Is there power in sorrow?

Discussion in 'Let's talk about the course!' started by Jonathan Cassels, Feb 14, 2017.

  1. Jonathan Cassels

    Jonathan Cassels New Member

    I posted this in the question for Narnion section, but I hoped others might have some thoughts, so I'm copy and pasting it here:

    Hi Narnion,
    In episode 6, you spend some time on a line from Gandalf which you were interested in primarily because of a pair of understatements:

    "That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; For there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain."

    In your reading, you seemed to take it for granted that it would be good to recall this story because it provides hope that Sauron can be defeated. But, I note, that's not the reason given in the text. The first reasons Gandalf gives us directly for why this is worth remembering are "For there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark". Only after he's mentioned those, does he mentioned "great valour, and great deeds". He clearly views those as a secondary reason -- which is emphasized by the fact that they are only included after the conjunction "but". (In fact, an extremis interpretation could be that he views "great valour, and great deeds" as a counter-argument to his reasons for remembering the story).

    I know this seems to oppose the reasons why we might expect it to be important to remember this chapter. But if Tolkien had wanted to emphasize the "great valour, and great deeds" he could easily have phrased this in a way which made that clear:

    "That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; For there was great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain, but there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark."

    (The reason I think "great valour, and great deeds might be a counter-argument is because this re-phrasing makes "sorrow" and "gathering dark" seem like a counter-argument -- but let's set that aside. And, no, I don't think he reversed the reasons so they could complement each-other instead of countering one another. If he wanted that, he could have replaced "but" with "and also").

    This is the obvious phrasing to emphasize "valour, and great deeds". The fact that he doesn't use it, and puts sorrow first, seems intentional and important. I'm not sure why he would choose this emphasis, except that we later hear Aragorn tell stories to the Hobbits in order to buoy their spirits -- and he chooses sad stories. In fact, he takes stories which (when you read them in the Silmarillion) don't have sad endings, but makes them sad.

    This makes me wonder if, in LOTR (or, perhaps in Tolkien's personal philosophy), stories of sorrow have power. If they make the listener stronger. And if Gandalf's reason for saying it would be good to recall is this reason above all others. To me, this makes more sense than recalling it for the sake of proof that Sauron can be cast down by might of arms -- because that approach was mostly vain. And he must already know it won't work now, so it's not like he's trying to present a blueprint for what must now be down.

    Does this seems reasonable to you? Do you think sorrow has a power like this in LOTR? Or have I invented something which isn't there?
  2. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    The part of this that really grabs me is indeed like you say, looking forward, sad stories are used to bring... hope? Endurance? The will to continue in the face of dire foes.

    Now, it's not like there are a wealth of happy stories to draw from - everything is at least mostly awful as far as the eye can see. The "big three" first age stories are all pretty sad, with only bittersweet moments of temporary respite here and there. What should have been the fourth big first age story, that we never really get (Earendil), also has a lot of sad in it from the parts we know, even if it has the most traditionally happy "end". Into the second age, let's not really go to Numenor, shall we? And at the end of it, the battle of the last alliance ends in a victory, but you can't really call the ending "happy". The whole third age is just a string of dwindling peoples getting lesser.

    So where do you even go for happy stories then? Tell smaller parts of bigger stories? If you tell the story of Beren and Luthien but only the part where they defeat Sauron, it's not so bad (poor Finrod). If you told about Tuor meeting Voronwe and finding his armour, even up to where he gets in to Gondolin, that's not so bad. I'm sure if you squint and keep it veeeery short, you might even find a fraction of a fraction of the Turin story that doesn't make you want to jump off a cliff (maybe the dragonslaying?). There are probably stories from the early "liberator" days of Numenorean adventure in the south of Middle Earth that aren't awful, even if they turn out awful later on.
  3. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Of course, to argue against myself...

    The only stories that we, the readers, get are the sad/awful ones. But the world is probably full of happier stories that we just don't get told, for the reasons we are ascribing above.
  4. Jonathan Cassels

    Jonathan Cassels New Member

    Beren and Luthien is the story I was thinking of. The way Aragorn tells it to the Hobbits at Weathertop definitely makes it seem sad, but he skips the end of the story. At the end of the story, Mandos returns both Beren and Luthien to mortal life, and they literally "live happily ever after, until the end of their days". It's the happiest ending a story could have.

    And, what's more, Aragorn seems to know that he's missing the ending. He says something to the effect of "no one, except Elrond, remembers the end of the tale correctly anymore". Now, that's a super weird comment if you take it literally. Did Aragorn somehow remember the rest of the story word-for-word, but have amnesia about the end? Has Elrond never told the end of the story? If so, how does Aragorn know it exists? Did Elrond always stop at that point but say "And there's more to this story, which I won't tell you"? If that's true, then my point still holds. It's just that it's Elrond, rather than Aragorn who's making the choice to turn the story into a sad one.

