“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.

“He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 244-250

No-one seems to be wasted in Gandalf’s world. By this I do not mean that everyone can be used in the sense that we might use an object and then discard it, but that everyone has a part to play in the great story. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that Gandalf spoke of Gollum in much the same way in the long conversation with Frodo in the study at Bag End.

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end”.

Gollum may play a part yet

Note that vital phrase. “My heart tells me”. Gandalf is a man of the heart and this is what sets him apart from Sauron and from those who see the world as Sauron does. He is beyond even most of his fellows. None of the Wise would ever wish ill to hobbits but then none but Gandalf would ever expect much of them either. The Wise regard them as many regard children. They are glad that children exist and they delight in their innocence, even taking refuge from time to time in the world of the child as an expression of longing for something that they feel is lost to them forever. But despite this longing they really believe that the world of the child is a world of make believe. It does not actually exist. The real world, sadly but truly (as they see it), is one of calculation and of cold, hard facts. The Rangers are glad to protect hobbits from this cold, hard world beyond the borders of the Shire but it is that cold, hard world that is reality.

It is one thing to find a place in the world for a pleasing anomaly like the Shire, but who wishes to give any place to Gollum? Sauron does give Gollum a place but it is only the place that he gives to every creature and that is based on their usefulness to him. When Sauron captures Gollum he tortures him to find out what he knows about the Ring that he once possessed. In Unfinished Tales we are told that “When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome, even by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had ‘robbed’ him, and guessing that he would go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron hoped that his spies would thus be led to the Ring”.

J.M Snooks imagines Sauron with Gollum

Now we begin to perceive the difference between the mind of Sauron and the mind of Gandalf. Sauron is only capable of reducing everything to his own calculation. All calculation reduces the person to an object, to an it. Imagination on the other hand perceives all persons as mystery. Sauron did not “fully comprehend” Gollum but calculated that what he did know would be sufficient for his purposes. Gandalf also did not fully comprehend, in terms of calculation, but listened to his own heart which told him that Gollum would have a part to play that Sauron could not foresee. This is because imagination conceives a world that is greater and more wonderful than its capacity to comprehend it. It can only be grasped and held by love and delight.

Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted. It was not Gandalf but Bilbo who chose not to kill Gollum when he had the opportunity to do so but Gandalf lives in a world in which a merciful deed can have wonderful consequences even if they cannot be foreseen. Gandalf does not foresee that it is Gollum who will take the Ring to the fire. He does not even know how the Ring will be destroyed. He has seen Frodo fail to throw the Ring into his own fireplace. He probably guesses that the task of destroying the Ring is probably beyond Frodo’s or anyone else’s capacity and yet he still trusts that somehow it will happen because he lives in this world of wonderful and incalculable possibility. Some might call it a fairy tale world, even regarding it with contempt, but those who live as Gandalf does seem to unlock doors of wonderful possibility that those of a calculating spirit cannot even perceive let alone achieve.

Olorin (Gandalf) with his teacher, the Lady Nienna

Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… 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.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25

Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.

So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.

The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.

“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”

This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.

It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.

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Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.

“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”

As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.

The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.

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Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.

Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.

Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.

Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!