Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Wizard For All Seasons, by Mark Bednarowski

The following article was written by Mark Bednarowski, and was originally printed in the magazine of the Tolkien Society (UK), Amon Hen (issue 233). It tells more of the quests of Gandalf which eventually lead him to The Shire.

The article is reprinted with kind permission of the author. Andrew Butler from Tolkien Society (UK) helped me get in touch with him. Our gratitudes go out to you both!

In a previous article [originally submitted for Amon Hen #228], “Plight of the Dwarves”, I attempted to give more insight into the motivation of Thorin and company for their quest of Mount Erebor with respect to the history of the Dwarves in the Third Age. The attempt stemmed from the anticipated release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in order to refresh or familiarize us with the Dwarves. But the company of course did not consist entirely of Dwarves. Fairness suggests that the motivations of the remaining two should not go unconsidered.

Having said that, Hobbits, not known by nature to be excessively adventurous folk, makes it difficult, I think, to build a case for Bilbo. Apart from his no longer dormant Took-side that began to crave adventure again, motivation was scarce; while on the quest to the Lonely Mountain, the thought of himself sitting back in his comfy hobbit hole having tea by the fire came to his mind more than once.

This then, of course, leaves one other person.

“Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.” Indeed, a quarter of very little seems to be all we have of Gandalf’s affairs after his arrival in Middle-earth to the time of a key event, that being his encounter with Thorin in Bree. Gandalf came to realize, from that meeting, a great opportunity from which the quest would form.

Fortunately, we do hear more about who this wizard was and what he did, which in itself is a remarkable tale. Yet it is not found in The Hobbit.1 “The Tale of Years” in Appendix B and The Silmarillion provide us with some significant events in the wizard’s past and also some interesting background information.

It was in the time that a shadow fell on the vast forest of Greenwood the Great that Gandalf, who later joined the ranks of the wise, first appeared in Middle-earth, circa 1000 III. Roughly a century later, the wise discovered that a stronghold was built within the great forest. In it dwelled an evil power, perhaps one of the Nazgûl. It was named Dol Guldur. Nothing is afterwards chronicled about this for over a millennium. It was then that the wise learned that the power of Dol Guldur was growing.

Gandalf suspected the most that it was Sauron. Not long after this in 2063 III, Gandalf took action and went to the evil fortress to investigate. As a result, Sauron retreated and went into hiding in the east and a watchful peace began, yet it was not to last. Almost four centuries later, Sauron returned to Dol Guldur. Three years afterwards, the White Council was formed of which Gandalf was a member.

There are other future events that indicate good relations between the wizard and other free folk.

During the Long Winter of 2758 III, Gandalf came to the aid of the Hobbits. And in 2845 III, he began a search for Thráin II, father of Thorin Oakenshield, in the mines of Moria. (Thráin II went wandering and was thought to be in Moria after he became lost. He was in fact captured and imprisoned by Sauron in Dol Guldur.) Gandalf’s search was in vain. Other matters soon afterwards came back to his attention. Strangely, Gandalf did eventually find Thráin II, but it was quite unplanned.

The shadow in the forest grew greater. Five years later, Gandalf returned to Dol Guldur in disguise to seek more information. The news he learned was indeed grim. He reported back to Elrond that the master of Dol Guldur was Sauron himself and he had not been idle. He was trying to collect all the Rings of Power and any information on the One. Further, he was seeking news on the heirs of Isildur.

Here is the strange part. While Gandalf was on this dangerous mission, he happened to come across a pitiful looking Dwarf trapped in the dungeons of the fortress. The time the prisoner had spent there in torment had certainly taken its toll. The Dwarf had gone half-mad and they did not recognize each other. Sadly, the poor Dwarf died shortly after, but not before he passed onto Gandalf two seemingly unimportant yet curious items: a map of the Lonely Mountain and a key.

“I stowed the things away, and by some warning of my heart I kept them always with me, safe, but soon almost forgotten.” 2 He escaped Dol Guldur with no idea who the Dwarf was.

In light of new information, Gandalf urged the White Council in the following year in Rivendell to attack Sauron. Saruman then overruled the proposal and nothing was done. The decision did not rest easy with all of the council. This part essentially concludes Gandalf’s history in Middle-earth prior to his meeting with Thorin.

But where did Gandalf come from, what was his interest in the quest, and who was he anyway? As to who Gandalf was, Appendix B informs us that he was one of the Istari, but this account is very brief. As for his interest in the quest, Appendix A provides an explanation, but this fills less than a page. Tolkien did intend to include a more detailed account of what happened with Gandalf and Thorin just prior to the events of the Hobbit within the body of The Lord of the Rings, but unfortunately it had to be cut out. Yet thanks to Tolkien’s son Christopher and all his years of work on his father’s manuscripts, this account can be found in Unfinished Tales.3 It is learned that Gandalf was ordained to perform a task and was one that was vital to winning the freedom of Middle-earth. No longer can Gandalf be viewed as simply a wizard with memorable fireworks and the reputation of sending Hobbits off on adventures, but one of the Istari sent from Valinor charged to work against Sauron. But deeper than this is that his task, like that of all the Istari, has its roots embedded far back in the Elder Days.

