Captain Cognition

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Images of Manhood

This last weekend my beautiful wife and I sat down to watch the first of the Lord of the Rings movies: The Fellowship of the Ring. What always surprises me is just how good the story actually is. We soon found ourselves watching the second and third movies, nearly finishing the whole trilogy in just one weekend. While we were watching, I was struck by how the Lord of the Rings helps explain some ideas I’ve pondered recently.

Being newly married I have been reflecting on what it means to be a man. The character of Gandalf and his stand against the Balrog are a concrete image of manhood. Every man has a ripple of goose bumps run down his back each time he sees it. It begins with the approach of the Balrog. At first the viewer only hears it and sees a fiery mist in the hall. The fellowship is entirely surrounded by a legion of goblins that, at the monster’s approach, flee without looking back. The ground shakes under the Balrog’s weight. The demon ominously strides through the great Dwarven hall in chase of the fellowship. They flee to the bridge of Kaza’dum. Gandalf stops in the middle of the bridge and faces his foe. Standing between it and his dearest friends, he threatens it: “You shall not pass!” With this, he slams his staff down on the bridge.

A gray old man causes the fiery colossus to falter. His voice booms into the chasm, his command is as unbreakable as natural law. We do not doubt the accomplishment of his purpose: the dread creature does not pass. Many I would guess are confronted by a desire to possess what Gandalf possesses, to be a sage, to wield this awesome power.

C.S. Lewis argues for God’s existence based on the idea that all desires have an object that fulfills them. Take hunger for example, we desire food and food exists for us to eat. When men watch the scene I have just described they have a desire to be like Gandalf. This desire, Lewis might argue, must also have a real object to fulfill it. But what is this object and how do we get it?

The first impression of the desire is a wish to be as Gandalf. Men, however, do not stop at wishing. They pursue a likeness to him. The first point of difficulty comes here for many men because they cannot imagine how a likeness to Gandalf can really be possible. We often stop at anything that even remotely satisfies our wish and our pursuit. We then turn to things like video games. Video games offer us an attainable power, an attainable likeness to Gandalf. This is the reason we see overwhelming numbers of men who consume video games.

We need not remain stuck in this rut. We need only to look at what Gandalf does on Middle Earth to know how we can imitate him in our world. If we were to go to Middle Earth and take part in the adventures of the fellowship of the ring, if we were behold the actions of Gandalf standing twenty feet away from him, we would witness first hand the grandeur of this being. The skill and power we would see displayed are against a real foe. Gandalf’s ability to oppose this monster is not trivial as in a game. His hard work and honest striving were put towards preparing himself for moments such as these. When the time comes to fight, we find him ready and up to the challenge. Imagine allowing yourself to plummet into the darkness of a great chasm. You have let yourself fall, perhaps even to your death, with the sole purpose of destroying this blight on the world known as the Balrog of Morgoth. This use of power is sacrifice. He uses the most valuable thing a man can give: his life. Gandalf’s actions are an authentic representation of power exactly because they have required such sacrifice.

Sacrifice, then, is the currency of manhood. It is the same for us as it is for Gandalf. Our time, our energy, our pain and pleasure and even our life will necessarily be spent in the course of life. We notice that our wish to be as Gandalf springs from our awe for him. We are awe struck because we see a sage. This man is a sage because he spends his currency well.

But why does Gandalf spend well?

Gandalf knows how to spend because he knows what to spend on. He does not wield power for it own sake. Nor does he sacrifice for the sake of sacrificing. These things are oriented towards something higher. His stand against the Balrog is one of his many great deeds. All of these are done for the sake of the preservation of what he calls good. He values the peoples of Middle Earth, the mountains and streams, the green trees and open fields. These are considered good by Gandalf on a factual level, their goodness is not questioned. He risks his life against a foe he is not certain to overcome for the sake of delivering these goods from evil. The Balrog is one of the enemy’s greatest weapons; he is part of an arsenal meant to hold dominion over Middle Earth. This foul creature is hateful to life; his pleasure is to see it snuffed out. Gandalf does not question that his foe is evil. Gandalf sacrifices because he is rooted in these convictions. These convictions are the groundwork for the actions that inspire our awe. Gandalf’s worldview determines what actions ought to be done and so his worldview directs his power and sacrifice towards something higher.

The object of our desire is to act in the world as Gandalf acts in middle earth: to trade our time, our energy, our pain and pleasure and even our life for the good. Let men use the images of characters such as Gandalf. Let them draw great deeds out of the depths of their greatest longings for heroism. Let them make such a stamp on the world as a sage slaying a terrible and monstrous foe.