“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.

12 thoughts on ““A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

  1. Yes, I hadn’t really thought of that before. It was probably an unexpected turn that Tolkien ended up deciding to pair Gandalf with Pippin. But Pippin is the youngest and in a way the most light-hearted of the hobbits—in some ways, reminiscent of Bilbo in the original story of the hobbit. I do believe Gandalf, more than any of the Wise, was really a hobbit at heart. And, of course, Bilbo himself is given a fair share of luck, “more than the usual allowance” and Gandalf’s foresight proves true. Come to think about it, I imagine Elrond had heard all about that. And it is true that were it not for Pippin, it is possible that they would have never escaped the Uruk-hai, and even if Éomer had found them before accidentally killing them, the Ents would not have been roused in time.

    And yes, the quote… I definitely noticed that. I suppose there is a lot to unpack about the story of Bilbo alone.

    (As a side note, I highly doubt even as a boy Bilbo would have climbed trees for fun, considering that he had “had much practice in climbing trees”)

    • Once again you have found a quotation that I do not recognise! The one about Bilbo and his practice in climbing trees. Where does it come from the ? We have some bright young children staying with us for a few days and we went into the woods yesterday in order to explore them. Not the big woods of North America, of course, but “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire that Frodo is in love with. I thoroughly enjoyed their pleasure in clambering over fallen trees and their boldness. I think that this must have influenced me here.
      I really like your thought about Gandalf being a hobbit at heart. That is rather wonderful!

      • Oh, sorry about that. That is in Flies and Spiders, I think, when the Dwarves have Bilbo climb a tree. Yes, I am sure it did. There is something very childlike about hobbits, including, I think, how connected they are to nature.

      • I have a growing sense that I need to return to The Hobbit. For too long I have been treating it as the children’s talk before the main feast. But as you point out there is a big difference between childishness and the childlike character that Gandalf displays.

      • Well, in my mind, The Hobbit could be called “an obscure branch of Tolkien lore but full of surprises. You can learn all there is to know about its plot in a month, yet after a thousand years, it can still surprise you.” By obscure, I mean sometimes (in my mind unfairly) disregarded as unimportant by Tolkien scholars. Tolkien himself said that any children’s story should have room for growth. I think that is very true with The Hobbit. Perhaps it is only a shadow of The Lord of the Rings, but sometimes it can be good to see it what is lesser in light of what is great. After all, it has been said by many that Aragorn’s return could be seen as in some ways an analogy (not a complete allegory, of course) for Christ’s return, yet it is undoubtedly less. And then, in The Hobbit there are some themes which I think are even more clearly present than in The Lord of the Rings, such as Bilbo’s reliance on “luck” and even perhaps the aspect of the story you were discussing above.

      • I wondered about that! But, of course, your quote rather shows that the artist that I used was probably incorrect in depicting Bilbo up a tree. I wonder in what way his youthful adventurous spirit was expressed? Was it in his imagination? His desire to see elves as Sam was to say later?

      • Even during The Hobbit, Bilbo already loved Elves and, according to The Unfinished Tales, Bilbo often searched for Elves even when he thought he was prosy. So before he “grew out of” it, I imagine he was much like Sam—still viewing things like boats as equivocal to wild horses.

      • Anyway, as I said above, I really think The Hobbit is worth studying, if in many ways a lesser story than The Lord of the Rings. After all, there is a theme in Tolkien’s legendarium of history echoing itself.

  2. I have read that “foresight” still happens in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is always and only a prediction that such-and-such a person will die. This sounds silly, as we all must die, but the prediction means “within the next year or so”.

    I think this is the start of “foresight” in Tolkien. There is a famous example with the Witch-King: “not by the hand of man shall he die”. Then there is Halbarad, who says: “This is an evil door and my death lies beyond it” (The Passing of the Grey Company).

    The idea is put in service of “eucatastrophe” in one of the heart-lifting moments (if you think winning battles is good):

    Aragorn: Thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us. Did I not say so at the Hornburg?”

    Eomer “…I knew not then that you were a man foresighted” (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields)

    • Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment, Patrick and for all the examples that you cite. Dwarves clearly have a respect for foresight and Gandalf clearly wanted to stop any further debate about Bilbo’s involvement in the party that was to go to Erebor by this means but I think that Gandalf did listen to an inner voice and that somehow this practice led him to hobbits and Bilbo (and then Frodo) in particular. My own sense is that hobbits took Tolkien by surprise and that Gandalf’s journey through the stories was in many respects an expression of his own. Bilbo yes, because a foresight was on him. Frodo possibly, because somehow he seemed to have been chosen to bear the Ring. Sam, surprisingly but necessarily, because Frodo could not go alone. But Merry and Pippin (and especially Pippin) simply would not go away. “We are your friends, Frodo!”
      It all rather makes me think…

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