“He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 244-250

No-one seems to be wasted in Gandalf’s world. By this I do not mean that everyone can be used in the sense that we might use an object and then discard it, but that everyone has a part to play in the great story. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that Gandalf spoke of Gollum in much the same way in the long conversation with Frodo in the study at Bag End.

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end”.

Gollum may play a part yet

Note that vital phrase. “My heart tells me”. Gandalf is a man of the heart and this is what sets him apart from Sauron and from those who see the world as Sauron does. He is beyond even most of his fellows. None of the Wise would ever wish ill to hobbits but then none but Gandalf would ever expect much of them either. The Wise regard them as many regard children. They are glad that children exist and they delight in their innocence, even taking refuge from time to time in the world of the child as an expression of longing for something that they feel is lost to them forever. But despite this longing they really believe that the world of the child is a world of make believe. It does not actually exist. The real world, sadly but truly (as they see it), is one of calculation and of cold, hard facts. The Rangers are glad to protect hobbits from this cold, hard world beyond the borders of the Shire but it is that cold, hard world that is reality.

It is one thing to find a place in the world for a pleasing anomaly like the Shire, but who wishes to give any place to Gollum? Sauron does give Gollum a place but it is only the place that he gives to every creature and that is based on their usefulness to him. When Sauron captures Gollum he tortures him to find out what he knows about the Ring that he once possessed. In Unfinished Tales we are told that “When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome, even by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had ‘robbed’ him, and guessing that he would go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron hoped that his spies would thus be led to the Ring”.

J.M Snooks imagines Sauron with Gollum

Now we begin to perceive the difference between the mind of Sauron and the mind of Gandalf. Sauron is only capable of reducing everything to his own calculation. All calculation reduces the person to an object, to an it. Imagination on the other hand perceives all persons as mystery. Sauron did not “fully comprehend” Gollum but calculated that what he did know would be sufficient for his purposes. Gandalf also did not fully comprehend, in terms of calculation, but listened to his own heart which told him that Gollum would have a part to play that Sauron could not foresee. This is because imagination conceives a world that is greater and more wonderful than its capacity to comprehend it. It can only be grasped and held by love and delight.

Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted. It was not Gandalf but Bilbo who chose not to kill Gollum when he had the opportunity to do so but Gandalf lives in a world in which a merciful deed can have wonderful consequences even if they cannot be foreseen. Gandalf does not foresee that it is Gollum who will take the Ring to the fire. He does not even know how the Ring will be destroyed. He has seen Frodo fail to throw the Ring into his own fireplace. He probably guesses that the task of destroying the Ring is probably beyond Frodo’s or anyone else’s capacity and yet he still trusts that somehow it will happen because he lives in this world of wonderful and incalculable possibility. Some might call it a fairy tale world, even regarding it with contempt, but those who live as Gandalf does seem to unlock doors of wonderful possibility that those of a calculating spirit cannot even perceive let alone achieve.

Olorin (Gandalf) with his teacher, the Lady Nienna

10 thoughts on ““He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

  1. Really enjoyed this one Stephen!
    I think it’s a testament to Tolkien that he sets this up so early in the trilogy with regard to Gandalf’s comments; even before we embark on this perilous journey we are instilled a sense of hope. One of the many reasons I love the story so much.

    • Hi Dom, I agree with you completely! In Tolkien’s world (and ours as well, I believe), hope transcends our capacity to foresee. That is what makes the “hopeless” journey of the Fellowship a possibility.

  2. Dear Stephen, I have nothing really to say to this, other than thank you. Such beautiful reflections. You are a blessing.

  3. “Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted.”
    Beautiful sentiments. I notice that this perhaps connects to Tolkien’s theme of industrialism vs naturalism that shows up here and there. Industry is associated with calculation and the use of resources/people while nature is open ended, “mysterious” as you say, maybe even “forgiving”.
    I think we can also draw a parallel here with Kant’s idea of a person as an end vs just a means to an end. Sauron’s calculation reduces all creatures to just a means (slightly different from your own description of them as an “it”). Gandalf, who truthfully does attempt to guide events through the people he influences, still (I feel) sees all creatures as ends to themselves. There are parts to be played for sure, but as individuals, not just as resources.

    • David, thank you so much for leaving this beautiful comment. As I was prompted by my WordPress software to “approve” what you wrote I guess that this is probably your first comment on my blog. If that is so then I hope that it will be the first of many. I think that I will always enjoy a correspondence with you.
      I was a 21 year old undergraduate and, at the time, a very conservative Christian when a friend of mine who was a Philosophy major first introduced me to the idea of Kant that you referred to here. He was not a “Christian” in the way that I understood it at the time but that moment was as if a light had been switched on in my whole being. I simply knew that what he had said was true and that I should always treat my fellows in this way. As I have got to know Kant a little better over the years I am not sure that he could be described as a person of the heart as I did Gandalf in this piece but this idea took hold of my heart even as it enlightened my mind.
      The I-It relationship is, of course, taken from the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, and he contrasts this with the I-Thou, which links closely with how Gandalf sees everyone, even Sauron’s slaves, as he puts it to Denethor, and who in Sauron’s world is anything but a slave?
      Do let me know what you think.

      • Thank you Stephen for such a warm welcome. That was indeed my first visit to your blog. I stumbled upon it while looking for some Tolkien quotes to soothe myself of some angst I was experiencing. I’ve always found Tolkien the most moving writer I’ve read.
        I confess I unfortunately haven’t yet read any of Kant’s writing, but I too immediately connected very strongly with this idea of his from when I first heard it described. I think it encapsulates a lot of how we instinctively feel about how we should interact with one another. It will take some more in-depth exploration of his work for me to decide on how philosophically sound it is though.
        I am not very familiar with Buber’s I-Thou (I think I’ve come across it once before and I’ve looked into it a bit more now) but I wonder if that fits with how Gandalf sees everyone. Forgive me if I’m wrong (it’s been quite a while since I’ve read LOTR) but I seem to remember Gandalf being a bit removed from everything. He is wise and he pities and is generous and forgiving, but he is a bit above it all. He is a Maia after all. I’m not sure how much he personally *connects* with most others. Perhaps this is not enough to negate the I-Thou description though. I doubt I understand the concept fully.

      • I haven’t read much Kant either. What I know is at second hand. Like you, it is the impact upon me of Kant’s conviction that no person is a means to an end that really impressed me and still does.
        I agree with you that Gandalf is an I-Thou person although that includes a conviction on his part that anyone who can make a contribution to the cause of resistance to Sauron really should make it. Everyone should be ready to lay down their lives if need be. But he does not demand anything beyond someone’s capacity to give it. So the only thing that he asks of the Bree folk is a bed for the night and to take a message to the Shire. Butterbur only managed one out of two!
        Is Gandalf distant? I think that he is capable of intimacy. His relationship with Aragorn is close I think. I think that he really loves Pippin in a grandfatherly way and I rather think that his relationship with Frodo did not end when they both arrived in Valinor.
        PS I am so pleased that you left a comment after your first visit to my blog. Perhaps you will read The Lord of the Rings again. I think that your instinct that led you to Tolkien at a difficult time for you was a good one.

      • Indeed, I think it may be time for another readthrough. Tolkien reminds me more than anyone of how beautiful the world is and how good people can be. Notions that I think are increasingly easy to forget these days. People’s negativity can weigh upon you.

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