“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.

“When Evening in The Shire Was Grey”. Frodo and Sam Sing Songs of Gandalf in Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 349-351

Galadriel and Celeborn wisely leave the Fellowship to themselves after the encounter in Caras Galadhon and Galadriel’s silent interrogation of their hearts and minds. What the Fellowship needs now is rest and healing of weary bodies. Even though at its borders Lothlórien is alert to possible threat at its heart it remains at rest and so it seems that the Company does “little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees”; and it is enough.

At first, as Aragorn put it, there is a desire simply to rest and to forget grief, grief at the loss of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, but inevitably after a while their thoughts turn to their loss and their grief becomes keen.

It is Frodo and Sam who choose poetry in which to try to put that grief into some kind of form. Perhaps it is as they hear songs of Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, in the Sindarin tongue of their Elven hosts, that they begin to find their own thoughts move in the same direction. Perhaps it is, as Sam has already put it, that in Lothlórien they feel themselves to be “inside a song” that enables them to create their own.

When evening in the Shire was grey
his footsteps on the Hill were heard;
before the dawn he went away 
on journey long without a word. 

John Howe wonderfully captures Gandalf’s energy and vulnerability.

The words are beautiful and full of longing for what has been lost. The aching realisation that Frodo will never hear the sound of those footsteps coming along the path to his door again, a sound that always meant that something deep and rich, old and wise, was about to enter his life once again. But Tolkien is quick to introduce a disclaimer here. These words “feel faded as a handful of withered leaves”. Tolkien uses this sad image to describe Frodo’s feelings of inadequacy as he tries to put the person of Gandalf into words but we cannot help but feel that it is Tolkien’s own feelings of inadequacy as a poet that are on show here. Gandalf is far too great a figure to reduce to a few lines upon a page, or committed to memory in Frodo’s mind.

But a good poem is not a reduction of anything. Each line in Frodo’s evocation of Gandalf points us towards his greatness but also his simplicity. They speak of his mighty journeys; of his skill in languages; of his “deadly sword”, his “healing hand”.

Gandalf, a lord of wisdom

“A lord of wisdom throned he sat, swift in anger, quick to laugh, an old man in a battered hat who leaned upon a thorny staff.”

All through the poem Frodo gives us on the one hand, his greatness, and on the other, his vulnerability and all the time he is doing something that from their earliest encounters with one another, C.S Lewis admired in Tolkien’s work. It was after an evening reading The Lay of Leithian Tolkien’s verse telling of the story of Beren and Lúthien that Lewis wrote of myth making that it is the essence of a myth “that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”. And surely here in Frodo’s lament for Gandalf the incipient allegory that is suggested to us is the connection between Gandalf, the mighty maiar clothed in the form of “a weary pilgrim on the road”, and what first Tolkien and then Lewis described as the true myth of the incarnation in which, in Christ, God is clothed in our humanity, not in its semblance but in all its reality. There is no incarnation in any part of Tolkien’s legendarium. He deliberately chose to set his story in a world that knows nothing of it but again and again, in the story of Gandalf, in the story of the true king hidden within the weather stained Ranger of the North who goes by the name of Strider, and in other characters, the true myth is suggested to us in many ways. Might this be why our hearts are drawn towards them?

He stood upon the bridge alone. Alan Lee imagines the dreadful moment.

“Do Not Repent of Your Welcome To The Dwarf.” The Fellowship Tell the Story of Gandalf’s Fall to Galadriel and Celeborn.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 344-347

With the arrival of the Fellowship to the halls of Galadriel and Celeborn in Caras Galadhon at the heart of the realm of Lothlórien the tale of Gandalf’s fall into the abyss at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm must at last be told. So too has the manner of his fall at the hands of the Balrog of Moria, “of all elf-banes the most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower.”

Caras Galadhon as seen from Cerin Amroth by Ted Nasmith

If news of the fall of Gandalf has been the cause of great grief in the Elves of Lothlórien so news of the Balrog of Moria is the cause of great anger and most especially in Celeborn.

“Had I known that the Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again, I would have forbidden you to pass the northern borders, you and all that went with you. And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.”

Vincent Pompetti imagines Celeborn and Galadriel together as they greet their guests.

Readers will note that even though Celeborn is angry with the whole company, even with Gandalf himself, it is Gimli who he singles out for his particular wrath. It is Dwarves who have stirred up the evil that has lain hidden long years in the depths of Moria.