The forces of the Valar overthrew Morgoth, Sauron’s superior, at the end of the First Age, and they did so by intervening directly on behalf of Elves and Men. The herald of Manwë himself, Eönwë, was in command of the host sent to Middle-earth to combat the might of the Black God. Victory was won, but not without heavy cost; the land of ancient Beleriand was destroyed and sank under the sea.

This was the last time the Valar attempted to protect the Children of Eru by “their own might and glory fully revealed”.4 Although Morgoth was cast out of Arda, evil was not wholly vanquished and as the ages passed, the Valar kept watch over Middle-earth. They were aware of the first downfall of Sauron at the end of the Second Age, yet they were also aware that his One Ring had not been destroyed. This meant that there still lingered a great danger: Sauron could return in time to plague and conquer the Free Peoples once again. Worse still, the strength and power of Elves and Men waned during the Third Age. More Elves departed from Middle-earth to Valinor. In the north, the kingdom of Arnor fell. In the south, Gondor no longer had a king and the Haradrim threatened its southern borders. The Dwarves suffered very many casualties in the war of the Dwarves and Orcs and many were still a wandering folk. King Théoden of Rohan was under a spell of Saruman. The White Tree died without a seedling to be found.

Would the Free Peoples of the Third Age have the strength to withstand an assault from Sauron? As predicted, Sauron began to stir again in Middle-earth. Manwë summoned the Valar and they held a council. A decision was made and had the consent of Eru. Beings of the Maiar order were to be chosen as emissaries. Of all that were chosen, five came to the north of Middle-earth. One known to be the wisest of the Maiar was named Olórin and was commanded to go by Manwë himself. Gandalf, as one of the names he became known by in Middle-earth, was reluctant to do so. He argued that he was too weak and that he also feared Sauron. Manwë retorted that that was all the more reason to go.

To amend for their past mistakes, the Valar changed tactics. The chosen were to be sent to Middle-earth to resist Sauron by different means. The Istari were charged to unite the enemies of Sauron and persuade them to do good. This method called for them to forgo might and appear as mortals in order to win the trust of Elves and Men. Yet there was a drawback: this would also imperil them or “dim their wisdom and knowledge, and confusing them with fears, cares, and weariness coming from the flesh”.5 After their arrival in Middle-earth, Gandalf revealed only to Elrond, Galadriel, and Círdan that they came from the Undying Lands. Círdan had great foresight and perhaps he saw the same qualities in Gandalf that Manwë did. For Círdan entrusted Gandalf with the Ring of Fire to aid him in his task.6 Thus began the labours of Gandalf against the Shadow.

But what drove him to form the quest? Late in the Third Age, ever the evil of Mirkwood grew deeper. But Gandalf, at a time, was looking for a short rest. After travelling abroad for some 20 years, he began to head west toward the Shire. On his way there, Gandalf stayed over in Bree at an inn. Sitting down in the parlour next to the fire, he puffed on his pipe and began to contemplate matters. For his mind was burdened with troublesome thoughts. The wise already knew that Sauron had returned and was gathering strength.

Soon he would declare himself. Yet Saruman hindered Gandalf’s plan to strike at Sauron. What was his strange reluctance to disturb Sauron in Dol Guldur? Certainly, the time would come when Sauron would proceed to war. And when he did, what would be his plan? There was the possibility that Sauron could re-occupy Mordor, but Gandalf knew he intended to attack the stronghold of Rivendell once he became strong enough. The Men of the north were not as mighty as in the past, and it seemed likely that Rivendell would be attacked from the old dwelling of the Witch-king. To do that, Angmar must be reclaimed first, Gandalf thought, as one of his smoke rings drifted away. But what defence was there in that region of Middle-earth to counter the attack when it came? Now, there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills not far from the Lonely Mountain. Ah yes, the Lonely Mountain! Smaug the dragon could certainly become a powerful ally to Sauron. How to deal with the dragon then? (more smoke rings) Gandalf pondered about the enemies of Smaug. Both King Thrór and his son Thráin II were driven out of their dwelling under the mountain when Smaug descended upon them long ago.

Imagine how fortuitous Gandalf must have felt then when he learned that a direct descendant of the king, Thorin Oakenshield, just happened to be in town! Thorin was on his way to the Blue Mountains far to the west and also stopped over in Bree.

