Can a Hobbit Explain a Hollow Man? When Tolkien Explains Eliot

Tolkien: Not just for fantasy literature anymore!

“He will not wake again,” said Denethor. “Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?”

Chapter VII The Pyre of Denethor

The Return of the KIng

J.R.R. Tolkien

Can Tolkien help us understand Eliot? Do elements in The Lord of the Rings showed some of the key themes of The Waste Land and The Hollow Men?

In The Waste Land alone, T. S. Eliot references The Fire SermonThe Brihadaranyaka UpanishadThe Divine Comedy, and Augustine’s Confessions. None of these are easy texts to read or understand.

The Hollow Men, of course, references Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but this novel is just downright depressing. Why would you read a depressing book on top of two depressing poems?

Denethor’s question to Gandalf, quoted above, would not be out of place in either poem. In fact, upon reading both poems again this year, it was Denethor’s final despair, which I thought of.

Tolkien’s Hollow Men

Tolkien’s Hollow Men

Denethor in The Return of the King is not what we would think of when we read The Hollow MenThe Hollow Men are scarecrow-like creatures—not as men in armor who have command of a great city.

No, we think more of Théoden under Saruman’s control. Indeed, his feebleness is more like the Hollow Men than Denethor and he is more like a scarecrow.

We may even think of Frodo, struggling the last few paces towards Mount Doom and his fading away from active civil life in the Shire.

Or the Nazgul who have no shape except that which their robes give them.

These assumptions would be correct to an extent. The Nazgul are perhaps the closest physical likenesses to the Hollow Men. Except they are not hopeless or helpless. They are far more dreadful than Eliot’s creations.

Yet, Denethor is more the product of a Waste Land in his hollowness than any of these.

“He lies within,” said Denethor, “burning, already burning. They have set a fire in his flesh. But soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind!

Chapter VII The Pyre of Denethor

The Return of the King

J.R.R. Tolkien

Minas Tirith as a Waste Land and Denethor as a Hollow Man

What is that sound high in the air

Murmer of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandra

Vienna London


The Waste Land

T. S. Elliot

Minas Tirith is itself a sort of Waste Land. Gone are the days of old when the city was full of people. Despair and anxiety lie in the city and its inhabitants because of the coming war.

Most of the houses are empty. Entire streets are uninhabited. The women and children have fled before the oncoming war. There aren’t enough fighting men to hold of Mordor. Minas Tirith seems destined to fall.

Eliot’s hollow men refer to the “broken jaw” of their kingdoms—which shows they were once powerful. The Waste Land, quoted above, refers to some of the world’s great fallen capitals.

Likewise, we see in Gondor that Osgiliath, which was the capital of Gondor, is now only an outpost. Minas Tirith is weakening. We are looking at a series of failing and fallen capitals. Again.

So, Denethor is on the jaw of a broken kingdom.

He’s also sightless. While he has great reasoning powers—as Gandalf relates to Pippen—and he has a Palantir, he cannot see past the war itself.

Denethor is “sightless” in that he doesn’t see the point in fighting a losing battle—even though he doesn’t know all the pieces involved. He doesn’t see Aragorn as an ally and a help but a supplanter. Even Gandalf appears as a meddler and not as a counselor and friend in what is the darkest part of Denethor’s stewardship.

He doesn’t even see Sauron can manipulate what Denethor can and cannot see.

No, he is like the people in the Waste Land—fretting and isolating themselves from one another. He retreats to his tower instead of taking command of the city.

Falls the Shadow

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot

Fans of Tolkien’s writing will have no trouble seeing the Shadow of Mordor and the Shadow, which divide actions and effects in The Hollow Men as similar forces.

In Tolkien, the Shadow refers to many things. It refers to the psychic struggle Sauron inflicts on Middle Earth’s major players—such as Denethor. It also refers to the evil influence which Sauron and Mordor emit as a literal shadow, such as in The Return of the King. When Gandalf put a stop to Denethor’s madness in burning Faramir alive, he attributes the events partially to the Shadow’s influence.

The Shadow at once darkens and paralyzes. It has the power of inflicting impotency—either from fear or despair.  

The Hollow Men are a “paralysed force, gesture without motion.” They are like scarecrows—having only a humanoid form and not filled with humanoid substance. They aren’t animated, as the Nazgul are, by their rings and Sauron’s own potency.

Unlike Denethor, who, like Théoden before him, was a puppet. Only Denethor did not survive the experience.

Escaping the Waste Land

And there was Frodo, pale and word, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.

“Mount Doom”

The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

It’s good to have company in our misery. That’s why The Waste Land and The Hollow Men are good to read: they don’t offer us platitudes or advice. They show us that someone else sat in the same funk we have.

When it is time to move forward, however, what are we to do?

How do we escape our own Waste Land? How do we become more than a hollow man?

Denethor’s path was to burn—burn from frustration, isolation, and defeat. Literally.

Not something anyone in their right mind would recommend.

I would argue that we take Frodo’s path. Frodo too was a “hollow man.” He’d failed to destroy the Ring; he couldn’t even walk the entire way to Mount Doom. He couldn’t handle life afterwards. He withdraws from Shire-life and leaves Middle Earth entirely.

However, Frodo allows others to hope for him when he couldn’t hope for himself. He allows their cope to comfort him. Denethor didn’t do that.

When we are in a waste land of our own hollowness, and feel isolated, can we not allow others’ happiness to at least convince us all isn’t as dark as it seems? Can we not do as Frodo and let others’ hopes and dreams comfort us?

For Thine is the Kingdom

‘All right, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘Lead me! As long as you’ve got any hope left. Mine is gone.’

“The Land of Shadow”

The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Waste Land and The Hollow Men do not offer any solutions which we can find within ourselves. Denethor proves that. He relied too heavily on himself and himself alone.

And it ended in ash.

Instead, we must look outside of ourselves—to people who do still believe, hope, love, and care about the world they live in.

What would have happened had Denethor done the same? The Return of the King might have turned out differently.

What would happen if you do the same? Would it comfort you to know that there is more than what is in your mind and more than what you see?

What do you see outside of yourself that comforts you?

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