The Monsters Win

Western civilizations has two great mythologies: the Greek-Roman and the Norse. The Olympian gods and goddess were not the protectors of humanity. A human was as likely to be caught in the middle of an inter-god conflict as they were to be helped by them. Prometheus is the only figure who attempted to help humanity. He was rewarded for this act by being chained to a cliff where an eagle feasted on his liver everyday. Their northern cousins, on the other hand, were the allies of humans in their fight against the giants and monsters who surrounded Middle-Earth. Thor did not have Athena’s wisdom, but his hammer crushed the heads of many giants. Men and gods were actually tied together by a similar fate. A last battle would take place in which gods and men would fight the giants and monsters. In this battle the gods would be killed and Middle-Earth destroyed.

One might expect this to dampen the spirit of the Norse people. Evil and chaos could be resisted, but in the end they would win. Though this probably caused some pessimism, it also fueled the courage of the Norse and Germanic people. Though defeat was certain, the Valkyries still flew over the battlefields, collecting fallen warriors for the final battle. Thor never ceased to pick up his hammer and exact mischief on the giants. Rome may have occupied Britain, but it was the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who made it their home. Viking explorers discovered and settled Iceland and Greenland and set foot on America hundreds of years before Columbus. Strangely, it was the Greeks and Romans who developed a tradition of suicide. Suicide in the face of hopelessness or the meaninglessness of life was a way to assert control over one’s fate. (Perhaps this is why Roman Catholicism reacted so strongly to suicide.)

This theme of courage when all hope is lost in Norse mythology resonated with J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet Tolkien also recognized that our Christian “mythology” is one of ultimate hope. In his stories Tolkien looked to fuse Northern courage with Christian hope. One example will suffice.

In The Return of the King, Denethor, the pro tempore king of Gondor, sees the overwhelming approach of the armies of Modor. Convinced that victory is hopeless he frets alone while his men struggle leaderless. His despair finally leads him to commit suicide. Theoden, king of Rohan, also senses that victory is hopeless. He charges into battle at the head of his men, fully expecting to die. Die he does, but not before making evil shutter. At Theoden’s death his nephew Eomer becomes king, expecting his reign to be a very short one. Yet in the midst of his hopelessness hope shows up unexpectedly.

Like Tolkien, I think there is a place for Northern courage. Death is inevitable for every human being. Even Christ died. The gods are killed and the monsters win. Sometimes we need to let that truth sit with us. Some people try to hide from death, pretending it won’t come. Others fall into passivity like the Roman Stoics, a kind of living suicide. Instead we should face the reality of death head-on, seeking to do deeds of courage before our sun sets. Sometimes this means submitting to the fatal blow like Christ did, loving at an inestimable personal cost.

Yet, as Tolkien realized, hope is the at the center of Christianity. Christ didn’t stay dead. God comes back to life while the monsters look on in confused horror. We too will rise bodily from the dead. The monsters win, but only temporarily.

P.S. This kind of courage has some value in dealing with depression. Depression squeezes out the ability to hope. It convinces people that doom is imminent and certain. This impression is usually in complete opposition to actual reality. The web of distortion is so strong that it will thwart the efforts of people to cheer the person up. I think continually countering the false impression with the correct one can eventually break through. In the meantime, a defiance of certain doom is a powerful motivator to keep going. The imminent doom that depression promises never quite arrives. It is like a man who sees a giant standing over him with his club about to exact the fatal blow. The man could take his own sword and stab himself through the heart before the giant crushes him. He then dies and the giant wins. He could also take his sword and stab the giant just before the giant crushes him. Here he still dies and the giant wins, but he has injured the giant, maybe fatally. Another thing altogether might happen if he decides to stabs the giant. He may discover that the giant is an illusion, no more dangerous than a puff of smoke. Both of them have been frozen in their positions for ages. He can walk away and live any time he wants. In truth no depression lasts forever, though it may last a long time. Tolkien himself may have struggled with depression. Things one finds things in his stories that may have allowed him to continue in the face of hopelessness.

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