I borrowed the extended edition of The Return of the King from our friends Jason and Brooke and have been ever-so-slowly making my way through the special features. In one of the (many) featurettes, a bushel of Tolkien experts examine his theme of hope versus despair, which he explores most powerfully in the contrasting characters of Theoden, King of Rohan and Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Their story lines are remarkably similar: each has lost a son, each has another heir (Eomer and Faramir, respectively) who just doesn’t seem as great as the first, each one’s kingdom is threatened with impending doom. Yet even with all their apparent similarities, one chooses the path of hope (with no promise of fulfillment), while the other commits the ultimate act of despair: suicide (with no chance for what Tolkien called “the eucatastrophe“).
As I was watching the featurette, I realized I was crying. This in and of itself is not that surprising: I’ve become a bit of a blubber-baby in my old age. (All that “feelings need feeling or they get really pithed” has really done a number on my equilibrium.) What was a bit surprising, however, was the realization that the cause of my tears was a short clip of Theoden’s death scene — which was completely out of context, since I wasn’t even watching the film itself. As he lies dying, Theoden says, “I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.”
It just broke me up. It struck me that this hope — the hope that I will someday stand in the presence of my Father, as well as those who have gone before, and not feel ashamed — goes to the core of my desire to live well. I don’t fear punishment (hell, if you prefer) for NOT living well. No, I fear the shame of squandering the graces I’ve been given — and more, I long (on my best days) to live a life deserving of those graces.