Seeing through Tolkien’s Eyes
by John Pletcher

Like those Middle-earth travelers in the Fellowship, I’ve often been stymied and puzzled. Struggling to move forward, I have almost missed the clues I needed in order to break through life’s obstructive barricades and tangled relationships.

How do you find your way when faced with frustrating scenarios? What do you do when you encounter curious, quarreling individuals? Such real-life challenges test our mettle in Present-earth.

Tolkien would maintain that your ability to see in a uniquely skillful way can make all the difference. Are you facing a blocked path and difficult people? Consider what it means to see through Tolkien’s eyes. Such skillful vision might even illicit surprising wonder on your journey.

Many of Tolkien’s stories and leading characters portray the value of seeing in a unique and punctuated way. Some might say, “C’mon now! Just enjoy the adventure in all its glory. How do you really know Tolkien aimed for us to develop such acumen?” Great question! Hold tight, stay calm, and watch what unfolds. Recall that Tolkien typically wrote with deeper, more thoughtful life purposes. Middle-earth stories convey rich color and bold texture, indeed. And remember, Tolkien saw plenty of room for applicability. This is especially true regarding how we see life’s frustrating paths and pesky characters.

Let’s revisit one suspenseful scene from The Fellowship of the Ring that vividly demonstrates how Tolkien saw difficult obstacles and feisty people.

Invisible doors and age-old quarrels

Frodo and the Fellowship found themselves at an impasse. [1] The Company had journeyed to the Mines of Moria, approaching the northernmost corner of a lake. Now nearly dark, the travelers arrived at a narrow strip of dry ground protruding between ominous water and the stony edge of the ancient mines. The cliff’s rock walls held a mysterious entrance, a set of stone doors hidden somewhere indiscernible.

Tolkien’s vivid scene description leading up to the stone wall is filled with gloom. Ironically, the Professor’s deliberate naming of this deep place under the mountain, Moria, carries intriguing linkage to an ancient Greek term meaning foolish. Murky, misty lake water stirred behind them with an occasional eerie bubble, plop, and ripple noise. The ominous scenario was foreboding and would require great wisdom.

Two enormous holly trees framed the stone cliff, remnants of a bygone era in the region of Hollin. During the previous ages, Elves and Dwarves knew a less-than-peaceful coexistence. Gimli and Legolas disagreed over whose folk were at fault for the long-standing riff. Michael N. Stanton observed:

For readers of The Lord of the Rings, one of its most intriguing features is the quite evident enmity, or at the best of times wary neutrality, between these two folk. Tolkien makes the existence of that dislike very clear . . . without making entirely clear its reasons. They are grounded in both recent history and in the very creation of the world.[2]


Harsh banter between Gimli and Legolas revealed the recent animosity. Such strained relationship reached back to the Dwarves’ creation by one of the Valar, Aulë. His making of the Dwarves was unauthorized by the original Creator, Ilúvatar. Though displeased with Aulë’s rogue behavior, Ilúvatar was compassionate and let the Dwarves live. However, there would be a curse-like consequence. Ilúvatar declared:


But I will not suffer this: that these should come before the Firstborn of my design, nor that thy impatience should be rewarded. They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone, and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth; and until that time thou and they shall wait, though long it seem. But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.[3]

Hence, the conflict between the Firstborn Elves and the Dwarves spanned the ages. They had been at odds from the very beginning, a result of the divine consequence for Aulë’s self-willed creation.

Back at the stone wall, Gandalf urged Gimli and Legolas to “be friends and help me. I need you both.” The Wizard summed up the situation: “The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand!” Gandalf’s appeal interwove pressing issues of friendship and the frustration of indiscernible doors. Literary intention is multi-layered in the language and scenery. There were both circumstantial and relational obstacles that needed overcome.

Gazing like Gandalf

After saying their sad goodbyes to Bill the Pony, the others turned toward Gandalf and observed: “He appeared to have done nothing. He was standing between the two trees gazing at the blank wall of the cliff, as if he would bore a hole into it with his eyes.”

