February in Maine: the short, post-holiday, true mid-winter, peak cold, pause. A time of introspection when the snow has stopped melting and the world looks more like an inviting blank slate on which to CREATE! Check on me in late February to see if that blank slate is haunting me with its continued blankness.

At the onset of this brief ‘stillness of the soul’ month, my mind is trying to untangle the ideas of grimdark and hopepunk. I am contemplating in which of these universes my mind rests. Sure, I know dichotomies are inherently false and sometimes dangerous simplifications of our universe, but hear me out on this.

In my late teens, I spent more than a year reading and rereading two authors: J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. The Lord of the Rings and Dune. Not exactly original, I know. It was an obsession. I was searching for something, an understanding of the world and human nature. I was young enough and foolish enough to think I could figure it all out in a book.

From Tolkien, I saw a world of the good, the evil, and the dangerously complacent (looking at you Théoden). It was a world of heroes, both glorious and common, plodding onward and doing the right thing even when hope was gone. It was a conflicted ethos where, despite Tolkien’s incessant glorification of monarchy and genetically determined rule, the humble hobbit is the heroic protagonist who saves the world through an abnegation of power.

Dune, on the other hand, was amoral. It was a cynical deconstruction of power in all its forms. Religion, politics, relationships, self-control and improvement – all became a complex game of power in Herbert’s universe. Those with power shaped the universe, and those without were crushed or saved at the will of their betters (in this case, better being more powerful). There was evil to be sure. The Harkonnens with their destructive lust and greed were dangerous to everyone, common and noble alike, but in the end, so was Paul Atreides. This is the grimdark world in which one could only hope to learn to survive without power or thrive (for a while) with it. But changing things? Making the world a kinder place? That was contrary to the nature of humanity. Any change and heroics that were possible were the purview of unique and special beings. Even in adolescent arrogance, I could not see myself as Paul Atreides. 

Earlier this year I came across a video exploring some correspondence from Tolkien expressing his dislike of the novel Dune (DUNE Vs Lord of the Rings | Why Did Tolkien Dislike Dune? | Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien by @CosmicFaust – I recommend speeding the playback on this one). This got my brain reaching back in time to those days of coming home from a long day of school and working to read through one or the other. It got me wondering about my compulsion. I was searching for something in those texts. I was vacillating between: 

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. (Herbert, Dune)


It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

(Tolkien, The Return of the King)

In one, I sought power over myself and my own life. I sought the kind of internal control and self-determination that could render me immune to the cruelty of the world. I wanted to be invincible and thereby capable of heroics. I knew it was fantasy. In the same pages that Paul mastered his mind and body, he used his enlightenment to shape the universe to his will. I knew that, in the real world, fear could not be willed away, but the desire for that kind of invulnerability was an acknowledgment of exactly how grim and dark the world could be. This is a world of war, genocide, rape, poverty, murder, and callous disregard for the health and happiness of the powerless. We live in a grimdark dystopia. Even if we are fortunate enough to reside in a walled garden, the dystopia surrounds us and shapes us.

The second quote is from Gandalf in The Return of the King. This is hopepunk at its finest because it does not pretend that darkness and evil do not exist, and it does not pretend that they can be undone and never thought of again. Most importantly, this quote tells us that small actions matter. In this ethos, change is possible, even if it is an endless task akin to weeding the fields. In Tolkien’s world, great power is dangerous, small power is essential, and fear is a natural and healthy response to a scary world. Fear is a call to action. 

Fiction shapes us. When I graduated from high school, I began college with a double major in political science and mass communications. The part of me that had been so fascinated with Herbert’s analysis of power was leading me to a life of studying and reporting on it. At the same time, in the vein of small actions, I took on letter-writing campaigns for prisoners of conscience around the world. I began to speak out on issues of choice and freedom. But, before long, I found myself too impatient and unsettled for college. Less than a year in, I quit and joined the military for a five-year stint of active duty. In basic training on a twelve-mile march in the dead of night, I found myself imagining Frodo on the long road to Mordor, one step at a time. 

I didn’t resolve my worldviews on that march or in the years after, not in any formal or definitive way, but looking back on my life, I realize that the ethos that has been guiding me is more hope than acceptance of the grim. I have found myself willing to take the small and persistent actions that contribute to the world I want to live in. I have never fully accepted the cynicism of power as a solution. I think, in the end, I have embraced my inner hobbit.

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