“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.

“I Will Diminish, and Go Into The West, and Remain Galadriel.” The Lady Galadriel Rejects The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.354-357

It is clear throughout The Lord of the Rings that there is an alternative to the rule of the Dark Lord apart from the destruction of the Ring and that is rule by another. Saruman had long understood this becoming convinced that this rule could only be achieved by one who could match or even surpass Sauron in achieving power over all things. But if Saruman desired simply to replace Sauron either by taking the Ring by force or perhaps by creating his own there are more nuanced alternatives that are considered by the Wise.

When Frodo offered the Ring to Gandalf at Bag End at the beginning of his adventure Gandalf responded with horror.

“Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

So there is more than one way of the Ring to a great heart. If for Saruman it is by way of his contempt for weakness and a belief that the strong have the right to rule over the weak, then for Gandalf it is by way of the desire of the strong to protect the weak, the very thing that Gandalf has done throughout his career in Middle-earth. The Shire is the fruit of his labour and the right of hobbits to be self-satisfied and even proud of their lack of intellectual curiosity is something that he is content to protect.

The Hildebrandt brothers show us Galadriel in her act of rejection of Sauron and the revelation of Nenya, the ring of adamant.

And what of Galadriel? We saw when we first crossed the Nimrodel into Lothlórien that we were entering an enchanted land. We saw at Cerin Amroth “a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness”. This is what Galadriel desires to keep even in the midst of all the changes and chances of the world. And Frodo is touched by this desire even as he was touched by Gandalf’s desire to protect the weak, sharing that desire himself. He can envision the enchanted world that Galadriel would create had she the power to do so and he desires, at least in part, to share in it.

“I will give you the One Ring if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”

Perhaps Galadriel had long thought that she had passed the test. She had long pondered what she might do were the Great Ring to come into her hands and doubtless she had rejected that possibility just as she rejected Sauron himself. She knew that if she were to possess and use the Ring she had the power to defeat Sauron once and for all and, as Sam put it, she could “make some folk pay for their dirty work”. But now she knows that until the Ring is within her reach the test is not real. Now she truly faces it.

In preparation for writing this post on my blog I explored artwork under the theme of “I will diminish”. Much of what I found were stills of the scene in Peter Jackson’s imagining of this scene which I confess to find unconvincing. It is not Galadriel’s impossible beauty that is created in that scene in the film but a grotesque distortion of feminine power, one that would evoke fear rather than desperate love. Then I came across an image that was quite different and yet seemed to me to convey something much closer to the fallen femininity of which Galadriel would have been become a terrible expression. This is a painting of the enchantress, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey, by John William Waterhouse. In the scene that Waterhouse depicts Circe offers Odysseus a cup of wine that will subject him to her will. We can see in her sensual beauty why Odysseus is tempted and what Galadriel might become and even surpass. All would indeed love her, desire her, and despair in never being able to possess her, and in that desire all other good would become worthless in comparison to this unattainable good.

The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse, depicts the enchantress, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey.

Frodo offers her the opportunity to achieve this form of feminine power and now it lies within her grasp, but she rejects it. She chooses the way of faith in allowing “what should be” to be. She chooses to diminish and go into the west. She allows her destiny and the destiny of Arda to be shaped by Eru Illuvatar and not by her.

“Now I Can Take a Night’s Rest, The First Since I Have Forgotten When”. Gandalf is Able to Rest Even While Riding The Storm.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 254-258

The words in this week’s title come in the midst of a passage that is moves at a ferocious pace. From the moment in which Saruman has Gandalf confined to the pinnacle of Orthanc to the moment in which Gandalf apologises to Frodo for failing to keep his promise Tolkien takes us upon a journey that covers most of the western lands of Middle-earth and some east of the Misty Mountains too.

The journey begins with honest Radagast, keeping his promise to gather news and to send it to Gandalf in Isengard, a promise that he keeps even as he rides towards his home in Mirkwood. The Eagles of Manwë, Lord of the Valar, fly over many lands observing “the gathering of wolves and the mustering of orcs” and the ferocious pursuit search for the Ring by the Nazgûl. Gwaihir, the Windlord, takes Gandalf from his prison and carries him to Edoras and the hall of Théoden, King of Rohan, where Gandalf takes a horse, the mighty Shadowfax, who takes him hundreds of leagues even as Frodo and his companions rest in the house of Tom Bombadil and then have their misadventure in the Barrow Downs and their night at The Prancing Pony in Bree.

