Deep Hope


Varlam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales describes his experience of the Gulag, where he spent more than a dozen of years. In a story titled The Life of Engineer Kipreev Shalamov reflects on the theme of hope in the life of a prisoner: “Hope always shackles the convict. Hope is slavery. A man who hopes for something alters his conduct and is more frequently dishonest than a man who has ceased to hope.” If one hopes, then he tries to comply with the demands of the oppressors wasting his energy on attempts to please them in the hope of any benefit. Hope makes you blind to reality and a victim of self-deception.

A similar take on hope can be found in Auschwitz our Home by Tadeusz Borowski, a short story included in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen: “It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels a man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger in man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.” A prisoner of Auschwitz should give up hope in order to preserve the last traces of human dignity. And a proof of dignity can be any act of resistance, even if it is a senseless act of resistance.

Both Shalamov and Borowski agree: Hope in a death camp is a curse rather than a blessing.


The ancient Norsemen believed that hope is “the drool that runs from the mouth of Fenris-Wolf,” writes T.A. Shippey in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. He observes that Tolkien drew strongly from the Norse mythology, especially when dealing with such topics as hope and courage. In the Norse mythology, the Day of Doom (Ragnarök) is inevitable, and it brings sure destruction for the gods and their human allies. Yet the gods and their human allies do not change sides but fight to the very end. They do it out of loyalty to their comrades and loyalty is a trademark of the Norse understanding of courage. But they had little regard for hope, which they thought was redundant and even harmful. In the end hope always betrays the hoper, and in the meantime, it makes him weak.

“In a sense, this Northern mythology asks more of people than Christianity does, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the sombre satisfaction of having done right. Even the heathen Valhalla is only a waiting-room and training-ground for the final defeat. Tolkien wanted his characters in The Lord of the Rings to live up to the same high standard and was careful therefore to remove easy hope from them, to make them conscious of long-term defeat and doom” (Shippey).

Shippey continues: “Thus, it is obvious that many if not most of the senior characters in The Lord of the Rings envisage defeat as a long-term prospect. Galadriel says, ‘Through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.’ Elrond agrees, saying ‘I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats and many fruitless victories.’ Later on, he queries his own adjective ‘fruitless,’ but still repeats that the victory long ago in which Sauron was overthrown but not destroyed ‘did not achieve its end.’ The whole history of Middle-earth seems to show that good is attained only at vast expense while evil recuperates almost at will.”

The members of the Fellowship of the Ring find themselves in hopeless situations again and again. In the mines of Moria, when Gandalf states bluntly: “We must do without hope” or at the Black Gate when the last hope is gone, and the only consolation is despair postponed. Frodo and Sam also lose hope, when approaching Mount Doom.

Of course, Tolkien was a Christian and did not believe that the world was “beyond redemption” and controlled by evil forces as the ancient Norsemen had believed. But neither did he believe that any real help comes from feeding on easy hope which always betrays the hoper. “Those who need hope to keep going will fall prey to despair when their hope is withdrawn,” concludes Shippey.

Thus, Peter Kreeft in The Philosophy of Tolkien speaks about two kinds of hope. One “lives only on the conscious surface of the self, in the feelings and the mind.” But “this kind often has to be killed for the deeper hope to emerge.” Later on, he notes that “nearly every time Tolkien uses the word [hope], he means surface hope, and when it disappears, deep hope takes over, and the result is not inaction or surrender but total commitment to battle and action.”

Hope, for sure, “it is not a feeling of optimism,” continues Kreeft. The main characters of The Lord of the Rings understand that their quest is not only dangerous or even lethal but also that they cannot be sure of its outcome. Galadriel does not bring much comfort to Frodo when she says that the “quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” Galadriel is also well aware that if Frodo succeeds and destroys the Ring, then both Lothlórien and Rivendell will inevitably disintegrate. There will be a price to pay in either case. There is no going back to the good old days.

An easy and swift victory is always an illusion which makes people blind to reality and eventually prone to resignation. Shippey claims that Tolkien wanted to remove easy hope from his characters and to make them conscious of the perspective of the long defeat and many fruitless victories. Yet he did not deprive them of all joy and consolation. They joke and laugh, they eat and drink, they sing songs and tell old stories to find some wisdom and strength in them. As long as they stay loyal to the company and preserve memories of the Shire they move on in spite of all setbacks and failures. They hope against hope.


Herling-Grudzinski in Najkrotszy przewodnik po samym sobie admits that „there are circumstances when hope can be a curse.” Especially when it makes one submissive to his oppressors and in the end, turns out to be based on false expectations. “At the beginning, I lived on hope which led me to diligent work, because I thought that such an attitude would help me, only later I realized that that would not help me. I was young, healthy and strong, I could work hard, but later I found out that my reasoning was completely false. The only way to survive a Soviet camp was sparing my energy by way of any possible trick; of course, any trick which would not harm any of the fellow prisoners.”

Nevertheless, in the end, he agrees with Dostoevsky’s statement: “Life is impossible without hope.” This quote comes from Notes from a Dead House, where the author describes the life of prisoners in Siberia, based on his own experience. Herling-Grudzinski comments on the quote: “If you take away all hope from a man, then he will turn against himself. This is the state of utter despair.” And this is what happened to Borowski. Even though he survived Auschwitz, six years after the war, and less than a week after his first child was born, he committed suicide at the age of 29. As Herling-Grudzinski concludes, Borowski was totally burned out and filled with hatred. Auschwitz killed his soul, and later also his body.

Though Shalamov considered hope as “shackles,” he did not give it up entirely. This is what Herling-Grudzinski thinks based on Prosthetic Appliances, one of Shalamov’s short stories, where he describes a situation when a guard asks the prisoners to hand over all their prostheses. When the guard asks Shalamov, who did not have any prosthesis: “What will you give up? Your soul?”, Shalamov replied: “No, you can’t have my soul.” Even though Shalamov was an atheist, the last thing which kept him from a complete surrender was a very religious concept of soul, something divine and thus precious in man. There was something true and treasured which he held on to and perceived as worth fighting for.

Shalamov writes about a special group among the prisoners of the Gulag, the so-called religiozniki, i.e. prisoners sentenced on account of their religious (usually Christian) beliefs and activities. Shalamov admitted: “I did not see more worthy people than the religiozniki in the camps. Defilement covered the souls of all, and only the religious people held fast.”1 According to Herling-Grudzinski, “the hope of religiozniki was different, elevated above the mere count of days, months, years; it reached towards freedom, which the abusers had no access to.”

The mere count of days, months, years is what easy hope does, but eventually, it melts like fog in the wind. Deep hope rejects it as treacherous and braces itself for a long and formidable run, for many fruitless victories and the long defeat. It does so out of loyalty and friendship and out of a longing for any good to prevail. It refuses to come to terms with the claim that betrayal and bondage shall be accepted as ultimate and ordinary.

Bogumil Jarmulak, a Pastor in Poznan, Poland, is Presiding Minister of Anselm Presbytery in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.

References   [ + ]

1. This quote comes from a short story titled Курсы (Courses), not included in the English edition of Kolyma Tales.