I’m categorizing this as part of my Wisdom of Sci-Fi series, even though The Lord of the Rings is definitely not science fiction. There’s a part in the third book, as Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their journey and have ventured deep into enemy territory, when we get this description:
The land seemed full of creaking and cracking shadows and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
I started thinking about this little moment after a recent post by Scott Levine (it’s an inspiring post; please go check it out!). Scott’s been doing a lot to spread the word about light pollution, and he’s encouraging people in his community to get out, look up, and see the stars.
In his post, Scott alludes to the fact that we live in troubling times. No, maybe Sauron’s armies aren’t marching against us, pillaging our villages and slaughtering Dwarves, Elves, and Men alike; but still, these are troubling times. But as Scott says, the stars give us a chance to get away from the news and the pessimism and all the other anxieties in our lives, just for a bit.
Personally, I’ve always found stargazing to be a humbling experience. I have a lot of big dreams, a lot of ambitions, and also a lot of frustrations in my life. And like most people, I feel I have good reason to worry about the current state of the world. But taking a moment to look up at night helps remind me that I am, ultimately, a very small being, and that this is a very small world.
As Carl Sagan once said in reference to the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged place in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
None of this is to say that the problems in our lives or in the world are unimportant. Samwise Gamgee didn’t suddenly give up on his quest after seeing that one twinkling star, nor did Mr. Frodo. But there is something about those little, distant points of light that can help us keep things in perspective.
And if I may stay up on this soapbox for just a bit longer, I think if we were all a bit more humble, and if we could all let go of that posturing and imagined self-importance that Sagan was talking about, I suspect our very small world would be a much happier place, and many of the problems and conflicts we worry about so much would start to go away. Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them.
P.S.: From now on, whenever I get to that scene in The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to imagine that that one star Sam sees is Arcturus. Seriously, Scott’s post is really inspiring and thought provoking. Please go check it out.