What is the Big Society Equivalent of Gandalf the White?

January 12, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

The internet sometimes feels like one big cavern of promiscuous information where intellectual swingers throw around their ideas in search of fertile ground. It has been called an ‘echo chamber‘ and is fuelled by the urge to link, forward, quote, repeat, retweet and so forth with a gradually vanishing care for provenance or accuracy. What ‘works’ online is mostly a function of ‘forwardability’. The chamber thus abounds with misinformation laundered through a thousand servers, while the good, the true and the beautiful gradually lose their bearings.

That wasn’t meant to sound so negative…and of course I live with, through and sometimes even for the internet. I just wanted to give some context for an echo of my own, in which I  repost something I have already written, simply because I like it, and because it might otherwise be forever overlooked.

In a previous post, announcing the launch of our recent report on the Big Society, I made a passing reference to the connection between a character in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, and the Big Society:

“I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.

(sourced via Wikipedia)

The character is part of popular culture, but the analogy might be somewhat obscure for those unfamiliar with the Gandalf’s character, and his role in the epic. I read very little growing up(too busy playing chess) so my first encounter with the works of JRR Tolkien was Peter Jackson’s triopic, which I have in extended DVD versions, and have watched far too many times. These films led me to chase down the Tolkien Canon, and I had to promise my wife Siva that I would never attend a conference on Tolkien’s work. I now feel a healthy distance from middle earth, but I still find that most issues in life have some parallel in the character and stories there.

I don’t want this to become a Lord of the Rings love fest, but I am curious to know what readers think of such parallels, and whether they have any value. I promise not to take this as a license to generate more of them!




  • Jayarava

    Nah. Gandalf is not of Middle-Earth and his sole job is to defeat Sauron, partly by providing a focal point for the resistance in a time when the different peoples all distrust each other (think Lawrence of Arabia). Once that’s done he retires, makes fireworks for a bit, then heads east with the ring bearers and the last members of the Noldor Rebellion (read the Silmarillion). Though in Gandalf’s case the “Government” didn’t renege on it’s promise of self rule for the inhabitants (unlike the  British government at the end of WWI)
    If there is any community building done then it is down to the new King Elessar (aka Aragorn) who must restore order. That task would have been impossible before the destruction of Sauron, but even with him gone it will be a big job as things have really gone to pot. None of this really comes through in the Jackson films. Elessar is left rebuilding Middle Earth as a substantially disenchanted world as most of the magic is fading. Tolkien hints more than once that he intends the LOTR to be an alternate history of our disenchanted world (though he did also say that he cordially disliked allegory).

    Mordor is like a nuclear site. Nothing will grow there for aeons. There will be no shire there. Maybe you should stick to what you know?

    But back in the Shire it is the Hobbits newly returned from the wars who rescue their community from the pirates who’ve hijacked it – lead by Saruman. They do this by forcibly taking back control and imposing an order which resembles the old order but with Frodo and friends in control. Though Frodo does try to limit the killing, many lives are lost in the process. Sam is more or less mayor of the Shire for the rest of his life, though by popular vote (no modern parallel of that!) In fact kind of resembles the British royal family except for the voting.

    Anyway the idea that central government can resurrect that which an entire culture has purposefully set about dismantling (ie society dismantling itself) is laughable. All they can do is legislate, and you can’t make laws to get people to relate to each other better, or care for each other. And Cameron as a moral leader is a joke not worth repeating. Politicians are the least trusted, and probably the least trust worthy people in our Big Society. If they could turn that around, they might have a change of changing society, but they just keep digging that hole… Gandalf the White, seeing our parliament, would I suspect see Worm Tongue replicated and stuffed into a grey suit.

    Personally I find your Middle Earth metaphor far from convincing. This isn’t Middle Earth.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, and for elaborating on the parallels in such detail. 

      In fact, I know rather more about middle earth than you might imagine, and I fear you may have misinterpreted the function of the two metaphors. It is precisely because nothing grows in Mordor that I suggested the Government might be trying(in vain) to build the Shire there, and it is not that I think Gandalf is a community activist, but rather that his ‘rebirth’ as Gandalf the White is the kind of ‘same-but different’ rebirth the government now needs if they are going to develop the Big Society idea again.

      • Jayarava

        I’m only going on what you’re written.The suggestion that Britain at the moment is like Mordor is not sensible. Mordor is an utter wasteland where nothing grows. Britain is one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations on the planet.

        Why would you build the Shire anywhere but the Shire anyway? Not everyone is a Hobbit! Personally I’d hate to live in the Shire. I wouldn’t mind living in the Minas Tirith though – with access to the libraries!I agree that the government needs a rebirth but the metaphor suggests that at present they are Gandalf the Grey and again I point you towards the person of Worm Tongue as a better representative. He is redeemed in the act of killing Saruman the traitor and dying with an arrow in his chest, if he is redeemed at all.

        Before rebirth comes death. What form of symbolic death do you imagine would give the current government the credibility it needs to lead us towards a big society? What is your Balrog?

        BTW I’m quite anti-Tory but none of the rest of them impress me as people who could lead us to a better world. Ed Milliband for example could certainly do with a rebirth, as he seems to be living-dead (he’ll get the zombie vote…) 

        So even on a second look I still don’t think your metaphor works.

        One metaphor that might we worth exploring is the greedy Dwarves who delved too deep and woke the Balrog. 

        • Jonathanrowson

          Thanks a lot, Jayarava, I really enjoy these parallels. I particularly like the ‘not everyone is a hobbit!’- that is – sort of – our argument in our recent big society report that I link to above.