The Road to The Forest Again

Do not abandon hope, all ye who enter into this overly-long blog post.

Faith, hope, and love.

Simple enough words with slippery definitions. Faith gets saddled with a suggestion of blindness, “I hope” might as well mean “I wish,” and love ranges from “he who lays down his life for his friends” to “I love horchata”[1]. But the three theological virtues are special, and much more than loopy-scripted words adorning a kitchen thought board. They merit not only reexamined definitions, but earnest and regular practice, and one way to do this is to study their presence in art.

Not surprisingly, faith, hope, and love are often given simplistic treatment in books, television, and film, reinforcing simplistic definitions of each, but when treated with nuance, sincerity, and gravitas, they can be themes of great beauty and force. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior examines thirteen virtues, and the works she uses for these three are Shūsaku Endō’s Silence (faith), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (hope), and Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych (love), which is quite the trio of emotionally-devastating works. Her explications of Silence and Ivan Ilych are resonant and thought-provoking, but my favorite chapter of the three (and of the entire book) is Hope. It’s encouraging to me personally, but it’s a theme that has been central to much of what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the last year, and KSP’s thoughtful, nuanced essay adds to my appreciation of hope’s role and, thus, of the stories overall.

By using the bleak, post-apocalyptic world of The Road as her observatory for the presence and nature of hope, KSP wrests the theme from the palm of rosy wishes and places it in the hold of pain and sorrow. “Hope isn’t the same as oblivion or naivete” (129), she writes, and she identifies a realistic reckoning of the world as the basis for the father’s hope in the novel (125). The man may not be able to see a way to a better, safer, life for him and for his son – and how could he? – but he also doesn’t let the grim possibilities stand as inevitable. In so doing, he demonstrates the four conditions for hope which KSP borrows from Thomas Aquinas: “[Hope] regards something good in the future that is difficult but possible to obtain” (123). The best kind of hope is not the kind that ignores the present difficulties of the moment or looks forward to some good thing which has already RSVP’d plus-one; the best kind of hope moves a person to put one foot in front of the other with the belief that something better might be found.

KSP also places the hope in The Road within an understanding of hope as a theological virtue – one that can only be completed through the work of a higher power. Theological hope, as opposed to a belief in the inherent goodness of human progress, understands the overarching condition of the world. It “takes evil into account” and is based on “belief in the goodness of creation, the nature of evil, and the plan of redemption” (136), and KSP sees that The Road hints at “something transcendent” and “points toward a hope that surpasses even the best human pursuits” (135).

One of the foremost places this kind of hope is modeled and explored is the Tolkien Legendarium. Interestingly enough, hope is represented in The Road by the motif of “carrying the fire,” and Tolkien uses the concept of “the secret fire” to represent the creative spirit of Illuvatar in the world. The theme is central through the Legendarium, and one way in which Tolkien explores it in The Lord of the Rings is by comparing hope to despair. Alan Sisto, co-host of “The Prancing Pony Podcast,” has written a compelling essay on the topic, noting that despair – what Sisto considers the opposite of hope – is based in an individual’s belief they know what is going to happen. Responding to Gandalf’s words that “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” Sisto writes:

“Despair is only for those who see the end beyond. all. doubt. In other words, hope remains — or should remain — if the end is even the least bit uncertain. Is death 99.99% likely to occur? Then have hope! Since we are not omniscient, we must admit that there are none of us who can truly ‘see the end beyond all doubt.'”

King Theoden’s heroics are based in a restored hope, while Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, despairs amidst his belief that he can see the inevitable destruction of his city. “It’s certainly worth noting that pride and despair go together here,” writes Sisto. “Since hope necessarily relies on something (or someone) beyond yourself, it requires a certain amount of humility.” Not surprisingly, we see here Tolkien’s portrayal of hope channeling the attributes of hope as a theological virtue, as the humility of hopeful characters in the Legendarium “points toward a hope that surpasses even the best human pursuits” (KSP 135).

Sisto closes his essay with a connection to eucatastrophe (one of the most important aspects of Tolkien’s writing), and it recalls Aquinas’ conditions of good/future/difficult/possible, defining it as “a sudden and joyous turn, a miraculous grace that cannot be counted on, and can certainly never be counted on to recur.” The characters who forge ahead in spite of hardship and danger do so not because they know it will all work out in the end, but because they believe it may. Perhaps they will live to see the miraculous, and perhaps not, but what matters is that they go on[2] giving all their strength in the hope something stronger is at work.

