Gandalf Pities the Slaves of Sauron

There is a character in Tolkien’s legendarium who exercises a profound influence on The Lord of the Rings and yet is not mentioned there. She is Nienna and in The Silmarillion we read this of her.

“She is acquainted with grief and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

Chief among those who hearkened to her was a Maia whose name was Olórin. The Maiar are spirits who serve the Valar. Tragically the greatest in power among them is Sauron who served Melkor, who Fëanor named, Morgoth. But The Silmarillion tells us that:

“Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin… His ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.”

It is when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf, restored from death in the Forest of Fangorn, that Gandalf briefly reflects upon his name. “Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf, to the East I go not.” So it is that we learn that Olórin is Gandalf and that he is the one who learned pity and patience from Nienna.

Immediately this brings to mind the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo at Bag End in the Shire when Frodo first learned how the Ring came to Bilbo and so to him. In fear and disgust Frodo cries out when he learns how Bilbo had spared Gollum’s life: “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

Gandalf’s reply shows how well he had learned his lesson from the Lady Nienna.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

And so we see the importance of spiritual formation in the lives of each one of us. Sadly the vital importance of this central element in our education is in danger of being lost because it has been long confused with religious practice and as such practice is in decline so too is spiritual formation. Of course good religious practice can lead to good spiritual formation but, as Simone Weil once perceptively pointed out, religious practice can only prepare us for faith, it isn’t faith itself. Wisely Tolkien speaks little of religious practice in his works even though he was a lifelong Catholic in every respect including his practice; and one of the conclusions that we might draw from this is that he gives precededence to Olórin/Gandalf’s inner life. How much we need teachers as Nienna was to Olórin and Olórin is to Frodo, to Aragorn, to Faramir, even to Pippin. Readers will remember that when Frodo first encountered Gollum he spoke aloud as if to someone who was not there, “But now that I see him I do pity him”. The one who was not there was Gandalf. Frodo had learned his lesson from his master.

Sadly, though, Denethor has not. And, of course, this proud man will call no one but himself, master. As Gandalf puts it, Denethor thinks “of Gondor only” and in thinking of Gondor he thinks of his own pride. In the Second Age the kings of Númenor came to see Sauron, not as an evil to be resisted, but as a rival to their own greatness. So it was that when Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last king of Númenor defeated Sauron, he was corrupted by the one he had conquered. Denethor’s spiritual formation has made him a disciple of Ar-Pharazôn and thus a short step from being a disciple of Sauron. Not so, Gandalf. He Pities even Sauron’s slaves.


16 thoughts on “Gandalf Pities the Slaves of Sauron

    • Isn’t it wonderful? It had entirely escaped my notice in many readings until I came across the reference to Olorin and Nienna. I am entirely convinced that it is both intentional and theological! Typically of Tolkien, of course, is that he does not spoon feed his readers but expects them to do a bit of work. It has just taken me nearly 50 years to do it!
      I think the publication of your book is coming soon! Is there any way in which I can publicise it? Of course I look forward to reading it.

      • Sure – I’d love you to publicise it! Did you have anything particular in mind?

        Two possible options:
        i. I could give you a few snippets from the text, for you to post and/or reflect on.
        ii. We could do some kind of Q&A, with you sending me some questions and me attempting some coherent and readable responses!

        As for capitalisation, I first noticed it ages ago when Bilbo is talking about setting your foot in the Road. I’d been reading the Message at the time, which uses ‘Road’ in the ‘I am the Way…’ passage, and it really spoke to me. I think my use of LotR as my personal Apocrypha stems from that…

      • I would be happy to do both. The first would be simpler and quicker. The second would, I think, require me to read the book first which I would be happy to do.
        From now on I am going to keep my eyes open for capitalisation in Tolkien!

  1. It interests me, the placement of that revelation of identity… as you say, just after Gandalf’s restoration from death. New life, as a growth perhaps. Not that Gandalf is short of Pity beforehand, as you say yourself. But each time of trial that he faces perhaps, like us all, works deep changes and ultimately may bring strange widening of perspectives – I hesitate to use the word “gifts”, but that is my personal perspective – although a long road, often. Nienna is “acquainted with grief” – a phrase resonant with images of Sorrow and Resurrection to any Christian. She knows its utter being – has stared it in the face so well that she knows its very music .. and the weaving of it through creation. She knows it so well that she is known for Pity and Mercy, which perhaps are the redemption, in a way, of our times of sorrow. She has looked so deeply into sorrow that she sees beyond it – perhaps one could say “through the cross”.

