“From the First my Heart Misgave Me”. Gandalf, and Tolkien too, only gradually begin to understand the meaning of the the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.245

When I thought to spend a few weeks reflecting upon themes from The Fellowship of the Ring over the summer before continuing with The Two Towers in September I did not expect to spend much of the time writing about Gandalf; but so it has proved. Maybe I should not have been surprised. When Elrond asks Gandalf to speak at the Council in Rivendell he introduces him by saying, “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Peter Xavier Price imagines the Council of Elrond in Rivendell

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Gandalf loved to play in order to find some rest from his labours and how the Shire became especially important to him to allow him to do this. We saw how this desire for play proves to be utterly crucial in the history of Middle-earth. We recall that when Tolkien’s publishers first asked him for “more about hobbits” after the success of The Hobbit that he first regarded the request as an annoying interruption to what he regarded as his life’s work, the history that his son Christopher would eventually edit and publish as The Silmarillion. It was only with time that it began to dawn upon him that the ring that Bilbo found in the depths of the Misty Mountains and put to such good and, might one say, playful use, might be prove critical to the resolution of the history of the Third Age.

Why was the Ring given into Bilbo’s safekeeping?

As Gandalf puts it to the Council what began as a little more than a misgiving began to turn to dread. The thing that Bilbo had in his possession, that he regarded as little more than something useful in case awkward relatives like the Sackville Baggins came to call, was indeed the Ring of Power that Sauron had lost in the great battle at the end of the Second Age and for which he was now seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle-earth.

Gandalf’s misgiving that turned to dread moved hobbits from a pleasant distraction on the fringes of his life onto the centre stage. When he reflects upon what he can discern of the big story, of the purposes of the divine, of Illuvatar in Arda, he tells Frodo that first Bilbo and then himself were meant to have the Ring. This is a statement of incredible importance. I use the word, incredible, in its essential meaning, as speaking of something that is hard, almost impossible, to believe. If the divine mind were to entrust the Ring to anyone for safekeeping surely a hobbit would be the last person chosen. Even hobbits are not, in themselves, a completely reliable choice. After all, Gollum was himself a hobbit and he began his possession of the Ring with murder.

But what began in Tolkien’s telling of a children’s story in The Hobbit as the happy and fortuitous entrance of magic into that tale was to turn into something that would be critical to the whole history of Middle-earth and it became clear that neither elf, nor dwarf or man could be entrusted with the Ring. It had to be a hobbit and it had to be a particular hobbit with the history and character that Bilbo had. And then because the Ring was beginning to have a destructive influence even on this good hobbit it had to pass to another, to Frodo. It has to pass to someone who does not want it, or the burden that it represents. Frodo tries to give it to Gandalf in Bag End, to Aragorn in Rivendell and to Galadriel in Lothlórien. He is the perfect person to have the Ring in his possession and even he will be overcome by it in the end.

Gandalf might have said that in his reluctance to take on the burden of the Ring Frodo reminded him of himself. When the Valar first thought to send the Istari to Middle-earth Gandalf was reluctant to go because he feared Sauron. Perhaps it is this reluctance, this desire for peace, even obscurity, that makes Gandalf, and Frodo too, the ones who can be chosen for the really great tasks. Help will be given to them when they most need it. Frodo will eventually achieve his task through the aid of Gollum. But it is not the ones who seek greatness who can be entrusted with the great things. It is those who wish to be little but are willing to say yes to the call that they receive.

Gandalf did not want to go to Middle-earth.

“I Only Said I Think I Shall Come.” Life With and Without Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.266

I have long been drawn to the figures of old men in literature and have wanted to spend time in their company. As a small boy I read and re-read T.H White’s The Once and Future King and the scene that gave me the greatest pleasure was that in which the Wart (the young King Arthur) comes across Merlin in a clearing in the Forest Sauvage for the very first time and you just know that life is never going to be the same again and it is going to be good. Then a few years later I settled down with Frodo by the open window of his study to smoke a pipe with Gandalf and was content. Years later I read the Harry Potter stories to my daughters and found that the attraction had not gone. I was never happier than in the scenes with Albus Dumbledore and when there seemed to be some distance between Harry and Dumbledore I felt an old familiar ache and longing inside. And perhaps one of the most significant and vivid dreams in my life ended, almost uniquely, in perfect resolution when I knelt before an old man who I identified as the Pope in order to receive his blessing. I could even smell the fragrance in the air at that moment of perfect peace and harmony.

Alan Lee’s sublime imagining of Merlin and the Young Arthur together in Merlin’s study. Can anything be more perfect?

