“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.