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.

31 thoughts on “What Was Gandalf?

      • I think that showing Frodo’s pain through Sam was definitely a storytelling device. No one in Middle-Earth knows Frodo better than Sam, except maybe Gandalf, and no one loves him more than Sam. Showing Frodo’s pain through the person closest to him is an interesting technique, because it forces us to take a closer look at him than if Tolkien wrote it from the POV of a distant third-person narrator, or from Frodo himself. Since Frodo’s mind is so tormented, we wouldn’t really be able to get a clear grasp on the story if he himself was the one we saw it through. So, Tolkien gives us Sam’s mind, and we watch the Ringbearer’s torment through Sam, who would die for Frodo, who took on a giant spider for Frodo, who carried Frodo in his arms. As for Gandalf and Pippin, I think something would be lost if we saw Minas Tirith through Gandalf. As the reader, we see Minas Tirith for the first time in this scene. But Gandalf has seen Minas Tirith countless times. Pippin is the only person here like us; this place is new to him, so we get to see it from his view.

      • That is the second time I have done that. The Send button is so easy to hit on my tablet! Here is an attempt to finish what I was trying to say. To make the journey through Frodo’s eyes would almost be too painful. As you say it is Sam who carries Frodo to Mordor and at the end he does it literally. And I like what you say about Pippin. He brings the story of Minas Tirith so much closer to us because he has never been there before and neither have we.

      • Another thing – I wrote a fan fiction once where the journey through Mordor switched between Frodo and Sam’s POVs. I don’t like it much (I’m a far better write now than I was then) but it was interesting to write.

      • It was interesting, but it was hard, too. I had to figure out, was the Ring talking as the Ring or from Sauron? How much control did it have? Could Sam somehow cancel out the Ring’s effects for Frodo? And so on. I didn’t add many new things, though in the sequel, Frodo lost his memory. Now I’m writing part three.

      • That is a really interesting thought. Is the Ring just an extension of the will of Sauron or does it have a mind of its own? I rather suspect that although Sauron would like it to be just an extension of his own thought it is separate from him.

      • Well, in my story at least, it spoke as though it were Sauron, but Sauron was unaware of it, naturally. It told Frodo that Sauron would kill Sam or that Sam would kill Frodo to try and turn them against each other. But obviously that didn’t work.

      • Ohhh, Anne Marie, you are so right as usual. (Me and her are friends, Mr. Winter, I’m not sure if I told you that.) Poor helpless Frodo, he must be so scared. Imagine if your whole mind was controlled by that tiny little thing which of course is really not at all tiny in it’s power.

  1. Also the Ring robbed Frodo of his memories so he was likely relying on Sam for a great part of what happened in Mordor. No wonder why at Mount Doom, he would have beat himself up for claiming the Ring hearing from Sam what he said, and not realizing that it was not his will claiming the will, but the Ring’s triumph over him at last. I agree too that it would be painful to read of such torment first hand, amounting to no less than a rape (as such assaults are not sexual but acts of violence, control and dominance). The Ring assaults Frodo’s will and forces him into doing what he would never have done otherwise.

    • Many thanks for leaving this comment, Anne Marie. So you feel that the Ring effectively rapes Frodo at the Cracks of Doom? I agree that on the journey Frodo is robbed of the memory of all beauty and joy but I get the impression that as soon as the Ring is gone his recall returns to him pretty fast. What do you think?

  2. Sorry for late reply here. So busy. Yes, when you think of what a rape really is, not a sexual act but an act of violence against another person, that is indeed how the Ring treated Frodo throughout, ever more terribly as the Quest went on. I agree it would be horrible to be under such demonic influence. Have you heard the soundtrack from LOTR musical that came out a few years ago? It has a riveting track of such an attack of Gollum on Smeagol and you can tell that is similar to what Frodo had to endure with each breath. It’s a wonder and a miracle and a sign of the grace that filled him that he was able to last as long as he did.

    I am not sure when Frodo’s memories returned (it’s instantly in the movies but I am not counting that). It’s been a while since I read the books to see if there is any hint there. I am thinking at least as far as Mount Doom goes and the claiming of the Ring that Frodo is going on what Sam tells him he said (I know Tolkien mentioned in one of his letters that likely Frodo had no memory of the final assault) and convicts himself of wrongdoing based on those words. I do not choose to do what I came to do. The Ring is mine. Sounds pretty cut and dry that this was a fully willed action on Frodo’s part and that is how Frodo would interpret it. But there is another way to view those words that I hope Frodo learned to do in the West. Tom Shippey and others state that this is not at all a willed act by Frodo, but he literally does not choose, the Ring chooses for him.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 😉

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write this thoughtful reply. I will probably think about this until I write about the events at the Cracks of Doom some time in 2017. I hope when I get there that you will be willing to write a guest blog. There are a couple that I would like to ask for. Until then I hope you don’t mind if I take time to think about this. Do you have any references to Tom Shippey on these events or any of the others that you mention?

      • I would be honored to write a guest blog on your site. Le hannon for thinking of me! This is a subject dear to my heart as you can tell. 🙂 You can find references to Shippey and others for an essay I wrote a few years ago for Beyond Bree that you can use on your site if you wish. I am also in the process of writing a book on the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo, mostly Frodo. 🙂 You can find the essay and others on my website, http://www.annemariegazzolo.com/essays-and-papers/ (Look near the bottom. “Did Frodo Fail?”). Looking forward to your thoughts!