I am not sure that I ever quite met the elder that I was looking for and at the age that I have now reached the opportunity to do so is receding but the longing has not gone. It’s just that I begin to realise that I am going to have to find this father within myself and not in a figure that I am likely to meet. Maybe that is the meaning of my dream. A dream that I think was given for my whole life and not just for a moment within it.

During these weeks of the summer I have been writing about some bigger themes in The Lord of the Rings before turning to The Two Towers in the autumn and I have begun to think about both the presence and the absence of Gandalf in the story. My readers may remember that I wrote a piece entitled “We Must Do Without Hope” back on December 11th 2021 https://stephencwinter.com/2021/12/11/we-must-do-without-hope-the-company-go-on-after-the-fall-of-gandalf/ as Aragorn takes command of the Company after the catastrophe of the fall of Gandalf in Moria. These words are almost a title for the early chapters of The Two Towers as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue Merry and Pippin and their orc captors across the plains of Rohan towards the Forest of Fangorn. Again and again Aragorn reflects both upon hope and its absence. Surely he knows that to free the young hobbits is a hopeless task against so numerous a foe, as Éomer tries to convince him, but he continues with grim resolution until at last in the forest he meets Gandalf once more. From that moment onwards he is a man transformed.

Meeting Gandalf in Fangorn Forest

And we see the same reaction from Frodo when Gandalf announces to the hobbits, “I think I shall come with you.” Indeed, Tolkien writes, “So great was Frodo’s delight at this announcement that Gandalf left the windowsill, where he had been sitting, and took off his hat and bowed. ‘I only said I think I shall come. Do not count on anything yet.'”

Gandalf’s presence is so important that it gives huge confidence, energy and hope to all around him. When the Company are attacked by wargs near the western gate of Moria Sam is given hope as he says, “Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly.”

And then comes the moment when Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and for a time at least all hope is gone. Eventually Gandalf is restored to the Fellowship, for all at least except two. For Frodo and Sam have to go on alone step by step to the Cracks of Doom bearing the burden of the Ring and without even the sustaining thought that Gandalf is out there somewhere fighting on their behalf. It is worth pondering the fact that they, alone among their fellows, achieve their quest entirely without this source of strength and of hope. They know the loneliness of being a grown up and what strength they are able to find must be found within.

Frodo and Sam alone in Mordor

“My Time is Over.” What Was Gandalf Doing in His Time in Middle-earth?

The Return of the King by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 973-974

During this summer month, having completed my thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring, I am writing a few reflections on some of the bigger themes of The Fellowship before I return to The Two Towers in September, and this week I want to think about Gandalf.

As my readers can see my title does not come from The Fellowship but from The Return of the King and from the moment when Gandalf takes his leave of Frodo and his companions in order to have a really long talk with Tom Bombadil, “such a talk as I have not had in all my time,” The hobbits are anxious about hints that they have heard in Bree that things are amiss in the Shire and want Gandalf to come with them in case of trouble but Gandalf replies:

“I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves, that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.”

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth around the year 1000 in the Third Age of Arda as one of the Istari, emissaries of the Valar, to aid the free peoples of Middle-earth in their struggle against Sauron. He was one of the Maiar, of the same order of angelic being to which Sauron was also a member and in Valinor he had been known as Olorin and had been a pupil of the Lady Nienna, one of the queens of the Valar, a lady of pity and of mourning.

John Howe’s beautiful evocation of Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim.

In Unfinished Tales we read that Gandalf was at first unwilling to go to Middle-earth because he felt that he was “too weak for such a task, and that he feared Sauron”, but that Manwë had declared that these were reasons why he should go. We also read that when he arrived at the Grey Havens Cirdan greeted him and gave him Narya, one of the three elven rings, the Ring of Fire.

“Take this ring, Master,” he said, “for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

And so Gandalf begins 2000 years of wandering through Middle-earth, never settling for long in any one place doing the work that Cirdan described, rekindling hearts in a world grown chill. Among the Elves and the people of Gondor this leads to him being given the name, Mithrandir, or Grey Pilgrim. And although in the year 2063 he goes alone to Dol Guldur, Sauron’s fastness in the south of Mirkwood, and forces him retreat eastwards from there for a time, it is rare that he enters into open conflict with the Dark Lord.

And there is one place that he goes to from time to time simply to enjoy a holiday and that is the Shire. It is there that he discovers the pleasures of pipeweed, simple and substantial food, and good beer. It is in the Shire that he learns to play. There he is known and welcomed for the wonderful firework displays that he puts on. These have an almost legendary status among the hobbits and mean that they regard him as something of a travelling showman although they are a little wary of him as he can sometimes take a young hobbit off with him for “an adventure”. And it is in taking Bilbo Baggins away for a very big adventure that the Ring is found and his task is completed.