    But, I don't think so. I think Aragorn knows the end of the story full well, but doesn't want to offer the happy ending. He's too honest to not mention that there is an ending he's not including, but the story he wants to tell is a sad one. So he turns it into a sad one, when it's not.

    Aragorn seems to see some value in intentionally telling a story of sorrow (Or Elrond does, if he never told Aragorn the full story). Which is exactly what Gandalf seems to be saying as well... if we don't take his words for granted.
  5. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Except that Luthien's days having any end at all is a sorrow. So the happiest ending possible would be "ever after", no ending of days required. :p
  6. Jonathan Cassels

    Jonathan Cassels New Member

    I know that was facetious, but it doesn't actually hold up. Mortality isn't a curse, it's a blessing from Eru Iluvatar, which he conferred upon men because they are his favourite of the races he created.

    Again, it doesn't jive with how we look at the world. But to be given a mortal life together is a happier ending than an immortal one as far as Tolkien's secondary-universe is concerned.
  7. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    I suppose my view is Elf-centric. To them, it is surely a sorrow that she who was fairest does no longer share their fate/doom.
  8. Jonathan Cassels

    Jonathan Cassels New Member

    I guess I could buy that... from the Elves' point of view, the happiest ending might be for Beren to have been granted an immortal life. I dunno... do the Elves envy man's mortality? It doesn't really seem that way, though the fact that Elros and Elrond chose differently when given the choice of mortality suggests that opinion might be split.

    Regardless, I think the point stands that Aragorn intentionally made that story more sorrowful than it needed to be. And so it supports the contention that there is value in sorrow, and that Gandalf's should be taken literally when he says that the reason why "That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall" is because "there was sorrow then too".
  9. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Ultimately, despite quibbling over details, I agree with your point. Hooray!
  10. Cirthrin

    Cirthrin New Member

    A common theme in many Sagas is the rise of the hero despite (or thanks to?) sorrow and challenge: Beowulf, Edda, Grimm's German Sagas. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The LOTR are in many ways an hommage to this tradition.

    As for sorrow containing power, this passage in Ainulindalë - when the themes of Iluvatar and Melkor clash - renders Tolkien's view of this quite clearly:

    "...and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern."

    It is this very clash of themes that came to be (Ea!) rendered as the world and history of Arda.
    NotACat likes this.
  11. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    OK, how about this.

    Neither great valour/deeds, nor sorrow, are sufficient alone. Both together are required to make the world what it should be.

    So telling a wholly heroic story would be inappropriate, as would telling a wholly sorrowful one. But the great stories have a blend of both, from start to finish, and that is what makes them great.
  12. Cirthrin

    Cirthrin New Member


    "And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."
  13. Fin

    Fin Member

    This echos what I was going to post about what Sam talks about in (I think) Two Towers. When talking to Frodo about the story they landed themselves into. I can't quote what he says here, but I am sure you all know what passage I am talking about. He talks about the people in the story not knowing what is going to happen to them, and you as a reader don't want them to. But he say's Beren and Luthien never thought they would get a Silmaril, and are basically filled with sorrow and despair, just as Frodo and Sam were about finishing their quest, well at least Frodo, Sam was always for the most part upbeat. But could not the sorrow that they both felt especially Sam, be the thing that kept them going? So yeah I believe Sorrow and despair are very powerful in Tolkien's writings
  14. Tungol

    Tungol Member

    I was listening to Episode 7 asynchronously. And I have to say, I was left unsatisfied by Corey's response (as he said himself too).

    The paragraph begins: "Why, why wasn't it destroyed? cried Frodo."

    As John Uskglass pointed out, Frodo is dismayed that the ring wasn't destroyed. Hence, Frodo may be tempted to view the last alliance as being vain.

    So, when Gandalf responds, I think he is trying to preempt Frodo's objection. He first begins by saying to Frodo, it might be good to recall this chapter of ancient history because your situation is similar (there is gathering dark, but also the potential for great valour and great deeds).

    Frodo could then respond: well, those deeds weren't so great because they failed. And my deeds could also be in vain. But Gandalf is trying to acknowledge this objection beforehand, so as to prevent Frodo from thinking along those lines. Gandalf believes that great deeds are not totally hopeless. His job is eventually to motivate Frodo to take on such deeds.

    Gandalf is not trying to undermine the great deeds in saying that they were "not wholly vain". I think that he is trying to counter a natural response from Frodo's point of view.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2017

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