Monday, January 13, 2014

Four Quotations from Gandalf that can Teach Us about Writing

Perhaps no other character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy offers more memorable, oft-quoted wisdom than the wizard Gandalf. Mysterious, independent, and occasionally short-tempered, Gandalf’s name has become a byword for sage-like mentorship. 

And, as with all true wisdom, the words of Gandalf can be applied to everyone—not only to young Hobbits and kings-to-be, but also to those who take up the pen in place of the sword. Let’s look at four quotations from Gandalf and apply them to the business of writing.

1. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” ~Gandalf, The Hobbit

Upon seeing Gandalf, Bilbo makes the mistake of wishing his wizard friend a “Good morning,” to which Gandalf replies with this quote. And while this may seem like mere clever banter on Gandalf’s part, there’s actually a good reminder to us writers therein.

What do your words mean? Remember, words have different meanings and word-pictures for everyone. Even a word as simple as “cat” will create a completely unique image in every individual’s mind. One person may think of their tabby cat from childhood. Another may imagine the mangy, alley cat that yowls on the fence every night. A third may think of an independent, or aloof, creature that sharpens its claws on furniture.

So, what do your words mean? That’s up to you to determine. If you want your reader to picture the cat in your story as cuddly and loving, be sure to reflect this fact. It may be that a particular reader has had a bad experience with cats or simply doesn’t like them. In this case, it is your responsibility to portray the cat as you want your readers to see it. Use words, but more importantly, use actions. Show that this cat is a creature worthy of your reader’s admiration. Perhaps it keeps its owner warm on cold nights or is a therapeutic cat that brings cheer to hospitalized children.

Keep in mind, too, that ambiguity can confuse your readers. In Gandalf’s example, “Good morning” could mean any manner of things. It’s your responsibility to determine which one of those things you want your readers to know and understand. Here is a simple example of ambiguous reference: “Gandalf told Frodo that he would take the Ring to Mordor.” The question on your reader’s mind right now is: “Who is he referring to? Frodo or Gandalf?” Is Gandalf telling Frodo that Frodo is going to take the ring to Mordor, or is Gandalf saying that he is going to take the ring to Mordor? This may seem like a small nit-pick, but it makes an enormous difference to your readers’ understanding of your story.

2. “You've been sitting quietly for far too long!” ~Gandalf, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

In the film adaptation of The Hobbit, Bilbo—rattled by his experience with the dwarves who have pillaged his home—finds a private place to sit and collect himself. “I just need to sit quietly for a moment,” he tells Gandalf.

To which Gandalf retorts: “You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long!”

Bilbo has lost sight of what once was—his youthful sense of wonder and joy—and replaced it with the mundane business of life. He has let other things get in the way of his natural curiosity and his love for adventure and dreaming (traits which Gandalf claims Bilbo possessed as a boy).

Much like Bilbo, writers sometimes fall into this rut of being too busy, or too preoccupied, to spend even a small amount of time doing what they know they love—writing. It is not always easy to dedicate time to writing, but if you love the way your words weave together—if you find satisfaction in creating imagery and composing stories—then writing is what you were meant to do.

Taking a break from your work is a good—and healthy—practice. However, if you avoid writing because of fear, laziness, or “writer’s block,” then it is time to jump back behind the laptop, notebook, or typewriter, and start weaving words again. This is the only way you will ever make progress—by literally writing something. Sentences don’t form themselves, after all.

Write every day, even if just one hundred words. Like any skill, writing evolves through practice. Continue to write, and your talent and experience can only grow.

3. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” ~Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Some writers like to outline. Others, like Stephen King, claim that outlines make a book staler than those that are written spontaneously.

But whether or not you outline, don’t be afraid to change course. No story—no piece of writing for that matter—will ever turn out exactly as the author intended. Some sub-plot or some new character is bound to crop up half-way through the work, and even the smallest changes can alter the original course of the story.

Don’t let this frighten you. Part of the joy of writing is not knowing where your story is heading. Sometimes re-writing an entire chapter—or an entire work—is the best thing that you can do for your story. In the long-run, your creation will be better for it.

This quotation also serves as encouragement to not give up on your work. Writing is difficult. Good
writing is an art that takes years to master and more than a lifetime to perfect. But the truth is, you do not know where your writing will take you. You cannot possibly predict if, in ten years, you will be at the top of the “Best Sellers” list or inspire a nation with your words. Strive to make your writing the best that it can be, and don’t give up on your dreams. Do not let others discourage you—they can no more see the end than you can. And if you stay true to yourself and your passions, it will be a beautiful end, indeed—an end that you chose to achieve.

4. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ~Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

This is, perhaps, Gandalf’s most iconic and inspirational quotation. When Frodo expresses that the Ring is too large a burden for him to carry, Gandalf comforts the hobbit with these words.

We are all appointed a specific time to live on this planet, and a specific time to leave it. All life has meaning and purpose, and what we choose to do with our time is very important. We are only given one life to live, and we must live it to its fullest.

If you were born to write, ask yourself what stories you were meant to tell. Then write them. Words can change the world. Your stories, poetry, essays, and manuscripts, are all gifts given to you. It is your responsibility to write them so that others can experience them as well. Use your talents and tales responsibly. Use them to give back to others. Use them to better yourself and your world.


  1. Great post, I have read / heard these before obviously but it's interesting to see them pulled out and commented on. I particularly love number 4...

    1. Thank you for reading, Cliveanthony :) I thought that offering writing advice via Gandalf's quotes would mix things up a bit. I'm glad that you enjoyed the article. I agree: number four is an incredibly inspirational thought.

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