and Return of the King is pretty cool too.
Andrew, thanks so much for this piece. I thank God for a Christian worldview that has allowed Tolkien’s masterpiece and images of the Christian life and the afterlife that are set in a fictional story to be just as influential in my spirituality and walk with the Lord as any other non-fictional work that is written explicitly to accomplish the same goals. The scene at the Grey Havens and the scene with Gandalf and Pippin also move me to tears everytime I watch them or read them. Interestingly enough, the discussion that Gandalf has with Pippin in the movie version is taken from the Grey Havens scene in the book between Gandalf and Frodo. Although Jackson and the writers did some moving around of the dialogue, I don’t think he could’ve picked a better spot to place those few lines that reveal the certainty of the eschatological promises of God and the glory of heaven. It is hard for me to say what those books, the movies, and the biblical concept that they all are derived from mean to me. When I youth pastored, I always found an excuse to show that clip in conjunction with one of my lessons from Hebews 11. Believe it or not, long before The Far Country was released, God had already been molding my heart to those special verses found in Heb 11:13-16 and that has been the defining aspect of my life in Christ ever since. Needless to say, when I saw The Far Country in a bookstore one day, I was ecstatic to see that one of my favorite musicians had the same vision. Thank you for your ministry and these words that, at least in my heart, bring more joy to my soul despite the intensity of the deep yearning in my heart for the Lord to return when “All Shall Be Well”. Praise God for the Holy Spirit who lives in us enabling us to groan for more, missing Jesus, and crying out for him to return. May we strive for holiness until then.
Until he comes, Billy.
Wow! what a great post. It is such a beautiful telling of the story. I do wonder…I don’t think we will be completely whole under this gray rain curtain, but Jesus did come to give sight and heal the broken hearted and all that Luke 4, Issiah 61 stuff. I have even lived long enough to see in hindsight the ways he is in the business of restoring me. But yet the present feels just as you’ve described. My hope is more and more healing as the day approaches. That there can come a day when my woundedness and ill-at-ease is so small that Hope is more realized than wishing.
The Grey Havens is one of the most moving scenes in the book for me, too, for all the reasons described above. One scene in the movie that was also very powerful for this viewer is the scene of the last battle before the gates of Mordor when the enemies are closing in, but then all of a sudden there’s a bit of a lull in the fighting and everyone looks up to see Barad Dur crumbling, knowing that it’s over. That’s kind of the way I picture Christ’s Second Coming…we’re all just enmeshed in the battles that we know we can’t win on our own, and then we finally see what we’ve known all along–our Hero has already won them for us, and all that’s left is the victory celebration.
Oh, and I hope Aedan had fun savoring the journey through the book–I wish I could read them again for the first time.
1 John 3:2-3
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
i’ve got a two year old and a ten month old. i am looking forward to moments like the one you shared.
Wow! Like Andrew C said, you are very good at eloquently expressing in words what is all jumbled up in my mind. I relate to the way you noticed that it was not the movie itself that marvelled you, but the story. No matter how old and overtalked Tolkien’s stories become, they are still some of the best and will never loose their awe inspiring quality. Thanks for this great post!
(Wow, Aedan must be quite the genius to have finished the trilogy – and at least somewhat , I’m assuming understood it – by age nine! He’s homeschooled right?
I’ve been a faithful reader of the blog for quite a while now…I check it everyday just to see if there is a new inspiration for me to chew on until the next post. I shared your music and blog with my best friend, and we’re both hooked on them.
This got me to wondering…have you ever thought of putting out a book of devotions? Just thoughts like this are exactly what some people (like me) need daily. A sort of nudge to start the day with the Lord. I know that you have a lot on your plate, with writing music and books and touring and being with friends and family, but I think that it would make an awesome and vital tool for those of us who need a little encouragement every now and then.
Tolkien’s work… wow. I read the Silmarillion over break in like 3 days, and am working on The Hbbit now. I can’t wait to finish it and start in on the Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I frequent the audio resources of the southern baptist theological seminary. And this morning I found this lecture called “Truth and Myth: Unlocking the Lord of the Rings.” Its by Joseph Pearce, who seems to be an English Literature specialist. Anyway its really good. I totally recommend it to anyone who has a care for Tolkein specifically or even similar literature. Sometimes I think there’s more truth in stories than real life. I mean, look at Jesus – he was always coming with a parapble, but I digress. Find it here:
Scroll down the the Joseph Pearce section and “Truth and Myth: Unlocking the Lord of the Rings.” Its probably about 45 minutes audio.
