“Never travel far without a rope! And one that is long and strong and light … They may be a help in many needs.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 8
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Roget’s Thesaurus suggests three adjectives as possible synonyms of the word resourceful: cunning, skillful, and versatile. Webster’s Dictionary offers the following terse definition: “able to meet situations; capable of devising ways and means.” Ironically, both Roget and Webster seem to have overlooked the word’s simplest and most obvious meaning: “full of a resource.” They’ve placed all the emphasis on the native inventiveness and cleverness of the individual rather than on the raw material he must manipulate or the supply source upon which he depends. This is a serious error – one that the true Pilgrim seeks to avoid at all costs.
To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Only God can create ex nihilo. In the same way, the Pilgrim knows that he cannot “meet situations” or “devise ways and means” unless he has something to work with, something to draw upon. He is also keenly aware that this something has to come from outside himself. On his own he’s an empty vessel, a mere clay pot. Unless he is filled and empowered by this outside resource, he can do nothing.
The best of all resources is the one that is both the simplest and the most universally applicable. The heroes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings understood this. That’s why they regarded a strand of rope – perhaps the most basic of all mankind’s technological innovations – as one of the most important items a traveler could pack when setting out on a perilous journey. Again and again throughout the course of Tolkien’s epic our hobbit heroes find themselves asking the question, “Got rope?” It happens often enough to make the reader wonder what it’s really all about.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins catches sight of a small boat resting against the farther bank of Mirkwood’s enchanted river. “Can any of you throw a rope?” asks Thorin Oakenshield, chief of the dwarves. A few stout lengths are produced and, sure enough, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the boat is snagged and drawn across the water.
Filled with excitement at having discovered a secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain, the treasure-hunting dwarves make their way up the precipitous path, each with “a good coil of rope wound tight about his waist.” With these ropes they haul up provisions from the valley while Bofur and Bombur remain below with the pack ponies. Later, they must use the same lines to hoist their two companions to safety when the dragon becomes aware of their presence and emerges from his lair.
In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, setting out from Rivendell, checks his pack and discovers he’s forgotten rope. “You’ll want it if you haven’t got it,” he tells himself. Fortunately, several coils are supplied in Lorien; and, as one of the elves there predicts, they prove to be “a help in many needs.” “What a piece of luck you had that rope!” says Frodo after safely descending a sheer cliff-face in the rocky waste of the Emyn Muil. “Better luck if I’d thought of it sooner,” replies Sam.
Interestingly enough, G. K. Chesterton – a writer whose works Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis knew well – once made some similar observations about the value of rope:
If a man found a coil of rope in a desert he could at least think of all the things that can be done with a coil of rope; and some of them might even be practical. He could tow a boat or lasso a horse. He could play cat’s-cradle, or pick oakum. He could construct a rope-ladder for an eloping heiress, or cord her boxes for a travelling maiden aunt. He could learn to tie a bow, or he could hang himself.[i]
Naturally, Chesterton wasn’t suggesting that it might be a good idea to go out and hang yourself. He was merely attempting to illustrate that the best tool in the box is the one with the broadest range of uses. He was saying that a bit of rope can be a good thing to have no matter where the journey takes you, whether out into the desert, up the side of a mountain, or over the edge of a cliff.
In the same way, the Pilgrim is resourceful not because he is brilliant, talented, inventive, or brave in and of himself, but simply because he has a good bit of “rope” – a versatile source of strength capable of meeting any challenge, a reliable lifeline to which he can cling when the rocks give way and the earth crumbles beneath his feet. His confidence is not in himself, but in the solid truth that God “is a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” It’s this that determines and defines his very identity as a traveler and sojourner in this world.
[i] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World; Part III, Chapter 2, “The Universal Stick” (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2007, originally published in 1910), 89-90.