“There and Back Again”: The Lord of the Rings and the Power of Despair in Fiction

Someone asked me recently what I thought made an original story. One piece of my answer was that I don’t believe audiences so much seek original premises as original emotional experiences. We want to experience stories that evoke emotion and create catharsis. We don’t just want a comedy that makes the corner of our mouths crinkle; we want a comedy that makes us laugh so hard we’re crying and hiccupping. We don’t just want a drama that distracts us for an hour; we want a drama that keeps us thinking for weeks, months, years afterward. We don’t just want a sad story that makes us nod our heads at how awful the world can be; we want a sad story that makes us weep from the depths of our own souls. We want fiction that changes our lives. And to that end, today I want to speak about the power of despair in fiction.

Why such a depressing topic? Well, first, you’ll note the title is “there and back again”!

I have spoken before about my soul-deep belief in the inherent hopefulness of the story arc, as well as the sobering power of fiction to change those who partake of it. But when I speak of “hope,” I do not speak of a fluffy, sugary ideal. The hope I speak of—the hope I have encountered and known in my own life—is grimy and blood-streaked, battle-tested and keen-eyed. This is not the hope of denial, the hope that pretends there’s nothing so very wrong after all. This is the hope that looks life in the eye, sees it to the depth of its pain and confusion, and says, “Come on.”

That’s hope. And stories are full of hope. The very arc of story itself—the promise of growth and healing—is hope. As authors, the only way we will be able to evoke that level of life-changing hope is if we are willing to embrace its opposite and to understand, equally, the power of despair in fiction.

To Offer Stories of Hope, We Must Be Willing to Reveal Despair in Fiction

I wrote earlier this year about shadow theory, and how a thing’s opposite is always inherent within it. There is no light without darkness; no day without night; no up without down. And so there is no hope without despair. (Indeed, what need is there for hope if there is no despair?)

In our extraordinarily complex and often bewildering world, in which we often feel so beleaguered by threats beyond our control or even consciousness, despair is a prevalent emotion. It is an emotion that needs to be explored in our fiction. As such, it is an emotion that needs to be understood and presented in relation to its powerful opposite of hope.

The topic of the importance of despair in fiction has been written on my “post idea” list for almost a year now, inspired when I read my journal entries after I rewatched The Lord of the Rings last year. I finally decided to write this post after producing the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations a few months ago. As I got deeper and deeper into creating those archetypal journeys for the Maiden, the Hero, the Queen, the King, the Crone, and the Mage, I found myself thinking, Wow! These are dark!

As I wrote and recorded the Midpoints and Third Plot Points of so many of these archetypal journeys, I often found myself overwhelmed with emotion to the point of choking up. It was one thing to remain in the mental space of writing about the archetypal beats, as I did in my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, and another altogether to encounter these archetypes within the depths of the dreamzone. Particularly in exploring the King’s sacrifice and the Crone’s encounter with mortality, a part of me kept squirming and thinking, Oh, this is too much. People are going to think this is depressing!

Truly, though, that is the power of archetype—the power of story. It has the power to take us there—to the depth of our own despair, so we may see it and face it in a cathartic purge—and then take us back again—out beyond the dark night of the soul and once more into the hope of sunlight.

As Gandalf says in The Fellowship of the Ring:

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), New Line Cinema.

My Journey “There and Back Again” With The Lord of the Rings

In my own personal experience, there is no story that more potently demonstrates the archetypal power of going “there and back again” than The Lord of the Rings. For me, Lord of the Rings has become something sacred—an experience of synchronicity and blessing that I can never think about without experiencing a tremendous wave of emotion.

I didn’t read the books until after I saw the films, and I didn’t properly see the films until 2019. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to see them because they featured a “wizard.” At one point, I did see Return of the King on an international flight but didn’t connect with it and didn’t return to watch the entire trilogy for many years. In retrospect, that little issue of timing was one of the most incredible gifts of my life.

Let’s just say that 2019 was the worst year I have ever experienced. It was a year in which, for the first time in my life, I knew despair. A few years earlier, the foundations of my life had been ripped out from under me, and everything I had ever believed in started crumbling around me, like old parts falling off a jalopy. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to stop it from happening. By the autumn of 2019, I was approaching the one-year anniversary of what had unexpectedly turned out to be an incredibly traumatic move to a new state. I was in bad shape, with no end in sight. For the first time, I thoroughly understood why people will do just about anything to make the pain stop.

I’ve spoken about my (ongoing) healing journey before, but the first major step down that road was a coincidence so meaningful it seemed miraculous. Shortly after moving in 2018, I had purchased the complete set of Lord of the Rings movies. I had been informed that the director’s cuts were the only way to see them, so I was determined my first experience should be the longer versions. But… I just never watched them.

During that difficult summer of 2019, I started the weekly practice of driving the thirty minutes to the nearest theater, just to get myself out of the house. This particular theater offered a feature they called “throwback cinema,” in which they brought back a classic movie every weekend. That fall, they were showing Lord of the Rings. I perked up. Since I had missed seeing them in the theater during their original runs, this seemed like an amazing opportunity. My only hang-up was that I was so set on watching the director’s cuts. Turned out… they were showing the director’s cuts.

So I went. And as I sat in that dark theater watching the majesty that is this story and this adaptation, I was touched. Deeply. I was touched, above all, by the despair. By a story that got it, a story that was willing and able to go all the way into the darkness after me and pull me out. The Two Towers, in particular—the darkest of the trilogy—showed me the face of that warrior hope.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema.

