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.
If you recognise those words, you probably know they refer to Aragorn, or Strider, a key character in The Lord of the Rings.
At the start of this verse, Tolkein cunningly subverts our expectations by altering a well known phrase. We’re all familiar with the saying ‘not all that glitters is gold’, and for years I thought the first line of the above poem was simply a rephrasing of this well worn proverb. But when I looked more closely, I realised that Tolkein has altered the meaning. Rather than saying that not all gold looks valuable, he says that everything that is golden looks as if it isn’t valuable. His phrase is all-encompassing. All that is gold does not glitter. Everything worth having looks worthless, and anything that looks valuable is a fake.
Aragorn is not recognised for who he really is, so he goes by the name of Strider, or Longshanks. Neither seems intended as a compliment, and the locals in Bree where we first meet him don’t trust him at all. He wanders perpetually, never settling, seemingly having nowhere to call his home. But Tolkein warns us not to be deceived by appearances. This traveller has purpose. Not all those who wander are lost.
As the story develops, we see that Aragorn’s age and experience have made him stronger, and his awareness of the past have given him an ability to resist the comings and goings of others. While others around him wither, or are destroyed by frost, Aragorn knows he is the heir of an old, old kingdom. He puts down deep roots into his heritage, the kingdom of his forefathers, and he is able to be sturdy, dependable, and above all, strong.
Having said that, when Frodo first sees a hooded man in a corner of a room, there is nothing to suggest the presence of a king, much less the presence of a long-awaited heir. Here is a man seemingly at a loose end, wandering the earth with nothing to live for, his life nothing more than ash. But from those ashes a fire shall be woken, and a light from the shadows shall spring. The man sitting hidden in a corner, hiding away from the adulation that most kings crave, will one day be the source of fiery light to many.
There is a blade which will bring this about. It is a broken blade, a useless and defeated blade, but a blade which is imbued with resurrection hope. When it is renewed, the crownless wanderer shall settle in the home he had all along, as the rightful king and the one who brings peace.
As Aragorn says, “I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.” But it could equally well describe another. There is another king who laid aside his crown and wandered the earth with nowhere to lay his head, but he was not lost. He was old, from before time itself, and he knew the eternal purpose for which he had come. His flame was cruelly extinguished, leaving nothing but ash, yet from that ash awoke a new flame, greater and more terrible than before. The Sun of righteousness rose from the shadow of death, and there was healing in his wings, because, as Aragorn showed, the hands of the king are the hands of a healer. The broken blade of his body was renewed, and once again the crownless is king. Now those who recognise him must follow in his footsteps, wandering the earth, yet they are no more lost than Aragorn. We, like little Aragorns, are moving towards a home where they will be given crowns and will reign. But we merely imitate the One great and true Aragorn, the man Jesus Christ. In his kingdom, the last shall be first, and although the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, in the kingdom of Christ it is certain that all that is gold does not glitter.