“Naked I Was Sent Back- For a Brief Time, Until My Task is Done.” Gandalf Speaks of The Battle With The Balrog of Moria.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.653-657

There is much to think about in all that Gandalf speaks of after his reunion with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, but this is Eastertide and so we will think about the terrible struggle between Gandalf and the Balrog of Moria, a struggle that ends in Gandalf’s death.

But this story does not end with his death.

“I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”

Alan Lee imagines the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog

The Lord of the Rings is a story that weaves together both myth and history in a way that would have been familiar to Homer, to Snorri Sturluson or to the poet who wrote the story of Beowulf, but is quite alien to the modern mind. I have read many a commentator on Tolkien’s legendarium who has struggled to present his work as mere history, if such a thing can exist; and so they speak of the inadequacy of Tolkien’s economics for example. And from time to time I come across efforts to discover a historical King Arthur or Robin Hood. Tolkien does something far more interesting and far more exciting. He also does something that is more true than mere history. He is a writer of myth.

And so Gandalf tells of his struggle with the Balrog in a way that the hearers of Beowulf would have grasped immediately. As he tells us of the headlong fall from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm into the icy waters far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves and then of the ascent to the highest peak of the Misty Mountains we are not invited to ponder the cardiovascular systems of the two combatants even when Gandalf says that the icy waters almost froze his heart. What we are invited into is the great stories that transcend such things, of which our stories are a rich part if we will only understand them as such.

The battle between Gandalf and the Balrog ends with the deaths of them both. But Gandalf is sent back in order that he should complete his task. Tolkien never speaks of God explicitly in The Lord of the Rings, of Eru Ilúvatar as God is named in The Silmarillion. Even now Gandalf does not name the one who sent him back, the one who restored him to life but it is of Ilúvatar he speaks here just as he spoke of him when he told Frodo that both Frodo and Bilbo were meant to have the Ring.

For a time Gandalf lies upon the mountain top, this high place of the earth acting as a kind of threshold between earth and heaven, between the seen world of flesh and blood and the unseen world into which we only catch glimpses from time to time.

Gandalf Upon the Mountain Top

“I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of over-burdened stone.”

Once again there might be some who recognise in Gandalf’s telling of his story a certain similarity to the effects of hallucinogenics. They might be tempted to reduce Gandalf’s tale to just such an experience. But mystics know that it is not necessary to use such substances in order to see something of what Gandalf sees upon the mountain top. Gandalf lives in both myth and history and as he returns to the history of his time and the mighty struggle against Sauron that lies ahead, the task that he has been sent back to complete, he brings with him the mythic world in which he has dwelt entirely for a brief moment and for “a life-age of the earth”. He returns as Gandalf the White, more perilous than any upon earth except, perhaps, the Dark Lord Sauron, with whom he must now do battle.

Gandalf the White

“There Are Fell Voices on The Air”. Caradhras Defeats The Fellowship of the Ring and Makes Them Seek Another Path.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 279-286

Somehow the Company must find a way to cross The Misty Mountains in order to continue their journey towards Mordor. Aragorn knows the way the way over the mountains by the Redhorn Gate that will drop down to the Dimrill Dale and then on to the secret land of Lothlórien and he is anxious that they do not cross the mountains through Moria, a way that Gandalf describes as “dark and secret”.

Alan Lee’s imagining of the Redhorn Gate

I have only had limited experience of walking a trail through high mountains but two things stand out in my memory. One is that I was a small and insignificant thing and that the mountains were completely indifferent to me. They could not care whether I lived or died. I confess that I found this to be most unsettling. Most of my experience had been in the gentle, cradling landscape of southern England which, like the Shire is a land of “woods and fields and little rivers”. To be in mountains where snow is deadly was something new to me. Like Sam I always welcomed snow as a little boy as something that I could play in. “A pleasant event and a chance for fun.” When I awoke in the mountain hut in which I was staying to see snow on the ground round about me I did not think much of it but my German companions who had much more experience of snow in the mountains made an immediate decision to head down the mountain to the village in the valley below. Our expedition was at an end.I awoke in the shelter of a mountain hut but the Company had to make do with a cliff-wall. Sam doubtless expresses the feelings of his fellow hobbits when he declares, “If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house.” He and his companions have to face an icy wind, driving snow and falling rocks but they sense that that there is something else. In the wind they hear “shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter” and the rocks that they can hear crashing down from above seem to have a malevolent purpose. It is Boromir who speaks this sense aloud.

“Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.”

“There are fell voices on the air”. Ivan Cavini’s dramatic depiction of Caradhras.

Those who have grown up in a disenchanted clockwork world will dismiss Boromir as a superstitious man and to a certain extent they will be right. Boromir does regard the unfamiliar as being uncanny and dangerous, and he will show this most in his reaction to Lothlórien. But Aragorn, who as we will see, loves Lothlórien, also lives in an enchanted world.

“”I do call it the wind,” he says. “But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.”

Passages like these in The Lord of the Rings briefly carry us back to a high romantic world in which the heroes are children of the gods as well as of human mothers. But as Tom Shippey notes in his The Road to Middle-earth Aragorn is not such a hero and Frodo is most certainly not either. Neither has a divine father as did Achilles or the Volsungs. The brief return to the high romantic world seemingly cannot be sustained. Aragorn’s, “I do call it the wind”, and Sam Gamgee’s unhappy complaint both bring us back to mere weather but Aragorn reminds us of an older world in speaking of things in the world that “have purposes of their own” among which is Cruel Caradhras.

The Lord of the Rings is at least in part an elegiac work that mourns the passing of an enchanted world. Can we hope for a re-enchantment? How many of us would welcome the return of mountains that do not love us or weather that wants to kill us? Like the Company we might choose a different way in which to cross the Misty Mountains.