A Deeper Look At “All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter”

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If you’ve talked to me about geeky subjects for any amount of time, you know that I am a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As a kid, my mom bought me the books and I tore through them at the age of 9. I know, pretty heavy reading for a 9-year-old, right? Well, what can I say? The world that Tolkien created gripped me, and I found that I just couldn’t put his novels down. When the movies started coming out, I was in awe as the story and the world that I had come to know and love came alive before my very eyes.
Within these pages is a poem that many know, but I think few truly grasp the meaning behind it. If you’re familiar with the story of The Lord of the Rings then you know that the subject of the poem is Strider or Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, the true king of Gondor. The poem appears twice in The Fellowship of the Ring. The first is in Gandalf’s letter to Frodo in Bree, and the second at the council of Elrond, recited by Bilbo. The repetition suggests that Tolkien wants us to grasp these words:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
-J.R.R Tolkien
I’ve thought a lot about this poem, prayed over it, meditated on it. I wanted to break it down and just talk about it and explain what it means to me, not just as a fan of The Lord of the Rings, but as a Christian as well.
The poem itself is actually titled “All that is Gold does not Glitter,” which is obviously the first line of the poem. From a Christian perspective, this says to me that some things in life that seem good, true, and meant-to-be may not have the luster that we wish. As I sit here thinking about that first line, it really is somewhat paradoxical.  We associate gold with shine, richness, and beauty, but sometimes we get lost in thinking something is good for us, when in reality it is not (much like the One Ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth).  It’s gold, but it certainly doesn’t glitter.  In other words, those who have the Ring love and hate it, and Frodo himself realizes it is beautiful but also treacherous. On the other side of that coin, though, as we consider the subject of the poem, Aragorn, avoids the trappings of kingship–the crown, the jewels, the shining armor–and walks the earth in simple ranger’s garb. He’s not one for showy gestures or bombastic statements. The gold could be referring to his innate nobility, courage, valor, and humility.
When someone is lost, I automatically, as a Christian, jump to the conclusion that they are caught in sin, neglecting God, and living a life of debauchery. Which easily can be true. Tolkien’s poem takes another approach. My favorite part of this entire poem–not all those who wander are lost. Seven simple words, all of which are pretty short but together they make a sentence that sparks really encouraging thoughts. Sometimes we find ourselves in seasons of life we don’t want to be in. We get hurt or betrayed, tragedy will strike, or sometimes we just feel alone. But Tolkien, being a Christian, understood that as fallen humans, we will wander. Even as Christians we wander! But it does not mean we are lost. God knows our path, and much like the prodigal son, we often come running back to Him. In my case, that happens quite a lot. Looking again at the subject, Aragorn wanders Middle Earth, but he certainly isn’t lost. Aragorn’s wandering is not without purpose; rather it is to familiarize him with the geo-political situation of Middle Earth and to enable him to garner the knowledge and skills he will need to be an effective King.
The next two stanzas are: “The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” These two brief parts of the poem mean relatively the same thing in my mind. “The old that is strong does not wither” can be interpreted that even though something or someone is old does not mean it will also wither, much like a senior citizen nearing the end of life none-the-less has the gift of eternal life through Jesus. Although they are old and “physically” withering, spiritually they will not, nor will they ever. As for the “Deep roots are not reached by the frost,” I believe it means if you’re rooted in Christ and are living for him, when the cold winds of winter come (hard times in life) you will not be reached. Yes, times will be terrible and these times may cause waning (I wane a lot), but still the roots stand firm.
I’m reminded of a quote from Boromir, “Gondor wanes. But Gondor stands.” I love this message because I am “waning” right now. I wane. But I stand. God understands this and whether we wane or stand, He is there for us. By the time of the War of the Ring, Aragorn was 87 years old. Any common man of that age would be “withered,” but because his veins ran with the royal blood of Númenorean Ship-kings, Aragorn was in the prime of his life. He was destined to live for over two centuries before passing away, still sound of mind.
The last four stanzas are: “From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.” For anyone who is familiar with the story, it is no secret that this is concerning the prophecy of Aragorn. Aragorn walked away from the life of Kinghood. He chose another path because he did not want that power. It is never truly said, but I believe it is because Aragorn, despite all his impressive qualities, suffered from fear. I am not talking about fear of battle or death necessarily, but fear of failure. His ancestor, Isildur, failed, and Aragorn expresses this concern in the films, “The same blood runs through my veins.”
In the end however, Aragorn conquers this fear. “A light from the shadows shall spring.” Aragorn comes out of the shadows. He embraces who he was meant to be. The elves re-forge the sword Narsil, the sword of Isildur and the new blade is named Anduril, The Flame of the West.
Lastly, “The crownless again shall be king” is self-explanatory in the case of Aragorn, but also is a parallel to Jesus. Jesus was given a crown of thorns when He was crucified, but when He returns, He will reclaim his rightful crown and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. And just like the name of the final book in the trilogy, we will await The Return of the King.   

Vince Chapman

Vince is a husband, father, and children's pastor in addition to the work he does for Geeks Under Grace.

7 Comments

  1. Waweru Derrick on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Quick question can I borrow the wallpaper?

  2. Waweru Derrick on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Just came across this article as I searched for the quote “not all who wander are lost “, I must say this the best thing I’ve read all day great work Vince.

  3. Justine Thong on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    thanks for the article! I too love this poem, and it has a trick of coming back into my head now and then. Fully resonate with your writing and breaking down of it.

  4. Andrew Yarbrough on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Excellent article! I would like to see more of your thoughts upon other writings of Tolkien, whether that be the surveyance of a story or a reflection of yet another poem of his. Again, fantastic revelations. I hope to read more like this soon!

  5. J.S. Clingman - A Child of God on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Wow, nice observations! I’ll keep those in mind next time I read Tolkien’s beloved poem! 😉

  6. AlphaWolfDrummer on April 21, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Great article. I’ve pondered on this quote for a long time too, and it’s simply beautiful.

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