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The wisdom of Tolkien

I've nearly finished my second reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings. I first read this mammoth work of fantasy literature when I was about 12 years old. I remember at the time enjoying the "story" but getting frustrated at the way the characters would keep on bursting into song or waxing lyrical on the memory of some legend of old.

This time around, I've appreciated Tolkien's work much more as a piece of literature. But I've also found myself stopping on occasion to re-read (and re-read again) certain "purple patches" where Tolkien either strikes a particularly poignant chord, or else offers a chewy aphorism on the lips of one of his protagonists. I've collected some of my favourites into this blog-post, along with my comments or observations. I hope you enjoy them.

‘Have you often been to Rivendell?’ said Frodo.

‘I have,’ said Strider. ‘I dwelt there once, and still I return when I may. There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond.’

This wistful and longing remark from Strider (a.k.a. Aragorn) reminded me of my homeland. There my heart is, but it is not my fate to sit in peace there. As a Christian, I find in Aragorn's words an even more poignant reference to a heavenly home.

'Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.’

None other than Elrond himself applies his ancient wisdom to the "wheels of the world." For sure, the "eyes of the great" are often too distracted to notice where the true dynamic is found. Let not the deeds of small hands go unnoticed.

I’ve never heard of a better land than this. It’s like being at home and on a holiday at the same time, if you understand me.

Sam Gamgee perfectly expresses that feeling we all want to put in a bottle and sell... or just keep to ourselves.

‘But do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.’

Well said Celeborn: my own mother couldn't have put it better!

'Yet do not cast all hope away. Tomorrow is unknown. Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun.’

Elvish insight from Legolas. "Rede" is an archaic word for "counsel" or "advice". For sure, things often look better in the morning.

‘There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.'

King Aragorn again. Sometimes you've just got to bite the bullet and get on with it.

‘What? [Talking] in riddles?’ said Gandalf. ‘No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.’

A rare, candid moment from Mithrandir. Only he could get away with a line like this and still end up likeable.

I have spoken words of hope. But only of hope. Hope is not victory.

Gandalf the Grey again. True enough. Although for the believer, the hoped-for victory is certain.

‘Faithful heart may have froward tongue.’

King Théoden, with a pithy reminder that no-one's perfect... and that the best friends may not always deliver, until it really matters.

Oft the unbidden guest proves the best company.

The Lord Éomer's savvy evokes a longing for the pre-COVID world when "unbidden guests" were even a thing. I think he might be right.... but maybe only 10% of the time!

The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure.

Théoden might have been talking about 2021.

‘Do not judge the counsel of Gandalf, until all is over, lord,’ said Aragorn.

Or, as we say in Scotland, "fools and bairns shouldnae see things half done," especially if they're done at Gandalf's say-so.

‘One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.'

Aragorn puts his finger on the nature of the 'precious' things in our lives that bind us, even as they blind us. How can we relativise our treasures? I know of only one way.

All Wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care – to teach them the meaning of the word, and to correct them.

Top advice for all wizards from Gandalf the Grey. I call mine my children.

The burned hand teaches best.

Gandalfian acumen of the first degree. Nothing like feeling it for authenticity.

Sam sighed audibly; and not at the courtesies, of which, as any hobbit would, he thoroughly approved. Indeed in the Shire such a matter would have required a great many more words and bows.

Who knew the Shire was modelled on the Land of the Rising Sun?

'Don’t the great tales never end?’

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’

Indeed. Sic transit gloria mundi, but the Show goes on.

‘Don’t take names to yourself, Sméagol,’ said Frodo. ‘It’s unwise, whether they are true or false.’

Even Gollum gets a word of counsel from Mr Frodo. And it's one I could take to my sensitive heart, too.

‘The hasty stroke goes oft astray.’

Of course, a stitch in time saves nine, too... but I think Aragorn's proverb is a healthy balance.

‘Gandalf!’ he cried. ‘Gandalf! He always turns up when things are darkest.'

Pippin puts in words the cry of all our hearts as we wait for our Hero. Cue dramatic music and freely-flowing tears.

Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.

Gandalf perhaps acknowledging a sovereign purpose behind evil...

Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite.

...and Éomer seems to concur.

It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.

Meriadoc offers some hobbit sense on the knowledge of higher things, and being grounded in the lower. There's something Augustinian here. I'm still figuring this one out.

‘It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.’

Alas, Gimli son of Glóin, t'is ever so...


The final, triumphant, word must go, appropriately enough, to Bilbo Baggins:

Sing hey! for the bath at close of day

that washes the weary mud away!

A loon is he that will not sing:

O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,

and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;

but better than rain or rippling streams

is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

O! Water cold we may pour at need

down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;

but better is Beer, if drink we lack,

and Water Hot poured down the back.

O! Water is fair that leaps on high

in a fountain white beneath the sky;

but never did fountain sound so sweet

as splashing Hot Water with my feet!

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