Let us go, then, you and I, to two of the other works of art that are always on my mind: Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Harry Potter, and yes if you’re wondering this post is on the syllabus for Eloquent Mumbler 211: Survey of Peter’s Nerdiness. I know many readers won’t be familiar with one or both of these texts, but I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll try to limit the excessive nerdery to the footnotes and I’ll try to explain what’s necessary in order to appreciate what I’m talking about.

The pacing within and across the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender is brilliant, tracking along with Aang as he learns how to bend water, then earth, and finally fire in order to defeat the Fire Lord and save the world. There is, however, a run of episodes in the middle of Season 2 (and thus the middle of the series) that acts as a transition between the extremely dope run of episodes beginning the season[3] and the episodes in Ba Sing Se which might be the best arc in the series[4]. In these episodes, Team Avatar travels to an ancient library (“The Library”) where they discover vital information about a coming solar eclipse, but Aang’s flying bison, Appa, is stolen away from them and they are stranded in the desert (“The Desert”). They make the difficult journey to Ba Sing Se (“The Serpent’s Pass”), only to find the city facing an attack which they must repel (“The Drill”). The parallel storyline of Zuko and Iroh sees them evade capture and also arrive in Ba Sing Se. These episodes serve to introduce the eclipse, which will be central in Season 3, begin the arc of Appa being lost, and move all the central characters to Ba Sing Se. They’re pivotal episodes, and not bad by any means, but I do find myself looking forward to the final quarter of the season each time I rewatch. However, the depiction of hope in these episodes, particularly “The Serpent’s Pass,” has given me a new appreciation for them and helped put the series in perspective.

When Appa is taken, Aang is enraged and then dejected, but as “The Serpent’s Pass” begins, we find a different attitude. Katara rebukes Sokka for an innocent but clumsy comment about Appa, but Aang shrugs it off:

“Katara, it’s okay. I know I was upset about losing Appa before, but I just want to focus on getting to Ba Sing Se and telling the Earth King about the solar eclipse.”

He’s level and emotionless, not himself at all. Later, when Suki joins up with the Team and asks Aang how he is doing since losing Appa, Aang says, annoyed, “I’m doing fine. Would everybody stop worrying about me?”

He’s certainly not doing fine. When they arrive at “The Serpent’s Pass,” escorting a family including a pregnant woman, they find an inscription on the gateway reading “Abandon Hope.” While the Team is discouraged by this directive straight outta Dante, Aang wonders if it might just be good advice:

“The monks used to say that hope is just a distraction. So maybe we do need to abandon it. Hope isn’t going to get us into Ba Sing Se, and it’s not going to find Appa. We need to focus on what we’re doing right now, and that’s getting across this pass.”

It’s a complicated and compelling thought, but, sadly, it seems the product of Aang’s incomplete education and premature separation from his mentors. Aang appears to be confusing hopes and wishes – he seems to think that the monks were suggesting that looking towards what one wants to have happen in the future distracts someone from being mindful of the present. But despite his determination to make it through the Pass, Aang is clearly not present – if he was, he wouldn’t be so emotionless and detached. I believe the monks were teaching Aang to let go of the need for certainty about what will happen, not to abandon the belief that something good can still happen. Aang imagines hope must blind one to the trials of the present, but true hope should ground us in the present realities rather than move us to apathy.

Aang further reveals that he is not, in fact, embracing the present when Katara checks in on him after a perilous day journeying through the pass. Aang reveals that he doesn’t want to lose control of his emotions like he did in the desert, but Katara senses that he is avoiding the pain that comes with caring, and tells him, “I know sometimes it hurts more to hope.” She offers him a hug, but he stoically bows and thanks her for her concern. This response to someone he loves is a choice to despair and a choice to avoid the pain that comes with attachment and loss[5]. We can sympathize with Aang, who woke up from a 100-year-long sleep to find his entire civilization had been destroyed. The one companion from that time before is now missing; Appa is gone, and so too is the comfort and assurance he gave Aang. But Aang’s attempt to block out the pain that comes with missing Appa leads him to block out his feelings for Katara, and is another consequence of his misguided understanding of abandoning hope.

