Giant Despair

When CS Lewis died, leaving his great friend Tolkien behind him, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was devastated.

Such great friends they were, with Tolkien the instrument of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.

But he was impatient with Narnia. Norman Stone – he who made Shadowlands– has unearthed entrenched differences between the friends over such a blatant Christian allegory.

Meanwhile, Tolkien was writing of Middle Earth amid a cataclysmic bid for a reign of darkness: right at the heart of the Second World War.

An allegory, surely?

No, protested Tolkien. Rayner Unwin, of publishers Allen and Unwin,made the mistake of making his suspicions that Lord of the Rings was indeed allegorical public.

“Do not let Rayner suspect ‘Allegory’,” Tolkien retorted.

“There is a ‘moral’, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phrase of history, one example of its patterns, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals–they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.”

Every living thing has universal-ness, then, according to Tolkien. But every actor on the world’s stage is an individual.

Today I woke with a heavy heart: for in just one part of my charmed life an era has come to an end, and I find myself rather a round peg in a square hole.

Carrying around the burden of a situation full of uncertainty felt today ike hauling a ball and chain, in the same  fashion as Pip’s convict on the Kentish marshes scanning wildly for food and a file to broker freedom.

These days we are fortunate; There are so many ways to conquer such looming dread, which is often born not only of this situation, but of those which have come before it. We fight dragons from our past with a modicum of success, once we have learnt their names.

Yet still they loom in the shadows occasionally. A universal pattern: they do not come to all, but haunt many.

I found myself thinking of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. Which, for the record, I have never liked: moralistic, obvious preaching in a story which the author does not trouble to veil in any more than a fairytale.

Then how is it that the name Giant Despair kept nudging my thoughts?

Christian is on his way to the Celestial City when he and his younger brother Hope take the wrong path.

They fall asleep in the grounds of  Doubting Castle, where lives the Giant Despair.And when he’s out on his morning constitutional, he finds them.

The Giant throws them into a dungeon and beats them until they are grieviously wounded. He robs them of all dignity and then he says to them: you are in hell. Best do away with yourselves, by knife, or halter, or poison: “for why, said he, should you choose life, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness?”

I’ve always thought Christian’s way out rather corny. A cheap piece of plot manipulation. For after days languishing in Despair’s dungeons our hero claps his hand to his forehead. Blow me, he says, if I haven’t got the key to the door!

The key is called promise.

I looked around the house after trying vainly to plan for tomorrow and getting nowhere for hours. We were four disparate characters: Maddie wrote, Felix played a game, Phil was ecstatically burning an old chest of drawers in his chimenea in the garden.

Today, I needed them all.

“Run and get Daddy,” I told my daughter. “Ask him if he’d like to take the dog for a walk in five minutes.”

The answer came back: Love to. Be there in two minutes.

We haltered the dog and found sensible shoes and stepped out into the clearest sunshine and bluest skies, a proper-cold winter day.

We shambled up into the forest, across the top of the fort and into acres of woodland to salve the soul. And the three of them talked: about inconsequential stuff and momentous stuff, about the day the dog got stung on the bottom and whether a bit of the phobus grunt might clink across the path at any moment.

Up there, in the woods, I realised I had inadvertently been carrying the key to the ball and chain, the whole day long.

It was called promise.


prom·ise (prms)



a. A declaration assuring that one will or will not do something; a vow.
b. Something promised.
2. Indication of something favorable to come; expectation: a promise of spring in the air.
3. Indication of future excellence or success: a player of great promise.

Picture source here

Tolkien quotes  aplenty here

Definition of promise here


57 thoughts on “Giant Despair

    1. Hi Kate,

      Every village that Bunyan lived in, appears in my Family Tree. My last few years at work in London, looked down Snow Hill, where he died. Our flat was a couple of minutes walk from Bunhill Fields. I chose the name for where Giant Despair lived, more than his robust testing of Theological concepts. 🙂

      Bunyan’s wife inherited a book by Arthur Dent!

