Humility of Wisdom

lord of the rings by j.r.r. tolkienAfter watching the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with my stepson, last week, I decided to reread J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for the first time in about 20 years.  I’ve been enjoying it more than expected, and have discovered several nuggets of Tolkien wisdom.

I’ve been struck by how the wisest people in Tolkien’s novels are usually slow to commit to absolutes.

Gandalf (arguably the wisest person in Middle Earth) was quick to admit mistakes and times that he might have made different choices or acted more quickly.  At the same time, he was very slow to conclude the ring Bilbo found was the One Ring.  When questioned about his conclusion, Gandalf did not make authoritative statements or rely on his reputation.  Rather, he presented the evidence in a rather rambling fashion, leading to his logical conclusion, based on years of study and research.

At the Council of Elrond, in Rivendell, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn, Glorfindel, and the other wise counselors present discussed many possible scenarios for dealing with the ring, and listened to each other’s input.  All were clearly unsure of the best course of action.  In fact, they arrived at a decision largely by a process of elimination and recognition that anything short of destruction would be but a temporary solution.

Both Gildor and Galadriel refused to give Frodo advice, though they did provide other forms of aid.  Gildor told Frodo, “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

On the fellowship’s march south, Aragorn and Gandalf held a running debate over the wisest path for crossing the mountains.  Aragorn favored the high mountain pass, whereas Gandalf favored the stealth of tunnels under the mountains, through the Mines of Moria.  Yet, both conceded that their preferred route had risks, and both showed respect for the other’s opinion.

Perhaps most telling was the refusal of Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, and Galadriel to accept custody of the ring.  Each realized the evil of the ring was too powerful for them…that, in time, the ring would master them…and the ring was safer in the temporary custody of Frodo the Hobbit.

By comparison, Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor were each completely convinced that they had the power and right to wield the ring as a powerful weapon.  They had no doubts, qualms or sense of uncertainty.  They were each absolutely certain of the best course of action…and they were each completely blind to both the full danger of the ring and their own limitations.

Tolkien’s perspective seems to be that only those with a high degree of arrogance born of blindness have the luxury of certainty in counsel or plans.  And to them, the counsel of the wise appears as foolishness.

I’m reminded of the many times I’ve heard of a pastor (foolishly) counseling an abuse victim, “Divorce is sin. God hates divorce!”  Authoritative absolutes…arrogance born of blindness…

What real life examples have you seen to support Tolkien’s perspective on humility of wisdom?

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6 thoughts on “Humility of Wisdom

  1. Joe:
    What a good post. I’m several chapters into your book…so very good, educational, comforting. Very comforting! I wish this info could be spread everywhere….it would stop so much abuse and pain. Oh..good job!


  2. I know that my husband asserts that the older I get the less opinionated I am to the point that sometimes he gets a little testy. “Just tell me what you think! You used to have an opinion about everything!” (The folly of youth) My reply, “But that’s the problem! I could tell you what I think with the facts that I have but the truth is I don’t have all the facts and probably never will!” 🙂
    I do know that as I get older the things that are black and white are more black & white than ever, and everything else is more gray than ever. The love of God & the Truth of His Word is an absolute. My opinions are tempered by the knowledge that His thoughts are much higher than my finite thoughts.
    Thanks for the commentary on Tolkien. I would love to hear (read) more from you on his works.

    • “Folly of youth,” indeed! In fact, the expression of strong opinions firmly stated, on a wide variety of topics, seems fairly typical adolescent behavior…something we learn to outgrow with the wisdom of years…

      I like how you worded this:

      “…as I get older the things that are black and white are more black & white than ever, and everything else is more gray than ever. The love of God & the Truth of His Word is an absolute. My opinions are tempered by the knowledge that His thoughts are much higher than my finite thoughts.”

      I agree. Truths that have been tested thru many trials and proven still true, I’ve become more convinced of than ever. However, I am also increasingly aware of how little I understand of the full counsel of God or of the revelation of His truth.

      As an example, I am quick to proclaim “God is faithful,” as I have experienced His consistent faithfulness. However, I am also quick to add that we don’t know in advance which paths He will lead us down. He is faithful to us and to completing His work in us, throughout the journey of life. However, if we are looking to Him as insurance of our plans meeting our expectations of fruition, we are likely to be disappointed.

      Thank you, Dorcas, for the added insights!

  3. Hi Joe!
    I’m not a Hobbit fan (should I admit that in public??), but can easily appreciate your synopsis.

    Unfortunately, I have been guilty too many times of Knowing Best. Speaking for myself, I think this attitude came from a place of insecurity so I had to pretend to know it all.

    Great post!

    • We’ll try to withhold throwing apple cores at your lack of appreciation of fictional characters of diminutive stature, Denise. 😉

      To be honest, I feel a little out of my league doing public commentary on Tolkien’s work. I grew up hearing Tolkien read to me, by my father, and have long had an appreciation for Tolkien’s work. However, I have never studied Middle Earth lore to the extent that some have…certainly have never taken the time to learn to speak any of the languages of Middle Earth or delve deeply into the histories or origins of the various peoples.

      I completely understand the mortification of hindsight realization of Knowing Best!

      I can’t tell you how many conversations I look back on now, thinking, “Wow! I was so clueless! …and yet so overconfident!”

      I think some of that hindsight realization, though, is what causes us, with the passing of years and the gaining of wisdom, to be a bit more tempered in our advice to others.

      I just hope I remain always teachable…

      Blessings to you, this New Year!

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