All That Is Gold

My inspiration this morning comes from a seemingly unlikely place, though I think that by the end of this entry it will not seem so unlikely after all.

For “The Fellowship of the Rings,” J.R.R. Tolkien had Bilbo Baggins write a poem about Aragorn, the rightful heir to the throne of Arnor and Gondor. Here it is:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In the context of the Lord of the Rings universe, this certainly has a specific meaning. Aragorn himself is the subject. The first couplet is about him not carrying himself with adornments and prestige as he wanders the land as a Ranger. He’s descended from the Dúnedain–who had very long lifespans–which explains the line about being old. I could go on, but the idea is that in a specific context, this poem has a specific meaning.

However, I’m not interested in that specific meaning today. I want to explore the possible dual-meaning in the context of Tolkien’s relationship to God and Christ.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and as I learned recently, played an instrumental role in C.S. Lewis conversion to Christianity. I had known they were contemporaries, active in Britain at the same time and writing more or less the same type of fiction, but I did not know that they were very close friends. If read in the context of Christianity, that poem can take on a very different meaning. I’ll go line by line on this one for the first six lines.

The first line could contain several allusions. Christ Himself, though he was the Prince of Peace, walked among us, and as one of us. He did not wear crowns of jewels, or adorn himself in plush robes or fine silks. He walked humbly in plain clothes, ate plain foods, and never once took anything for Himself. So, though He did not “glitter” in the traditional sense, His value was immeasurable. He was gold that did not glitter.

In another sense, Tolkien could be alluding to the fact that the material value of this world pales in comparison to love, and specifically the value of God’s love. This applies to me directly. I have surrounded myself with shiny objects–the trappings of an earthly life. At the end of that earthly life, though, would any of those things matter? Will I say to myself “I should have bought more things?” Or, will I say “I wish I had loved more, and accepted more of God’s infinite love?” Those things, in the end, will have more value than any “gold” I might acquire.

The second line is perhaps the most famous, and is often referred to by those with wanderlust in their feet. Today, though, I want to think about it in the context of my own life and faith. It could mean two things as well, both of which are important to me. Before a few weeks ago, I had struggled to find solid footing for my faith in my heart. I was a wanderer. But through grace and patience, I was not lost forever. I found my way. In another way, within that faith, my mind tends to wander. I flit from verse to verse, from book to book, from thought to thought. I think that while my compass bearings may read differently than some peers, God is giving me direction (even if it is non-linear).

The third and fourth lines really should be read together as one. To me, this could be referring to God Himself. His strength does not wither, and he provides for us a fixed point and a deep root to which we can cling. He is infinite, and unaffected by external forces. This reminds me of a verse from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (Corinthians 1:25). Nothing on this earth or otherwise could ever affect Him, because it is of Him.

The first couplet of the second stanza feels very personal to me. I feel as though I have trod in darkness for my entire life, just on the periphery of something great. I have always flirted with that light, but stayed in the shadows. Since I woke up, though, I feel as though a fire has started in my life. I am changing faster than I ever have before, and I see things in a different light. I also want to make sure that the fire is well-made, and does not extinguish from simply leaving it untended.

So, even though this poem was written for a fantasy series about a man that lived to be 210 years old and married an elvish princess, I’m not sure that it wasn’t also about Tolkien’s (and my) own relationship with God.

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