Continuing my recent habit of seeing The Lord of the Rings as the, um, One Analogy to Rule Them All….
I’ve been invoking the Gandalf Option, and I want to return to the passage from The Lord of the Rings that generated that phrase, but to explore a different aspect of it. Here are the words that Gandalf utters to Denethor, Steward of Gondor, when Denethor accuses him of wanting to rule Gondor himself:
“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
What interests me today is Gandalf’s concluding question: “Did you not know?”
What do we know about Gandalf, at least if we have read the appendices to LOTR? We know that he is not a human being but rather one of the Maiar, an order of immortal creatures somewhat less powerful than the Valar who shaped Middle Earth, but still considerably more powerful than human beings. Five of these Maiar were sent by the Valar to Middle-Earth to aid in the struggle against Sauron, and these were known as the Istari, the Wise Ones — or, in the common way of speaking, wizards.
And what do we know about Denethor? Gandalf at one point says of him that “he is not as other men of this time … by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.” Tolkien writes in one of his many letters filling out the history of Middle-Earth that even Sauron could not “dominate” Denethor through the Palantir, the seeing-stone that Denethor keeps in his chambers, and had to content himself with attempts at suasion and deceit.
So here’s my question, a slight revision of Gandalf’s question: Does Denethor really not understand who Gandalf is? The history of the Istari is not known to the hobbits, for instance, so they wonder what exactly Gandalf is; but surely it is known to this long-sighted and powerful Steward of Gondor. Or rather, was known. For I think the import of Gandalf’s “Did you not know?” is, “What have you done to yourself that you have forgotten what I truly am?”
One of Bruce Cockburn’s best songs is “Fascist Architecture,” which begins with this line: “Fascist architecture of my own design.” It’s a song about building an impregnable fortress around yourself, a structure meant to frighten others and protect you, but which ends up becoming your prison. You made it, you live in it — and you cannot now escape it. Cockburn says only love has the power to break the Cyclopean walls of your mental/emotional/spiritual fascist architecture.
The last conversation between Gandalf and Denethor occurs as the Steward is about to take his own life and, if he can manage it, the life of his surviving son as well. In desperation Gandalf asks Denethor what he wants, what he would have if he were free to choose it, and Denethor replies,
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”
He built his fascist architecture to protect himself from all change — including, among other things, the kind of change that occurs when a son becomes a man with his own will and judgment; and when that did not work, he chose death (naught) rather than risk the hope of renewal. He sealed himself off every voice that might have challenged the sovereignty of the one voice he continued to entertain: that of Sauron. And eventually he forgot much that he once had known, and came to perceive as an enemy and a threat the figure who could have been his best counselor, and to whom he himself could have been a great ally: Gandalf.
“Did you not know?” Yes: once he did. But not any more.
I’m seeing a lot of people, these days, following Denethor’s example: forgetting what they once knew about their neighbors and fellow citizens, practicing the fear of change and difference, responding to that fear by building fascist architecture of their own design.