What Does “That’s Deep” Mean?

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

When Peter read that passage from one of his favorite books, he paused for a moment and processed the words on the page. On the surface, it was merely describing what Samwise Gamgee saw and how it made him feel. 

Through the cloudy gloom, up upon the mountains, he saw a white star — and that star gave him hope because it shone through all the darkness. 

Yet, there was something more. Something underneath the literal. To which it made him say out loud, “Wow… that’s deep.” 

But what did he mean? Why did that passage out of the thousands of passages in the trilogy stop him? Or better yet, how did it stop him? 

The phrase “that’s deep” when we hear it in a literal sense, sounds like someone’s talking about the ocean floor. While that might sometimes be the case, what Peter meant when he said that’s deep was that the writing was profound. So in order for us to understand what makes something deep, we must understand what makes something profound. 

The word profound has many definitions, but the one we will be relying on is this one: going far beneath what is superficial, external, or obvious.

Yes, Sam Gamgee saw the star — but it was what the star represented that made the passage profound. It was so beautiful that it smote his heart and even looking at all the destruction, he had hope. Perhaps we have all been where Sam Gamgee was — not literally, not Mt Doom — but we have all been in a situation where we felt as though we were ready to surrender. There were moments where we felt hopeless.

Peter certainly did. He was neck-deep in student debt and looking for employment in the entertainment industry. Of course, the world was not looking for another filmmaker, and any project he wanted to get off the ground was consistently met with rejections. He was in the clouds on the dark tor, ready to quit. 

But the star, a light of high beauty can never be dimmed by the shadow. The shadow in Peter’s world was the debt. No matter how deep he falls into debt, his love for filmmaking and storytelling will never die. The star was his passion and when looking up upon it, he remembered the feeling he got when he premiered his first student film in high school. The audience laughed and cheered. It was what he loved doing. It made him happy. It fulfilled him. It kept him warm and made him feel as though life, his little life, was worth living. And that life — that will to live — hangs so high above the debt, that he knew poverty would never make him hate his passion. For he was living for his passion, not for his debt. 

He closed the book and placed it to the side. Peter, filled with hope and inspiration, his white star visible through the darkness, goes and picks up his camera and starts filming. He didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t ask for a budget. He didn’t go get approval or a permit. Like Sam, he’s focused on the twinkling star and not on the forsaken land beneath. 

For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small passing thing. 

We all have a Shadow — a capital problem that follows us — but Tolkien doesn’t make it obvious, he layers it with imagery and symbolism. 

Imagery is vivid and descriptive language. It creates visuals in the reader’s mind by appealing to the senses. In this case, sight: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.” 

Symbolism is the use of characters, settings, or objects to present an abstract idea. It holds hidden meanings and requires some deeper thinking to identify. In this example, it was the star and the Shadow. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Of course, Tolkien didn’t have Peter in mind when he wrote the story. But by using imagery and symbolism, he was able to emotionally impact a wider audience and his writing has lasted generations. That is what profound writing can do. Profound writing transcends time and space. It captures what it is like to be human without ever stating the obvious, “here, this is what you have to do. These are the facts.” It lies not on the surface and requires the individual, with their own values and personal experiences, to dig underneath. And it’s the process of digging that makes a piece of writing deep. 

Is there a profound passage of writing that really resonated with you? I’d love to read it, so please share it in the comments below. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, check out these two other posts in the series:

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