I think The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion – not so much The Hobbit – are pretty close to grimdark, or maybe dark. The way people use those two words sometimes gets me a bit confused. I don’t think they’re exceptionally gory or violent. But I do think they are definitely not about hope and redemption. They are not about a belief that the world can change for the better.
Instead, the primary theme I saw in the volumes of The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion is that, no matter how hard you try or fight or hope, there’s no reversing the tide of evil. There are only desperate stands that may keep evil back for a time, but in the end they are doomed to futility. The Dark Lords might be defeated for a time, but with the defeat of the Dark Lords comes the loss of so much good, so much that makes the world rich.
They make one wonder if it’s worth it to defeat the Dark Lords.
Look at the elves’ awakening at the waters of Cuivienen. Innocent of evil, completely unknowing of the dangers of their world they are, and so many of them are taken by Morgoth, without any opportunity to resist or flee, and tortured into the orcs who plague the world in later days.
And, likewise, look at the awakening of men: all the Valar (the gods, basically) do is send forth light against their awakening, and like the elves they have no defense or even knowledge of what they face. The vast majority of them fall helpless under the sway of Morgoth, and the rest flee towards the beleagured West.
Look at the story of Hurin and the children of Hurin in the Silmarillion. Hurin’s defiance of the evil Vala, Melkor-Morgoth after his capture may be noble, but in the end it’s doomed to futility. In the end, Hurin himself leads Morgoth to the discovery of Gondor. And his children, Turin and Nienna, after marrying each other, commit suicide in despair when they discover they are siblings. It’s a tale of abject despair.
Look at the story of human Beren and elf princess Luthien: it is their love, and the way they choose to pursue it, that leads to the fall of Doriath, the Hidden Kingdom. They do not choose to pursue the life of a rude woodsman in the wilderness, but instead they keep trying to fulfill King Thingol (Luthien’s father’s) quest to steal a jewel from Morgoth’s crown. When they succed, the jewel they bring back, the Silmaril, King Thingol’s downfall, and one gets the impression that if they had chosen to live their live together in what peace they could and defiance of Thingol, when Beren died, it would have been the utmost grief: Luthien separated from him for all eternity, and perhaps there would have been no chance for her to choose the fate of men. And yes, I know the Silmaril eventually goes to Earendil, whose plea finds the Valar (they are like gods) and induces them to rescue the elves of Middle-Earth.
Look at the story of the King of Nargothrond and his human friends: separated from all eternity, because some idiot Illuvatar put beings with separate fates in the same world together. Long-lived and short-lived would be one thing, but the elves’ fate lies with the world while men’s lies beyond it, and it seems not unlikely that never shall the two be reunited.
And look even at the tale of Earendil’s plea: he comes before the Valar, and they answer his plea. They march forth in their splendor to defeat Melkor-Morgoth, and they succeed, I grant you that, binding Morogth beyond the Outer Darkness. But at what price? The world is changed, and so much of its beauty is lost, and from there more and more of its richness fades away.
And from there, let us trace the rise and fall of Numenore, and the Rings of Power, and the events recounted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
When the evil spirit Sauron takes control of Numenore, the island of the Men of the West, friends of the Elves and the Valar, Sauron’s plans to conquer Valinor, land of the gods, are defeated at the cost of the reshaping of the world and the removal of Valinor.
And when he forges the One Ring to Rule Them All and in the Darkness bind them, and that ring is destroyed, casting him from the world, what is the cost?
The good rings, forged by the elves and full only of good magic, are rendered powerless. The elves and the dwarves fade from the world, the elves mostly sailing west across the hidden path still open to them to Valinor, but they are gone forever from the lives of men. And the sweet hobbits turn into humans. The world is stripped of its richness and its magic, and left to the devices of men.
Elrond Half-Elven sails into the west, but his children remain behind, choosing the fate of men, for his daughter Arwen, who is so beautiful she is said to be like Luthien come again, loves the new human king, Aragorn. And in the end, her death is full of grief and pain, as she is fated to outlive Aragorn, and die alone as the last of her age fades, and she says that now she understands how bitter is the gift of Illuvatar to men, Death.
And the men of Numenore themselves – I don’t necessarily agree with Tolkein’s ideals of the noble or the representation of being long-lived as being good. But the lives of men are doomed to grow shorter and shorter, and men like Aragorn – represented as the hero – to fade away.
The message I got from the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings is that the world is doomed to sterility, becoming increasingly stripped of its beauty and life as the ages pass. The best, the noblest, the more beautiful, the bravest, is doomed to fade into oblivion, leaving behind the base and lesser.
These are not stories about hope in defeat. They are stories of depressing victories. Of the greatest goods gone from the world with the greatest evils, leaving behind an increasingly dead, sterile existence. For when the world loses the evil gods, it loses the good ones also, and when the evil spirits are banished, the good spirits are doomed to fade as well.
To me, they are stories of fundamental despair.