Conquering Fools: Weakness and the Eucatastrophe
“Despair is for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” Gandalf cautions the men, elves, and dwarves (and hobbits) who have gathered to discuss Mordor’s activity and the revelation of the One Ring. While Sauron gathers orcs and evil men to himself, in a stroke of fortune they hold the Enemy’s great Weapon. The gathering is divided between two possible strategies: they will either use the Ring’s power to conquer the Dark Lord, or they will destroy it in Mount Doom’s fire.
When the group suggests destroying the Ring, Erestor and Boromir criticize the plan as folly. The Ring represents the power to defend Gondor by definitively conquering the Dark Lord. To seek the Fire for its destruction seems an impossible task. Worse, they fear that the plan will simply return the spoil won with so many lives and secure Sauron’s ascension. They already see the burning of Minas Tirith and the bodies of men and elves piled in heaps.
Yet the Council will attempt the unthinkable and entrust the mightiest weapon to the forgotten people of Middle-earth. They will hand a broadsword to a baby when it should be wielded by men. Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, will sneak into the Land of Shadow to destroy the Ring. Like Boromir, Sauron expects anyone with the Ring to thunder his challenge before the armies of Mordor. The all-seeing Eye is blind to the humble; he recognizes only strength. “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
After Frodo and Sam leave the Fellowship, the other companions narrowly rescue Rohan and Gondor and then launch one final attack against the Black Gate. While Pippin lies dying beneath a troll, and Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf stand within the closing jaws of the enemy, Frodo, after clawing his way up Mount Doom and standing before the chasm, succumbs to the One Ring. As Frodo places it on his finger, the Eye realizes his own precarious position. Sauron’s complete destruction or victory stand balanced on a razor’s edge.
But then the eucatastrophe comes—the speck of dust beginning the avalanche. Over the course of their journey the Fellowship has continually spared the groveling, once-hobbit Gollum. Out of pity, Bilbo refused to kill the creature, and Frodo stopped Faramir’s order of execution. Even Sam restrained himself from taking the Smeagol’s life. These moments of mercy have all led to the sudden reversal. The pitiful wraith wrestles with Frodo for the Ring and falls into the Fire, breaking Sauron’s will, scattering his armies, and destroying the Dark Tower.
In addition to the myriad of choices for Good, insignificant events, mere coincidences, have also influenced the final eucatastrophe. Bilbo just happened to find the Ring. Frodo received it from Bilbo. The fellowship gathered—uncalled—at Rivendell exactly when the Ring arrived. Gollum recovered his precious before falling to his death. None of these events were mere chance. Middle-earth is a governed world as Gandalf hauntingly reminds Denethor, “I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
So also is our world. God governs the world through invisible choices and insignificant coincidences. When God decided to break the bonds of darkness, He sent His Son incarnate as a baby. Instead of becoming a powerful lord and rallying a mighty host to storm the bastion of the Devil, the Son of Man gathered twelve ordinary men, and then gave Himself up to death. What foolishness. How can you defeat death by dying? Yet it was this folly that deceived the princes of the world and brought about salvation. The eucatastrophe of the resurrection has turned death to life and brought hope from despair. Because God reigns, history is fundamentally comic.
When it seems your labor is in vain—your students choose worldly pursuits, or your school may close next year—do not give in to despair; devote yourself to folly. We are tempted to view life through the eyes of Erestor and Boromir who scoff at hobbits, unused weapons, and desperate plans. Victory only comes through strength—teachers with advanced degrees, class sizes of hundreds, or a campus with two gyms. We praise alumni who become doctors, lawyers, or CEOs, but scorn plumbers. We look to leaders with an Ivy League pedigree and political clout but ignore the world-shaping instruction of a mother with her children. Graduating tradesmen is not a condemnation of a school’s academics. God works through ordinary mothers, fathers, pastors of small rural churches, and schools that meet in basements. He stacks the odds against Himself so He can confound the wise, strong, and extraordinary with the foolish, weak, and mundane.
Because God loves comedy, we cannot know the end beyond all doubt. A library that fits on two rolling carts, too few athletes for a track team, students who dump the Iliad in the trash on June 1st, or the reduction of education to a standardized test score may seem like cause for despair, but we cannot judge before the time. An eighteen-year-old who burns his books in the summer may yet be haunted by consolations of Lady Philosophy in his thirties. Failing a student in eleventh grade humanities does not condemn them to the life of a drug-addict. Because God directs the world, we are called to labor faithfully. In The Return of the King Gandalf says to the lords deciding whether to attack Mordor, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” We may feel hopelessly overwhelmed and be tempted to despair, but when the evil times come upon us, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
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