I left the theater and wept all the way home. I had wept a lot of tears that year. But this time something was different. This time, it was catharsis. I went home that night, ate a Hardee’s hamburger (that was literally soggy with my tears), went to bed that night, and from that moment on slowly started finding my way out of my dark night of the soul.

When I rewatched the films last year, I wrote this in my journal:

I want to talk a moment about stories—and what they have meant to me. I am watching LOTR right now, and I am reliving its profound impact on me three years ago, right around this time in the fall of 2019, after that brutal, brutal summer. I am blown away—again and again and again—by the gift that was given to me in the timing of these movies being shown that fall. It feels like they were for me. How many other people who saw them that fall were changed so unutterably by them?

They are stories, fundamentally, about hope—which means they are equally about despair. And that—at the depths of my dark night—was what I was encountering. That despair felt like an evil—not because the darkness was full of monsters, but because there was no light. And so when Sam tells Frodo (after proving his own words over and over again) that “There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—I heard him down to the depths of my soul—because what I needed was simply a light.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema.

At the time, I was almost confused by the depth of my response to those words—and how healing they were—because it wasn’t as if I felt opposed by evil. I just felt lost and alone, in the dark void with nothing to light my way. It was the darkness that was my evil, and Sam told me not to give up, to keep hope, to fight for my right to see the light again.

If you do not know despair, then I do not know if you can truly understand that story. If you’re in the light, or think you are, you just sagely nod along and congratulate yourself. But if you have tasted the darkness, then you know. You know what they’re all so afraid of. You know that the darkness lives in you—cold and void—and you know you carry the burden of it every day, like Frodo, and, like everyone else, you fear its power.

And yet… hope comes again. There is light once more—when you are faithful, when you do not give up, and when you have a Sam—Tolkien himself in this instance—to tell you you are not alone and not to give up.

There is so much beauty and truth in those stories. I think perhaps their legacy has been mostly the fantasy genre itself. Probably not everyone taps the deeper gifts. But, my God, the goodness J.R.R. Tolkien left for us—out of the darkness of his own horror and despair. He was my eagle—come to save me from Mt. Doom. God bless him.

For me, the gift of LOTR is that it does indeed take you “there and back again.” It takes you into the farthest reaches of despair, but then it takes you back out. And once it has brought you back, it looks you in the eye and says, “Yes, I see you as you are, and you are right: nothing is ever quite the same again.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), New Line Cinema.

5 Ways to Tap the Sacred Power of Hope and Despair in Fiction

I imagine most writers would agree with me in the sentiment that not only do I long to experience fiction of such life-impacting caliber, but also that I would count it the highest honor to write a story that could, in turn, affect even one person’s life so profoundly and positively. To that end, here are five suggestions to keep in mind when seeking to tap the partnered power of hope and despair in fiction.

1. “Going There”: Be Willing to Tap the Depth of Authentic Emotions

The first step is so simple and so obvious, and yet it is the hardest of all. Before we can make audiences feel anything, we must be willing to feel it ourselves. In order to write with authenticity, we must first be authentic with ourselves, to face the depths of ourselves where things are messy and ugly and bloody and terrifying and sometimes so, so painful. Even in sharing the most exhilarating emotions such as joy and love, we are required to access a profound level of honesty and vulnerability.

2. Don’t Squint at the Darkness

There are so many stories out there (many of them Lord of the Rings imitators) that tackle dark subjects. The darkest aspects of humanity are common fare in most stories, even comedies (an approach that can, in itself, be a powerful catharsis). The vast majority of these stories, in my experience, fall into two categories. Either they gloss over the darkness without ever truly exploring its depths or emotional effects, or they create a static experience of darkness and depression that fails to offer an equally true contrast of light and hope.

The gift of Lord of the Rings was not that it told a tale about an evil overlord with the power to blight the world into darkness. Many stories tell that tale with little to no resonance. The gift of Lord of the Rings is that it never squinted at its own darkness. Tolkien himself, as a veteran of World War I, had seen darkness. Despair was not a plot trope to him.

Tolkien (2019), Fox Searchlight Pictures.

3. Remember to Come “Back Again”

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Authors who are willing to descend into their own darkness can offer audiences a tremendous opportunity for vicarious catharsis. But stories also need to know how to extricate themselves from the dark night and come “back again” into the light. Even tragedies that focus on the consequences of despair and dark emotions or that follow their characters through un-redemptive Negative Change Arcs still find a shape that brings the story “back again” simply through the contrast of the story’s grim outcome with what could have been. Positive stories go further than that to show how the characters—and therefore the audience—may yet grow beyond the darkness of the “Lie” and into a more effective “Truth.”

4. Mine the Depth of Complex Polarities

The most powerful emotional experiences in fiction are those that take their audiences through a range of feelings. A story that makes us feel nothing but happy or nothing but sad is boring. Instead, look to the depth of complexity found in polarities: good and evil, happiness and sadness, hope and despair.

Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki is another artist famed for his capacity to create seemingly simple stories of profound emotional and psychological depth. (He, too, spoke to me at a time of deep doubt in my life.) Regarding his masterwork Princess Mononoke, he said:

…even in the middle of hatred and killings, there are things worth living for. A wonderful meeting, or a beautiful thing can exist. We depict hatred, but it is to depict that there are more important things. We depict a curse to depict the joy of liberation.

