Can truth ever lead us to despair? In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, we encounter two critical characters: the king of Rohan, Théoden, and Gríma Wormtongue, his adviser. Rohan is a small but important kingdom opposed to the Dark Lord Sauron, yet relatively insignificant (or so it seems) in its ability to actually pose a viable threat to Sauron’s looming power as he attempts to enslave all of Middle Earth.
When we first meet Théoden, four of the book’s heroes (Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) have arrived at his hall to appeal to the king for help. Here we discover that the king is an old man; we know already of the peril facing all of free Middle Earth as Sauron’s defeat rests on a small hope, a “fool’s hope,” as the good wizard Gandalf later puts it. Yet despite Rohan’s resistance against Sauron, Théoden’s reaction to the warriors and wizard is unexpectedly sour. Readers soon learn the reason: his adviser, Gríma Wormtongue, has poisoned the king’s mind against hope, wisdom, valor, and goodness. Tolkien uses Theoden’s despair to offer a profound lesson about the nature of truth.
Tolkien wants us to see that Wormtongue’s poison has come not in the guise of lies, as we might expect, but rather in the form of truth. Is it true that Théoden is old? Yes. Is it true that little hope of victory remains in the battle against Sauron? Yes. Is it true that Rohan is beset by growing darkness on all sides? Yes. And Wormtongue fills Théoden’s mind with these truths.
But, importantly, that is not all of the truth. Instead it is a one-sided truth, a truth shorn of goodness and of hope. And this is what Tolkien wants us to recognize: that truth can at times be bitter, but it does not stop short of sweetness.
Truth edifies, it builds up—it does not tear down or destroy. It might wound, but it offers healing as well. Yet in Gríma Wormtongue’s mouth, truth can only debilitate, crush, demolish. This deceptive handling of truth ultimately results in Théoden’s withdrawal from his kingly position and duties, his retreat from evil, and even his own inner lethargy. Though Tolkien does not use the term, Théoden in this episode illustrates depression. And importantly, it is truth—in some form—that has led him there.
However, Tolkien does not abandon the king, nor readers, in this predicament. Truth is not allowed to suffer forever in the hands of evil intent. Gandalf enters Théoden’s hall, and representing Light and Wisdom, awakens Théoden from his depressed withdrawal. And significantly he uses truth to do so—but this time it is truth in its full form, truth as it is meant to be: pointing forward to hope, goodness, and beauty. Gandalf is honest as he encourages Théoden, but that honesty opens the way to hope: “The enemy is strong beyond our reckoning, yet we have a hope at which he has not guessed.”
Readers are not told all that Gandalf relates to Théoden in their private conversation, but we do see the change that comes over Théoden: “but ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye, and at the last he rose from his seat to his full height.” Truth in Gandalf’s mouth has the power to give life, not take it; to recall to strength, not wither it. In this episode, Tolkien teaches us that truth will not lead us to despair—but, truth shorn of hope, an impostor truth, can lead us there.
What does this mean for us? There is a spiritual truth here, for God also uses truth to give life rather than abandon us to partial, crushing truths. Is it true that our hearts are wicked? Yes. Is it true that every day we fail, we envy, we lie, we fall to pride? Yes. And yet that is not all that is true, for thankfully it is also true that though are hearts are wicked, God promises to change them; though we sin against our neighbor and our God, He promises grace upon grace.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians captures this double-edged truth: we were dead in our sins, enslaved to wrath and sinful desires, but God made us alive in Christ—not because we cleaned our hearts first or swept our sins away, but because of his rich mercy and great love. God’s truth certainly contains bitterness, for who loves being told he is a rebel deserving of death? Yet God’s truth does not stop there, but instead adds the sweetness of love and redemption. The Truth points us to goodness and beauty.
So why the Sour Patch Kids? We can thank my 8th grade humanities class for this analogy. If you have ever enjoyed a Sour Patch kid, you know that it is both sour and sweet. And in that, this candy captures the essence of truth: it might cut to our very hearts (sour), but it will restore to life as well (sweet). Truth shorn of goodness and hope will lead us to despair, but real Truth will lead us to life and joy.