How to not lose your mind: The difference between Gandalf and Saruman

17 12 2016

I’m sure I’m not the only one that has experienced a few contentious political conversations lately – kind of like Gandalf the Grey’s fateful rumble with Saruman the White. Many of us have questioned people we thought we knew. People who decided to support you-know-who in November (or refused to do what they could to stop him).

“Tell me, friend. When did you abandon reason for madness?”

I know the feeling. But don’t be too quick to dismiss Saruman as “crazy.” I can understand how he feels.

The difference between Gandalf and Saruman was one very important thing – COMMUNITY.

There was a time when Saruman was almost as committed to fighting Sauron as Gandalf was. When he started using his palantír, or “Seeing Stone,” the White Wizard may have had the best of intentions. He may have just wanted to get strategic intelligence on the Enemy.

(We have some “seeing stones” of our own, don’t we? On our desks or in our pockets, perhaps?)

But the things the wizard saw were only what his enemy wanted him to see. It wasn’t that what the Seeing Stone revealed was inaccurate, per se. The fortresses, the armies of orcs, the war machines, the monsters – they were all real. But Sauron used a number of half-truths to convince Saruman of one really big lie:

“You’re fighting this struggle alone. No one can really help you. Your enemy is too powerful.”

When he started to believe it, Saruman’s strategic isolation led to social isolation. He secluded himself in his tower, thinking he was the only one truly contending with the Will of Sauron. That’s why he lost his mind. (A similar thing happened to Denethor.)

It often happens to the best of us. Even now, some of us are succumbing to that lie. Turning inward. Trusting no one. Hoarding resources and information. Perhaps forsaking civic engagement entirely just when we need each other the most.

But do not let your hearts be troubled.

COMMUNITY is more powerful than any seeing stone could ever be. Community is exactly what Gandalf cultivated in abundance.

Ever notice how everyone seems to already have a history with Gandalf whenever he arrives? Characters rarely ask his name. The Grey Wizard knew everyone and they knew him. So he had eyes and ears all over Middle-earth.

His pluralistic group of allies did a lot more than bring him tactical knowledge. Elves like Galadriel sang and reminisced with him. Men like Faramir studied old books with him in the libraries of Minas Tirith. Ents like Treebeard walked the forests with him. Dwarves like Thorin Oakenshield were his drinking and smoking buddies. He even went to the occasional birthday party with hobbits, like Bilbo.

None of them were merely tools Gandalf used for the moment. He genuinely loved them.

It wasn’t always about beer or the “Halfling’s leaf.” Gandalf knew them at their best and at their worst. Sometimes he had to bleed with them as they fought through their quests. On occasion they even accused him of being a “Stormcrow” because he cared enough to tell them the truth when they didn’t want to hear it. 

He wasn’t always around, but that wandering wizard showed up when he was needed. He was consistently forging relationships and empowering others rather than hoarding power for himself. When the time came, those same friends rode with him into battle. How could they not?

That’s how Gandalf kept his sanity. That’s how he aligned with the role divine providence had laid out for him.

That’s also how he outsmarted Sauron.

Gandalf literally saved Middle-earth while celebrating an old friend’s birthday. Sauron probably would have found The One Ring first if Gandalf hadn’t decided to spend a few evenings in the Shire, giggling with children by the light of fireworks. No seeing stone would have led him to that moment, but that was the sort of wizard he was meant to be. The partying kind.


I’m not the first to say it, but Gandalf was a grassroots organizer. Saruman went wrong because he became a plutocrat.

I don’t know everything there is to know about championing justice and democracy in our own lives. But I do know this – I can’t do it alone. None of us can. No ideology or party, no matter how righteous or intellectuality thorough it is, can act as a substitute for genuine community.

We certainly can’t fight for the world of our dreams by staring into our digital “seeing stones” in isolation.

As we travel the road, we have to learn how to share that road with the fellowships we’ve built. We have to find ways to become our own multi-colored pilgrims. We find ourselves in the valley of decision. Which will we be? Gandalf or Saruman?

Yes, I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else. Perhaps more. Fear comes easy. Isolation can be comfortable. Temporarily. But wouldn’t we all prefer more quests and birthday parties, anyway?

So where too next? “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…”




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