“All that is gold does not glitter.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
Back in the 1860s a prospector named Captain Tom Morgan filed a claim on a hard–to–find drainage in the mountains northeast of Boise and rode into town claiming he had discovered over $50,000 worth of gold. After a legendary spending spree his “gold” was discovered to be chemically enhanced iron pyrite—fool’s gold.
Captain Morgan was never caught, nor was he ever seen again, but his skullduggery is memorialized in the name the site bears to this day, Bogus Basin, and proves again that Shakespeare was right: “All that glitters is not gold.”
We know the proverb and we know the truth, for we’ve all been fooled by those who shimmer and shine, but whose hearts are dark and deceitful. We’ve learned that outward beauty can be an overlay, a façade, an affectation that conceals evil, self–serving motives. It’s good to be wary of those who look too good to be true, for too often they are!
J.R.R. Tolkien, howevert, turns that proverb upside down and finds an equal and opposite truth: “All that is gold does not glitter.” As ugliness can be cloaked in beauty, so goodness and beauty can be hidden in an unattractive presence.
The phrase occurs in a letter delivered to the hobbit Frodo at The Prancing Pony, an inn to which Frodo and his halfling friends had come after a long journey through the Misty Mountains.
Riders had come from the south the day before, strange, suspicious looking men who were now lodged in the inn. But the strangest of all was a tall, dark man who sat in a shadowy corner, wrapped in a cloak with a hood that hid his face.
He was a Ranger, the inn–keeper Barliman said, a solitary wanderer who came and went at will and whose business was shrouded in mystery. His presence was grim and forbidding.
Then old Barliman remembered a letter from Gandalf in which the wizard informed Frodo that he might meet a friend at the inn: “A Man, lean, dark, tall, by some called Strider. He knows our business and will help you.”
In a postscript to the letter, Gandalf inserts this poem…
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.
Who could have guessed that the dark rider was in fact a nobleman, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a “crownless” king, an ancient warrior with deep wisdom who would become a fast friend, faithful guide and guardian to the travelers—which is Tolkien’s point: an unappealing presence can conceal a heart of gold.
The media and other elements of our culture have taught us to court the buffed, the best–dressed, and the beautiful and attribute worth to them. The old, the dull, the dowdy, the homely are discounted.
But Wisdom speaks otherwise: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It leads us to go beyond appearance and look within the soul of every man and woman for virtue and the beauty of holiness, for authentic worth lies just there.
Our Lord: “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised…and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2,3). Yet his heart was pure gold.
And so I ask myself, “On what basis do I evaluate others? What kind of fool am I?”