“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.