Willis: The Balrog, Gandalf, and Me

I have been wanting to write this piece for a few weeks, and I was not sure how to write it. Outside of academic style pieces, I tend to have difficulty writing and relating a topic without rambling through a ton of rabbit holes. Either way, I am going to give it a shot.

I must first establish the purpose of this piece, and it is to address judging a book by its cover by making assumptions based on appearance only. What I say in this piece can apply to things beyond tattoos and so forth. It can apply to clothes, makeup, jewelry, and other things. Okay, let us get into it.

What do you see when you see this Tattoo?


I am not going to directly assume what you may have specifically thought. Rather, I will report what I have commonly heard. The first impressions vary with:

I see a demon.

I see a devil.

I see a monster.

Oh! Cool! Diablo 2!

In fact, my mother’s first reaction was: “A Christian shouldn’t get tattoos like that!”

And these reactions are not surprising. Those are natural reactions, honestly, whether the person is Christian or not. Culture has been conditioned to judge it this way, and that should be expected. One person even remarked, “Ah, so you are not afraid of the evil stuff! Nice!”

I will now take a moment to fully clarify that this tattoo belongs to me. I realize that was indicated above, but I just wanted to clarify… (ramble on, Brad…)

Anyway, for those who see the bottom of the tattoo, or simply those who have seen The Lord of the Rings films (or read the books), they realize it is not a demon image or from Diablo. Rather, it is the image of Gandalf fighting the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring.

So, is that the extent of the tattoo? Is it just a cool interpretation of that famous scene? For me personally, that would be more than enough to make it worth getting tattooed.

But no. The meaning behind the tattoo is deeper than that. On a simple level one needs to understand the scene itself. Gandalf, who is an Istari (what is essentially an angel in the Tolkien universe), is facing an evil that is actually just as powerful as Sauron. Balrogs are corrupted Maiar (so was Sauron), servants of the ultimate evil Morgoth (equal to a fallen arch angel, aka the devil), who was a Valar. Gandalf was sent by the good Valar to help Middle Earth fight the remnants of Morgoth’s followers as found under his lieutenant Sauron. Gandalf was restricted from using his full power by the good Valar. He was only to primarily advise and instruct. But in this case when confronted by the Balrog, and the fight following, Gandalf tapped into his fuller power and defeated the Balrog. But in doing so, he lost his own life, only to be brought back to finish his work.

Now, I should mention that Tolkien hated allegory, and disliked his works being interpreted through any lens outside of the one he provided. I question why he felt this way, and it is extremely obvious that his works took heavily from the real world. But Gandalf is a fictional type of Christ. He restricts his use of power, he gives up his life to save his friends, and then comes back to finish his work. Gandalf defeats the darkness.

Moving on, the art has some amazing meaning within the Tolkien legendarium. Well, my dear reader, it goes beyond this. For me, the tattoo itself represents my struggle with my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. On a very basic level, the Balrog, representing the OCD, is massively larger than Gandalf. In this way, Gandalf represents me, a much smaller being facing down something that seems impossible to defeat. That is where I was for years. The OCD was a massive beast I never thought could be wounded let alone defeated, and it towered over me.

It is interesting that many do not see Gandalf at first glance. This is intentional. Why? Because in the deepest throes of the OCD’s clutches, all one could see were the bizarre symptoms. The red overwashed hands. The unwillingness to touch items that dropped on the ground. Keeping my hands close to my body. Weaving in and out of crowds. Having public panic attacks. I had felt that Brad had diminished and the OCD had taken over. Only a few could see me anymore. Only those who looked close could see the true me. Just as only those who look close can see Gandalf.

Notice something else about Gandalf? He is created with negative space. That negative space is my own flesh. This enhances the connection to Gandalf and me. I step into his shoes. I become Gandalf and he becomes me, as we are of the same flesh. What does this sound like?

But let us go back a step. I said Gandalf was dwarfed (no pun intended here) by the size of the Balrog. And at first glance, Gandalf is smaller. But go back a paragraph, Gandalf is made with negative space. That negative space is not lined off. It carries out and includes my entire body. The Balrog is trapped within lines. But Gandalf, and in turn myself, extend far beyond, and includes all of me. So, in reality I am not larger or deeper than the Balrog. What at first seemed like an unbeatable monster really is made small when an in-depth look is taken at it.

This represents how in the last year I have been able to conquer the majority of the OCD through therapy, faith, love, friendship, and prescription medication. Though the threat remains, it has been cast down and been exposed for what it is. Just as Gandalf defeated the Balrog, I have in a sense defeated the OCD. (In reality, the OCD will always be there. Mental illnesses don’t end, but you are able to learn how to defeat it every day. Much in the same way that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to resist sin.)

A side note is that the entire tattoo was done on my right arm, which is the arm I washed the most during panic attacks and OCD rituals. So, it made sense to have it done on that arm even more.

What is the point of this piece? The point of this piece is not to show off the tattoo and pretentiously talk about how much meaning my tattoo has behind it, but rather to show there may very well be more meaning behind all sorts of things. A person may dress in all black and pale makeup for something more than that is how they like to look. Johnny Cash wore all black, for example, to represent his sinful nature. A person may have a demon tattoo for a similar reason as I do. A person may have a piercing in their ear to help with migraine headaches (seriously, look it up).

I want to challenge people to look beyond the basics, ask questions, and get invested. Try your hardest not to judge by basic appearances, but instead take the time to understand people first, get to know them, and maybe you will be surprised.

And for those people like me with unconventional tattoos/clothes/jewelry/etc., be willing to explain if asked and don’t get offended. Be willing to let people understand your choices—to get to know you.

I hope this brief and conversational piece helps in some way.

I want to thank my tattoo artist Alyssa Doede for this amazing art. She is the only person on Earth I would trust to tattoo me, and for her to give me this gift I am ever thankful. She is a truly amazing artist and a great friend.

Thanks for your time, thanks for your readership.


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