Celeborn’s anger against the Dwarves has a long history. It began in the First Age of Arda when his kinsman, the Lord Thingol of Doriath gained possession of a Silmaril through the mighty deeds of Luthien and Beren who took it from the very crown of Morgoth himself. The Silmaril was the price that Thingol had demanded of Beren so that he could have the hand of Luthien in marriage. Thingol asked Dwarf craftsmen to put the Silmaril into the Nauglamir, greatest and most beautiful of the works of the Dwarves in that age. The Dwarves were overcome by desire for the Silmaril and demanded that Thingol give it to them in payment for their labour. When Thingol refused this they killed him and a war broke out between Dwarves and Elves with terrible slaughter upon both sides. Although Celeborn’s role in that war is never mentioned there can be no doubt that he played his part in it and that he carried both anger and distrust towards Dwarves in his heart thereafter.

Thingol and the Dwarves

That the telling of the tale of the events at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm does not end with a swift expulsion of the Fellowship from Lothlórien and disaster for their mission is thanks to the intervention of Galadriel. If Celeborn is the keeper of the memory of a perception of treachery upon the part of dwarves and of a bitter war in which his homeland was destroyed by them then Galadriel is the keeper of a very different one. In her heart she cherishes the memory of Melian, the wife of Thingol, who became like a mother to her. Melian was known for her great wisdom and through all the story of Thingol and his avaricious heart she tried to warn him that such a spirit could lead to no good. Thingol became a grasper after things, even treating his own daughter, Luthien, as if she were a possession and not a free person. Galadriel, after the spirit of Melian, is a giver of hospitality, even though, like Melian too, she has put a girdle around Lothlórien to keep all evil at bay. She made Aragorn and Arwen welcome, both separately and in giving space for their love for each other to grow. And now she extends a loving welcome to Gimli the Dwarf.

“She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf… looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding.”

For Gimli this moment is a turning point in his story. His looking up, away from his anger and sadness and into the face of Galadriel turns him into a lover of beauty. He offers her his heart in worship and this is no idolatry because idolatry is in essence the worship of things for the sake of a small, mean self, the kind of worship that led to the fall and mutual destruction of Thingol, his realm, and the Dwarves, long ago. Gimli becomes a servant of all that is beautiful for its own sake. He “kisses the joy as it flies”, as William Blake puts it and so comes to live in “eternity’s sunrise”.

Gimli finds love in Galadriel’s face.

“We Must Do Without Hope”. The Company Go On After The Fall of Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 321-324

How do we carry on after the catastrophe has happened? The journey of the Fellowship through Moria has taken them at last to the terrible climax at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf has broken the bridge upon which both he and the Balrog confronted one another and then,

“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasping vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

“Fly you Fools!”

All in the briefest of moments the Company experience the terrible juxtaposition of relief at the fall of their deadly foe and then sheer horror as they witness in total helplessness the fall of Gandalf into the dark. At that moment it is Aragorn who is able to lead them all away from what remains a deadly danger out from Moria into the bright sun beyond its doors where grief overcomes them all.

The Fellowship Are Overcome By Grief

And so they stand in the strange unreality of a sunlit day after the dark, and the yet stranger unreality of being alive after they have lost one whom they have all loved, who presence has seemed to them to have been one of the few certainties in a world that is in constant flux; one whose very existence has enabled them to give shape to that world. It is Aragorn again who finds words to express this.

“‘We must do without hope,’ he said. ‘At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do.'”

This begins a thread that runs through the narrative of the next part of the story and is associated most with Aragorn. It is the theme of hope, the loss of hope and how to continue after hope has gone. Ever since the debate between Gandalf and Aragorn took place about which way the Company should cross the Misty Mountains Aragorn has been gripped by an inner sense that if they were to go through Moria something terrible would happen to Gandalf. All through the journey in the dark he has remained separate from the others, breaking his silence only at a moment when it seemed that doubt would take hold of them all. Might it be said that this inner sense, this foresight, has in some way prepared him for this moment? Might it be said that that all through Moria he has begun to live without Gandalf, who has been guide, even father to him?

“Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?”

The Fellowship must continue their journey, not because they have hope that they will succeed but simply because they have a task to fulfil. The Ring must go to the Fire. What part each one of them will play in this is not yet clear. Only upon Frodo has the obligation to complete the task been laid by the Council and Sam will go with him because that is who Sam is. The point will come in the journey when each member of the Company will have to make their own choice about what they must do and as this point is reached for most of them the choice will become harder to make. Only Boromir will be certain about what direction the Fellowship must take and at the last it will be his certainty that will enable, even force, Frodo to make his choice and the attack by the Uruk-hai will force the choice of the others. But what they will all have to do will have to be done without the hope that Gandalf gave them, that sense that whatever happened there would be someone to sort everything out. It has been wisely said that we know for certain that we are grown ups when we know that our parents are not going to come to rescue us from whatever predicament we have got ourselves into. That realisation can be catastrophic in nature and for some it comes too soon in life. Only time will tell whether it has come too soon for the Fellowship of the Ring.

