It’s funny how our perception of things changes as we get older. We can read the exact same book we read as a kid and come away with a completely different assessment. The characters we found delightful now seem annoying. The characters we thought were terrible now seem reasonable. As we grow up, our maturing standards provide a different lens through which to view the world.
That’s what happened with me and Gandalf. (Yes, I’m still thinking about that Hobbit/LotR movie marathon. It was a lot of hours, folks. So much walking, so many battles.) I first saw the LotR movies when I was in high school, and I viewed Gandalf the way most people probably did—a wise wizard, a sage guide.
Now, as an adult, I have a bit of a different view. As we watched the movies, I saw him being, quite frankly, remarkably unhelpful. Maybe it’s all that pipe-weed he enjoys. Maybe it’s because he’s basically ancient so the others look like toddlers to him (and who explains their plans to toddlers?).
I don’t know. I can only speculate. But it seems to adult me that Gandalf loves to make cryptic statements before vanishing. Like, “hey guys, danger will come when you least expect it. Try not to die. Gotta go. Be back later.”
Yes, I know. He has important wizard-y business to attend to, fighting evil in his own way. But a great communicator he is not.
To start with, he invites people to Bilbo’s home, without his permission, where they eat all his food. Let’s be honest, that alone would be grounds for banishment from my life. Call me Southern, but those are some seriously poor manners right there.
And at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tries to give the ring to Gandalf. The wizard responds by practically yelling at him, telling the hobbit not to tempt him with the ring.
Like. Yo, Gandalf. You’ve literally just told Frodo about the ring. He’s brand new to all this great-evil-linked-to-a-piece-of-jewelry stuff. Maybe give it a minute before you yell at him for showing trust in you?
But the scene that fully elicited my “say what now?” face (if you know me, you’ve no doubt seen that face before) happens before a battle, when one of the comic relief hobbits (Pippin) tells Gandalf, “I didn’t think it would end like this.”
Guys. He’s a scared little Shireling. He’s facing a major battle against powerful evil. He’s looking for reassurance, for encouragement. What does Gandalf say to him? Well, it basically amounts to “don’t worry, Pippin. Death isn’t the end. It’s just another path.”
Ya’ll. That is not the encouragement anyone wants when they’re going into battle. They don’t want to hear philosophical musings about the afterlife. They want to hear, “We’ll show those foul creatures the sharp end of the blade. I’m with you. We’re in this together.” But the truth is, Gandalf isn’t with anyone. He is not a team player.
It’s not something I really noticed before. But this time, both my husband and I were less than impressed with the eccentric wizard. Yes sure, sometimes he graces us with a quotable gem, but most of the time, Gandalf is not reliable and is off free-styling while the rest of the group is struggling to survive.
I’ve always been independent. I can appreciate freedom and autonomy more than most. I adore poetic, quotable statements. But I guess in my thirties I’ve come to value kindness and consideration more than fancy words. I’ve learned to treasure people who can be relied upon, the ones you know will have your back.
Maybe it’s silly to value kindness and honesty in the midst of a desperate war against evil. After all, Gandalf fights with great power and he saves their lives many times. But even Gandalf points out, “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” An interesting comment from someone who isn’t exactly skilled at those small acts of kindness.
All I know is, if I needed someone, if I was in trouble and could call on someone to help me or just give me a pep talk . . . yeah, it wouldn’t be Gandalf.
(If you’re a regular reader, never fear: Word Nerd Wednesday will live on. It’s just been moved to the first Wednesday of every month.)
I don’t know about you, but for my husband and me, the holidays often involve movie marathons. This year, over the Christmas and New Year holidays, we decided to fully commit to the concept and watch all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. Yes, all of them. The extended editions. I know. That’s a lot of hours but I don’t regret it one bit.
There’s something immensely moving about beautiful cinematography and epic quests. Martin Freeman’s interpretation of Bilbo will never not delight me. (That man should’ve won all the awards!) But one character always captures me most: Samwise Gamgee.
A few years ago, I wrote about the scene in which he nearly drowns. (You can read that here.) I can watch a million, touching death scenes and feel next to nothing, but that scene practically gets me blubbering into my coffee.
This time, though, there was another scene that caught my attention. In The Two Towers, as Sam and Frodo are edging closer to Mordor and the ring is slowly sucking the life out of Frodo, the two hobbits talk about the great adventure stories they heard growing up.
Sam: “I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales.”
Sam: “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories.’ ‘Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.'”
Frodo: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”
Sam: “Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn’t make fun. I was being serious.”
Frodo: “So was I.”
I love that scene. Why do I love that scene? For one thing, it’s one of the only times Frodo explicitly acknowledges what Sam has done, the contribution he’s made to their mission. Most of the time, Frodo is too busy nearing the end of his sanity to recognize it. Or being mislead by Gollum. (Newsflash: when your best friend tells you someone is up to no good, BELIEVE THEM. Ahem.) So to see him acknowledge Sam is heartwarming.
But mostly I love it because of what it says about Sam. Specifically, he thinks Frodo is joking when the ring-bearing hobbit talks about Sam as an important part of the story. Doesn’t that say so much about what Sam thinks of himself? He doesn’t see himself as important, as vital to the story. All he knows is that he made a promise and he’s going to keep it.
And he’s not wrong: in contrast to the others, Sam’s actually quite average. He’s no human king with elf gentility who’s running from his destiny. He’s no elf prince with grace and extraordinary skill with a bow. He’s no dwarf warrior who runs into danger like a battering ram.
Compared to his companions, Sam is just an average hobbit. Except when it comes to loyalty. Unlike his stature, his loyalty is giant and his commitment unmatched. And while the others understand why the ring must be destroyed, I think Sam sees it through a different filter: home. He knows that great evil is never satisfied, devouring everything it can reach, even his beloved Shire. And it’s that love of home and loyalty to Frodo that keep his hobbit feet moving toward great evil, going into battle with not much more than a frying pan (and wielding it with the skill of a Southern woman, I might add).
It’s not surprising that a writer (J.R.R. Tolkien) would write about the power of story. This scene is especially poignant in that regard because Sam is thinking about future generations who may hear their story and be inspired by it, as he and Frodo were by the stories of others before them. He starts out with a narrow view of what needs to be done: accompany Frodo. And over time, his view grows into a broad concept of how their mission may be remembered.
On every step of their adventure, Samwise follows Frodo right into the darkness. And when Frodo’s strength fails him, just steps away from the fires of Mt. Doom, Sam doesn’t wax poetic about the nature of evil. He doesn’t tell him the world will end if he doesn’t summon his strength. No, he reminds Frodo of home—of the strawberries with cream and the green meadows. He reminds Frodo of those things worth protecting by reminding him of what hobbits love and appreciate.
I have to admit, when it comes to the kingdoms of Middle Earth, I relate more to the elves, with their love of ancient wisdom, gorgeous waterfalls, and affinity for vegetables. But my husband is pure hobbit. There’s nothing he loves more than good food and a comfortable home.
Maybe that’s why I adore Samwise so much. Because I see much of my human in him. Like Sam, if I were called on a great quest, my own Samwise would be right there beside me, even if it meant going into danger and having to eat lembas bread for days on end.
I hope you have someone like that, someone who will walk into the darkness with you and remind you of all the things you hold dear, all the beautiful things worth fighting for. Because the only way evil loses is if you remember what you’re fighting for. The only way evil loses is if you hold onto the people you love. Love and friendship and home—as Samwise reminds Frodo, those are things worth fighting for.