The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25
Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.
So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’. A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.
The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.
“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”
This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.
It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.
Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.
“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”
As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.
The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.
The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.
Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.
Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.
Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!