5. Create Genre- and Age-Appropriate Experiences

Before I close, I should include this caveat: if you’re going to go there—really go there—you must still be willing and able to hold your audience’s experience in compassion. The depth of despair highlighted in Lord of the Rings will not be appropriate in all genres or for all age groups, just as not all topics are appropriate in all venues.

But this does not mean that even the lightest of stories can’t (and shouldn’t) be founded upon the bedrock of the author’s willingness to “go there.” As discussed in this study of children’s reactions to the Pixar film Inside Out (in which I was honored to be cited), emotional honesty in fiction, even when portrayed with restraint, still has the capacity to deeply touch and change people of all ages.

In interviews, Miyazaki spoke about his belief in the importance of exposing even children to the truths of life:

I’m not going to make movies that tell children, “You should despair and run away.” But children most certainly have violence within them. Unless we touch upon that, I don’t think the film can be convincing to children.

***

In one way or another, this is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Obviously, it’s a deeply personal post about a story that, for me, was a shatterpoint—a life-changing moment I will never forget or take for granted. For me, what I most needed at that time in my life was an experience that was able to tap despair in fiction. For others, the most important emotions will vary, but what doesn’t vary, I think, is the necessity of telling stories with a depth of authenticity, rawness, and courage, as well as a complex understanding of our human journey from one important emotion to another.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Was there ever a time when you were particularly touched by the portrayal of despair in fiction? What about a different emotion? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this insightful post, I needed it right about now.

  2. Thank you for this post. Speaking as someone who started reading LOTR in their very early teens and has read it 7 times (once aloud which counts at least double), and seen the pictures a few times, I like it a lot, though it never had that impact on me. I wish it had because I was locked up in a depression I didn’t crawl completely out of until my mid 20s. Honestly, the books that helped pull me through were not fiction, they were philosophy, particularly Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” but I’ve spoken to many others who were not impacted by that work in the same way.
    The point is that when you write, you never know. I’m sure JRRT wouldn’t have expected LOTR to touch a young woman that way several generations after he wrote it. And Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have imagined the audiences that continue to be moved by Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, &c. Ok, different media but you drug film in.
    When you are an author and you dare to put it all on the line, you don’t know who it’s going to touch an how it’s going to touch them. Even if you aren’t an immediate huge success, you still never know. I’m stuck for an author example, but van Gogh was a complete failure in his day and Mozart crashed and burned. And to make it all worthwhile, you just have to touch one person. Even if that one person is yourself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “to make it all worthwhile, you just have to touch one person. Even if that one person is yourself.”

      I agree with this so hard. And, yes, Frankl’s stuff is deeply moving. I haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning yet (it’s on my shelf as we speak), but I read The Doctor and the Soul within about a year of first seeing LOTR and found it life-changing in its own right.

      • “Man’s Search for Meaning” includes his concentration camp story which is foundational to his logotherapy. From a story structure perspective, it definitely has an arc, but I’m not sure which one. At times he appears as a maiden, particularly in the beginning when he didn’t understand what was happening, at times a hero and at times a mage. Throughout it all he’s humble and honest and gives insights into suffering, and living with suffering, that are remarkable. Strongly recommend.

  3. I get where you’re coming from, because Lord of the Rings was also cathartic for me. After September 11, I was like a lot of people: completely uninterested in comedy. And I’m normally cheerful, and find the silver lining in any situation. The collective mood around the country was so bad that legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave a scathing review to “Zoolander,” which came out a few weeks after that day. Later he apologized.
    In the meantime, trailers started coming out for the Fellowship of the Ring. A post on salon.com declared the Fellowship was “The movie we all need right now.”
    Normally I roll my eyes when people say things like that. But the points the writer cited about the story told me that this prescription might be good medicine for me. So for Christmas I bought myself the omnibus edition so I could read the trilogy before seeing the movies.
    Soul balm. That trilogy was a balm to my soul, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Even the appendices! And I know that it doesn’t happen in the book, but it moved me in The Two Towers when the elves show up at Helm’s Deep and put their immortality on the line for the sake of friendship, for the sake of holding back the darkness. That resonates. That moment has been in the back of my mind as I’ve been writing certain scenes.
    Despair IS an important component in uplifting stories. I’m reminded of Corrie ten Boom’s debate with her sister Betsie, after they were captured and sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp. They tried to give thanks to God for everything, even the roaches infesting their bunker. One of the sisters thought thanking God for the roaches was just a bit too much — I’m with her! — but the other insisted upon it. Later they found out they were able to hold Bible study in their bunker because the camp guards were repulsed by the roaches. Although Betsie did not survive the camp, she and Corrie found a reason not to give in to despair. To not let the Nazis break them.
    Giving people a way to keep going in their darkest hour is important, so thanks for this post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, I hadn’t even correlated the timing on the films’ release with 9/11. How poignant. I do remember seeing a news clip after the film’s release with many people talking about how life-changing the experience was. Now, that makes even more sense.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. It resonates with me, and I can see exactly what you mean.
    Now, I wouldn’t be presumptive enough to liken my scribblings to Tolkien, but in the second book of my Family Through the Ages series, Jealousy of a Viking, my protagonist goes through despair and comes out the other side.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You never know. We write with honesty and who knows what comes out the other side or who might be deeply affected by it.

  5. I watched all three movies when they were originally released in theatres… how long ago it seems! While I enjoyed the movies (the NZ scenery and especially the plot twist of Frodo’s decision in Mount Doom where I shrieked NNOOOOOO in the theatre), I didn’t “get” them. Why all the hype and hoopla?