I’m afraid I just had a nasty schock as I went down to the wood room and realized that I no longer own a copy of the Lord of the Rings. For me, the Grey Havens and the hope there reminds me of Revelation 22:1-4 “And he showed me a pure river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street and on either side of the river was the Tree of Life, which bore twelve, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall sereve Him. They shall see His face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.”
When I was 20 and life was easy I had no longing for Heaven. I praised God that He had given me a wonderful and happy life free from pain and sorrow. I hoped that I would be smart enough to learn before I had to learn the hard way. Now the long hard years have come. I understand now, some of what that longing for Heaven is. I have felt that deep weariness with the struggle and the longing to give up the fight. It was then that God reminded me that He had given me good days- days when I truly felt that I could not stand any more joy in existance. Even if there were never any more, they had been there. And one day I would see the clear river of the water of life.
God has turned His face toward me again. He has heard my prayer and turned away my affliction from me. I am so grateful becuase He has answered the prayer of my sorrow far beyond anything I could have imagined.
I love that scene where Gandalf speaks of Heaven. It moves me to tears every time. There is something so beautiful in the words he uses. And I, too, resonate with the idea of a wound that is too deep, that makes it impossible for Frodo to live in this life. I remember a friend saying to me, after seeing seeing Return of the King: So what? After all that Frodo just dies? He just commits suicide?
I was dumbfounded. It was such a different interpretation of what happenned at the end of the film. I didn’t quite know what to do with it…I tried to – fumbling all the way – explain that Frodo didn’t commit suicide but was given a release from life, an early ticket to Heaven, so to speak. But I could see that it wasn’t making any sense to my friend.
How deeply faith forms us – how amazingly it transforms our interpretation of everything happening around us. My prayer is simple: more, Lord – more faith, more hope, more trust in you. Just more. Amen.
Nate, thanks for the link to the audio clips on Tolkien at SBTS. I can’t wait to listen to them! In Christ, Billy
thanks andrew! i especially love the passage in romans you mentioned…”hope that is seen is no hope at all.” makes me think of another favorite: “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we don’t see” (in hebrews). peace.
Beautiful. Well spoken.
Great essay. The movies still get an emotional rise out of me when I watch them.
I thought about writing a song about eucatastrophe, but then I thought “What rhymes with eucatastrophe?” Not much, really. Too bad.
Our literal eyes may be able to see, but the eyes of our hearts are often so bloodshot and weary that our souls trip and fall.
After one of the heaviest months in recent memory I realize how bloodshot the eyes of my heart actually are. Oh to see through the tears that blur true sight. I guess that’s the hope you speak of. Thanks Andrew
Thank You For Such Heart Born Poetry in Prose.
So, THAT’S what “The Havens Grey” is all about!! #NeverReadLordOfTheRings
(Too used to twitter :-D)
I get the same, almost unbearable, sense of being left behind from the end of this story that I do from the ascension.
Lewis’ Last Battle and Peterson’s The Fiddler’s Green do it too, but there is something about Samwise that strikes closer to home. Maybe it’s because he clearly has work and loving to do still in the Shire. His closing quote:
makes me want to scream because of it’s ordinariness. How could a man – well, hobbit – who had seen and done so much, go back to gardening? And yet, it is also deeply comforting.
Because I, too, have glimpsed a home beyond the sea, and a Friend dearer than family. And if Samwise can bear with cheerfulness his pilgrimage in the Shire, maybe I can too.
Thanks for the post. I read TLOTR every year and never cease to be amazed at how JRRT captures so much in his prose what it means to follow Christ. I read his Letters last year and it gave me great insight into his thought processes.
My favorite line from the Trilogy (out of so many favorites): “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer”.
Andrew: It’s been a while, but in that penultimate paragraph where you paint us all with the brush of yet-unhealed humanity, I started getting my own set of tears. The sort that squeeze out over deep longing mingled with a realization that yes, this is what we are — and a glimmer of the hope that awaits.
Funny, I remember my dad teaching me the word “eucatastrophe” with LOTR too, only he used the example of Eowyn slaying the Nazgul.
The movies do pale in comparison. They left out too much good stuff and added in too much extraneous stuff. And Liv Tyler… let’s just not go there. But parts of it were brilliant and lovingly done.
This is just as good/needed today as it was four (four!) years ago. Thanks for the perspective.
I’m actually in my annual (well, it’s been biannual for a while) reading of LOTR, and just loving to re-live it. Unlike many fantasy novels, there seems to be such a sense of destiny throughout it – destiny not of the Star Wars kind, which is so indefinite and in a way self-absorbed, but of “even if we die, good will win in the end and that’s what we have to cling to.” There’s a constant sense that Somebody’s running the show (Gandalf: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker…”), and will keep running it, even Frodo and Sam don’t make it back from Mordor.