They began to talk and Gandalf listened with interest to the Dwarf’s tale of how he yearned to reclaim his home of old. So much in fact, that he accompanied Thorin on his journey. Soon after, he left Thorin in the Blue Mountains without a plan because Thorin’s mind seemed set on war and revenge on the dragon and Gandalf had no confidence in that idea. He returned to the Shire in April 2941 III and contemplated Thorin’s tale. While there, Gandalf heard news of a particular Hobbit. He learned that this one had the tendency at times to see the world outside the borders of the Shire and was sometimes seen talking to Dwarves. It was then that an idea suddenly hit him. Gandalf had not thought of the map and key for years. He recollected the ‘strange chance’ of how he acquired them. Gandalf then rightly guessed that the poor Dwarf imprisoned in Dol Guldur, some 91 years before, must have been Thorin’s father Thráin II.7 With access to the Lonely Mountain by a secret entrance and the services of a softfooted Hobbit, it now seemed quite possible to discover what Smaug was up to. Gandalf rode back to Thorin in haste to persuade him of his plan. And the ball began to roll.

Although Gandalf said to himself he must find a way to deal with Smaug, action against Dol Guldur was needed more. It was already spring and Gandalf had to be at the White Council by August at the latest or Saruman would have nothing done. By that time, the quest should already be well underway, so Gandalf would have to take his leave from the company for a while at an appropriate time. It was imperative to convince the council to thwart Sauron’s plans.

There was only one last preparation. Gandalf needed to assemble the entire group before they set off. He returned again to the Shire on April 25th. It was a lovely Tuesday morning when Gandalf approached Bilbo’s dwelling located in Bag End. He found him smoking in front of his round green door. “Good morning!” the Hobbit said.


Gandalf argued his case and finally convinced Saruman that they should attack Dol Guldur. “It is not needed that the Ring should be found, for while it abides on earth and is not unmade, still the power that it holds will live, and Sauron will grow and have hope. The might of the Elves and the Elf-friends is less now than of old. Soon he will be too strong for you, even without the Great Ring; for he rules the Nine, and of the Seven he has recovered three. We must strike.”8 As a result of the attack, Sauron retreated. Shortly thereafter, Gandalf headed north to Esgaroth to resume the quest. In the end, and not without great loss, the Lonely Mountain was reclaimed, and unexpectedly, Smaug fell in battle and was a threat no more. All was well, at least for the time being. As we know, the War of the Ring would later follow.

If Sauron carried out his original plan to attack Rivendell, Gandalf believed that the outcome would have been much worse for the Free Peoples. Smaug could have wreaked havoc across Eriador and Rivendell during the War of the Ring. But without the aid of this fearsome dragon, Sauron’s attack in the north was averted and there was no invasion of Eriador. Further, there then came Kings Dáin and Brand both of whom stood in the path of Sauron’s attack in the battle of Dale.

As for Gandalf’s motivation in the quest of Erebor, if not for all his work in the long years he spent in Middle-earth, it could be blandly argued that the direct command of a deity to perform a task ought to be sufficient. But we also know that while in Valinor, Olórin visited the Valar Nienna often and he learned from her the quality of pity. His compassion for those in distress overcame his fear of Sauron. In his words to Denethor in Minas Tirith, “But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands. Those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward.”9 And in the end, Smaug was dead, Sauron was later defeated for good, the king returned, and the Dominion of Men came to be; all because Gandalf and Thorin met in Bree one year sometime in the middle of March.

1 As mentioned in “Plight of the Dwarves”, The Hobbit was not initially intended to be part of Tolkien’s legendarium, the Silmarillion. Through the success of The Hobbit and the publisher’s subsequent demand for a sequel, which of course became The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made the decision to join them to his mythology.
Years later, during the preparation of the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, and after the first volume was published, Tolkien extended the historic timeline of the legendarium beyond the end of the First Age into the Third, or into the time of The Hobbit and the War of the Ring.

2 Unfinished Tales, “The Quest of Erebor”, Harper Collins, 2000, p419

3 The Silmarillion also has an account, but – as emphasized by Christopher Tolkien in the Foreword – it is independent. Its inclusion in The Silmarillion provides the entire history of Tolkien’s mythology from the Music of the Ainur to the end of the Third Age now instead of the First. It’s another fascinating read into the affairs of Gandalf.

4 Unfinished Tales, “The Quest of Erebor”, Harper Collins, 2000, p503

5 The Blue wizards travelled into the east and were not heard from again. Radagast became too preoccupied with birds and beasts. Saruman betrayed the order. Only Gandalf held true to his purpose.

6 “For Círdan saw further and deeper than any other in Middle-earth”, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, Harper Collins, 1995, p1060

7 It does seem odd that Gandalf made this oversight and did not resolve it for nearly a century. Yet there are accounts from two sources that attempt to explain this. One is from The History of Middle-earth Vol. XII, Harper Collins, 2002, p284, and Unfinished Tales, Harper Collins, 2000, p419. To quote from the latter: “Fortunately, I did not make any mistake in my use of them. I kept them up my sleeve, as you say in the Shire, until things looked quite hopeless.”

8 The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, Harper Collins, 1999, p302

9 The Lord of the Rings, “Minas Tirith”, Harper Collins, 1995, p742

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