    So I read the books. For the first time. And I was completely blown away. I’m re-reading them at this moment and new discoveries and treasures present themselves. JRRT’s scholarship, imagination, and faith is incredible.

    Like you said, God bless JRRT, what a treasure he’s left for us. And don’t forget he was instrumental in the conversion of C S Lewis. Imagine how much poorer the world would be without C S Lewis. And blessings on Mrs. Edith Tolkien. Imagine taking care of house and four kids while your husband is never home, pecking away on a typewriter in another room or drinking in a pub with his other Inkling friends, playing “critique partner” with them. Her sacrifice is part of this, too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “And blessings on Mrs. Edith Tolkien. Imagine taking care of house and four kids while your husband is never home, pecking away on a typewriter in another room or drinking in a pub with his other Inkling friends, playing “critique partner” with them. Her sacrifice is part of this, too.”

      Ah, totally! I’m glad you brought this up. So often we think of writing as something that happens with a single person contributing in solitary. But, of course, a book is always a part of a larger system, in which other people’s contributions, though unseen, are crucial to the output of the work.

  6. Jenna Shire says

    Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead changed me. Demon’s desperate hunger for someone to truly love him, to want to care for him as he did them, that was something to which I could relate.
    Despair was definitely a theme in the story, and in the end, there was day break.
    For me, however, it wasn’t about finding hope. For me it was about finding forgiveness.
    My life wasn’t so far removed from Demon’s. Sometimes his tales of neglect and abuse were so painfully familiar that I had to take a break from the story.
    I’m in my 50s, though, and have spent a lot of years working through my past in therapy and in my writing. I have joy in my life, and I’ve learned that, forgive me, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
    My struggle has been in understanding why/how people who claimed to love me could treat me the way they had.
    Demon describes his first kiss/make out session with a girl: “it was like not being hungry anymore.”
    That was what had me weeping off and on for an evening. I knew that longing for affection/attention. Kingsolver is so brilliant in that she carries this theme of hunger throughout the story. It eventually finally clicked for me. When a person is starving, they aren’t particular about what fills their belly. They don’t worry about nutrition. They just want the pain to stop.
    That finally made my mother’s choices make sense to me. I know what her childhood had been like. How could I feel anything but sorrow for that little girl who sat on the porch waiting for Daddy to come back?
    It also made my own bad choices make sense to me. I’m smart. I’m educated. Why do I keep ending up with these types of men? Well, because I was starving.
    Ultimately, it gave me the insight to forgive a lot of hurt because there are a lot of starving people in the world. It gave me the ability to forgive myself, too.
    That book changed me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Kingsolver’s work has always stayed with me as well. And although I will always champion “positive” stories that end with explicit offerings of hope, we also need cold dashes of water in the face. In character-arc theory, the Positive Change Arc and the “negative” Disillusionment Arc are essentially the same, except that the former ends with a hopeful Truth and the latter with a Truth that, at the least, is difficult for the character to accept. We all undergo both these arcs throughout our lives. The period I spoke of in this post was certainly a Disillusionment Arc for me, but I like to think (based on my own experiences) that if we keep going in our determination to integrate even the bittersweet truths that eventually our perspective of those truths can shift enough to allow us to move on from the Disillusionment Arc into a true Positive Arc.

  7. Thanks for this post! Now I feel I could give even more depth to the story I was writing (when I get back to it 😅)

  8. Michael J Scholtes says

    I started reading LoTR as a high-school student (33 times now, twice aloud), and the hope/despair theme was powerful for me as well. But there are other equally powerful themes that resonated: the curse/gift of mortality, the holiness of beautiful places and the tragedy of their loss, the awe of deep time, the joy of the complexity of human cultures and languages.

  9. Kaelin Balonek says

    Thank you for sharing your experience with Lord of the Rings. It’s so wonderful to read about how much of an amazing affect Tolkien has had on you. I had a very similar experience the first time I read The Hobbit. I was young and depressed and going through quite a dark time of despair, but it was before therapy was widely considered something worthwhile, as it is today. I was looking for a book to read one day and I quite literally heard my father’s leather-bound copy of The Hobbit calling to me from its spot on the bookshelf. It was EXACTLY the story I needed to read at that time in my life. It remains to me so, so, so much more than just a favored book. So I can understand how you feel about LOTR, its impact on you, and the perfect timing. And just to comment on what you say about not shying away from writing age-appropriate stories about despair, even for younger readers: I had a lovely conversation with Natalie Babbit, the author of Tuck Everlasting, about this very topic. Indeed, the dragons exist, and we’re doing a disservice to young readers if we hide this fact from them. Thank you for your insight!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I know of many like us who have been profoundly, life-changingly affected by Tolkien’s work. So much power there.

  10. Traci Kenworth says

    Beautifully written! The dance between the light and the dark must be undertaken with both eyes open, so to speak. It is in the opening up about despair and loneliness, that we discover the will to go on! Love these movies! They are just unbelievably powerful. I loved how you to spoke about the journey through such, K.M.! It is incredibly difficult but so empowering.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thank you, Traci. Truly, I feel honored to have had such an experience. I will never forget it.

  11. HI K.M. So grateful you found your way back and are now helping so many of us with your posts such as this one. LOTR effected me deeply as well, and I enjoy the sound track when writing. I was thinking I needed to watch again, will pursue getting the directors cut, and will be remembering your words as I continue to plot and dream. With gratitude for your work and for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I listened to the soundtracks long before I watched the films or read the books. I vividly remember the first time I heard “May It Be.” It stopped me in my tracks and moved me beyond words, even without the context of the story.

