There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

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.


Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

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.


Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

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!

15 thoughts on “There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

  1. There’s an operational reason for Gandalf to present himself this way, too. Mordor’s armies follow Sauron out of fear. Gandalf needs something stronger — soldiers who follow their leader out of love. Appearing to little folk like a benevolent grandfather is a good way to let everyone know what kind of relationships he’s trying to establish.

    • I have thought about this a lot since reading your comment and quite a bit before. I am sure, like yourself, I have led a number of teams over the years and have followed a principle developed in the British military that good leadership requires attention to the task, the team as a whole and the individuals within the team. It is a conscious decision of the leader to make being a part of the team a good experience. I once worked with a former member of the Parachute Regiment who took part in the action at Goose Green in the Falklands Campaign. He spoke reverently of his commanding officer who was killed in that action speaking of how he used to drink in the bar with his men but they all knew the distinction between being on duty and off duty.
      So I kind of know what you are talking about with Gandalf. He is a warmer of hearts and I love leaders like that. Sadly I have found them to be pretty rare over the years.
      But there is something extra which I feel has to be an inner spiritual disposition and I feel it is there in Gandalf. Yes, as Bilbo was growing up Gandalf saw potential in him just as he did in Aragorn and Faramir. That is all strategic thinking and every good leader does it. But I don’t think that he went to the Shire primarily thinking of how useful they might be. He just enjoyed it and he enjoyed hobbits. And nobody else did. Aragorn thinks that his mission to get Frodo and his companions from Bree to Rivendell is little better than a suicide mission and does not try to hide his grumpiness from them. Only Gandalf could have persuaded him to take it on.
      So, yes, Gandalf does recruit hobbits when it seems appropriate to do so but I think that the fact that the Ring finds its way into Bilbo’s pocket is as much of a surprise to him as to anyone else. It is all about the relationship between Providence and good judgement. The relationship most certainly exists but it is impossible to manipulate and when you try to do it you are likely to mess Providence up, which is the most important thing.
      If you get any time, please come back to me on this. I would love to know what you think.

      • Thank you Stephen for your post; and also to you and Joe for this discussion. I think I agree – Gandalf is not only strategic in his friendship with the hobbits, it’s clear he genuinely enjoys the good things about them and life in The Shire. As for their eventual usefulness – it is almost as if that is a reward for Gandalf’s sincerity in friendship. I like the idea that Gandalf saw his trips to The Shire as vacations, when he could be off-duty for a short while. And in that way, I can see why The Shire and its inhabitants would mean a great deal more to him than to others, and meant more to him than just instruments for his greater mission.

      • I agree Gandalf would never have imagined what use the Hobbits would ultimately be, but his mission in Middle-earth was to unite all the free peoples against Sauron, and I’m sure it was constantly in his mind. Once he’d chosen his strategy, it makes sense operationally to sow all sorts of good feelings among the younger, more receptive hobbits. If he’d let the Old Noakeses have their way, the Shire could have become sullen and isolationist, which would have helped the Enemy. The counter-cultural element Bilbo nurtured (and which made JRRT such a hit on college campuses in the 1960s) was a great way to make sure that the Hobbits weren’t useless when the crunch came. And if building such relationships involves drinking beer and eating food and smoking pipes on a summer evening, well, sometimes virtue is its own reward.

  2. Contrary to the likes of Saruman and Sauron, Gandalf knew how to interact with others. He aims at understanding, and so he succeeds. He has good judgement of others and thinks far ahead Sauron and Saruman. His thoughts are rather progressive for them, but eventually his approach works.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking write-up, Stephen!

    • I have just replied to the Joviator on this. Certainly Sauron and Saruman are rather lacking in emotional intelligence! I just want to say that when people do something just for the joy of it good things tend to happen. I suspect that it may happen in your classes.
      One of my most enjoyable experiences of the last year was spending a week in a school in Munich talking about the dreaded “Brexit” with 6th form students and trying to place it in a historical context. I used to teach history once upon a time. I asked for feedback from my friend who is a senior member of staff there and she told me that the students were impressed by how quickly I made a connection with them and they with me. I just like people!

      • You’re absolutely right about the connection between joy and good results! I tend to notice it all the time. When I was only beginning to teach, I kept on having problems with discipline: kids just wouldn’t listen to me and they behaved in a horrible way. But then something happened. Once I started having fun teaching and began to love it with all my heart, all of these problems disappeared. I haven’t had problems with discipline for many years now. People, especially kids, are very perceptive to our moods and attitudes, so I don’t think it’s surprising. They feel how we feel towards them and respond respectively.

      • As I read your comment I remembered an interview with a great orchestral conductor who described a similar journey to yours. He spoke of how in his early career he would try to impose his authority over an orchestra and how it would always lead to conflict. After a particularly unhappy experience he began to learn to appreciate the musicians and their love for the music. Soon they began to enjoy playing for him too.
        PS Have you listened to any of Sibelius and his music based upon the Kalevala yet? I would love to know what you think of it.

      • What a fantastic story! That’s exactly how it works. Authority comes from trust and respect. Once people respect you and feel they can trust you, this authority will be established.
        Thank you for reminding me! I have listened to some of his music, but it’s slipped my mind to share my thoughts with you. So sorry about that! I loved Sibelius! His music is so alive and full of Kalevala dynamics. Besides, I have a very curious feeling when I listen to him: this music feels familiar. To my ear there are traces of something Russian. Since Finland is our close neighbour and there’s history to our relationship with the Finns, and Kalevala belongs to Karelia as much as it does to Finland, it’s probably not surprising. But his music is among those classical compositions I can relate to.

  3. I love what you and joviator say about why Gandalf rocks, Indeed true.

    Just to let you know, my book on Bilbo and Frodo is available for pre-order! Right now, this is just for the ebook but it will be available in print also. I didn’t quite make The Birthday deadline, but it’s almost done and will be out officially on October 25, the Council of Elrond. A rather important date in Frodo’s life, don’t you think? Tolkien admirer Benita J. Prins (check her out as an author!) designed the gorgeous cover with a masterpiece from Joe Gilronan.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

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