3 Things I Learned From Gandalf

When I am teaching in my classroom I sometimes use the phrase “As a wise ol’ wizard once said…” My students then roll their eyes and know that a quote from one of my favorite fictional characters of all time will soon follow. I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, both on the page and on the screen. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf is a big reason for my infatuation. In so many gloomy circumstances or dire situations, he knows exactly the words of wisdom to encourage his companions. Beyond his fictional friends, the words that Tolkien put into the mouth of this beloved character have encouraged me in difficult times and taught me great life lessons.

In all honesty, it was difficult to whittle it down to just three, but here are three life lessons I have gleaned from Gandalf:

1. You can only control you.

In the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring, the group of travelers find themselves stuck in the deep, dark, and dreadful mines of Moria. They take a short break while trying to remember which ominous cavern will lead them out. Frodo, the ring bearer, sits and has a conversation with Gandalf. Halfway through the chat Frodo admits, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf then hits him with words I can sincerely say have changed my entire paradigm: “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 to us.”

We cannot control what happens around us. We cannot control what others do or say. In fact, we cannot control pretty much anything. The only thing that we CAN control is our reaction to what happens around us. Focusing on what is out of our control leads to a chaotic, depressing, and frustrating life. Being mindful of ourselves and what we can control helps us to grow into better human beings.

2. Optimism may seem foolish to those who have no hope.

For our second pearl of wisdom from Gandalf we look to the written word at a quote that for some reason did not make it to the big screen. The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring is like a meeting of world leaders deciding what to do in the face of global destruction. As you can imagine, many of the participants of the gathering greet the dilemma with pessimism and despair. The consensus is that trying to destroy the evil ring is foolishness and simply cannot be done. Gandalf refuses to let the characters middle in despair and gives one of his most encouraging speeches. He begins, “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end with no doubt. We do not.”

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end with no doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Gandalf)

As a school counselor, many students come into my office worried about the future, both the near future and the distant. They can easily describe to me all the things that could go wrong, almost convincing themselves that the perilous perspective is inevitable. “Is that the only way it could happen?” I ask them. After what sometimes takes quite a bit of convincing, they eventually concede that more promising outcomes are equally as possible.

We often fret over what we fear will happen. Sometimes we even decide that that the undesired future probably will come to pass. It may seem foolish to hope for or even expect the best for our future. But when we start to see a perilous end with no doubt, we actual fool ourselves. Would you rather cling to a false hope of certain despair or a real hope of possible joy and happiness? Trust Gandalf. Hope and optimism always lead to a happier life.

3. Simple acts of kindness and love hold evil at bay.

In the first movie of the second trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf has chosen a small hobbit as the most important part of a plan to fight evil. Even a powerful elf friend cannot understand why Gandalf puts so much trust in Biblo Baggins, a seemingly helpless and powerless individual. Gandalf’s answer gives us all hope: “I’ve found that it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay; simple acts of kindness and love.”

There will always be evil in the world. Sometimes we can feel hopeless to stand against it. What can we even do? We can do a lot. The small things matter. As Mother Teresa taught, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Keep at it. Do the small things with great love. They are the best weapon against evil.

And as a wise ol’ wizard once said, go in peace!

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