  12. Susan Kacvinsky says

    This post was great. It caused me to re-experience the profound feelings of despair I was walking through when I first read the books, back ages ago when I was about 18. There were no movies at that time. At 17, I experienced huge despair when my father died by suicide. By 17, I was a mess. When I fell into these books, all I did was read and sleep for weeks. I rarely got out of bed. The books coming to me was the first synchronicity event in my healing process. I specifically remember the moment when the book’s despair clicked in and matched my own – the perfect metaphor. Terrible and wonderful. Psyche shattering. I was afraid I wouldn’t get out of that terrible landscape (which was my personal fear), yet I trusted Tolkein (and Sam) and kept going. My experience was parallel to the character’s exactly. Thanks you for showing me that I have to be willing to live in it again, if I want to write the story I’m working on now. I am willing, I just wasn’t conscious of it.

  13. I have long been a fan of the Lord of the Rings story. These were the first books I ever read a second time. I have some serious quibbles with the movie because it messed up some of the characters and their motivations. Saruman, Faramir, and most egregiously Treebeard, who became a dolt who had to be tricked into action by a Hobbit, as one of the screenwriters admitted in the commentary was because they had to “give Pippin something to do.” I granted forgiveness, though, for expanding the part of Arwen, who had a very small part in the books. But they really are quibbles compared to the damage Hollywood might of done.

    Anyway, I commented once to a writer who was arguing that writing should be subtle that I believe writing should be as subtle as a jackhammer, that a writer needs to leave some blood on the page. Your comments capture what I was getting at. If you are going to say something with story, say it loudly.

    The story of despair and hope is nowhere better told than in the story of the Gospels, which in many ways is the foundation of the Lord of the Rings story. There is no greater moment of despair than Christ on the cross, and no greater moment of hope than finding the tomb empty.

    I used this story of death and resurrection as the foundation of my novel, “When the Wood Is Dry.” This book really took a lot out of me. I went on a writers retreat in the midst of writing it to give myself a bit of a break. I remember one of my beta readers commented something like “I couldn’t believe you went there.” I remember feeling a bit like Gandalf in completing this book, when the Balrog broke his spell at the door and he said something like it had nearly broken him. When you “go there” with your characters, it might just break you. I don’t know that I can write another book like that.

    There is a brilliant audio version of Lord of the Rings out there on YouTube, complete with sound effects. The guy doing the voicing sounds a lot like the actors in the movie. This version of the story is a nice way to get the cinematic feel of the movies without the screenwriters’ meddling with the characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This raises an interesting point, in that subtlety *is* important (and I do believe LOTR is full of it), and yet there is a difference between employing he subtlety of subtext and symbolism versus tiptoeing around the heart of a story’s themes.

      • Joseph Cillo, Jr. says

        Yeah, so Flannery O’Connor said it better than I can:

        “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

        If you have something to say these days, you may not be able to rely on subtlety, but sure, there are always layers of subtext as well. There are, indeed, many subtleties in LOTR. But getting to the point of despair is not a subtle thing. I just think the world could use a good slap in the face rather than a raise of an eyebrow, a slight nudge or a quiet aside.

        But that’s just me…

  14. Last September my daughter and I walked the last third of the El Camino in Spain. I struggled with TBI remaining after 3 career-killing concussions that destroyed my health and forced me to learn to walk again, think again, forge a new life. With health deteriorated, the asthma and Rheumatoid Arthritis I’d dodged my entire life caught up. Yet with prayer, persistence and a lot of preparation and planning (gotta love those Ps) we went anyway. At first my blogs spoke of the physical pain, walking aids, and the need for preparation. As the days passed, my blogs turned to the spiritual joy and light that filled out hearts and empowered our bodies.
    We became dreadfully sick, walking with fevers the last few days through cold, poring rain. When we got back home, we discovered we both had Covid. I spent the next two days in bed rewatching every episode of Lord of the Rings and taking notes. Out of that spanned the recognition I could no longer duck the prayer-driven desire to write fantasy which is the ultimate triumph of light over darkness and to scrap the five years of completed and edited work on a mystery manuscript.
    When I updated my bio, I realized I only had to update the name of my genre — I’d had always been writing about light triumphing over darkness and the power of even a tiny flicker to overcome the dark.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have a pet theory that we all have one story to tell and we go on telling it over and over again throughout our lives. Whether that’s true or not, I do think the scarlet thread that connects everything any one of may write is really our own heart’s quest throughout our lives. It evolves, but there is an underlying truth to it that (so long as we are true to it) grows brighter and brighter the longer we write.

  15. Thanks for this post! I’ve always loved dark books, like Jane Eyre and LOTR, but never realized why until now. We are plunged into darkness that is real so we can be pulled out again into a light so bright we never knew existed. It is, in a way, encouraging and comforting to us. We see beloved characters walk through the dark. They stumble. They stumble. So do we, and that’s why we love them so much. But when they come back into the light, we can rejoice with them because we have walked through the dark with them. It helps us come back to the light. Thank you for breaking down the power of the LOTR so writers like us can use it to create powerful stories, too. Thanks also for sharing your story, K.M.!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Jane Eyre is another great example. The sheer, raw honesty of Jane’s arc remains incredibly moving down through the ages. “I am no bird and no net ensnares me” has been a battle cry for so many of us.

