Gandalf Shows Us that the Greatest Wisdom is Learned Through Weakness and Suffering.

The Fords at Osgiliath are taken and its defenders, commanded by Faramir, are in full retreat back across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Denethor awaits the end in his tower.

Pippin fears that the Dark Lord himself has come but Denethor replies with a bitter laugh:

“Nay, not yet Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?”

In recent weeks on this blog we have seen that Denethor is not the self-indulgent coward that Jackson portrays him to be in his films. He lives and eats austerely and even sleeps in his armour so that his body should not “grow soft and timid.” It is so important that we should take note of the way in which Tolkien describes him here so that we understand the full tragedy of his story. Denethor’s journey to despair is the fruit of his greatness not his weakness. To understand it in this way will teach us a profoundly wise self-awareness if we will allow it. There is a time in the first half of life in which we believe that we must eliminate our weakness and develop our strength. If we do that then we will achieve great things as Denethor does but there will come a time when we must learn to see that our strength has the capacity to bring us to disaster while our weaknesses, those qualities that we have pushed into the shadow that follows us, will teach us wisdom if we will allow them. In a powerful passage in his second letter to the Corinthians the mighty Paul speaks of an affliction that brings him low, that he prays will be taken away from him. Eventually God tells him that his power is made perfect in weakness. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is a story that displays that reality. It is not Denethor’s greatness that will bring down Sauron but Frodo’s weakness and Gandalf’s fool’s hope!

Gandalf recognises this. At one point Denethor taunts him with his weakness when Gandalf reveals that the captain of the armies of Mordor is none other the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. “Then, Mithrandir, you have a foe to match you… For myself, I have long known who is the chief captain of the hosts of the Dark Tower. Is that all that you have returned to say? Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?”

Pippin is horrified! Denethor is accusing Gandalf of cowardice, of running away. How will Gandalf react? Will he strike out in anger? But Gandalf is no young hothead but has become one who has nothing left to defend. He has learned the wisdom of weakness choosing the life of a wandering pilgrim, sometimes driven from the doors of those from whom he seeks shelter, habitually bearing insults such as the one that Denethor hurls against him. He has learned a patient long-suffering and a deep pity for the suffering of others. And he knows that among all the foes that he has faced, greater even than the Balrog of Moria, the greatest is Sauron’s chief captain. It may be that when they meet he will be defeated but for Gandalf that matters far less than the future of Middle-earth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to fellow members of the resistance to Hitler, whether they emerged from the struggle as heroes mattered very little. What mattered was whether the coming generation would be able to live. That too is the wisdom of one who had learned through suffering and weakness.

10 thoughts on “Gandalf Shows Us that the Greatest Wisdom is Learned Through Weakness and Suffering.

  1. Pingback: a note of gratitude « The Green and Blue House

  2. Thanks for your thought-provoking insights on Denethor and Gandalf.

    One of my profs in seminary used to say that our strengths emerge from our weaknesses. They are as inseparable as two sides of a coin. Thus it is not possible to increase our strength without increasing our weakness or, conversely, to reduce our weakness without reducing our strength. To be whole is to embrace both sides of ourselves.

    If I understand you correctly, Denethor’s madness is a result of his desire for and love of strength-in-battle above all other things–making it his god. Paul Tillich describes idolatry as demonic because it warps the power of the holy in service to something that is less than God.

    That we find wholeness in putting God first (in a life of humility like Gandalf’s) is reflected in three great religions:
    –Judaism (The Lord your God is God; have no other gods before him)
    –Christianity (you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength)
    –Islam (only God is God).

    Being mere humans, we vacillate between putting God first and turning our backs on him as we try to be in control. In The Lord of the Rings, evil behavior often begins with good intentions (such as Denethor’s desire to protect the West) that become gods.

    • Many thanks for leaving this comment, Sheryl. There has been quite a debate on Denethor on my blog in the last few weeks. He is a highly complex character and utterly disproves the contention that Tolkien’s characters are black or white in nature. I began this collection of posts with a highly critical view of a man who gives way to despair. To some degree I still hold to this view but I have been persuaded that Denethor deserves the reverence in which his people clearly hold him. That makes your point about the relationship between strength and weakness all the more interesting.
      I certainly agree that Denethor has chosen to deify strength in battle. In a way his two sons express his inner conflict. He chooses Boromir who loved glory in battle against Faramir for whom strength in arms was merely a means to an end which is the restoration of true Númenor. What I suspect in Denethor is that his true self is actually closer to Faramir but he has rejected that and so does terrible harm to himself; so whereas Boromir is able to find redemption dying as a Christian knight and not as a pagan hero, this path is not open to Denethor.

  3. Thank you for your thought-provoking piece on Denethor and Gandalf.

    If I understand you correctly, Denethor’s madness is a result of his desire for and love of strength-in-battle above all other things–making it his god. Paul Tillich describes idolatry as demonic because it warps the power of the holy in service to something that is less than God.

    That we find wholeness in putting God first (in a life of humility like Gandalf’s) is reflected in three great religions:
    –Judaism (The Lord your God is God; have no other gods before him)
    –Christianity (you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength)
    –Islam (only God is God).

    Being mere humans, we vacillate between putting God first and turning our backs on him as we try to be in control. In The Lord of the Rings, evil behavior often begins with good intentions (such as Denethor’s desire to protect the West) that become the person’s gods.

    • I look forward to discussing Tillich’s understanding of the relationship between idolatry and the demonic further with you. Certainly Denethor’s decision to act out a bizarrely elaborate and ceremonial suicide while his people are fighting for survival would seem to bear that out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s