      Tolkien lived and did his Army training 3 miles from where I now sit, I have seen the Oaks that became Ents.

      Our relatives recently rented the inspiration for Miss Haisham’s house on the North Kent Marshes while between properties. 🙂

      I should write a book about it! 🙂

      Your writing is excellent, it flows so well . The skipping from “now” to “then” and back again, can be so clunky. Thank you for a very nice start to the day.

      Off to find my best club and then lay about me on Twitter! 🙂


      1. Hi Phil, what a fabulous comment, and my mind is reeling at so many connections! As you say, it’s a book waiting to be written! Thanks for those comments: and latterly for that gorgeous photograph. Fantastic.

  1. The Giant Despair can never have his way for long when one has such promise. Still, an ending is never easy. I hope the promise you found hanging in the air will always stave off any lingering despair.

  2. Each day we have a chance to do a little good in this world is a promise of better things to come. It doesn’t take much other than to try to follow the Golden Rule.

  3. Wonderful, Kate and how well to remember that we all hold the key to the door, if we just look. The sun is shining here, too, and the day is new and young and your lovely post will take me forward.

  4. Oh, how I recognise that household of four different people doing different things. In the here and now the number of times that everyone wants to do the same thing are becoming fewer and fewer. Holidays are good for this. But teenagers will go their own way !

    As a child I would always try to get all members of the household to be in the same room in the evenings and at the weekends – there was a very strong urge to hold everything together. In retrospect, I can understand this felt like a ‘responsibility’ – it was a role at that time of my life to smooth trouble waters in the family.

  5. Glad you found a way to toss that “ball and chain” to the side of the path, Kate.

    The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, or a Hell of Heav’n. ~ John Milton

  6. The end of an era, no matter how unfitting it turned out to be, has got to be a struggle.

    That Tolkien was a believer is one of the best arguments I know in favor of Christianity (and thanks for that info about his role with Lewis–I only knew that they were friends). How fitting that you bring him up, when your response to the Giant of Despair was to summon a fellowship. Thank you for inviting us to walk with you, as extended family, into the forest.

    My arms around the round peg.

  7. Nothing beats a walk in the air to crystalise our thinking. The Walking and the Breathing are all enough for the moment, and our poor old weary minds relax and sigh. When our minds relax we solve stuff. I call it pushing search. I ask the question of my brain, push search then leave it do its thing, as i walk, eventually the solution will appear. Promise.. a beautiful word. Lovely read.. c

  8. The promise may be – and often is – that when one door closes, another opens.

    I have been there, Kate. Believe that the promise will happen, but don’t try to predict it,
    or to drive it.

    Love in plenty.

  9. Hi Kate
    Reading your blog, and then the comments I see that I have commented on this already.
    Well, this time it’s the other me.
    Hoping all is well with you and sending much love,
    Miff xx

  10. Don’t you wonder why sometimes we can hurdle the most amazing challenges and be bright and optimistic, and then other times we can literally feel the gloom (despair) settle on us with such certainty. I’m grateful you acknowledged it–makes us all part of the same family, and I hope it didn’t linger. And I strongly suggest it stay away for a long, long time! Debra

  11. How wise you were, Kate, to step back for a moment and see the key to your promise. Transition is always uncomfortable, often painful. But, if all else fall to ruin, still you will have this, your heart.

    1. Interesting, the relationship between the two. Bunyan has Hope travelling with Christian: his constant companion. Promise only appeared as the key to despair. I’m left wondering what the difference is.

      1. I feel that promise is based on some concrete prospect, whereas hope is an innate survival mechanism that steps in to keep us alive regardless of the reality of our prospects

      2. That’s what I’ve always felt too. Bunyan’s Christian just finds it in his coat. He had forgotten it was there. Is it a message about our own abilities which we so often overlook?

        Alas, Bunyan will never tell us.

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