  16. In my twenties, I saw a movie called Jacob’s Ladder. It was strange and dreamlike, nightmarish—a spiral into despair. The ending was powerful and left me sobbing on my partner’s shoulder for what seemed like twenty minutes.

    Spoiler:

    The nightmarish reality the man is going through is actually what’s going through his mind as he’s dying and clinging to life. Finally, his little boy who died years before appears in the dream reality and takes him upstairs. It’s just hauntingly beautiful.

    I also loved Wild Strawberries and What Dreams May Come. Both deal with despair and beauty. A movie that doesn’t quite fit this mode is Brazil. It appears to be a kooky dark comedy until the curtains pull back to reveal what it’s actually about.

    I also love LOTR and am thrilled you found it when you needed it most.

  17. Gil Gordon says

    You are not alone.

  18. K.M., you are wise beyond your years. Wisdom is the result of powerful life experiences. The journey that you describe is one I have taken on several occasions in my life, so I know that what you describe is true.
    Like you I am in awe at the depth of Tolkien‘s work.
    I have read the books many times and I saw the films when they came out in theaters then bought the extended version DVDs. I find myself watching (and reading) them every autumn and the beauty of this is that each time new nuances reveal themselves in this multi-layered human drama.
    For myself as a writer I have, possibly because of my many personal journeys, taken the very approach that you describe. I deeply believe in the necessity of facing — clear-eyed —the Balrogs, Valar and Maiars and all the others that coexist in our world and within ourselves.
    If we fail to plumb the depths of the full range of human emotions our writing will fall short of its potential.
    I am currently editing volume two of what has become a series and I’m at the beginning stages of volume three. I write contemporary upmarket fiction that deals with social justice issues and is based on real events of the last few years and into the present. Your post is therefore a welcome reminder that I am not alone in doing this challenging, rewarding work. Thank you.

  19. What a moving post!

    One novel which really touched me in this way is Shén​diāo​ Xiá​lǚ​ by Jin Yong (the most faithful translation of the title is “The Giant Eagle and Its Companion” but it’s also known as Return of the Condor Heroes). It feels like a tragic story. The government is corrupt, invaders are killing entire villages right down to babies, the protagonist’s parents are dead, the people who promised to care for him as his foster parents let him be bullied and then accept the bullies lies and cast him out, then he suffers under different set of bullies, he eventually learns that his dead father betrayed people for personal gain, etc. Despite all that, sometimes people treats him well, and he always repays kindness with more kindness.

    Jin Yong originally intended it to have a sad ending, but it was a newspaper serial and he got so many letter from readers who begged for a happy ending that he changed his mind and wrote in a bittersweet ending. I suspect that the novel feels the way it does because he went so deep into despair that, in the middle of the story, he didn’t see the way out himself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This makes me think of one of my favorite of Hayao Miyazaki’s pieces, which is the short “On Your Mark.” It is so sad and triumphant and beautiful and sorrowful all at the same time.

  20. What a wonderfully insightful post. Thank you for sharing a piece of your pain to illustrate a point. You are a wonderful writer, and such an encouragement. This is giving me a lot to think about in my own writing.

  21. Thank you for this! It showed me what I needed to do in my crime novel when it is revealed that the dead husband was NOT murdered by the wife’s friend, but had committed suicide!! (because he had Alzheimer’s, didn’t want to suffer and burden his wife and because he knew his death would make his wife’s book “How to Murder Your Husband”) a bestseller!) I needed the wife’s emotional reaction to both the forgiveness of her friend and the stunned realization that her husband’s suicide was an ultimate act of love! (I know—it’s a very complicated plot!!) And I’m still trying to get it published!)

  22. Grace Marie says

    I love this post. It is a gift -a reminder of why writing is important. A book that absolutely touched me at the right time by being dark was `The Silver Hand’ by Stephen Lawhead. I first read it when I was probably about fourteen, and my grandfather was in the hospital with cancer. The end of the book was such a beautiful -and visual- picture of hope… I spent the first hospital visit to Pappy with that book clutched in my lap.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The stories we encounter at crucial moments in our lives become so intertwined with the experiences themselves, don’t they?

  23. John D Warfield says

    I’m not going to go deep into Tolkien or LOTR because both have been covered well enough and I haven’t the voice for it. I will say, however, that if you wake up every morning wishing you hadn’t, nothing will keep you going more than your own Sam. The trick is finding him (or her) and knowing when you do.

    Sam made it easy for Frodo…woops 🙂

  24. The narrator in my WIP Amiant Soul says, “There didn’t seem to be much point, with things the way they were, but you don’t just lie down in the desert and wait to die. You keep going down the road ahead of you, even if you know the end that’s waiting for you. You don’t know why you keep going. You just do.”

    Not nearly so poetic as Tolkien:
    “Though here at journey’s end I lie,
    In darkness buried deep,
    Beyond all towers strong and high,
    Beyond all mountains steep;
    Above all shadows rides the sun
    And stars forever dwell.
    I will not say the day is done,
    Nor bid the stars farewell.”

    But both in their own ways carry the same message: I refuse to let despair decide for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s beautiful. And so, so true. I think we all need to hear those words from time to time.