And while the movies do miss a lot, I can’t help but chip in a good word for ’em. They really do seem to capture the underlying feeling of hope and The Great Design from the books, which is so essential. It’s actually quite unexpected coming from guys who are probably more like Ian McKellen than Gandalf (unfortunately). And also, they’re just a heck of a lot of fun to watch…
Speaking of which…who’s excited for THE HOBBIT? 🙂
Yes, I would like a triple order of Martin Freeman adorableness, please thank you. Seriously, could there have been a more perfect casting choice?
I can’t put into words how much I needed to read this… Not just today, but at this very hour. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.
Speaking of this: “Much of the time I feel content with my lot, and why shouldn’t I… What could we complain about?” Reminded me of a few lines from C.S. Lewis that I stumbled across this morning (that’s the only reason I remember them–give it 6 more hours, and they’ll be gone gone gone). Anyway, the quote from Lewis is, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That was a nice, salty-air wake-up call for my lazy, disaffected self this morning (and just now too). Thank you for your words and your music, Andrew.
Thank you, Mr. Proprietor. You just got used to bless my socks off. Again!
Eucatastrophe reminds me of the time I was preparing to teach the first part of a Sunday school lesson on Esther. What I learned was that the book had a chiastic structure (X). Like an X there is a critical point, a great reversal when everything that seems to be going one way reverses.
In Esther it comes in the 6th chapter with the Kings Dream.
That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. 2 It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.
3 “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king asked.
“Nothing has been done for him,” his attendants answered.
4 The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him.
5 His attendants answered, “Haman is standing in the court.”
“Bring him in,” the king ordered.
6 When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?”
Wiki defines Chiastic structure this way:
Chiastic structure (also called chiastic pattern or ring structure) is a literary device for chiasmus applied to narrative motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages. Various structures of chiasmus are commonly seen in ancient literature to emphasize, parallel, or contrast concepts or ideas. Examples of chiastic structures are the A,B,C…C,B,A pattern and the ABBAABB…ABBA pattern. Chiastic structures are sometimes called palistrophes, chiasms, symmetric structures, ring structures, or concentric structures.
Eucatastrophe to me is where the two lines of the X (cross).
It wouldn’t surprise me if Tolkien knew of this literary tool and came up with a phrase for “the turn” or the “X”
Hope this made sense
interesting concept ‘hope’ – i’m not convinced anyone shares the same meaning of the word. Fo an essay i researched the psycololgy literature on the topic and there wasn’t alot of agreement on what it /really’ meant. So I checked out some biblical definitions via Strong’s concordence – one example(related to the Lamentations passage ‘this I keep in mind, therefore I have hope…’):
writhing in agony, a spiral movement, as in childbirth
no-one said it would be easy…
Much needed today, thank you Andrew. Deep in the long heat and glaring light of summer. The burden of our earthly condition. All temporal joys and sorrows eventually fall away into a new season. Hope.
@yankeegospelgirl Would it be too much to guess you a Sherlock fan? Regardless, you’re right, he’s an excellent choice – the casting on these films seems to be great so far. James Nesbitt is hilarious. Richard Armitage is the ultimate snob. Benedict Cumberbatch already looks a little dragon-ish. Stephen Fry…well. Words fail.
Goodness sakes, Andrew Peterson. I am so thankful to God that He’s allowed me to live in a time and place where I have access to your writing.
This waiting patiently – I just recently also saw a clear picture of this painted at the end of “Donal Grant”. I won’t go into any details about it if somebody reading this has not read it yet; however, suffice it to say, the picture was painted clearly. I felt it keenly. Much like what is described above. The hope, the steadfast faith in what is not seen. I want that in greater measure. And I am glad to be reminded of it. ‘…encourage each other daily as long as it is still called “Today”…’. Thanks again, Andrew!
I read through the responses (well, all the newer ones since the repost). It’s so good to “be among” like-minded people. Kari – I love that quote by C.S. Lewis. He never ceases to inspire.
@becca: Thank you for putting my feelings into words.
The first few times I read/watched the Grey Havens scene, I cried. The bittersweet pain of loss and saying goodbye coupled with the relief and peace of the mission finally ending – the Fellowship’s accomplishment of what it set out to do – amazed me.
But recently, as I reread and rewatch and listen to “The Havens Grey” on repeat, I have stopped crying. It’s not because the message has lost its impact, in fact, the opposite is true. It strikes my heart dead center. I am too deeply moved to cry, I just feel an ache in my chest, a longing, a connection with the story that’s been strengthened, because it echoes my own story. It reminds me that here is hope, just hold on a little longer, even though the road goes ever on and on, someday it must end, and at the end will be eternal joy.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. It’s the first time I read it, and it really resonated with me.
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