In the Desert, Katara rallied the Team to make it out as Aang despaired, and again, in the Pass, the difference in their outlook is made apparent. The path disappears beneath the waters of the lake, and while Aang hangs his head in defeat at an obstacle that he would normally laugh off, Katara takes the lead and finds a way forward. Gameface, sorta-pissed-off Aang does some incredible stuff throughout the series, but this time, again, his rejection of a “distraction” hampers his ability to act in the present, while Katara, who champions hope so much that the show parodies it in a later episode, reckons with the pain of caring and continues to carry the fire.

Aang’s hope is restored after making it through the Pass and after the woman they were traveling with gives birth (again, Katara takes the lead and delivers the baby). Upon seeing the miracle of life, a teary-eyed Aang says, “I’ve been going through a really hard time lately, but you’ve made me hopeful again.” He then explains his change of heart to Katara: “I thought I was trying to be strong, but really I was just running away from my feelings. Seeing this family together, so full of happiness and love, it’s reminded me of how I feel about Appa…and how I feel about you.” Aang is not certain how he is going to find Appa, or how he is going to master the elements and defeat the Fire Lord, but he doesn’t have to know. Aang has felt loss beyond comprehension, but he is no longer afraid to love because of the chance of loss. He is hopeful again, restored like King Theoden. And he is embracing love again, like the father in The Road holds onto the love he feels for his son.

“The Serpent’s Pass” enriches the series’ commentary on hope, especially as it comes at the midpoint and is just a few episodes away from one of the most hope-shattering moments in the show. It also helps clarify the hopeful philosophy of Iroh, whose wisdom and perspective guides much of the series. One of his famous quotes is: “In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.” Without context, this might suggest Iroh believes hope is based in the individual and does not seek something transcendent, but given the way he encourages Zuko to lean on others, and given what happens when Aang tries to be sufficient unto himself, I believe what Iroh is saying is that we can give ourselves hope because we choose to believe in the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we can’t be certain. As the final battle at the end of the series approaches, Iroh tells the expanded Team, “Today, destiny is our friend. I know it.” He doesn’t, of course, know it, but he believes it. As always, he is choosing to see the light in the dark. He has hope, and a eucatastrophe finally arrives.

By the end of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling is just on another level. The three book run of Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows goes up there with whatever book/album/film trio you want to name[6]. Phoenix is an expansive, complicated thrill, Prince is…a perfect book, but Hallows is great in a different way. It’s not as well-plotted or paced as the other best books, nor does it take us to as many interesting places, but what it does is fire off a fusillade of heart-wrenching, mind-bending, soul-searching themes[7].

Central to the thematic heft are the titular Deathly Hallows, both as physical objects and as symbolic representations. The three Hallows (the Elder Wand, the Cloak of Invisibility, and the Resurrection Stone) offer the possibility to be “Master of Death,” to conquer the inevitable end and the uncertainty which comes after. They represent a control over destiny no wizard or witch can hope to have. Control over destiny and death becomes one of the defining differences between Harry and Voldemort as their climactic clash arrives.

Through the series, Harry has tried to go on hoping through great pain and loss. He has gone on hoping even when he has not understood the guidance and vision of his elders. And that hope has been centered around a prophecy which predicts Harry will be the one to kill Voldemort and finally rid the world of his menace. The Hallows, are, naturally, enticing to Harry, who would like nothing more than to bring loved ones like his parents and his godfather back to life, who would love to finally see a clear way towards defeating the most powerful dark wizard in generations. And yet, when given the choice to pursue the Hallows or continue the plan of hunting horcruxes, he chooses the latter.

Voldemort, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to conquer death and to have control over the future. He does not know Hallows lore, but he knows of the existence of the Elder Wand, and he believes as long as he has this then he will be able to kill Harry and finally be invincible. He would never sacrifice the chance to hold the power, and his certainty in his own abilities, his own understanding, and the powerful wand sets him up for destruction.