Ted Nasmith depicts Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc upon Gwaihir

Gandalf arrives in Bree upon the very same day in which the hobbits had set off towards Rivendell with Aragorn and upon receiving this news from Barliman Butterbur with joy he decides to rest.

I have always enjoyed the moment in which Gandalf lays Butterbur’s beer “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence”. Apart from the obvious and enticing pleasure of excellent beer it is a moment in which we gain an insight into his character. Gandalf does not live at a great height in some remote and, to others, inaccessible place. In recent weeks we have poked fun at Saruman’s “high and lonely destiny”. Gandalf, the grey pilgrim, is as much at home in an inn at Bree, smoking his pipe and savouring the pleasure of good beer, as he is amongst the great. Not only does he enjoy simple pleasures for their own sake he also understands their importance in the wider scheme of things. Places of hospitality play a key role in the whole story of The Lord of the Rings. Without them the Ring could never have been taken to Mordor. All along the East-West road through Eriador from Rivendell to Bree to the Shire to the Grey Havens lie such places, places in which the giving of welcome is something that is prized. Such welcome is a inner disposition, an enjoyment of the stranger as well as those who are familiar. And, of course, there are the places along the road that are less known, where unexpected hospitality is given; places like Woodhall and Farmer Maggot’s farm, Crickhollow and Tom Bombadil’s cottage. It is because of the spirit of hospitality that the Quest of the Ring is ultimately successful and Gandalf has spent long years nurturing this spirit.

Places of hospitality in a cold world

Gandalf is a warmer of hearts. He is the bearer of Narya, the ring of fire but this is not external to his character but merely an intensification of it. When Cirdan gave Narya to Gandalf and not to Saruman it was because of a recognition that he was the right bearer of such power. There are other uses that fire can be put to than the warming of hearts. Gandalf saw such uses as a prisoner in Orthanc in Saruman’s “pits and forges”. Places in which creatures are merely put to temporary use, in which shelter is a necessity required to enable production. Later Merry and Pippin will enjoy the hospitality of Isengard but will do so as a spoil of war and not as a freely given gift.

Merry and Pippin enjoy the unintended hospitality of Isengard

That Gandalf does not come to a place like The Prancing Pony in Bree as a figure of terror as do the Nazgûl is because he has chosen not to do so, a choice that he has made over and over again throughout the long and hidden years. That Aragorn and the hobbits are able to enjoy Butterbur’s hospitality too is the fruit of this choice and why Gandalf is able to sleep, albeit briefly, before returning to the great struggle.

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.

 

The Passing of the Three Elven Rings of Power.

At the point where the road northward from Isengard to Rivendell meets the way over the mountain pass to Lothlórien the company pauses on its journey for a whole week. This is the parting of the three keepers of the Elven Rings made by Celebrimbor of Eregion in the Second Age. Vilya, Nenya and Narya. Sauron had no part in their making and so they were not under the control power of the One Ring and yet their fate was inextricably linked to the Ruling Ring made by the same lore, the sharing of skill and of knowledge between Celebrimbor and Sauron when the Dark Lord’s intention was not yet known.

Or were there clues enough for the Wise to guess at what Sauron wished to do? Certainly Galadriel and Gil-galad refused his embassies but Celebrimbor received him. In Unfinished Tales Tolkien tells us that Celebrimbor “desired in his heart to rival the skill and fame of Fëanor”. The old Prayer Book of the Church of England counsels us against following “too much the devices and desires of our hearts”. This is wise advice and calls for rigorous self-examination. Celebrimbor was far too upright and honourable to betray his people and friends for the sake of his desire but his desire made him ready to do as Sauron wished and to give him aid in making the Rings of Power.

In this desire even Galadriel was not without blame. When it became clear at the moment when Sauron forged the One Ring in the Cracks of Doom at Orodruin in Mordor that he wished power only for himself she counselled Celebrimbor against destroying the lesser Rings; the Nine, the Seven and the Three. Already she possessed Nenya and by it she was able to create Lórinand that was to become Lothlórien, the most beautiful land in all Middle-earth. Her desire was for the beauty that she was creating and she did not wish to give up her Ring for destruction. As a consequence even though Sauron never found the Three Elven Rings he was able to capture the Nine in his war against Celebrimbor and to give them to mortal men so creating his most terrible servants, the Nazgûl. For a time the Seven, rings of power given to the Dwarf Lords, were free from his grasp, but eventually he held them too.