  25. Thank you for such an amazing post. It’s so true that the books that move us explore despair, but not despair for the sake of despair, but for the sake of giving us a new way of seeing things.
    I must say I often feel despair on behalf of farm animals – the despair they are plunged into from the first second of birth to the trip to the slaughterhouse. Hamburger, bacon casually and innocently mentioned somewhere in a book or social media bring back the imagery of pigs slowly gassed in gas chambers, cows dragged to the kill floor, animal babies ripped away from their mothers, mutilated, branded and thrown into veal crates or killed right away. Maybe one day somehow I’ll be able to explore it in a book, and there will be hope for them – although right now it seems like it’s hard to see it for them in the world that brutally kills close to 100 billion (just land) farm animals (excluding fish and sea life). But still, there is hope for them, and for our world overall.

  26. Wow. … I am not alone.
    Thank you.
    You are not alone.
    Some day we should get together over LOTR and boxes of tissues and cry.

  27. The works of Tolkien are also deeply important to me too, KM. Whenever anyone asks me why I like LotR and The Hobbit, I reply like this: “Have you ever lost something really important to you? Like really, deeply important? Not money or a relationship. But an object of emotional and material value. And then you looked for it everywhere, turned you house upside down and couldn’t find it? And then you give up and you grieve a little bit, and then you come to peace with the fact that it’s gone forever. You move on and forget about it. And then, on some random Tuesday, you find it. Whatever emotion you feel in that moment when you find that important thing you thought was lost forever, that’s the emotion I experience every time I interact with Middle-earth.”

  28. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

    The Screwtape Letters
    C.S. Lewis

  29. Amazing post. For me, when the dark thoughts of depression are creeping around the corners of my mind, LOTR is my “Saver of the universe”. Sometimes a few pages, sometimes a whole chapter and the mind becomes clear..

    Greetings Form Germany

    Torsten

  30. Please forgive me for asking this.

    I follow your blog, and I have purchased and read your books.

    I have found your advice helpful.

    But you are saying now that you had never seen the LOTR movies until 2019? You only read the books after that?

    When you were advising about story structure and outlining and structure, you had never read LOTR?

  31. Dear K,
    I liked your post a lot. I have been wrestling with feeling the need to go deep into the depths of my characters inner life, because, I feel what they feel when I write it. However, I can see now that to obtain the heights I desire, I must be willing to plumb the depths too.
    Well done,
    Michael

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I can see now that to obtain the heights I desire, I must be willing to plumb the depths too.”

      That’s a good way to put it!

  32. Awesome post. Your authenticity and passion really hit home and inspired me deeply. Thank you for this!
    Fran.

  33. Rosemary Brandis says

    I feel that we as individuals must experience that depth of despair that pulls us into the darkness, but it is in making the decision to pull ourselves out of the mire and reach for the light that truly makes us strong. That courage is also what helps us appreciate the wonder and depth of the light. The real magic in fantasy is the courage to live.

    One moment for me was Scarlet O’Hara eating the potato in the field. And her decision. “I’ll never be hungry again.” And of course the last line in the film. “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Read as a teenager in the early seventies, it had an impact on my life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’ve known people who have gone through dark nights of the soul similar to mine, except they quit halfway through the journey. They numbed their way out the pain into a semblance of the life they lived before, but they never found the treasures that await on the other side. It’s like that old saying, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Indeed, a huge turning point for me was reading specifically about the Dark Night of the Soul phenomenon. Reading other people’s stories helped me see the Dark Night as indication that perhaps I was doing something right instead of something wrong, and that I only needed to keep going to reach a entirely new level. And that is exactly what I experienced.

  34. I was fascinated to read your experience with Tolkien’s masterpiece. I read the books several times in the early 90s, before the movies so I had a totally different experience. It was amazing to hear of you using the hobbits journey as inspiration to get through tough times. I have been through similar times, but didn’t think to use lotr for so much motivation – probably I should have!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the most incredible things about stories is how the same story can produce so many unique–and equally powerful–experiences. It’s an amazing dance between the objectivity of the author’s intent and the subjectivity of each reader or viewer’s experience.

  35. Thanks for the depth of your sharing. I’m in the middle of writing a novel in which the two main characters (husband and wife) are thrust into a totally different context from their previous life and don’t know how they will ever adapt. Your comments help me have the freedom to show the depth of their despair and its effect on their relationship, family, and acquaintances.

    Regarding despair or other sustained, emotion-charged, passages in literature, I have never seen a lengthy passage of suspense and despair like that in Walter Paton’s, “Too Late the Phalarope.” I read it decades ago and it still makes me shudder just to think about it.

  36. Thank you for your honesty, your vulnerability in sharing your journey. This was the most impactful article on tapping into the emotions with my writing I’ve read.
    The first piece of advice I was ever given as a new writer was to “Dig deeper.” I’d just completed my first draft of my first novel and what did I know? Not much, except I knew I had a good story to tell.
    I sat with that advice for a while, not understanding what it meant, until I started the second book in the series, and I let myself really explore the depths of my protagonist, inhabit her, feel everything she feels, see the world through her eyes.
    Those moments of deep despair were (are still) difficult but I let the tears fall without reservation because therein lies enlightenment.
    I don’t shy away from the darkness when it falls, I pass through it toward the dawn.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We’ve heard Robert Frost’s saying so much that it’s become a cliche, but it’s true: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

  37. Hi, Katie. Such a beautiful and heartfelt episode. Juxtaposing despair and hope is, to my thinking, one of the most powerful tools an author can use in developing a story. I do believe a writer is most effective when they’ve been in the depths of despair. They get it because, as you say, they’ve been there and back. Personally, I’m in a time of discouragement and being reminded there is a place beyond it is encouraging. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Indeed, and sometimes just in experiencing being able to pendulate our emotions from negative to positive to negative and back to positive, we begin to see that both states are transient and therefore much more bearable. This too shall pass.

