What Was Gandalf?

When we read the story of the journey of Frodo and Sam into Mordor we noted that he did so through the voice of Sam. Now he tells the story through Pippin and later he will do so through Merry. It is Pippin who watches Gandalf and Denethor wrestling with one another.

“Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smouldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.”

Pippin’s first reaction as he gazes at them both is that Denethor is the more kingly and that he is older.  In fact Denethor is only one year older than Aragorn and yet Denethor is indeed old while Aragorn is at the height of his powers. Both are descended from the race of Númenor and yet the story of Númenor runs more truly in Aragorn and this is not just because he is descended from Elendil and Isildur.

Pippin begins to see this as he gazes at them. Denethor may look more kingly and yet “by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older.”

Pippin is growing up. He is beginning to see things as they really are. In the New Testament this is called the discerning of spirits. Pippin still thinks of himself as a boy and when he meets Bergil later in the day he will feel the relief of not being among the mighty any longer but whether he wishes it or not he is leaving childhood behind. Thankfully he will carry the best of childhood with him as Gandalf did when he played with fireworks in the Shire at Bilbo’s party. The best of adults never lose it. There is a playfulness about them that travels along with the seriousness. In some like Tom Bombadil it is very strong indeed. In characters like Saruman and Denethor it has been lost almost entirely. In Théoden it is found through his brief friendship with Merry.

“What was Gandalf?” Pippin asks. Tolkien never quite reveals the mystery of one of his greatest characters. He tells us that the wizards, the Istari, first came to Middle-earth after the first thousand years as the darkness begins to grow once more. Their task is to encourage the free peoples of Middle-earth to resist it, each doing so in their own particular way. But what they were before this we are not told. When Gandalf confronts the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm he declares that he is “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the  flame of Anor.” In his excellent book on Tolkien’s spiritual vision, Secret Fire, Stratford Caldecott speaks of the fire as Tolkien’s term “for the distinctive creative power of Eru” that represents “life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence- it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world.” This is the fire that Melkor/Morgoth seeks for himself but he cannot find it “because it is with Ilúvatar”. Even Morgoth’s own existence is dependent upon God and so is Sauron’s and all who serve him. Thus they cannot create and can only mar as is most terribly true of the orcs who are twisted forms of the Elves the most beautiful of God’s creatures.

This is what Gandalf serves and yet it is, as Pippin realises, veiled. And that is the nature of love and of grace. It has to be veiled if it is to inspire courage and goodness in others and not to overwhelm them or force them to behave in a particular way thus taking away their freedom. There is nothing veiled about Saruman who seeks the admiration of others. And just like Pippin we have begun to learn wisdom when we stop looking for greatness in the obvious and begin to see it in the hidden and in the veiled.