Dimitry Burmak’s joyous evocation of Gandalf’s fireworks.

We might say that Gandalf never has a plan, a great master strategy that he implements little by little until it is finally put into place in the War of the Ring. He did not plan the finding of the Ring and when it is found at last he knows that he can never use it to defeat Sauron and that it cannot be destroyed by force of arms opening a way to Mount Doom. At the end all his long labours come down to an act of utter foolishness. Denethor is right to call the journey of Frodo and Sam a “fool’s hope”. But Gandalf, and Elrond and Galadriel too, ultimately place their hope in a power that is greater either than themselves or their enemy. A power that normally chooses to work in ways that are hidden except through subtle hints that can only be seen by those who have given their lives to wisdom, to faithful service and, in Gandalf’s case, to the enjoyment of simple pleasures.

It is in the enjoyment of simple pleasures in the Shire that Gandalf finds the Ring. Alan Lee depicts the scene in Bag End.

“You Are Come and Are Met, In This Very Nick of Time, By Chance As It May Seem.” Wisdom From ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.236

As readers of this blog will know I have come to the end of a long and careful reading of The Fellowship of the Ring and before I continue with The Two Towers I would like to do what the title of my blog speaks of. I would like to spend a few weeks thinking about the wisdom that we can find in Tolkien’s great tale. Perhaps it might help us as we ponder our own journeys.

I am not sure why I ended the quotation that is the title for this week’s reflection where I did. I am sure that my readers will recognise that the words quoted thre are those that are spoken by Elrond at the Council in Rivendell. They speak of how Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Men and a wizard have all arrived in the Halls of Elrond at this moment, one described as but a ‘nick’ in the long tally of time, but it is the right moment, even the last possible moment.

Alan Lee’s depiction of the Council of Elrond

Elrond ponders the meaning of this council. He did not summon these people. Had he done so it would surely have been a meeting of the White Council, a meeting of the Wise. Galadriel would have been there, as would Círdan of the Grey Havens. And Saruman would have been its leader. The descendants of Númenor would not have been summoned, nor Durin’s folk, nor the people of the realm of Thranduil in the northern marches of Mirkwood. And hobbits would most certainly not have been invited.

So is it merely a matter of chance that has brought Glóin from the Lonely Mountain of Erebor to Rivendell with Gimli his son? Or Legolas, the son of Thranduil from his land? Or Boromir from Minas Tirith; or a small group of hobbits from the Shire with their guide, Aragorn, the heir of Isildur?

Elrond chooses his words with care. “By chance as it might seem.” By using this word, seem, Elrond deliberately draws a distinction between those things that merely appear to us, like traffic passing by on a busy highway, and something of a deliberate purpose. Actually, if we were to ponder the deliberate purpose behind every one of the journeys being taken by those travelling down a particular highway on any given day, we might be able to discern and then tell a story in which each of those participants would have a part to play. The song, “Another Hundred People”, from Stephen Sondheim’s show, “Company”, comes to mind here and that tale is rather beautiful.

So Elrond chooses not to end with chance. “Yet it is not so,” he continues. “Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.” Elrond chooses to speak of belief. By this he does not mean an assent to certain doctrines. He encourages his guests to accept that their presence in his halls, at this precise moment, this “nick of time”, is a part of a big story in which each one of them has a part to play.

We might want to say at this moment that it is the unseen presence of The Ring that gives significance to the whole proceeding. Certainly, if it were not for The Ring there would be no hobbits present. I wonder if Boromir had this thought in mind when he cried out to Frodo, “It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine.” Frodo made a similar statement when he bemoaned the seemingly cruel fate by which he has come to be in possession of The Ring. Gandalf’s response was that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

Bilbo was meant to find the Ring

Neither Gandalf, nor Elrond, choose to give themselves to lengthy metaphysical speculation about such matters. They receive encouragement from the thought that there seems to be a power for good at work in the world, one that put the Ring of Power into the hands of first Bilbo and then Frodo, neither of whom had any interest in power for its own sake; and one that has gathered this particular company of people together in Rivendell at this moment. Frodo is not encouraged by either of these things. As we saw last week, he simply accepts that he has been given a job to do and that is enough.

Frodo, and each member of the Fellowship, has been given a job to do. Bohemian Weasel depicts the Company before Durin’s Doors.