“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

Frodo and the Challenge of Leaving Home

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 64-69

It was the difficulty of actually leaving Bag End for good that finally gave Frodo’s plans away. He meant to leave the Shire in secret, taking only Sam Gamgee with him and in order to do this he decided to sell Bag End to the Sackville Bagginses and to buy a small cottage in Buckland on the eastern border of the Shire. But his plan to leave in secret was rather spoilt by his habit through that last beautiful summer of taking long walks and then saying things like: “Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder”.

Let us not be too harsh on Frodo. He has already made up his mind to give up everything in order to save the Shire, even his own life. This is not a holiday that he is going on, a diversion from the tedium of ordinary life. Imagine, if you will, a tour operator who tries to sell you a holiday in which there is a strong possibility that you and your loved ones will not return from it alive. Even the armed forces today must reassure the families of their recruits that they take the duty of care seriously. How different that is from a time of war in which the survival of the country is at stake.

And so we should not be too hard on Frodo.

Shall I ever look down into that valley again?

Our longing for home, for belonging, is the most powerful that we will ever know. It gathers together all of our longings for safety, for control and for affection. Every safe arrival at the end of the day, wherever we are in the world, is a little homecoming. When I was a young man, working in Africa, I used to travel in the holidays and often a bed to sleep in and food to eat felt like a small miracle, a pure gift. This experience, far from the temporary shelter of my simple house in the school in Zambia, and farther yet from England heightened my sense of what home was to me.

I grew up in a family that was constantly on the move. By the time I was eight years old we had already lived in seven different places. I developed early an attitude to friends based upon my complete expectation that our friendship would not last. When we moved yet again I would end things quite brutally, even on one occasion destroying a play castle that I had built in a farmyard with the boys who lived on the farm where my father worked.

In all that experience of seemingly endless change my parents were a fixed point, a place of solidity. As I grew up I had a sense somewhere within me of what home was. But what about Frodo? He first came to Bag End after the tragic death, by drowning, of his mother and father. Bilbo took him in and eventually adopted him. Bilbo is unfailingly kind but he can never be a mother to the child who comes to live with him and we are not aware of any strong feminine influence upon Frodo anywhere in the story. I am struck that nowhere in The Lord of the Rings does any woman ever develop any romantic feelings towards him as they do with Sam or Aragorn or Faramir. Goldberry and Galadriel both display a motherly tenderness towards Frodo as does Rosie Cotton at the end of the story but no one ever falls in love with him. If anything it is the countryside of The Shire that is the biggest feminine influence in Frodo’s life with its gentle hills, small woodlands and little streams. It is a domestic landscape as much of England is and certainly the countryside of the English Midlands where Tolkien, another motherless child, grew up. And it is this that Frodo has to leave. No wonder it is so difficult.

“He is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers“.
A view of Worcestershire, England