“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.

Watch “Хоббит / The Hobbit (СССР / USSR, 1985 г.)” on YouTube

On Friday I posted a reflection on my blog about the encounter between Frodo and Glóin as they sat together at the feast in Rivendell and how this reconnected the stories of the Shire and the kingdom under the mountain, stories that were so remarkably woven together when Gandalf persuaded Thorin Oakenshield to allow Bilbo Baggins to become a part of his quest to regain the mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

As I pondered the story that Tolkien told in The Hobbit I was led by my daughter, Bethan, a doctoral student at Oxford University, to the great Soviet cultural critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his concept of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s work was on the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 16th century French writer, Rabelais. In both of them he finds a world that is turned upside down. As Bethan and I spoke together I became increasingly convinced that we can add another work to Bakhtin’s list, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

As I pondered this I recalled once watching a film adaptation of The Hobbit that was made in Russian during the Soviet era that charmed me at the time I watched it. Instinctively I felt that its retelling of Tolkien’s story as a folk tale had an authenticity to it that I found sadly lacking in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Many have commented on the difficulty in reconciling the fairytale aspect of The Hobbit with the mighty epic that was both The Silmarillion and also The Lord of the Rings. My feeling is that Jackson kept trying to make the story heroic and epic in nature, even trying to turn Bilbo into a character who might belong in such a story. My belief is that this delightful Russian retelling of the tale is much closer to its true essence.

And while I am expressing appreciation for people who have helped develop my own understanding of Tolkien’s work I would like to thank a blogger who writes under the name, The Catholic Knight, for reminding me of the wonderful section of Tolkien’s, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that deals with the quest for Erebor. If you have a copy then read these pages for yourself. You can almost feel yourself to be with Tolkien, perhaps at a gathering of the Inklings, as he wrestles with the question, why did he recommend Bilbo to Thorin? Each one of the answers is profound and, in my view, leaves the subversive carnivalesque nature of The Hobbit intact.

A final thought. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian. Any lover of The Hobbit will have little difficulty in following the story and you might find a version somewhere with English subtitles.

Sustained by a Longing for Beauty

“The wizard leapt upon the horse’s back. Aragorn lifted Pippin and set him in Gandalf’s arms, wrapped in cloak and blanket.

‘Farewell! Follow fast!’ cried Gandalf. ‘Away, Shadowfax!’

The great horse tossed his head. His flowing tail flicked in the moonlight. Then he leapt forward, spurning the earth, and was gone like the north wind from the mountains.”

Shadowfax’s mighty leap evokes the great leap of faith that Gandalf now takes. All plans, for the time being at least, are put aside. There can only be action and Gandalf rides for Minas Tirith with Peregrine Took who is now a part of Gandalf’s baggage. The rest of the company will follow soon after. They will not wait for the dawn. All are swept up into the same necessary deed.

In last week’s posting we reflected on the preparation that we can take in order to be ready and able to take the leap of faith when required to do so. There is no certain or necessary connection between our preparation and the ability to do the deed. We may do all the preparation necessary but when the deed must be done or the sacrifice made we may draw back. In Christopher Tolkien’s collection of his father’s unpublished writings, Unfinished Tales, Gandalf speaks of Bilbo’s longing for adventure before the events recorded in The Hobbit. Gandalf wishes to recruit Bilbo for the quest with some foresight that he may play a vital role in it but when he meets him he is disappointed:

“For Bilbo had changed, of course. At least he was getting rather greedy and fat, and his old desires had dwindled down to a sort of private dream. Nothing could have been more dismaying than to find it actually in danger of coming true!”

We all know that the whole history of Middle-earth turns on the moment when Bilbo the fat and rather frightened hobbit runs down the path to join the dwarves on their quest but how easily all might have come to nothing and worse than nothing. Gandalf may have sustained himself through long years by meditating on the glory that he longs to see restored in Middle-earth, a glory that still survives in Rivendell, the Grey Havens, in Lothlorien and also by a slender thread in Gondor but it is Bilbo’s dwindling private dream that proves to be decisive. Gandalf cannot accomplish anything without the participation of a greedy, fat hobbit.

What unites Bilbo’s private dream and Gandalf’s profound meditations is that both are focussed on the glory. Gandalf gives us a hint of his dreams when he tells Pippin that if he had the Palantir he would wish to “look across wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and the unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at their work while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower.” Bilbo has “a love of tales and questions about the wide world outside the Shire” and a desire to see Elves just as Sam Gamgee did years after. Both Bilbo and Gandalf are called by a longing for beauty to risk all to preserve it in the world. For Gandalf this longing has been a conscious discipline sustained throughout his long pilgrimage in Middle-earth; for Bilbo it is a longing that is awakened within him almost against his will. But however the longing for beauty was awakened and sustained Sauron could not be overcome without both Gandalf and Bilbo.

And what of ourselves? To what adventures might our longings lead us? To what great leaps of faith?