  38. Katie, I’m very late to this…but what a lovely reflection. Thank you. As it so happens, I’m reading a devotional at the moment based on the Litany of Trust, and between the daily Bible readings for Mass, the devotional, and your post, so many things gelled for me. Knowing that God is in the very depths of our hearts, where there are no words, just heart to Heart, that our hope lies in Him, that all things work together for the good, that He knows what He’s about. Padre Pio’s exhortation to “pray, hope, and don’t worry” make so much sense. I write for children and they are naturally hopeful. No matter how difficult the topic, there’s always hope at the end, in children’s stories. I love that.

  39. Hey, KM. BEAUTIFUL POST! Just beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing. It was a perfect coincidence because I had done a project for school a few days prior to listening and reading your post. I am an avid Tolkien fan and the deeper I journey into his works the more I find how his works are inspiringly profound.
    I agree that despair is a powerful device not just in fiction but in reality as well. The parallels between fiction and reality are inspiring as I can see that everything is guilded by the light loving Hand of the Author of Life. All other renditions of fiction are but a shadow of this true reality. Without darkness, we cannot see the Light, without despair there would be no such thing as Hope and therefore we would not have any purpose in life. These last few years have repeated this message to me countless times and I am very grateful that I am able to convey this message in my writing even if I do not do it complete justice.
    Because you and this blog have helped me so much with creating my new book, it would be my sincerest honor if you were to read it after it is published…whenever that will be… Alas, the road is long and weary and I am not sure when or where I will find my way. But thank you so much for offering a guilding light along this journey.

  40. Hi KM, I love your response to LOTR and your insights about the interplay between despair and hope in fiction. The stories that recently made me feel this lately is “I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way,” two matched science fiction short stories by Kim Bo-Young, about an engaged couple that take interstellar flight to meet for their wedding and end up traveling accidentally through space and time, getting further and further apart from each other and more and more alienated from the rest of humanity. I read this story while living alone during the middle of the pandemic and it really captured the feelings of “What if I never see my loved ones again? What if my dreams for a future are over before they even begin? What if the entire human race is endangered, to the point the my personal relationships and loneliness are almost insignificant?” The hope that is present in the story is all the more impactful because the story goes to such a dark place.

    This post also made me rethink how I approach the Hero Arc. In my head, I have been associating the idea of a “Hero” or a “Heroic Journey” with something a bit cheesy and naive. But you’ve reminded me that the Hero’s journey can be absolutely harrowing and full of doubt and despair. It seems like many people I know are going through their own personal version of the Hero’s Journey right now and I want to write stories that reflect that wisdom.

  41. I can paint the darkness but I can’t get out of it.

    Brannon faces artificial superintelligence that controls his perception of reality and has every contingency planned. Plus, the head of his rebellion will essentially die when he takes his first real act of rebellion. His only alternative to government data-based reality is seeing through his equally biased psychic girlfriend, so how can he achieve any semblance of agency?

    Kissla convinces her lover to rescue humanity only to find that the Duchess’ enchantment is just as bad as her father’s necromancy. The world is now stuck between two “Dark Lords” who cannot even be appealed to on the basis of decency–as their ONLY goal is to help their victims.

    I haven’t been able to finish these because they ground to a despairing halt.

    I did get out of despair once. Sigrun was able to escape her lie. She thought she needed to know who to blame, but really only needed to ‘show up and fight’–to stand up and say something, despite being too small and young to make much difference. (Lie was vengeance, the truth was a lie about philanthropy.) Unfortunately, most readers can’t sort the massive plot of despair and tragedy because they’re distracted by the elf ears and ghost orcs.

  42. wind80b7ffe2b1a says

    I listened to this post on the podcast while doing the dishes and found myself sympathy-crying. Excellent insights, as usual, and thanks for being willing to be vulnerable as you share them.

  43. Maylee Spann says

    My very identity as a person has been shaped by The Hobbit, LOTR, and The Chronicles of Narnia. My father read Tolkien aloud to my siblings and I. The journey to Mordor and back was a journey for us, too, as he read a chapter a day until we reached the end.

    LOTR taught me what it meant to face the darkness and walk through it instead of running away. That stubborn refusal to turn and flee has taken me down some bitterly painful roads. Even now I feel that I am walking with Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead, with only the glimmering hope that he can summon the armies to keep me from failing.

    I look back on my short life and see how the LOTR has shaped my choices in a way few other books have. I pray that even if one day LOTR is forgotten, other books will take the mantle. Perhaps it will be mine. Perhaps someone else’s. Only God knows.

  44. Reading someone else’s experience with Lord of the Rings always brings me joy. Those films are treasures, and I want to see them equalled in fiction before too long.

    I understand your references to despair, too. Stories seem to come along at the perfect time, don’t they? For me, this happened in late 2015–and the story was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was cathartic, and I watched it six (yes, six) times in theatres.

    I like to tell the story of the sixth time, when TFA was near the end of its cinematic run, and I was the only person watching that particular showing in the theatre 😂 at the time the story had a profound healing effect on me that I’ll never forget.

    I remember reading John Yorke’s view on the power of stories to bring order to chaos, like a magnet dragged through a pile of scattered iron filings (I might have brutalised the words, but the meaning is there). This post made me think about that idea again—stories don’t necessarily provide us with light, they provide us with order, meaning, and understanding. And that comes through a certain well-ordered structure that not many stories attain.

    Thanks again!

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