Thou Shalt Not Pass!

It struck me that Gandalf should have issued this halting command to the balrog in Moria.  “You shall not pass!” seems too polite, and beyond what a balrog deserves.  Perhaps not everyone was struck the same way, with regards to this.  Give me time to explain, because it does touch on daily prayers, and on Bible reading.

People sometimes complain of the older liturgy and of the Authorized Version of the Bible (aka. the King James) that all of those “thee”s and “thou”s are too confusing.  Why don’t they just say “you,” the way that we actually speak?  The truth is, they do.  “You,” and “ye” can be found without too much trouble in both of these works.  The question is, then, a question of why these are sometimes used and sometimes the more difficult “thee”s are used.  The answer is incredibly practical, and will change the way your approach the ancient liturgy, the way you pray, and the way you read the Bible.

“Thee,” “thou,” and “thy” are the singular pronouns for the second person, in English.  If you ever learned any French in school, you may remember that “tu” was the singular for “you,” and that “vous” was the plural for “you.”  Well, here’s the rub – “tu” is “thou,” and “vous” is “you.”  There was a time when royals were the ones who were referred to in the plural (we still call it “the royal ‘we’” when the queen says something like, “We are not amused.”  She isn’t referring to anyone lacking amusement but herself, yet she uses the plural pronoun “we” to refer to herself.  And she should).

I remember a French teacher saying that using “vous” when speaking to someone was a way of paying respect.  To use “tu” with someone was a sign of familiarity – “vous” honoured the one spoken to.  Somewhere along the way, in English, we stopped referring to each other as familiars (thou), and started to refer to one another with respect (you) otherwise reserved for those of distinction (or, simply those who hadn’t yet opened their mouths and shown themselves to be fools like the rest of us).

That’s why I don’t think Gandalf should have said, “You shall not pass!”  Because I don’t think that balrog deserved any respect, or the courtesy of being honoured in any way with plural language.  The balrog was a thou.  Thou shalt not pass.  The language that we find so formal and so foreign was originally the language that expressed otherwise: familiarity and approachability.  Now go – and pray the liturgy with its ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, and read the Scripture with its ‘thine’s, and notice that it expresses far more than the modern equivalents do (always ‘you’).


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