Gandalf, Galadriel and God

Isaiah 40:1-31


One of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards that God used to kindle the Great Awakening in New England in 1734-1735 was titled “The Excellency of Christ.”  In it Edwards unfolds the glory of God’s Son by describing the “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Christ.”

His text is Rev 5:5-6, and he unfolds the union of “diverse excellencies” in the Lion-Lamb.  He shows how the glory of Christ is his combining of attributes that would seem to be utterly incompatible in one Person.

In Jesus Christ, he says, meet infinite highness and infinite condescension; infinite justice and infinite grace; infinite glory and lowest humility; infinite majesty and transcendent meekness; deepest reverence toward God and equality with God; worthiness of good and the greatest patience under the suffering of evil; a great spirit of obedience and supreme dominion over heaven and earth; absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation; self-sufficiency and an entire trust and reliance on God.[1]

Tonight I want to do two things related to such a vision of God.  First, I want to explore the ways in which we often perceive God by looking at two clips from the 2001 movie Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.  Second, I want us to read Isaiah 40 to see how Isaiah portrayed God, and encourage you to dig deeper in knowing about God, and in knowing God; knowing about Christ, and knowing Christ.

Clip 1: Fellowship DVD ch. 32, “The mirror of Galadriel” (132:15-137:29).

In what ways is Galadriel like God?  How is she unlike God?  If you were Frodo, the next day, talking to a reporter about your experience at the Pool, what would you say?  Few Christian writers and public speakers who draw parallels between characters in The Lord of the Rings and God (or Christ) refer to Galadriel.  They usually discuss Aragorn, Gandalf, and of course Frodo Baggins.

Aragorn is the stranger and social outcast who, by virtue of his ancestry, becomes the victorious King.  Gandalf is the wise and virtuous wizard, sent by the Ainur as a guide and protector for the peoples of Middle Earth.

And Frodo is the unlikely hero from an obscure village who – possessing uncommon humility, unworldly wisdom and unerring purpose – walks boldly into the heart of darkness, suffers great pain and loss, and conquers evil on a cosmic scale, thus saving the world (cf 1 Cor 1:18-25; Isa 55:8).

But Galadriel as a symbol of the God of the Bible?  While Galadriel is obviously a woman, the clip we have just seen illustrates aspects of the transcendence of God; power controlled and channelled in productive ways; there are allusions to voluntary suffering, wisdom, grace.

Betsy Matthews, of Covenant College, suggests that Tolkien used this original female character to “masterfully construct compelling pictures of the God in whom they believe and the hope for redemption that God’s children have while they live in a fallen world.”[2]

Galadriel is to be feared and her extraordinary power is to be revered by persons such as Frodo.  But she also expresses compassion.  Note her earlier rapprochement with Gimli the dwarf.  The dwarves and elves were fierce historic enemies, yet she builds a strong and ultimately strategic and redemptive relationship with Gimli.

Notice also that, at the Pool, Galadriel unmistakably emanates light.  She later gives a precious gift of light in a phial to Frodo that (much later) instils hope in the face of terrifying darkness and sickening malice (cf 2 Cor 4:6; Jn 1:5).

Another parallel between Galadriel and God is that Tolkien describes her home as “a world beyond time.”  She is perceived as ageless.  She endures great sorrow and witnesses great evil, yet remains pure and hopeful.  For Galadriel, suffering is a necessary step toward redemption.  So it was for God, when his Son suffered on the cross.

Those who do not know her are at first filled with fear at the mention of her name, or the prospect of entering her realm.  But like God, she is altogether good.

Boromir, the proud warrior, on meeting Galadriel for the first time, feels her probing gaze into his heart and mind, and doubts her goodness.  He slanders her.  But Aragorn defends her, saying, “Speak no evil of the Lady Galadriel! … There is in her and in this land no evil.”

In the clip we saw, Galadriel appears terrible and powerful, and this terror and power would increase exponentially should she acquire the One Ring.  The temptation is there: she can force Frodo to surrender his Ring.  But she withstands the temptation to power, the temptation to lust, the temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the earth (cf Mt 4).

These are some reflections on Galadriel as a symbol of God.  Can you think of others?

*                *                *

The connections between Gandalf and God are probably a little more obvious.  Throughout the long narrative, Gandalf is wholly pure, gracious, good.  He is one of the most loveable and likable characters Tolkien created, and he is central to all the major plot developments.

Gandalf is known by different names to all the sentient peoples and animals of Middle Earth.  He is known in The Shire as Gandalf “the Grey,” or the “Grey Pilgrim.”

Gandalf is more than human but less than the Ainur (the gods of Middle Earth).  Yet he is a servant of the Iluvatar, the Creator of all things, who has sent him on a redemptive mission “to help all beings of good heart,” and to protect their freedom.

Like Jesus, Gandalf is misunderstood and underestimated by many.    He seems so ordinary, so familiar.  You might even be forgiven for thinking of him as a spry cross between an elderly Obi Wan Kenobi and Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore.

