Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Election Lessons from Gandalf

White House at nightIf you’re a progressive, these are dark times indeed. You’ve suffered a historic and surprising loss, one that seems to usher in a new age of evil.

Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings, can provide consolation to discouraged liberals in the new Trump universe. Look for hope, not from the east, but in the big books of fantasy. From Gandalf to Aslan, the characters in these imagined worlds endured far worse than a bright orange politician. They took on and defeated enemies who would enslave them. Let their stories be your guide to surviving the Age of Trump.

When it comes to confronting evil, no one is more inspiring than Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together an unlikely coalition of misfits, he defeats evil in its purest and most implacable form.

His greatest weapon: hope. As he struggled with the impossible task that was destroying the One Ring, he rallied his companions by saying:

Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

If you’re Gandalf, you fight on, even as you plunge into the pit with a Balrog.

His credo was simple:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

That means that you do what you can, every day.

Gandalf knew how to deal with a two-faced politician, too. Lock him in a tower. After the treacherous wizard Saruman is defeated by the Ents, Gandalf keeps him trapped in Orthanc. Saruman pleads for release, with words whose very sound was an enchantment:

Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to see wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.

Saruman possesses the oratory of Ted Cruz. And, like Cruz, he’s taken every side on every issue. He turned evil because evil was going to win. Better to be on the winning side. Gandalf wisely keeps him in Orthanc.

And if Saruman is Cruz then who is his treacherous companion, Grima Wormtongue? He tries to weaken King Théoden of Rohan and nearly succeeds. Playing the role of Wormtongue in the Republican Party would be Newt Gingrich, who sought to discredit the Republican establishment from within. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, the Grand Old Party never woke up from its spell. Rohirrim did not ride to the rescue at the Republican Convention.

C.S. Lewis would argue that great sacrifice is needed to cleanse the world. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it’s always winter but never Christmas (which feels like Washington today), it takes blood to put things right in this thinly veiled Christian allegory. Perhaps Hillary, like Aslan, should’ve sacrificed her political ambitions and let a more palatable candidate run for office.

George R. R. Martin dismisses these ideas about good and evil. You’re naïve to even think that way and liable to get beheaded if you embrace the hero myth. In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. Like Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, it’s best to look after your own interest, without morals. His scheming and self-interest represent many in Washington.

I prefer the consolation of Gandalf. As progressives enter the political wilderness, remember the words of Greybeard:

Not all those who wander are lost.

In the years before the War of the Ring, Gandalf adventured throughout Middle-Earth, defeating monsters and learning about the people under his protection, from greedy dwarves to breakfast-loving hobbits. He could not become Gandalf the White without the forge of this experience.

From merry wizards to talking lions, the world of fantasy offers consolation to progressives looking into the land of shadow. At the very least, they’ll provide something to read over the next four years.

I Was a Game of Thrones Skeptic

I was a Game of Thrones skeptic. When I heard George R.R. Martin described as an “American Tolkien”, I scoffed. This struck me as heresy. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite books of all time. How could some contemporary American author match the artistry of the Oxford-educated Tolkien, a master of linguistics, a scarred veteran of World War I and a brilliant stylist?

And the HBO series didn’t help. While I still haven’t seen it (I don’t have the cable channel), the swords and sorcery epic seemed more about sexposition than anything else.

Seeing all the Game of Thrones books in the book store, so many of them and with tiny print on cheap pages, made me recoil. The books looked too long and too pulpy.

What changed my mind? Reading the first book – A Game of Thrones.

While I don’t think he’s an American Tolkien, he’s a good storyteller, capable of propelling a plot over thousands of pages. So many characters – it really changed my mind about how much readers can absorb and remember. The first fantasy novel I’ve picked up in a couple of decades, A Game of Thrones is good, dirty fun, filled with sex and violence of all kinds.

What makes his authorial vision unique:

Amorality – There’s no divinity guiding the characters, no Valar or Gandalf pushing the world toward good. No selfless men like Aragorn. The characters in Game of Thrones are just like us, with our desires for sex and violence. People who are too noble end up being killed while the most intriguing characters (Tyrion) are a mix of good and bad.

Plotting – Martin should write a book on plot. The action starts immediately, from the first page. Characters are placed in real peril and forced to make life and death decisions. There are consequences to what they do – nothing can be undone. Rarely do white knights arrive to rescue people and, if they do, it usually leads to greater peril. Martin cleverly alternates perspectives, challenging readers to keep pace with his breakneck story.

Game of Thrones is a tale for our times, for the readers of today. I wouldn’t call George R. R. Martin an American Tolkien. I’d call him a modern one.