I pondered death, religion and the state of the world in the shower this morning. Also, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings.
We live in a scary world. One that’s becoming more hostile and hopeless. Where lines and divisions have never been more defined. I’m not a religious person – I identify as an atheist – but that doesn’t mean I don’t look for divine guidance. You could say that movies are my religion.
That’s why, in my mid 30s, death, religion and Gandalf come up in the shower before work. Now more than ever.
Gandalf is Middle Earth’s holy man. He’s a priest, a rabbi, an imam. He’s there to offer guidance and steer people in the right direction. He’s proud to denounce evil, imparts divine wisdom and offers comfort to the meek. And he isn’t afraid to talk about death.
When it seems inevitable that he, Pippin and the rest of Minas Tirith will die by Sauron’s army, he gets religious. He describes the afterlife to Pip. But, in a strange twist, he shares a version of it he knows will bring the Hobbit comfort:
“White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Here he’s describing Valinor, the undying lands across the sea. But what it sounds like to Pippin is The Shire by the beach. Something familiar. Something the wizard knows will bring him comfort and put him at peace with the inevitable.
Remember that Gandalf knows what happens when you die – spoilers, he dies and resurrects. But, still, he refuses to indoctrinate Pippin to his truth. There’s no wizard dogma here, no encouraged repenting. Only what Pip needs at the time.
Same goes for Théodred’s funeral. Théoden is grieving hard, as would any parent burying a child. And Gandalf assures the king that his son is now in the great halls of his forefathers. There’s no talk of his spirit going to the stars or of heaven or hell, but only what Rohan culture dictates. Gandalf’s read the room and prepares an appropriate response. He does say a quiet Wizard prayer, but to himself and away from Théoden. You do you, boo.
He doesn’t shame either of them or insist their versions are untrue or invalid. He doesn’t tell them they’re going to hell for not agreeing with him or that their entire culture will burn in hellfire. He instead chooses, for a moment, to embrace another belief for the sake of their comfort. What a crazy idea.
(And, here’s an even wilder thought: each culture in Middle Earth is correct. It’s the type of place where creeds coexist in life and death. And when you die, you still head off to Valinor, but to your area of it. Hobbits live in their holes by the sea, big folk in their great halls, the dwarves in their mines and the elves in the forests. And a wizard in the stars watching over them all.)
This isn’t the time to take up arms against each other, but to find the common ground. To accept and embrace our differences and celebrate our commonalities. Telling those with different beliefs to you that they’re wrong will only lead to a greater divide. Gandalf knew this. He found a way to connect with different cultures on their level and what did that achieve?
Only the downfall of evil.