One theme runs through almost every epic tale. The fragile hope that the hero will conquer in the face of what seem to be insurmountable odds.
A small yet profound word.
It’s an idea that recurs time and again in stories, especially those with a fantasy or sci-fi bent. Why? Because at their heart, spec-fic tales are about the battle between good versus evil. The battle between light and dark. The battle between hope and despair.
As titanic forces clash, realms rise and crumble, and rebels rise up against tyrannic empires, this theme of hope makes its presence known—a pillar upholding the bridge upon which the story is built.
What causes people to seek hope—writers to speak of it in stories and readers to look for it within the pages?
It’s because we live in a broken world full of things going wrong. We yearn for hope because it’s a promise of the calm after the storm, the dawn after endless night.
The characters, too, seek this hope, and for the same reasons. That’s why it resonates so strongly within us. We become personally attached to the story as we see the characters keep the feeble flame kindled. We ask, “If they can cling to hope, why can’t we?”
However, not every story paints a picture colored with hope. Happy endings are sometimes passed over in favor of making the story grittier, darker, more realistic.
Is that a good thing? After all, isn’t it naïve to assume every story has or needs a happy ending?
Let’s look at three popular stories and how they each approach this idea of hope.
1. Game of Thrones
I haven’t read the books or watched the TV show, but I’ve heard plenty about Game of Thrones, particularly the unrelenting violence and corruption. The tagline of the series could read, “No one is really good and only the good survive. Therefore no one survives.”
Exaggerated, yes, but it makes the point. Game of Thrones presents a bleak world to say the least. A world where hope is outcast and despair rules supreme because people aren’t given a reason to hope, aren’t shown a light in the darkness to guide and encourage them.
In such a setting, hope has no place, and where there is no hope that evil can be defeated, that good will triumph in the end, life becomes a meaningless cycle where survival and temporal pleasure is all that matters.
Everything is indifferent fate and cold steel.
A grim outlook indeed.
2. Hunger Games
A lot has been said about the lack of hope present in Hunger Games, as evidenced by the less than triumphant conclusion to Mockingjay.
So much pain endured, so much sacrificed in the effort to overthrow the Capitol. Yet what was the outcome at the end of the day? Katniss kills the rebellion’s leader and ends up back at home, traumatized and miserable.
Gale goes off and doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
Even the eventual marriage between Katniss and Peeta is laced with strands of sorrow, as shown in the book’s epilogue (and dealt with in much more tasteful, poignant fashion at the end of Mockingjay Part 2).
In one regard, I like this approach because it shows us how devastating Katniss’ experience in the Games and as the Mockingjay were. They took an irreparable toll on her emotionally and mentally.
At the same time, the story felt cold, lacking that flame of hope. An echo would have taken the story to a new level, not by minimizing what Katniss endured, but by offering a glimpse of something beyond.
3. Lord of the Rings
Sam says it best:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing…this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
Hope shines forth in this quote like a ray of sun piercing a storm-filled sky. It gets at the root of hope—that darkness and danger abound, and the ending can’t possibly be worth remembering, too filled as it is with despair.
But…even darkness must pass.
What a beautiful, timeless reminder, one Sam and Frodo experienced firsthand. Written by a professing Christian, Lord of the Rings presents a view of hope that expresses the deeper truths stemming from a Christian worldview.
We hope not because we have seen the end, when the shadow passes and sunshine and peace fill the land once more. But because we long for that time, knowing deep in our hearts it will come.
For Christians, this hope is rooted in the promises of God. That alone adds depth and meaning to the stories we read, and offers encouragement. Sam and Frodo made it through. Our hope, our confidence, is that no matter what trials come, what hardships we face in this world, the darkness is only a fleeting thing.
Because of that, we truly can find hope, and through our stories, we can let that beacon of hope shine forth in a what at times seems to be a hopeless world.