Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: Listen to Gandalf!

Denethor, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, can teach us about the danger of isolating ourselves in a time of turmoil.

This is a second in a series post on Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. For a bit more background, see the first post, “Don’t Be Like Denethor!”

If you are a fan of Tolkien’s novel, this second lesson may seem self-evident: Listen to Gandalf! For those who haven’t read “The Lord of the Rings,” or perhaps haven’t read it recently, Gandalf is a Wizard. In Tolkien’s work, that means a bit more than what we think. Gandalf is a wise and powerful being, dispatched to Middle Earth (the setting of the novel) to aid men and other mortals in their fight against Sauron, the embodiment of Evil.

Early in the story, Gandalf is advising Frodo, encouraging him to undertake a perilous and possibly futile mission to combat the growing specter of Evil. Frodo is a hobbit from the Shire, a bucolic backwater that, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, has long been sheltered and protected. As Frodo becomes aware of the growing danger and what may be asked of him, we have this exchange.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (p. 51). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

In our time of global pandemic, it is easy for us to empathize with Frodo. It has been generations since our world has experienced such global upheaval. No one is safe. All countries, regions, and classes of society are in the same boat. We find ourselves, like Frodo, suddenly aware of a grave danger that we struggle to understand and feel ill-prepared to deal with. It is not surprising that we should wish Covid-19 need not have happened in our time.

The words of Gandalf offer some reassurance and a challenge. The reassurance is that our wish is not a sign of weakness. Even Gandalf, ancient, wise, and wielding great power, wishes the same. The challenge is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us. That is a key question: What are we, living in this pandemic, to do with the time given us?

Tolkien’s friend and fellow author C. S. Lewis offered us a helpful answer. In 1948, England, along with most of the world, was gravely concerned with the very real likelihood of being attacked with nuclear weapons. Lewis wrote an essay, “On Living in the Atomic Age,” where he provided an answer to the question of “what shall we do with the time given us?”

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis, C. S.. Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In Lewis’ day, the threat was just that, a threat. We are living with the effects of the pandemic, yet we are also under threat. How long will it last? How bad will the economy get? Will I get it? Will someone I love?

What shall we do with the time given us, a time of pandemic and its social and economic dislocations? We should do “sensible and human things.” We should get along with our lives as best we can while responsibly protecting ourselves and others from contagion. We should love our families, our neighbors, and our communities. We should eat and laugh and pray and offer support. We cannot choose how we feel, but we can choose what we think about and dwell on. Let us not let Covid-19 dominate our minds. Let us focus on being the best husbands, wives, parents, friends, neighbors, and Christians that we can be.

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