Celebrimbor’s desire, and Galadriel’s share in it, had led to the forging of the One Ring, to the creation of the Nazgûl and to the diminishing of the dwarves. Although the Elven Rings enabled Galadriel to create the beauty of Lothlórien, Elrond the beauty of the valley of Rivendell and Gandalf to stir up the hearts and wills of the free peoples of Middle-earth they were too much linked to the evil of the Ring of Power to survive its destruction.

Saruman spoke of this in his encounter with the Ring-bearers. “I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.” As always Saruman’s knowledge was less complete than he believed and his wisdom almost entirely absent but one thing is true and that is that with the destruction of the Ring the power of the Three is at an end and with it much of the work that they achieved. Lothlórien and Rivendell must diminish. Much that is beautiful in the world must come to an end.

Would it have been better if the Ring had not gone to the Fire? The Wise had already been faced with this choice and rejected it. The Ruling Ring had such power to corrupt that it was impossible to keep safely and to use it would have been catastrophic. Never again would the path of withholding be followed. At last the Wise knew what they must do. The Ring must be destroyed and their life in Middle-earth must come to an end.

Saruman in his bitter envy thought of this as an accidental outcome of the destruction of the Ring. He could not imagine that his enemies were prepared to give up so much and to do it freely. And he most certainly did not anticipate the grace that will be shown to the Ring-bearers. After all it was a grace that he himself had long ago rejected.

Meeting Saruman on the Road and It’s Still All About Him

The great company begin their journey northward from Isengard to Rivendell after saying a last farewell to Aragorn and as they journey along the road they encounter two wretched figures. One is Wormtongue, once the master of Edoras but now “slouching and whining” and the other is Saruman. Once he was Saruman the White and great among the Wise of Middle-earth but now he is reduced to misery.

He is reduced to misery but undefeated. “All my hopes are ruined,” he declares, “but I would not share yours. If you have any.” He rejects Gandalf’s offer of aid. He will remain alone.

Even now Saruman would like to appear brave and noble just as he wished to appear thus before Gandalf when he tried to persuade him to join his alliance with Sauron when imprisoning him in Isengard. Then he said to Gandalf, “We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see”. Of course Gandalf knew that when Saruman said “We” he really meant “I” and that is the whole point of this kind of speech. As Digory Kirke says of his Uncle Andrew in C.S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew when he tries to look grave and noble speaking of “high and lonely” destinies, “All it means is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”

That is all that Uncle Andrew meant and it is all that Saruman means.

And both of them actually are afraid of the loneliness that they boast of. They  have a pathetic desire for the admiration of others even of those for whom they appear to have nothing but contempt. While Gandalf was often truly lonely in the long years of struggle Saruman sought to surround himself with worshippers. Gandalf was the Grey Pilgrim, always dependent upon the hospitality of others but who learnt through his dependence a deep respect and love for all his hosts, even for hobbits! He always remained entirely present to the task that he was given by the Valar and was faithful to it even though few seemed to share his vision and his respect and love for hobbits was to prove crucial to the successful outcome of the whole enterprise although this was never his intention. Unintended consequences are not only or always unhappy ones.

Saruman, on the other hand, always needed walls about him and an endless supply of followers and admirers. His hatred of Galadriel was because he knew that she believed that Gandalf should lead the Council. His hatred of the Elves because Círdan of The Grey Havens gave Narya, one of the three Elven Rings, to Gandalf and not to him. He settled in Isengard, once a great fortress of the Númenorians of Middle-earth, and so became a ruler among other rulers, always dreaming of the day when he might become the ruler over all others, dreaming of the day when he might possess the Ruling Ring. And because he gave himself entirely to his desire he came to believe that all others wanted what he wanted and so were his competitors.

Now all that is left for him is degradation and yet he refuses to repent. As W.H Auden once wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die”. Auden could have written these words about Saruman. He does write them for all who share Saruman’s desire. Even now Gandalf offers mercy and help to Saruman but Saruman rejects it. Where Gandalf offers pity all that Saruman can see is the contempt that he has long nourished in his own heart.

At last he looks upon the hobbits who share Gandalf’s pity, Merry even offering Saruman his tobacco. All he can see is the fine clothes that are the fruit of their labours and suffering. All that he can feel is a hatred of their contentment and he is determined to do them some hurt if he can. To determine to do this is a way of refusing to change. It allows him to maintain some last shred of the illusion of greatness.