“All We Have to Decide is What To Do With the Time That is Given Us”.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 48-51

The curtains are drawn and the room in which Frodo and Gandalf are sitting is darkened. The main source of light now comes from the brightly burning fire in the hearth. And it is into this fire that Gandalf now casts Bilbo’s ring and so reveals its true identity. It is the One Ring that Sauron made himself, “it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” And it is this Ring that the Dark Lord, now arisen once more, is seeking.

Gandalf Rejects the Ring

Frodo is dismayed. “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

And Gandalf speaks for us all when he says, “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.”

It is almost impossible to grasp how huge a moment this is in Frodo’s life unless, as we hear him say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, we also picture the Lord of the Nazgûl thrusting his knife into Frodo’s shoulder, Shelob’s sting in his neck, Gollum’s teeth biting off his finger and the Ring and perhaps, worst of all, the inexorably growing burden of the Ring that is slowly but surely taking possession of him as, step by step, he travels through Mordor towards the mountain.


But how can we be expected to grasp this moment if Frodo himself does not grasp it? He knows that the Ring is terrible but he can have no idea of what lies ahead for him. He may have a rich imagination but he cannot possibly imagine the suffering that he will have to endure. And this is the problem with our imaginations. Either the thing that we fear is greater in our imaginations than it is in reality or else it is much, much smaller. Imagination and reality are never co-equal.

The impossibility of forming a perfect connection between imagination and reality does not make it impossible either for Gandalf to explain to Frodo what he must do or for Frodo to decide whether to accept the task or not. Gandalf’s words to Frodo enable Frodo to do what is required and that is to take the first step.

“All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This is a wonderful moment of clarity offered by one who possesses both the ability to see both the whole picture of which even these great decisions form but a part and the necessary steps of a particular journey. As a good friend said to me recently Gandalf is both absolutely terrible and entirely trustworthy at one and the same time. We might do all in our power to keep the ones that we love away from him because we will fear the task to which he might call them but he will never call them to something that will do hurt to their true self. Can we say that with confidence when we know what Frodo will go through? I think that we must say yes. Frodo will be tested beyond any limit that he might have conceived possible and yet he will be held by the power that called both himself and Gandalf, a power that bids us wager all that we have for something beyond all possibility.

And there is something else. A few years ago I used to leave my daughter on a Saturday morning at some riding stables near our home and then walk with my dog through the narrow lanes of Worcestershire before returning in time to watch her riding her horse over the jumps in the last minutes of the lesson. There was one point in my walk in which I descended a gentle hill that gave me some sense of the road ahead but whose sweep was hidden by a high hedgerow so that I could not see what was approaching me. Suddenly one day as I walked the lane I became convinced, just for a moment, that Gandalf was coming towards me around the bend and that when we met he would call me on a wonderful yet terrible adventure and that I would go. My whole being was gripped by exhilaration and anticipation. I did not meet him that day but the memory of the experience has not left me. I know that to decide what to do with my own time is both something that is completely serious and yet completely joyful at both one and the same time.



9 thoughts on ““All We Have to Decide is What To Do With the Time That is Given Us”.

  1. Gandalf’s maxim is one that comes to mind often in the last few years, whether I’m deciding on participating in political campaigns or increasing the soil carbon level in my garden. I just noticed in our blogroll that you also follow “Modern Stoicism” — this might be the most Stoic thing Gandalf ever said.

    • I must take a look at Modern Stoicism again. I don’t seem to have had a reminder of any recent posts.
      I am an enthusiastic seeker after conversations. I was once a chaplain to a government scientific research establishment here in the UK. It has been privatised now and there are no more chaplains. I used to wander around the place chatting with scientists who often loved to talk about their personal philosophies.
      I don’t know if Gandalf’s words are Stoic. I just love them. And they steel us to take action in the kind of situations that you outline when we might be tempted to take the easy route.

  2. There is an interesting take on The Fellowship of the Ring by Jessica Hooten Wilson in an article in America Magazine January 2021.

    • Thank you so much, Frank, for drawing my attention to this fine essay which I have just read. Her conviction that power always enslaves is a very important insight although, as with money, it is our love for it that has that effect. Actually money and power are really two ways of talking about the same thing in our culture.
      Hooten Wilson’s comparison of Tolkien with Homer is a completely new source of reflection for me and I am most grateful to you for drawing my attention to it.
      If you are able to do so I would very much like to read your reflection on her essay and how it relates to what I say in my blog.

  3. If you were excited to meet Gandalf, then you sir, are a Took …

    Gandalf’s words here carry a great challenge to Frodo (unimaginable by Frodo as you say). But there’s also something encouraging about them, even empowering, because it means we can’t see all things and are not responsible for all ages and for all History. Just for our modest corner. We’re not to play God because we are after all just a little fellow in a wide world after all.

    My thanks to Frank Bolton as well for that America piece.

  4. Although this piece is one of the most often read of all that I have written over the past years in this blog you are the first person to comment on for some time and so I had to go back in order to refresh my memory of what I wrote three years ago. Inevitably I found it somewhat flawed but on the whole I am happy to stand by what I wrote. The one thing that I no longer agree with is my statement that Gandalf could see the whole picture. He could definitely see far more than Frodo but even he has but a “modest corner” of the whole for which he is responsible. I would even say, as we approach Christmas once more, that in Jesus God lays down the power to “play God” by becoming one of us in a very modest corner of the cosmos.
    As for being a Took, I would describe myself as more of a Baggins (of the Bilbo variety!) whose desire for adventure has largely been forgotten but which is occasionally reawakened and not by my choice.

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