This summer my 11 year old has been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As of this writing, he’s finished Two Towers and will be diving into Return of the King. I’m thrilled he’s reading these classics, but feeling a bit wistful—we began with my reading Fellowship of the Ring to him (more about that here), but he got tired of the read-aloud pace and commandeered the book on a recent trip with his grandparents. Sadness. Anyway.
Like the rest of the family, James is a big fan of the LOTR movies. I think they’re as close to perfect as a 12-hour work of art can possibly be, with the exception of the cast being painfully white. So it’s been interesting and fun to hear him critique the similarities and differences between the films and the books.
The other day, we got to talking about this pivotal scene:
Here we see Gandalf fighting the Balrog in the mines of Moria, basically holding off the monster so the rest of the Fellowship can escape to safety. Gandalf falls into the abyss with the Balrog, and it’s not clear until The Two Towers what has become of him. Something wondrous has become of him, but that’s another post.
In the book, Gandalf says this to the Balrog:
You cannot pass… I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.
In the movie, he says much the same thing, except the final line. There he says, “You shall not pass.”
…Actually, he says
In our conversation, James and I mused on the difference between “you shall not pass” and “you cannot pass.” On an aesthetic level, shall sounds WAY stronger. Substantively, the latter (cannot) implies that the Balrog lacks the ability to pass, while the former (shall not) suggests that the Balrog may be capable, but Gandalf will not permit it.
There are times in our lives when we need to call on the language of shall not: to take a stand and say what we will and won’t accept. Other times, it may be a comfort to lean on cannot: to know that, even when we feel weak or afraid or distraught, the things that threaten us are limited in their ultimate power to destroy us.
This conversation came to mind over the weekend, in the wake of shootings in El Paso and Dayton. (The one in Gilroy is already a collective distant memory, eh? Sigh.) Like my friends on the right, I believe there are moral and cultural issues that feed into the scourge of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and our nation uniquely—issues that must be addressed. I’m sure I part ways with them when I name them: toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism, white nationalism, and demagoguery on the part of the Current Occupant. And like my friends on the left, I believe we need more stringent gun safety laws. And no discussion of this issue is complete without pointing out that the overwhelming majority of gun deaths are suicides. (How’s a “good guy with a gun” going to help there?)
A healthy majority in this country supports legislation to increase gun safety, believe it or not. And yet here we are, held captive by stonewalling and monied special interests who block attempts to even study the issue. It’s hard to have any hope that things will ever change for the better.
So maybe we need to channel Movie Gandalf here, when addressing the complacency or the inertia in our own hearts, or heck, the forces that want to us to believe there’s nothing we can do: you shall not. You shall not win. We will not allow well-heeled interest groups to run roughshod on our democracy, such that we don’t even try to address this issue. People have power. We refuse to let you have the last word.
But then, maybe taking a stand on shall also leads to can. Maybe standing together and saying what we will and won’t permit helps expose just how weak and inept the other side is. (Did you know the NRA is fighting among itself and hemorrhaging money?)
I often quote Archbishop Tutu, during the deepest, darkest days of apartheid, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally. Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
That day, St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching, they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly: You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side! With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.
The Balrog shall not win. We do not permit it. And what’s more, it can’t.