A most remarkable feature of this scene is simply how unremarkable Gandalf is first portrayed. Readers encounter a wizard who does not appear all that magnificent or discerning. He is far from quick to crack the code and discover the password.

Gimli the dwarf wandered, randomly tapping his axe on the wall. Legolas the elf pressed his ear to the rock, hoping to hear something.

‘Dwarf-doors are not made to be seen when shut,’ said Gimli. ‘They are invisible, and their own masters cannot find them or open them, if their secret is forgotten.’

‘But this Door was not made to be a secret known only to Dwarves,’ said Gandalf, coming suddenly to life and turning round. ‘Unless things are altogether changed, eyes that know what to look for may discover the signs.’

Notice Tolkien’s repetition of optical language, words like gazing, eyes, look for, discover, seen, and invisible.

Our Professor had his own unique way of seeing life’s blocked doors and wrangling fellows. He imbued his story plot with the twisting challenges that might illicit some growth in vision capacity, first for his characters and then for his readers. We are engaged by suspenseful adventure, most certainly, but we are also treated to a very purposeful clinic in how to see life’s puzzling people and situations. In the plot’s pacing, intrigue, mystery, and even humor, Tolkien never disappoints. And as always, Tolkien had a very purposeful aim for development in his readers.

Back at the wall, Gandalf began waving his hands over a smooth space as he muttered words.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘Can you see anything now?’

The Moon’s beam was shining on the grey wall, but nothing immediately appeared. Eventually, faint lines could be seen, and then a more apparent design. An anvil, a hammer, a crown with seven stars, and two trees with crescent moons appeared, followed by Elvish letters.

‘These are the emblems of Durin!’ cried Gimli.

‘And there is the Tree of the High Elves!’ said Legolas.

‘And the Star of the House of Fëanor,’ said Gandalf. ‘They are wrought of ithildin that mirrors only starlight and moonlight, and sleeps until it is touched by one who speaks words now long forgotten in Middle-earth. It is long since I heard them, and I thought deeply before I could recall them to my mind.’

Catch the deliberate cadence of lines and revelation for Gimli and Legolas. Dwarf and Elf made the stunning discovery together. We can’t help but wonder, might Dwarf and Elf become friends, after all? Might the invisible gate and the journey through foolish places help forge something wiser, perhaps a stronger and lasting bond?

Frodo proceeded to ask what the writing said. Gandalf explained the words were from Elder Days of elven-tongue, West of Middle-earth.

Now what was that password?

You know the feeling all-too-well. “Why can’t I remember my password for this site?” Staring at those ancient stone doors, Gandalf summed it up:

‘But they do not say anything of importance to us. They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.’

With Gimli’s coaching and Gandalf’s affirmation, the adventurers all assumed this meant that only one who is a friend to Dwarves may speak the password. Only then will the doors open for entry. They continued to banter, realizing that the passwords were long forgotten. Narvi and the elder kindred were long gone from the land. When Boromír asked the wizard if he knew the words that might successfully open the doors, Gandalf was forced to admit with frustrated exclamation: ‘No!’ Serious dismay settled over the Company. Upon further banter with Boromír, Gandalf clarified: ‘. . . I do not know the words—yet. But we shall soon see.’

After further bristly exchange, this time with Pippin, Gandalf continued to attempt various Elvish incantations. The wizard issued “tones of command and rising wrath.” Finally in exasperation, he threw his staff to the ground and sat down. Here was one desperately defeated wizard.

The Company quarreled and quibbled, causing further disturbance in the mysterious bubbling brew of lake water. The scene is drenched in foreboding fear and tension. Is there any way for the stone doors to open? Can long-standing rivals find any possible way forward? Could they become friends?

‘Why doesn’t Gandalf do something quick?’ said Pippin.

Gandalf took no notice of them. He sat with his head bowed, either in despair or in anxious thought. The mournful howling of the wolves was heard again. The ripples on the water grew and came closer; some were already lapping on the shore.

