Last year I read the seven books in “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis with my son over many months at bedtime, and afterwards we decided to read “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien. We started with “The Hobbit,” and this past weekend finished “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Tonight we finished chapter two of “The Two Towers,” and I found the following quotations particularly thought provoking. This first one is by Aragorn in response to Gimli the dwarf, who was doubting the value of Gandalf’s judgement since he was the first of the fellowship to fall on their journey south. This is on page 430 of “The Two Towers” version we are reading:

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,” said Aragorn. “There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark…..”

I think throughout history, we have seen many leaders who would agree with this philosophy. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one leader who comes to mind, as does U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Few if any of the challenges these men faced in life had an outcome which could be predicted with certainty, and the struggles in which each engaged certainly were filled with much darkness. Yet their causes (which were essentially tied to ideals of equality, justice and freedom) were worth fighting for, worth starting and struggling for, even though the consequences of those decisions and the paths which followed were not easy or pleasant at times.

The second quotation that stood out to me was just a few pages before, and again it is Aragorn who is speaking. This time, he is talking to Eomer, who has tried to convince him to come to Edoras to speak with King Theoden. According to the law of Rohan, only the King can give leave for strangers to wander freely in their country. Eomer faces an ethical dilemma, because according to the law (if Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli refuse to come to Edoras and meet the King) they must be either subdued and taken there against their will, or killed. Aragorn says to Eomer:

“I do not think your law was made for such a chance… Nor indeed am I a stranger; for I have been in this land before, more than once, and ridden with the host of the Rohirrim, though under other name and in other guise… Never in former days would any high lord of this land have constrained a man to abandon such a quest as mine. My duty at least is clear, to go on. Come now, son of Eomund, the choice must be made at last. Aid us, or at the worst let us go free. Or seek to carry out your law. If you do so there will be fewer to return to your war or to your king.”

If Eomer was a technocrat, he would doubtless have made the decision to “begin a battle of one hundred against three.” But he did not. Thankfully for most of us, ethical dilemmas like this one do not confront us every day. But what do we do when we are confronted by such choices? Do we have the moral fortitude to decide rightly, even when that decision is contrary to a rule or even a law? Do we talk about ethical dilemmas like this in our schools and our churches, or do we attempt to “develop character” merely with slogans we chant and overly-simplistic scenarios that might falsely lead young people to believe that the world of moral choices is always starkly black and white?

The last quotation I’ll share again came a few pages before the last one (page 423 of my copy), and again is by Aragorn. Eomer has asked him to fully identify himself, as he does not believe (rightly) that “Strider” is his true name and reveals his full identity. This is Aragorn’s response, and these words thrilled my blood to read aloud this evening to my son and wife (who was also listening in):

Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Anduril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. “Elendil!” he cried. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dunadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!

These words remind me of the remarkable scene in Ridley Scott’s movie “Gladiator,” when Maximus (Russell Crowe) boldly proclaims his full name and true identity to the illegitimate (and fearful) Caesar.

How stirring are these words, of both Aragorn and Maximus! I think we all long to know and define ourselves– the search for identity is a timeless quest of adolescence which persists into adulthood. I think many of us, maybe all of us, long in our heart of hearts to know without question who we are, from whom we are descended, and on what errand and mission we are called to struggle, overcome adversity, and stand firm against evil in support of truth and honor in this mortal life. John Eldredge (author of “Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul” contends this desire is a masculine thing. I am not sure, but I do know that this desire burns brightly within my own heart.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a remarkable author, and I am thankful that his words are preserved for eternity through the novels he wrote and were widely published. What a great joy it is to re-experience the stirring and thought provoking words of his heroes with my family! 🙂

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