“You Cannot Pass.” Gandalf Confronts The Balrog at The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.310-323

At the end of their journey through Moria the Company are pursued by orcs and trolls and then, worst of all, by a Balrog, one of the most terrible servants of Morgoth, a survivor of the Elder Days, that had hid from the wrath of the Valar in the depths of the Misty Mountains until it was disturbed by dwarves delving ever deeper in search of mithril in the Mines of Moria. For this is Durin’s Bane. This is why the dwarves have always failed to return to their ancient kingdom and why Balin and his companions had finally fallen after early success in their attempt to regain their ancestral home.

Not knowing the true identity of his foe Gandalf has attempted to turn back its power and has exhausted himself in the process. Now he stands alone on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm knowing that unless he overthrows his enemy the Quest of the Ring and the lives of all the Fellowship are at an end.

“The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.”

Alan Lee depicts the battle on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Note how all the light comes from Gandalf and not from the Balrog.

It is at this moment of crisis, of deepest need, that Gandalf reaches down into the innermost depths of his being, of his soul, there to find his true self.

“‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'”

Those who are careful readers of Tolkien will have become used to certain aspects of his style as a writer. Things such as the way that he uses capital letters in certain nouns and his use of exclamation marks. They will notice that the sentence, “You cannot pass”, does not end with an exclamation mark neither at the moment when Gandalf first speaks to the Balrog nor when he repeats these words. In other words Gandalf does not shout. This is not a challenge of a warrior to his foe. It is a simple statement of reality.

The reality is that of the world in which Gandalf and the Balrog both stand. The Balrog is, even in its terrible power, a creature of the shadow, not of the flame in whose light all the works of evil are no more than shadow, even its fire. In his excellent study of the spiritual vision of J.R.R Tolkien, Stratford Caldecott describes the Secret Fire, “the flame of Anor” as “Tolkien’s term for the distinctive creative power of Eru. It is God’s ‘secret’, for only God can truly create ex nihilo (from nothing). For Tolkien the fire represents life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence- it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world” (Secret Fire by Stratford Caldecott, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003, p107).

Anna Kulisz wonderfully imagines the Ainulindalë and the Secret Fire at its heart.

This is what Gandalf serves, what Morgoth lusted after in order to possess for himself but could never attain except as a gift freely offered by Eru to all who, like Gandalf, offer their lives in free service to him. Morgoth and his terrible servants, like the Balrog and like Sauron himself, could never possess the fire because they could never serve. The fire that they wield is mere shadow and it is to the Shadow that Durin’s Bane must return. It cannot pass.

Tolkien expresses this wonderfully as the Balrog responds to Gandalf’s words. “The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew.” And so begins their mighty struggle upon the Bridge of Khazad-dûm to which I will return next week.

Gandalf Gives Light in the Dark of Moria. Matt Stewart’s fine depiction of the Servant of the Secret Fire.

“These Are Not Holes. This is The Great Realm and City of The Dwarrowdelf.” Gimli Speaks of The Glory of Moria Of Old.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 306-310

After a night spent in silent thought at the door to the guardroom Gandalf announces to a rested company the way that he will lead them. “It is time we began to climb up again.”

He leads them along what was once an important road and they make good progress. Eventually they pass through an arched doorway “into a black and empty space.”

Gandalf raises his staff and light blazes forth from it for a brief moment illuminating “a vast roof far above their heads upheld by many mighty pillars hewn of stone”. They are in one of the great halls of Moria, the dwarf city of old. Sam Gamgee, who as a hobbit knows a thing or two about holes and living in them, is overwhelmed both by the hall’s sheer size and darkness.

Alan Lee’s depiction of the Halls of Moria

“There must have been a mighty crowd of dwarves here once upon a time… and everyone of them busier than badgers for five hundred years to make all this, and most in hard rock too! What did they do it all for? They didn’t live in these darksome holes surely?” Sam is comparing the work of the dwarves of Moria to the creation of a hobbit hole in The Shire and he is overwhelmed by awe and by horror. Then Gimli replies.

“These are not holes… This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs.”

Peter Jackson gives us a sense of the smallness of the Company amidst the “black and empty space” of Hall 21.

In Peter Jackson’s film version of this scene the light that blazes forth from Gandalf’s staff is allowed to shine a little longer than in the book but this allows us to gaze longer at the ancient glory of the city. The style of architecture chosen there is medieval gothic and we do not know, of course, if that is what the dwarves would actually have chosen or if that is what was in Tolkien’s imagination as he wrote this beautiful passage. But I did not mind this when I first saw this scene in the film, indeed I found myself deeply moved by the dignified grandeur of a beauty that is passing away. Like the architects of the Gothic revival of the nineteenth century, men like Pugin who created the British Houses of Parliament, I think that medieval gothic was one of the great human achievements, seeking as it did to express divine beauty, essential beauty, for the sake of the glory of God alone. A few years ago a game of Monopoly was created which was located in the city of Worcester here in England that lies just a few miles from my home. I remember being much amused by the fact that the city’s cathedral was the most valuable property on the board. Of course it is easily the most beautiful building in the city but as to its monetary value how does one calculate this? If it were not a cathedral whose purpose is the worship of God what would it be used for? Any other use would diminish its beauty in order to make it more use-ful in the utilitarian sense that dominates modern thought. It might become a museum but then would be merely a memory of that which we once had and knew but which we would have lost.

