Recently I did a presentation on Revelation, which is a book of the Bible most people either avoid or live in exclusively. I’ve talked about my take on it here before, and I still maintain the most important thing about it is that it’s a message of hope, both when it was written and now. Written to a people who were in danger of making the fateful choice between assimilation and oblivion, it gave them a third choice by reminding them of a basic truth: in the end, the Good Side wins.
Imagine a story that ended with evil prevailing, where darkness triumphed. Let’s take The Lord of the Rings and imagine the story turning somewhere in the middle, say when Frodo is captured by the Orcs at Minas Morgul and Sam tries to rescue him:
“A Elberth Gilthoniel” Sam cried as he charged the Orcs on the stairway. He was able to send the first two over the edge to their doom, but the third one managed to get a dagger past Sam’s guard and penetrate his ribcage. He sagged on the stairs as his lifeblood ebbed from him, and his last sight was a huge, hairy Orc face laughing at him.
Searching his body, the captain found the Ring. He felt its power immediately, but he knew better than try to master it himself. There was more reward in being the one who returned it to the Dark Lord. A skirmish broken out as the Orcs fought to be the one who returned the Ring, but the Captain prevailed.
So Sauron recovered the Great Ring, and there was no hope for Middle Earth. The setback at Minas Tirith was quickly reversed, and the last armies of the free were utterly destroyed. Even Elrond and Galadriel’s magic were no match for him, and they left Middle Earth with their kin quickly to escape his wrath. His dominion extended to the Great Sea and around the world, and lasted forever.
Who would tell a story like this for two or three volumes and conclude here? Who would read a story like this more than once?
Thinking back through almost every adventure book I’ve read, every movie or TV show I’ve seen, this is a common thread to all of them. In the end, the Good Side wins. The story can’t end until that happens, we won’t let the story end until that happens. I can think of no story where perceived Evil triumphs (I’ll get to tragedy in a minute.)
That’s something we probably need to remind ourselves. We have setbacks and disappointments, see Evil seem to flourish, wonder when things will ever be Right again. Things being completely Right can be off in our distant future: that’s something Revelation reminds us. But we know of the wound, whether it’s a personal wound or a wound of the human race, and we know the wound won’t last forever. Knowing the wound exists and its nature is the first step to finding healing, finding a way to co-exist with being wounded until it is healed. One way or another, we find the Good overcoming.
Tragedy is something that always tugs at our heartstrings, although we rarely find it in books and movies today. Perhaps we see too much of it in the news: we’re programmed to think the world is going to Hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is why the dark interpretation of Revelation finds traction: we put ourselves in the world ending fear and so the hopeful imagery is something we long for in detail. There seems to be a universal desire to make every story have a happy ending, whether it makes sense or not. The tragic hero is almost unknown; maybe we’ll find it in the last Hobbit movie coming out this winter.
The tragic hero is a challenge: we can see the disaster they can’t because of their flaw. However, the hero dies in vain if we don’t see the flaw. Tragedies are teaching stories: we get to see the consequences of our failure to look at ourselves honestly. Bad things happen to good people and sometimes there’s little we can do about it to prevent it. We can try to see ourselves and the world better, and avoid future tragedies. Knowing that tragedies happen reminds us the necessity of doing something, and we can’t always count on someone or something bailing us out or otherwise saving the day.
Even in a tragedy, the Good Side wins. Lear’s kingdom is reconstructed in hope after his death, Denmark finds a worthy ruler after Claudius and Hamlet, the Montagues and Capulets discover the cruel vanity of their feud and make peace. Even if Good People we like don’t personally win, the Good Side wins. That is reason for hope.
Today’s world is a mess, and some of the cures seem worse than the disorders they intend to fix. We have a long road ahead of us. But there’s one thing to keep in mind as we press on, as we sort our way through to the future together. If we stay true to the Good, if we work to make the world a better place, then our efforts aren’t in vain as long as we stay in the story, we don’t give up. The story isn’t over until the Good Side wins.