Near the end of The Return of the King movie, while Frodo and Sam are making the arduous climb up Mount Doom to destroy the ring once and for all, their strength fails and they stop climbing. Sam claws himself over to Frodo, takes him in his arms, and asks him this poignant question:
Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom; and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket; and they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields; and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
Frodo weakly replies that he can’t, but Sam’s recollection of the Shire’s goodness and beauty gives him new determination, and he puts Frodo on his back and begins once more to climb the steep slope.
“Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Sam’s vivid memories of the Shire hearten him and give him hope even during the darkest moment of their journey. This vibrant image of the goodness that the hobbits are fighting for demonstrates, I think, the power of Tolkien’s vision. One of the reasons that Tolkien’s stories continue to inspire us is that he does something few authors are able to do: he makes goodness compelling and desirable.
Certainly, the evil of Sauron throughout the Lord of the Rings is breathtaking, and Tolkien’s portrayal of the ring’s corrupting power proves his insight into the workings of evil. But this isn’t as remarkable an achievement as is his compelling depiction of good. Fallen humans seem to be able to imagine interesting, emotionally gripping evil characters more easily that we can imagine interesting good characters. In many of our movies and stories, the good characters are rather insipid, while the evil ones are much more fascinating. Think about the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Darth Vader in the Star Wars series. These characters are complex and compelling—they draw us into their struggle. All too often, overtly Christian attempts to portray good characters fall into sappy Hallmark blah-blah-ville. For the most part, Fireproof is yawn-worthy, and God is Not Dead is reductive and predictable. Other Christian art isn’t much better, as readers of the angelic Elsie Dinsmore series can attest. Why is goodness so damnably boring?