Quite the opposite of having power to stave off death, Harry learns in the eleventh hour that Dumbledore believed Harry must let Voldemort kill him. It is a massive inversion of what Harry and the reader had believed about what would come to pass. Other characters believed that Harry was their best hope, and that his safety was what mattered above all else (often to Harry’s frustration), and many have died trying to protect him. Now Harry has to let that go. He has to, instead, lay down his life, hoping not in the man Dumbledore, but in the powers Dumbledore believed greater than any Voldemort possessed: humility, self-sacrifice, and, above all, love. Harry does not know what will happen after Voldemort casts the killing curse, but he is willing to make the choice to meet that end, hoping in a better, more powerful magic:

“But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.”

Harry’s sacrifice is a vivid distillation of the hope which drives so much of the series. It draws attention to the fact that seeking future certainties was folly all along, and so too was the choice to ignore the reality of present perils. Hope could not be based in wands and stones and cloaks, nor could it be based in an insistence that nothing so terrible as Voldemort’s return could really happen. Instead, it was based in love and goodness, and holding on to that love and goodness resulted in the death of many characters. And still they went on hoping, understanding that “there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.”

The eucatastrophe arrives, and the crucial differences between Harry and Voldemort make the final duel no contest at all.

These works help me have a better understanding of hope as a theological virtue, as a word that goes alongside faith and love. I believe that “this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17), but I know that this momentary affliction doesn’t feel so light, and I know that the eternal weight of glory may be beyond all comparison, but it is also beyond all comprehension. But I choose to hope in something transcendent which will bring that future glory about, and so, while I can’t comprehend what it will look like or how it will be achieved, and while it is so out of my control, I go on along the road, and across the plains of Pelennor and Gorgoroth, and through the Serpent’s Pass, and into the forest again.

Aurë entuluva!

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria



~click the number to return to the text~

1 It’s been way too long since I’ve had horchata. One of my best memories is when I was eating barbacoa tacos at a stand in Tijuana and the server, toting a giant bucket of horchata, looked me in the eye, held up his ladle, and said, “¿Mas?”
2 “Go on” now plays in my mind as the way Davos says it to Jon in a great Thrones scene. It’s a brilliant line-reading from Liam Cunningham, who is quietly as good as anyone on the show. I can also hear it in the way Stannis tells Brienne “Go on do your duty,” which is another great line reading from another great supporting performance. A discussion of hope in Thrones would be fun, but maybe that’s for another day.
3 Oh man those first nine episodes are wild. We meet Azula, who is the best villain in the show (SHE IS SO GOOD), plus her sidekicks Mai and Ty Lee, Toph joins the Team and she is obv a beast, “Zuko Alone” please smash rocks at me with an earth-bending hammer, “The Chase” finishes with a wild west showdown, and then “Bitter Work” gives such great insights into the characters and bending philosophy.
4 I mean where do you even begin? I’ve watched all these episodes in one sitting before and by the end of “Crossroads of Destiny” I’m sweating and crying and ready to walk out on a glowy bridge to giant cosmic me. That finale is just on one.
5 This foreshadows what will happen in “The Guru.” Aang’s choice to leave Guru Pathik is such a complicated decision. Seeing the way he embraces his love for Katara in “The Serpent’s Pass” helps show why he rejects the idea of “letting her go” to clear his final chakra, but perhaps Aang is missing the point. That being said, we see in The Legend of Korra that Air Nomad philosophy, at least as taught by Guru Lahima and practiced by Zahir, was very serious about detachment and the power it could unlock, so perhaps Pathik was requiring something from Aang that Aang shouldn’t have been ready to give up (Iroh certainly thinks this is the case). I would like to know more about how else Avatars can access their cosmic self and go into the Avatar State at will, since we see that other Avatars are able to do it.
6 You could throw Goblet of Fire in there, too, and call it a four-book run. I think it’s a great book; I just think the next three level up again. But – let’s be real – the entire series is great.
7 Thinking about the concept of The Hallows and what they represent makes me emotional, not just because they’re so profound, but because it legitimately moves me that a human being put that into literature. Rowling is a real one. Also, relevant, the three chapter run of “The Prince’s Tale,” “The Forest Again,” and “King’s Cross” is just a staggering achievement. I love the significance of individual chapters across the series (something I love about Tolkien, too), and there is no group of them quite like this.

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