Hope and Faith in The Lord of the Rings
Estel, one of two Elvish words for "hope," is the childhood name of Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. (Left: estel written in Elvish.)
Names have power in mythology, and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. it turns out that this particular name is a key that helps unlock a hidden theme running through the entire saga.
Pay attention in the films to how often "hope" is mentioned. Watch Aragorn's face in The Two Towers movie when Éomer says, "Do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands." Aragorn must prove otherwise.
In fact, there are two Elvish words for "hope"! The difference between them adds an extra dimension to the books that the films missed, and explains a lot about characters as different as Sam and Denethor.
A Boy Called Estel
The Origin of the Name
When Aragorn was two, his father the Chief of the Rangers was killed. Aragorn's mother took him to Rivendell for safety.
Elrond raised Aragorn as his own son, naming him Estel and concealing his identity to hide him from the enemies hunting for him. When Estel was twenty, Elrond revealed to him his true name and father, and told him about his heritage. After that, the Heir of Isildur called himself by his birth-name, Aragorn, although he also accepted whatever nicknames others gave him (Strider, Thorongil, DÃºnadan).
Yet his mother's last words to him show that his nearest and dearest continued to call him Estel throughout his life:
"This is our last parting, Estel, my son. I am aged by care, even as one of lesser Men; and now that it draws near I cannot face the darkness of our time that gathers upon Middle-earth. I shall leave it soon."Aragorn tried to comfort her, saying: "Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness; and if so, I would have you see it and be glad."But she answered only with this linnod [line of verse]:
Onen i-Estel Edain, u-chebin estel anim.
[I gave Hope to Men; I kept none for myself.]("The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen," Appendices, The Return of the King)
Even more poignantly, Arwen calls to Aragorn, "Estel, Estel!" on his deathbed.
Sadly, despite their faith in him, both of the important women in his life die when their hopes fail.
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Estel Vs. Amdir
Two Different Words for Hope
Estel, one of hundreds of words Tolkien invented for Sindarin (common) Elvish, refers to a specific kind of hope. Hisweloke's Sindarin Dictionary defines estel as "hope, trust, a temper of mind, steady fixed in purpose, and difficult to dissuade and unlikely to fall into despair or abandon its purpose."
Those who love Aragorn have that kind of faith in him. It's also estel that drives Aragorn -- in the books, at least; the films lose this aspect of the character -- through every hardship without wavering.
There is a second kind of hope in Tolkien's imagination, although it's never named in The Lord of the Rings, only in Morgoth's Ring.Amdir, derived from am+tÃ®r "looking up", means "hope based on reason." Amdir is a projection, a prediction, based on available facts. For example, "I hope to finish this project by Tuesday."
Words have power, especially for a languages scholar like JRR Tolkien. If you understand the distinction he makes between amdir and estel, you'll understand The Lord of the Rings better.
Denethor: Victim of Amdir
When Reason Fails...
The movie makes Denethor out to be a raving lunatic. It's true that in the books, he finally snaps and tries to kill himself and his son, but only after all hope seems lost.
The problem with Denethor (besides the fact that he's got a personal beef with Aragorn), is that he only has amdir, not estel. When he learns that Gandalf and Faramir have sent the Ring "in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself" he accuses them of risking all of Middle-earth on a mad gamble, a "fool's hope." ("The Siege of Gondor," ROTK).
After Faramir is dangerously hurt, Denethor gazes into the palantír to see what the future holds. Sauron shows him all the forces arrayed against him -- the black fleet coming up the river, the armies in Mordor still being prepared-- and perhaps shows him the booty taken from Frodo while he was captive. When Pippin tries to comfort him afterwards, Denethor says, "The fool's hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes." And when Gandalf tries to stop Denethor from killing himself, he says, "Against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed."
This is the voice of amdir. Denethor was a shrewd and wise lord, if a short-sighted one, thinking only of his duties to protect Minas Tirith and nothing else. By all good sense, the plan to send Frodo to the Cracks of Doom was sheer folly. But the Council of Elrond had determined that when all reasonable expectations were that Sauron would defeat them, they must choose an unreasonable course, and gamble on hope. It was the same hope that sent Elrond's father into the Uttermost West in the First Age seeking aid from the Valar.
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Aragorn and Sam: Estel
When Hope and Despair Are Akin
Aragorn, too, pursues hope beyond reasonable hopes.
After Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-dÃ»m, Aragorn says "we must do without hope" and leads the Fellowship onward. His words are a paradox, unless you realize he means amdir.
Even when hopes seem to have failed, he will not give up. That dogged perseverance is what keeps him, Gimli and Legolas going as the Three Hunters, and takes them on the Paths of the Dead. Finally, after Minas Tirith is saved, Aragorn's convictions take him to the Black Gates to serve as a diversion for Frodo's mission: "As I have begun, so I will go on. We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin." ("The Last Debate," ROTK)
Finally, Sam and Frodo penetrate Mordor and reach Mt. Doom on pure estel. Frodo, weighed down by the Ring, keeps going without hope: "'All right, Sam,' said Frodo. 'Lead me! As long as you've got any hope left. Mine is gone. But I can't dash, Sam. I'll just plod along after you.'" ("The Land of Shadow," ROTK)
Towards the end, Sam seems to lose hope altogether -- and yet he does not. Looking ahead, amdir, quite literally, fails him. But estel is kindled:
The bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.'So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,' thought Sam: 'to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job, then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can't think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand if there hadn't a' been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn't. He would have done something.'But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
That is the power of estel, faith, which nothing can overcome. In the end, Gandalf's "fool's hope" proves foolish indeed -- even Frodo can't give up the Ring voluntarily, and Tolkien's Letters make clear that no one could have. But the agency of the Fool, Gollum, prevails when reason and will fail.
© 2009 tinw
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Kevin Brown on December 06, 2017:
Martin Buber's Two Types of Faith describes the Jewish concept of "emunah" (faith without certainty) and New Testament "pistis" (faith in a proposition), which correspond very closely with estel and amdir.
anonymous on September 07, 2012:
Tinw, this is an amazing article! I think you have really expressed the essence of The Lord of the Rings!
writercb1 from United States on February 21, 2011:
Amazing lens! I love it.