    I think this is a strong theme in TLOTR – those who look and do not see, – and those who do. How we may be brought and worked and transformed even through – perhaps especially through – sorrow. Weakness as strength.

    I have, as you may remember, just finished reading Adam Bede. What you have written here speaks to me so much of how that strong and loving fire of Adam’s is tempered by sorrow – forged to what he perceives as a greater understanding, that enables him to understand Love in a wider way.

    Thus is the music weaved I think. Each chord… even the dissonance… if we are brought to a full resonance with it, will give rise to harmonics within us which create new melodies and harmonies to flower from each of our parts in the symphony…perhaps helping us to see new harmonies with the parts that interweave ours… adding and welding to the whole.

    What a blessing are the Nienna figures in our life who help us to see and to feel how to rework our harmonies – how to stare so deeply into the dark that “it is not [simply] as darkness to us”

    Bit of a stream of consciousness meander that, Stephen – thank you so much for the thought provoking post

    • It’s great to have your thoughts on my blog once again, Victoria. Thank you!
      You might have noticed that one or two others who have commented on this post have raised the question of Tolkien’s intentionalilty in the language that he uses. I am sure that he meant his readers to get the connection between Nienna and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who is “acquainted with grief”. And, of course, Christians have long associated that figure with the suffering Christ. How fascinating that in Tolkien’s work it is a woman who expresses that aspect of the incarnation. But this is not a simple feminisation of the male Jesus because Gandalf is able to make Nienna’s Pity and Mercy his own. Surely this is what St Paul is getting at when he says that in Christ there is no male or female? And in our own time Carl Jung said that the final stage of our journey towards maturity lies in connecting to the contrasexual, that is the male connects to the feminine (and so Gandalf to Nienna) and the female to the masculine. I have recently been watching a beautiful Italian film on You Tube based upon The Little Flowers of St Francis (I have tweeted the link to it to you). The whole film is beautiful but there is one scene in which Clare comes to visit him with some of her sisters and at one point she is sitting beside him simply gazing at his face. It is quite beautiful. I wonder if Gandalf did that too and perhaps Eowyn will do it with Faramir and maybe even Aragorn, once she has left her fantasy relationship with him behind her.
      On Gandalf’s reflection on himself I get the impression that he needs to reconnect to each of these names before he can continue his journey. We are only given glimpses of what has happened to Gandalf since he fell into the abyss in Moria and “died” after his struggle with the Balrog (a fellow Maia). What is clear is that he did leave himself behind for a time. Now he must inhabit his body once more in order to complete his mission and so he is deliberately recalling each of his names as if picking up different garments in order to put each one on. Here I am reminded of ancient baptismal liturgies, of dying, naming, clothing.
      And to finish my response to your comment, I am so glad that you have responded to the reference to Nienna and the Music of the Ainur. I think that your first comment on my blog might have been when I wrote a piece on the music two years ago. I am profoundly moved by Tolkien’s insight that lamentation, sorrow, pity are woven into the music from the beginning. Somehow I think that those who have connected to these qualities must express them. There is so much of Melkor’s discordant and destructive music in the world in our time and, as Sauron tries to persuade the world, it can sometimes feel that this is the only reality and that beauty and love and goodness are illusions that must ultimately come to an end before endless night. Some, like Nienna, will weep over the sorrows of the earth. Some, like Gandalf, will keep the fire of hope burning in human hearts. What we will need to know is that there is a music that will end in such completeness that all will be healed and that we must keep on listening to it and try to join our voices to it, or at least to the strains that we can hear.

  2. I love this about Nienna and about Gandalf’s interactions with her. So he learned, so he could teach and so Frodo could teach what he learned. I think Nienna must have been instrumental in Frodo’s healing once he came West, not only mourning for him, but with him, and teaching him patience as he began the long process of becoming whole again. Este would have aided him also, as she already had in giving him peaceful sleep, so even in Mordor, Sam notes his master looks ‘content and unafraid.’ She joins Ulmo, Irmo and of course Elbereth. Frodo has a big fan club!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • I am so glad that you left this comment. I agree that Frodo would have gone to Este for healing. It is a beautiful thought. And, of course, Nienna would have given much to one of the greatest pupils of her greatest pupil and disciple. Thinking of these connections is a rich resource for meditation and leads me to ask where the wounded can find healing and who will heal them? Each one of us is called to offer what we can in our prayers and in our lives. God bless you.

  3. Hi Stephen,
    Wordpress wouldn’t let me reply to your reply, for some reason, but anyway… if you’d like to drop me an email (mrdavidrowe(AT) then I can send you the text and chat about Q&A type stuff.
    Thank you!

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