With a suddenness that startled them all the wizard sprang to his feet. He was laughing! ‘I have it!’ he cried. ‘Of course, of course! Absurdly simple, like most riddles when you see the answer.’[4]

He proceeded to lift his staff in front of the doors and proclaim in a clear voice: Mellon!

“The star shone out briefly and faded again.”

Slowly the doors opened revealing a shadowy, steep staircase and a desperately deep darkness.

“The Company stared in wonder.”

Gandalf proceeded to explain that the translation should have been: Say “Friend” and enter. ‘I had only to speak the Elvish word for friend and the doors opened. Quite simple. Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days. Those were happier times. Now let us go!’

Typical of Tolkien’s literary purposes, the opening of the Doors of Durin is about so much more than just finally cracking the code and entering Moria. It is also about the surprising opening of friendship between two previously conflicted groups.

Seeing our way through closed doors . . . forging surprising friendships

Once again, here’s a pivotal scene that’s ripe with beautiful opportunities for time travel to the First Age via the vernacular of The Silmarillion. As previously reflected, the relational issues hearken back to the days of creation, both Ilúvatar’s original making and then Aulë’s crafting of the Dwarves. And with the Doors’ opening, the Star of Fëanor shines through on the stone wall. Just like we’ve been discovering already across our exploration, The Legendarium is layered with discoveries that often culminate in wonder.

What do you do when faced with an utterly puzzling, oh-so-challenging scenario?

How do you “crack the code” and find your way forward to real friendship?

Can you discover a breakthrough, to make sense of feisty people and troubling scenarios?

The opening of the Doors of Durin ushers the Company into something even deeper than the dark passages of Moria. Tolkien conveyed a fascinating way of seeing, of looking beyond the apparent obstacles, problems, and conflicts. This rich scene revealed a way of observing, a kind of discerning that might actually usher us into new vistas of star-studded wonder.

Vital to recall, this was always one of Tolkien’s chief aims as he crafted his stories. In his essay On Fairy-stories, Tolkien expounded the benefit of recovery. He hearkened back to an idea originally coined by literary giants G.K. Chesterton and Charles Dickens. Tolkien commandeered the concept for his own unique purposes:

Mooreefoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.[5]

The Professor demonstrated how fairy-stories could assist readers in this fresh breakthrough. Recovery is a way of learning to see anew those things, people, and situations with which we have become overly familiar. Does this not seem uncannily similar to the entire Fellowship staring eagerly at the closed doors at Moria? And Gandalf suddenly saw anew, to grasp what really needed spoken. The elvish word for friend, Mellon!

Well, of course. Of course! The scene and sounds must echo this pressing thematic issue of friendship. Exemplary skills we might try for seeing through Tolkien’s eyes here in Present-earth include:

  • When facing obstacles, don’t rush and jump toward hasty conclusions.
  • Always pause to patiently ponder, especially when your path seems blocked.
  • Consider more deeply what is really being said by conflicted people.
  • Words matter, and any given word might actually convey multiple meanings.
  • Seek to see from a different perspective. Learn to discern.
  • Warmly appeal to people in conflict. Boldly invite them to be friends.
  • When doors just won’t open, don’t give up out of desperation.
  • Choose to view an apparent obstacle as a fresh opportunity for growth.

Always remember, when you’ve tried and tried again, look again for the genius in the simpler answer. Sometimes in frustration, we overthink people and situations. As Gandalf said after the fact, in summation of his sudden discovery: “Quite simple. Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days.”

Let’s aim to see anew with Tolkien’s eyes, and watch for the wonder that might appear!

Like those Middle-earth travelers in the Fellowship, I’ve often been stymied and puzzled. Struggling to move forward, I have almost missed the clues I needed in order to break through life’s obstructive barricades and tangled relationships.

How do you find your way when faced with frustrating scenarios? What do you do when you encounter curious, quarreling individuals? Such real-life challenges test our mettle in Present-earth.

Tolkien would maintain that your ability to see in a uniquely skillful way can make all the difference. Are you . . .