Would Gandalf be a good king?
Like many questions about Lord of The Rings, you could answer this a hundred different ways – and honestly I think it depends on what scenes you focus on and which role Gandalf is playing, because he does several things across the books.
So I want to think about this in terms of mirror literature. There, that narrows the scope a bit, doesn’t it?
To understand mirror literature, we need to look at the middle ages.
Now, the middle ages in Europe was a time dominated by kings and queens. Rulers who, when they took the throne, couldn’t be legally removed until their death. They were the final authority on everything, from the court system to the government – and, in the case of Henry VIII onwards, even the church. Once they took the throne, a monarch was effectively untouchable, and that power could easily go to their heads.
(I’m getting back to Gandalf, don’t worry.)
In another example of how medieval times were more complicated and advanced than we might think, medieval people were all too aware of this. So much so that a whole form of literature sprang up to deal with the issue: mirror literature.
Existing from the 800s to at least the end of the 1500s, mirror literature aimed to ‘show a mirror’ to a new or soon-to-be monarch, supposedly showing them their true nature and helping them learn to be a better ruler by self-reflection. Heirs in waiting had extensive educations, and along with learning how to ride a horse or hold a council meeting, they would have been given a long reading list of mirror literature to prepare them for their future role.
The most famous is, of course, Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. This was a fairly standard piece of mirror literature in that it was just advice for a future ruler – what made it unique, of course, was its streak of calculated ruthlessness and efficiency.
Many others, though, dealt with other important parts of the life of a ruler – Castiglione’s The Book of The Courtier (1528) was all about what made a good courtier, or royal adviser, while Erasmus’s The Education of a Christian Prince (1516) was a guidebook on how to effectively educate a future ruler – and incidentally earned Erasmus a role tutoring the future emperor, Charles V.
So by the time an heir became a monarch, they were well-prepared for the role.
I think it’s quite a tragedy that we’ve lost this in our modern democracies. After all, a popularly-elected leader is just as fallible and can be just as prone to overreaching their power and abusing it.
So let’s do some mirror literature of our own. What can we learn about leadership from Gandalf?
Sure, Gandalf loses his cool from time to time. I’m thinking of when Pippin knocks the goblin down the well and alerts the dark forces to their presence. “Fool of a Took!” And when he’s stumped by the door to Moria and he lashes out in frustration. In that case, though, the frustration is more internal, anger that he can’t do what he thinks he should be able to do.
When it comes to those around him, Gandalf shows a great deal of patience and understanding – and one of the key traits of a good leader is knowing that you can’t ask too much of people, or berate them when they fail. He has endless patience with Frodo as he struggles through his trials with the ring, a sign of Gandalf’s great wisdom.
We don’t get much chance to see Gandalf’s mercy in Lord of The Rings films – which is a shame, because he’s full of it. Crucially, he is always willing to forgive, even people like Denethor and Boromir who threaten to bring down the whole effort. Samwise is forgiven for eavesdropping at the beginning, and Bilbo is forgiven for taking the ring and hiding it from him.
But most importantly for me, he teaches Frodo to be merciful of Gollum. There’s that crucial scene when the party first meets Gollum, when they’re lost in the depths of Moria. He lectures Frodo when he says Gollum should be killed, telling him that many who live deserve to die, and many who die deserve to live, but it’s not his job to decide who. As a leader, he should exercise restraint, and be quicker to forgive, and less hasty in dealing out death.
If he hadn’t, Frodo would probably have failed in his quest. Because at the very end Frodo falters, and it’s only through Gollum’s intervention that the ring is destroyed. If he’d killed him earlier, Frodo would have given into the ring.
The ring has an unnatural ability to tempt and lure those around it. They are drawn to its power, they want to use it for whatever ends they see fit. Whether their initial intentions are good or bad, the ring slowly taints the user, bending them to its will and turning them to darkness.
Gandalf recognises this. And he shows his strength at the very start, by refusing the ring. As he tells Frodo: though he would wield the ring for good purposes, he is too powerful to risk it. If the ring were able to sway him, the heroes would have no chance.
This, to me, reflects Gandalf’s suitability to lead more than anything else – because he’s capable of trust: unlike Boromir, who wants to use the ring personally to save his people, Gandalf trusts Frodo with the ring. He is able to accept that he isn’t able to control everything, and that there are others around him who are able to do tasks better than him, even if it means leaving them to do it without supevision. What better leadership trait is there than having the confidence to let go and trust others with very important things?
To me, it also reflects another important fact about leadership: you can’t consolidate all power in one individual. A leader is one who refuses to wield too much power when offered, and knows how best to distribute power to those who won’t misuse it.
So would Gandalf be a good king? Eh, no, probably not. Like he said, having that much power would be too dangerous. He’s more like a walking piece of mirror literature, teaching the future leaders around him – Frodo and Aragorn – how to lead properly.