Part of Chapter 13 in the series Myths and Dragons
One of the greatest contributions to recent Christian thought, in my opinion, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Christian church, in its many forms, could learn a thing or two about its role in people’s lives from the mythological characters in the story. Gandalf, Saruman and Galadriel reveal three examples of “institutional attitudes” towards change. Do you know religious and non-religious groups that have personalities similar to these three characters?
Gandalf the Grey Pilgrim has a lesson for the church.
In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is often criticized for arriving with bad news, arriving with dramatic urgency, and arriving with very little time to prepare for whatever it is that’s so important. Gandalf isn’t very patient with people. As a result, people find it hard to listen to him. But with all his convictions, emotional outbursts, and persistent needling, he has a consistent quality.
When Gandalf returns to the Shire he goes to Bag-End to find Frodo. They test the ring in the small hearth fire and Gandalf’s worries are confirmed. He explains to his hobbit friend the history of The One Ring, the Ring of Power that was made from the might and will of the Black Lord. Frodo, realizing the enormous responsibility in his old uncle’s ring, offers the ring to Gandalf. Surely, a great man of the world like Gandalf would be a better keeper for such a dangerous, willful thing, right? But Gandalf becomes offended and even scared of the thing. He won’t even touch it.
Gandalf refuses the ring. Instead he commits his strength and abilities to the protection and service of the one that has to make the journey. He is constantly working for some other goal than his own power. He himself constantly journeys – always initiating and maintaining relationships but never consolidating and securing any authority for himself. If anything, he gains only a reputation for bothering those in power, for making people face up to the next impending challenge. He even undergoes the most dramatic challenge of his own life in order to protect his fellowship – he faces a demon he might not be able to beat. And through his own sacrifices, Gandalf changes because of it.
Gandalf is the helpful mentor. He is the best friend and most trusted companion a ring-bearer can have. He is there for the ring-bearer from the beginning and even at the end when all hope is lost, despite the costs and sacrifices and changes these relationships force upon Gandalf.
Saruman the Plotting Fool has a lesson for the church.
After his armies are defeated and his power gone, Saruman is held in the tower of Orthanc. Gandalf offers his fellow wizard a moment of peace, if only he will come down from his jail of a tower, if only he will admit to being wrong. Saruman refuses the invitation, and all more refuses to sacrifice his trust in things such as power, political influence and personal ambition. Instead, he finds Gandalf and his jailors threatening, and will not believe what they say. He thinks they play games with him, and so he schemes to see if he can best them. Saruman thinks his enemies have the same intentions as himself. As a result, he fears them instead of changing his attitude and considering their help or guidance. He loses his position and his power and ends up being less than a wisp on the wind.
Saruman seeks the ring. He tries to fix things rigidly in place and gain dominance over both the natural world and the cultural world. His own obsessions direct him to his doom. And when faced with his failure, he slinks further and further into depravity, striking at whatever little things he can, to either upset or prove wrong those he once tried to dominate. He is unable to admit to his mistakes or face his failure in serving the world.
Saruman is a ruthless tyrant. He sides with an enemy that, ultimately, will not share power and will not be influenced. His envy makes him unable to understand the need to refuse power in institutional form. As a result of establishing himself with power – residing in a fixed and unchanging fortress called Orthanc and surrounding himself with the industry of his minions – he unwittingly unleashes the hidden forces of nature that are his own undoing.
Galadriel The Lady of Lothlorien has a lesson for the church.
Galadriel offers the ring-bearer a glimpse into the possible future. She understands the imminent change the world must face and the importance of the Ring of Power. She is surprised when, in turn, the little ring-bearer offers the ring to her. Galadriel is painfully tempted because of her desire to maintain the realm she has been able to create for herself, but she also knows how the One Ring would ultimately twist and change her. She declines, and passes the test, although it means the end of her own place in the world. Galadriel willingly prepares herself and her realm for the sacrifices and changes to come.
Galadriel denies the ring. Even at the expense, eventually, of her own position and power.
Galadriel is a distant sponsor. She tests, and is in turn tested. She offers a place of peace and comfort, regardless of the threat it brings to her own home, and is in turn offered something in reciprocity. She understands her role, and the need to refuse power beyond her realm. She gives gifts chosen or made specifically to the guests that come to her, letting their talents and their needs govern her contributions. And, she submits to her fate. She passes into the West.
Can religious groups, or any institutional groups, learn these lessons well? Can the church, or any established institution, learn to refuse the ring and triumph over its own will?
What is your church? Is it a helpful mentor, a ruthless tyrant, or a distant sponsor? Or something more?
What do you think?