But Gandalf is also weak.  While he possesses awesome powers, he does not know everything.  He only gradually becomes aware that Frodo’s ring is the One Ring.  He cannot defeat Sauron alone.  He works with a team.  His weakness, and his strength, are perhaps most visible in Moria.  Fending off orcs, the party of nine is confronted by a Balrog – an ancient demon of enormous power and strength.  Gandalf leads the fellowship to safety and then turns to fight the Balrog.

Apart from setting off wonderful fireworks and lighting his staff, only once in The Lord of the Rings does Gandalf actually use “magic.”   During his battle with the Balrog he calls on the “secret flame of Arnor” – presumably a prayer to Iluvatar.  The Balrog falls before Gandalf’s sword, but the tip of its fiery whip snags his heel and he too falls to his death in the burning fire at the centre of the earth, and the first movie ends.

But in The Two Towers Gandalf is transformed, or resurrected, and his visage changes to brilliant white (cf Rev 1:14), and he is given a new name, “Gandalf the White.”

Much later, at the great ultimate battle between good and evil outside Minas Tirith, Gandalf comes face to face with Sauron’s lieutenant, the Lord of the Nazgul, who has launched the battering ram Grond against the gate. Gandalf tells him to go back, to “fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master.”

But the Black Rider takes his challenge and throws back his head, to reveal that “nothingness” has already come: “Behold! he had a kingly crown, and yet upon no head visible was it set.”

He laughs and tells Gandalf, “‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it?’” Gandalf does not reply.

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed.  Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

As if in answer there came from far away another note.  Horns, horns, horns.  In dark Mindolluin’s side they dimly echoed.  Great horns of the North wildly blowing.  Rohan had come at last.

Commenting on this passage, Tom Shippey writes:

Evil does not exist, it is an absence, as Gandalf says, and as the Nazgul confirms by throwing back his hood. But the absence can have power, can be a force itself, working physically as well as psychologically: this is the essence of the Nazgul’s challenge, to which Gandalf makes (can make?) no answer.

The rooster crowing at dawn can mean new day, new life, resurrection, hope, escape from fear and darkness and the horror of death. The sound of war horns represents defiance, reckless persistence when there seems no hope, and the anticipation that help and victory and rest are not far off.[3]

Gandalf, and – supremely – Jesus, stared evil in the face and denounced it, and defied it, and conquered it.  In the real world, Jesus brings hope when there seems no hope, and victory, and rest.

But now watch a very different scene, from the beginning of the first movie, to show you an entirely different aspect of Gandalf’s personality and character, and – I hope – something you also identify with God.

Clip 2: Fellowship DVD, ch. 2, “The Shire” (6:56-10:39)

Perhaps children see the King, and the kingdom, better or more clearly than do adults (cf Mt 19:13f).  In what ways is Gandalf like God?  How is he unlike God?  What does the relationship between Frodo and Gandalf tell us about our relationship with God?  Is your friendship with God one of intimacy, fellowship, fun?

*                *                *

Read Isaiah 40:1-31.  Several years ago Marva Dawn wrote a wonderful little book, To Walk and Not Faint: A Month of Meditations on Isaiah 40.[4]  For each of the 31 verses, one for each day of the month, she writes a devotional commentary, focusing especially on the frequent interplay in that chapter between God’s transcendence and immanence.

I commend her book to you, along with the text of Isaiah 40.  Here is what she wrote on verse 18 (“To whom, then, will you compare God?  What image will you compare him to?”):

This verse serves as a center, a focus in the midst of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah.  It helps us to understand all the chapter’s rhetorical questions about the magnificence and dominion and immeasurability of God.  All the main themes of the chapter evolve from this basic point: Nothing – not flesh, nor idols, nor nations – can compare with YHWH [The LORD] … This verse urges us to increase our appreciation for all that God is by enlarging our vocabulary about him.  The way we perceive YHWH affects how we come to him … The lifelong challenge before us as believers is continually to explore the nature of God as deeply as we can in order to love and proclaim that nature more accurately.  As much as possible we want to grasp the characteristics by which YHWH has made himself known.

*                *                *

Taking it further

1.  What roles do you think fiction (books and movies) can play in exploring spiritual issues and/or teaching us about God?  In what ways can fiction become a hindrance?

2.   Which receives more emphasis today – God’s transcendence (otherness, distance), or his immanence (closeness, presence)?  Why do you think this is so?

3.   In what ways might you consciously or unconsciously obstruct or delay the Lord’s coming (Isa 40:2)?

4.   Who or what competes with God in your life, and in the contemporary world (see vv 18-19)?

5.   What does it mean for you to “wait on/for the Lord” (v 31)?  How do you do it?

6.   How would you relate the following passages to the themes of Isaiah 40?

  • Hebrews 1:3
  • 2 Peter 1:16-18
  • Matthew 11:28-29
  • John 17:3

Sermon 490 copyright © 2003 Rod Benson. Preached at Thornleigh Community Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday March 5, 2003. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Quoted in John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (second edition; Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000) 30.

[2] Betsy Matthews, “Mara and Galadriel: MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s vehicles for spiritual truth,”, accessed March 1, 2003.

[3] Tom A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: Harper Collins, 2000) 213-216.

[4] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

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