        I also agree on your post about stewardship and those who want power should not be in power. This is why Aragorn was such a great king, he was a servant first.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • Thank you, Anne Marie. It was the thoughtfulness of your comment that made me feel that it would be good to ask you to contribute a post to the blog. The question, “Did Frodo Fail?” is one to which I have given a lot of thought and I look forward to to reading your piece. As I said before I won’t write about this for a year yet so I hope you won’t mind waiting for this. In the meantime I hope you will leave many more thoughts.

  3. Amended reply – there is, of course, Frodo’s anniversary illnesses that are part of his PTSD, and his fingering of Arwen’s gem that are indications of that his memories of the Quest come back. He must have also remembered Sam’s loving care to include them in his reverent tribute to his beloved gardener and guardian angel, for Sam would not have said anything about them himself. I have written some fanfics with them arguing about how was the greater hero – Sam thinks Frodo and Frodo thinks Sam and both of them stubbornly stick to their guns and don’t think they did anything heroic themselves.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

  4. Oh my, this post is packed. I almost think that it ought to be split into two. Maybe even more!

    There is the look at the role of childness in a healthy adult. There is Pippin’s step into spiritual discernment. There is the subject of the Secret Fire. And then there is Gandalf’s true nature, which you may address anon, but which you have lefts as mysterious as Tolkien did in LotR.

    I once convinced a friend to read LotR by explaining that Gandalf wasn’t, as she said, “a male witch as a Christ figure,” but a lesser angel. She’s since become a serious Tolkienite. It’s funny the assumptions people make.

    • Thank you! I wonder if Pippin’s deepening happens because for the first time he is separated from Merry who has been a big brother to him. I was trying to write this piece in a way that tried to capture Pippin searching into who Gandalf is. And, as you say, there is so much. I fear to try to explain too much, partly because I would fall short of the reality and end up by making Gandalf smaller than he is. He is truly great and yet, as he acknowledges himself, he is just a servant, a steward. And I can’t help but think again of the tragedy of Saruman. He is as great as Gandalf and yet is reduced to something utterly mean and miserable. I read a thought by Kierkegaard this morning that there is nothing that we fear so much than our own potential for greatness. Our destiny is to share the glory of God and sometimes we catch terrifying glimpses of that and shrink from them.

      • I hadn’t thought of that, but it does seem likely! He’s been in danger before, but never without Merry by his side. Gondor marks the first time Pippin is stripped of his comfort (Gandalf is protection, but hardly as comforting as Merry) and the first time Merry doesn’t have Pippin to protect.

        I… admit I am very intimidated by God’s will sometimes. But what strikes me about Saruman is that I think he fell through a process that is a constant temptation to me. I am pretty intelligent, a good reasoner, and perceptive, and I know it. Saruman was brilliant, clever, and in some ways, wise (though he lost that somewhere along the line
        ). I am constantly tempted to “take control,” even though I know, on some level, that control is mostly an illusion (the only thing I control are my choices). Because I have mental strength, I have the temptation to rely on it instead of on God. I suspect that is what happened to Saruman. He relied more and more on his own intelligence, and successfully, until he became so confident in his abilities that he went too far. He ended up only having faith in his own abilities (he talks about the inevitability of Sauron winning, but I think he also hoped to find a way to overthrow Sauron his own way).

      • I am sure that Saruman’s hope is that the Ring will somehow fall into his hands and that he will then be able to challenge Sauron for mastery. It is a wonderful principle in the Lord of the Rings, stated at the Council of Elrond, that in defeating Sauron the free peoples have no desire to create a new mastery. Aragorn, as true king, will not be a tyrant.
        I am sure that you are right to be aware of besetting temptation. I am also sure that such is a burden that we are called to bear throughout our lives. Gandalf’s desire to heal is also the temptation to take the Ring in order to do it. The temptation is real and powerful but his self-awareness is also his source of strength. Boromir’s desire to be the hero king is one that he has entertained for a long time and so it overcomes him, for a while at least. I am sure that your insight will also be a source of strength to you too.

      • “that in defeating Sauron the free peoples have no desire to create a new mastery. Aragorn, as true king, will not be a tyrant.” I agree. ^_^ The Free Peoples must be free.

        ” Gandalf’s desire to heal is also the temptation to take the Ring in order to do it. The temptation is real and powerful but his self-awareness is also his source of strength. ” And I agree with this, too. I love that Tolkien gave us that acknowledgement of reality, especially in a character as strong as Gandalf (and Galadriel, too!). And you’re right. It’s hard to have to fight temptation all the time. And to fail, frequently, and have to start again. But at least we fight, and with strength that is infinitely greater than our own

      • I was thinking of Galadriel even when I wrote this. My favourite version of her story is of her association with the rebellion of Fëanor and her choice to remain in Middle-earth after the fall of Morgoth. Her journey to wisdom takes place over many long years and that gives me hope. And she still has the capacity to learn new things about herself and others as she does with Frodo’s offer of the Ring and with Gimli’s request for a lock of her hair.
        I am with you entirely about the need to start over and over again and I am so glad that the Strength deals so patiently with us.

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