The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—William Butler Yeats
Sometimes it feels like your unconscious is trying to bring your conscious attention to a specific idea. A song or a movie quote will stick in your head, and then other situations will seem to reinforce that idea, germinate the seed. A friend might mention watching the same movie, the song might show up unexpectedly in a playlist. Our brains are trained for pattern matching, so our senses are primed to connect our experiences with existing thoughts. The poem above has been on my mind, particularly the end of the first stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Although it was written over a century ago, this is as timeless and succinct a description of life in the twenty-first century as I could formulate. Yeats is widely considered one of the greatest poets of the last hundred years so this isn’t too surprising. Still, there is an uncanny feeling when an author separated by oceans, literal and metaphorical, temporal and cultural, can speak directly to my current mood.
Tolkien had a lot to say about power. Specifically, the relationships his primary characters had to power are a useful lens through which to view his writing. Gandalf and Saruman were both Maiar, pseudo-angelic beings sent to Middle-earth to fight against evil. That they went about their tasks so differently is not a mere coincidence or narrative quirk. Gandalf and Saruman’s disparate strategies in the Third Age reflect their character archetypes. On a deeper level, I would argue that the differences between these two characters represents Tolkien’s view of the nature of power, and the risks to those who desire it.
He does not have many lines in the Lord of the Rings, but Saruman’s actions speak volumes. When we do hear from him, Saruman has a surety – an absolute certainty that his strategy is the correct one. In their fateful argument at Orthanc, he speaks to Gandalf of the inevitability of Sauron’s dominion of Middle-earth.
The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.
If you wonder what Yeats was talking about when he wrote “the worst are full of passionate intensity”, just think of Saruman. The next time you read The Lord of the Rings pay close attention to how often Gandalf talks about ruling, power, or control. I’ll save you the time. Except when he is talking about another character’s relationship to power, Gandalf does not use these words.
On the other hand, Gandalf seems uncertain. In contrast to Saruman’s certainty, one might even says that Gandalf “lacks conviction”. Gandalf’s uncertainty is rooted in his wisdom, a much deeper and more nuanced understanding than the “wisdom” Saruman refers to in his villain monologue. Saruman’s concept of “wisdom” can be summarized thusly: those who agree with me are Wise, those who do not are Fools!
Gandalf appreciates the difficulty of challenging Sauron’s dominion of Middle-earth. Rather than take the easy way out and seek alliance with Sauron, he uses his understanding of the enemy to exploit a weakness. This is a critical facet of Tolkien’s criticism of the desire for power. Both Saruman and Sauron have a fatal weakness: egotism. With passionate intensity they assume that their strategy is correct. Moreover, they are incapable of seeing how others would reject their assumptions. In their version of “wisdom”, the One Ring is only a weapon to be wielded. Saruman and Sauron both assume that none in Middle-earth could resist its temptation, and certainly that none could bring themselves to destroy it.
To be fair, this assumption was proved correct – to an extent. If not for the unforeseen tragedy of Gollum, Frodo would have ultimately failed in his quest to destroy the One Ring. This blind spot – that others cannot resist one’s own temptations – is a central theme in Tolkien’s legendarium. What it means to be “wise” becomes far less obvious, and far more interesting.
Rather than a weakness as Saruman sees it, Gandalf’s lack of certainty is a strength. Frodo offers him the Ring at the beginning of the story, and if not for Gandalf’s reticence to power, all of Middle-earth would have been doomed. Knowing yourself, including your limitations, is an essential skill for leadership. Gandalf shares this self-awareness bordering on self-doubt with another great leader of the Third Age: Aragorn son of Arathorn.
When we meet him, Aragorn is an unassuming Ranger, wandering the ruins of the North Kingdom. If we view the story in the context of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Frodo is the obvious first choice as the hero. I would argue that Aragorn is actually an equally valid choice, though less obvious as we do not meet him until some ways into the narrative. Still, Tolkien builds an entire world around his characters, so your choice of hero (just as in the game) depends entirely on the perspective you choose to favor.
In any case, Yeats has been on my mind lately. It is interesting to me that The Second Coming not only fits well into the underlying themes of the Lord of the Rings, but also relates directly to what we see in the modern world. The world becomes more divided every day. When companies have a financial incentive to push the most incendiary, the most extreme views to us, they are complicit in the acceleration of this extremism. The best of society have the self-awareness of Tolkien’s heroes, with its concomitant self-doubt.
This is not a bad thing, surely, for it means that the best of us is capable of recognizing our flaws, of righting wrongs and changing course. Unfortunately, the worst of us is filled with a passionate intensity. An iron-willed certainty that one is right, that it is impossible for one’s beliefs in any facet to be incorrect or incomplete is at the heart of much of human tragedy.
Many who push back against science, against mask-wearing, vaccinations, democracy, social justice, against basic human compassion, do so without any doubt. Doubt is healthy. Questioning ones own beliefs – even those most deeply held – is an essential part of being a functioning adult. The nature of knowledge and wisdom is that there is always more for us to learn; always we have the capacity for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world around us.
Ignorance is simply the state of not-knowing. We are all ignorant about a great many things. What is essential is to not hide from our ignorance, nor fear it. This is what leads to covering it, to accepting with eager excitement the first convenient explanation which comes along. We all face daily temptations to ameliorate the uncomfortable feeling which ignorance brings, but without the hard work of learning. Just as Frodo had to resist the temptation of the Ring – the easy way out – so too must we resist the temptation of masking our ignorance. Rather than cover it with the convenient lie, we must shine the light of truth, knowledge, facts – casting out the shadows of ignorance and superstition.
For those who made it this far, I hope this meandering journey through poetry, hero archetypes, power, and modern problems resonated with you. In gratitude, here is a thematic deck built around Gandalf the White. It attempts to represent his return, his Second Coming if you will, to Middle-earth.