What is the real estate value of Worcester Cathedral or might we understand its true value in other terms?

My experience of being moved by Peter Jackson’s powerful evocation of this scene was tinged with sadness. Like Gimli I felt that I was looking on a glory that was passing away and could never return. Tolkien’s world is one in which the future is one in which two possibilities seem to lie ahead. One is Sauron’s future which is a descent into darkness. It is one in which Sam’s “darksome holes” becomes the only reality there is. The other is more ambiguous in its nature. One is expressed in the hope of Aragorn and the Return of the King. The other is expressed in the world that Lotho Pimple and Ted Sandyman briefly tried to create in The Shire, a world of business opportunities. And although this world is thwarted at The Battle of Bywater and by the death of Saruman and the other principal actors one cannot help but feel that it lurks in the shadows waiting its moment. And it is this world, the world of greed for gain, that brought about the fall of Moria, through lust for mithril. Frodo wears a mithril shirt that is worth more money than the entire value of The Shire.

“Fool of a Took!” Gandalf and Pippin at The Well in The Guardroom in Moria.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 303-306

The weary travellers have come to a place in which three choices lie before them. Not that it is the Company that will make the choice. Every one of them has given this task to Gandalf. He is the guide through the vast mines of Khazad-dûm. But at this point Gandalf is unsure about which way to go and too weary to make a decision. There is a guardroom nearby and they decide to rest within it.

At the centre of the room there is a well that is completely unprotected and Pippin is strangely drawn towards it. Is it Aragorn’s words of warning that have this effect? “One of you might have fallen in and still be wondering when you were going to hit the bottom.” How deep is the well? Pippin needs to know and so he drops a stone into it. It is many seconds before the stone plunges into water in the depths below and when it does it makes a sound that reverberates around the cavernous walls of the well.

It is necessary now for engineers to suspend their disbelief. We have reflected on other occasions about the weaving of history and mythology within The Lord of the Rings and it is clear now that we have entered the realms of mythology, that which never happened but is always true. While we cannot conceive a well so deep that to raise a bucket of water by hand would be a task that would take a very long time indeed we can and do conceive abysmal depths in “the dark places of the earth”. We both fear such places within our own psyche and, as with Pippin, are strangely drawn towards them.

Perhaps we are both afraid of and drawn towards what might lie there. “Tap-tom, tom-tap, tap-tap, tom”

“That was the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one,” says Gimli. Has something been awoken by Pippin’s “foolish stone” that should have been left undisturbed? Should we ever awaken that which lies deep within us?

“Fool of a Took!”

“Fool of a Took!” Gandalf growls at Pippin. “This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!” And poor Pippin is given the first watch, “as a reward”.

Some readers may recall a gruff old teacher from their childhood experience of school. One who they respected but also feared, if only for the angry rebuke that they might occasionally receive. The relationship between Gandalf and Pippin seems very much like that of master and pupil. Pippin is not one of those brilliant pupils such as is Aragorn or Faramir or Frodo. Each of these come to understand the mind of their master to such a degree that he is able to entrust any task to them and know that they will carry it out, not just because they have become capable of doing so but also because they carry the meaning of that task in their hearts even as he does. There is a sense in which Aragorn, Faramir and Frodo become sons to Gandalf and in the case of Faramir in particular this becomes a source of resentment, one of many, in Denethor, Faramir’s biological father.

“All wizards should keep a hobbit or two in their care”.

Pippin is a different kind of pupil. In his saving of the life of Faramir he displays that he understands the heart of his master. But Pippin does something else that I am not sure that any of Gandalf’s other pupils do. He awakens affection in the heart of the gruff old wizard. This is not because of his aptitude or ability but because of his childlike nature. Later in the story after Pippin’s misadventure with the Stone of Orthanc Gandalf takes Pippin with him to Minas Tirith, to keep him from any further mischief, but also, I think, because at this crucial moment in Gandalf’s long life, he needs Pippin. Pippin brings a comfort to Gandalf that no-one else can. “All wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care, to teach them the meaning of the word.” Even now in the fearful dark of Moria, with the terrible abyss of the well close by, Gandalf soon relieves Pippin of his lonely duty, speaks kindly to him and sends him off to get some sleep. The guide is watching over all his charges and we can all rest. For a little while at least.

The guide is watching over his charges. Matt Stewart imagines Gandalf smoking in Moria.