The Foresight of Gandalf

The Shadow of the Past chapter is a huge info dump, revealing the nature and history of the Ring.  I have already described a few of the revelations to be found in this chapter, but have left off discussing Gandalf.  In this chapter, the reader gets his or her first peaks at the true Gandalf.  It is edifying to pay close attention to his words, what they imply, especially knowing the future of the War of the Ring.

The history of the loss and rediscovery of the Ring reveals the wandering path by which the Ring reaches Frodo.  For some reason, the fact that the Ring came from Gollum disgusts Frodo, even though it is apparent he already knew its origin.  I believe at this point he comes to understand the full treachery of Gollum.  Frodo hastily calls for Gollum’s death.  This is Gandalf’s response:

“Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.” FotR 58

This statement may at first glance appear solely reactionary.  I’ve purposely highlighted a few segments.  Gandalf has some knowledge, possibly never fully revealed, of the future to come.  It is an obvious deduction that Gollum is and always will be tied up in the fate of the Ring.  Yet to say that he has part to play and a role in Frodo’s fate as well is a jump.  It reveals Gandalf’s hidden thought and for the first time his divine nature.   

Later, as already discussed, Frodo attempts to destroy the Ring at Gandalf’s urging.  Yet when the reader pays close attention to Gandalf’s words, he demonstrates grim humor.  It is apparent he knows this attempt will fail.  And yet it would seem he also knows any future attempt would fail as well:

“Gandalf laughed grimly.  ‘You see?  Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.  And I could “make” you-except by force, which would break your mind.”  FotR 59

He has seen this attempt.  He would make the necessary jump.  While the Ring may not consume Frodo, it has a firm hold on him; he can neither relinquish it or wish it harm.  So why then does Gandalf still have hope?  The obvious answer is this:  Gandalf is aware of the presence of the Valar and Iluvatar in the Middle Earth; he trusts in the hope of future eucatastrophe.  In a sense, his own presence as one of the maiar is in itself a eucatastrophe.  He saves the Fellowship from the  Balrog.  He discovers the true nature of the Ring in enough time to send it on its way to destruction.  He organizes and aids in the saving of Rohan and Gondor.

Gandalf is both aware and unaware of his divine nature.  Yet on some instinctual level he must understand how he himself is an agent of Grace.  So why send Frodo on the quest and not himself?  This second question is answered by Gandalf’s response to Frodo’s offer of Ring:

“‘Do not tempt me!  I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.  The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.  I shall have such need of it.  Great perils lie before me.‘” FotR 60

And yet, even here, the question of Gandalf’s nature is raised.  How does he know he will need the Ring?  What perils approach?  How much does Gandalf really know?  He is a maia after all.  While in human form, he still holds much of the knowledge of his divine self, though not all.  This is made clearer when Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White.  In each alias, different qualities of his divine self come to the fore according to the needs of his mission: to aid in the fall of Sauron.

Now everything Gandalf says must come under investigation.  Are these ‘guesses’ just informed conclusions, or evidence of some deeper and miraculous insight?  The quote below emphasizes this point.  It may be interpreted in two completely different ways depending on the stance.

“‘The Ring will not be able to stay hidden in the Shire much longer; and for your own sake, as well as for others, you will have to go…'” FotR 61

Gandalf the Wise makes this statement a statement of fact.  The Ring may not remain in the Shire, because inevitably danger will come.  Given the evidence he has, Gandalf knows the Enemy is aware of the Ring and the Shire as well as the name Baggins.  Therefore, this may just be a statement of concern or an attempt to thwart the inevitable.

As Gandalf the Maia, this statement takes more weight.  The return of the ringwraiths and their coming to the Shire is wrapped up in this one line.  It may also imply further suspision into the coming of Saruman and the ruin of the Shire. 

How much is Gandalf human?  How much is Gandalf divine?


Frodo and the hold of the Ring

The hold of the Ring on Frodo appears to be an obvious relationship.  Yet, like the hold of the Ring on Bilbo, the Ring’s effects require some study.  In the movie, the passage of time is not clear in the beginning of the film.  Between the long expected party, and Frodo’s quest, seventeen years pass, making Frodo fifty years old.  This is not a coincidence.  Bilbo, leaving for the quest to Erebor, was also fifty years old.  By this time, Frodo is beginning to feel the desire to adventure and see the world.  As with Bilbo, it is important to study the effects of the Ring in the beginning of the Lord of the Rings.  It is crucial to understanding the full scope and consequence of the future plot.

When Gandalf returns to the Shire, knowing now the danger of the Ring, he performs the final test: fire.  He asks Frodo for the Ring.  Frodo complies, but with apparent reluctance.  Then, suddenly, Gandalf casts the Ring into the embers of Frodo’s fire.  Frodo’s response is immediate distress; he rushes to get the tongs and fish the Ring out.  Gandalf has to restrain him.  The Ring’s hold is already quite strong, Frodo wishes no hurt to the Ring, and does not seem capable of it.

Gandalf explains the history of the Ring and the danger to the Shire to Frodo.  The final solution is reached: the Ring must be destroyed.  This a crucial moment in the tale, one that was unwittingly dropped from the film.  At this moment, Frodo proposes to destroy the Ring himself, to take a hammer to it perhaps.  Gandalf encourages him.  So Frodo pulls out the Ring and looks at it.  He is drawn by its beauty and preciousness.  He had removed the Ring with the intent of throwing it into the hottest section of his fire.  But now he could not without great struggle.  He has to forcefully make himself remember and believe all that Gandalf has told him.  This is important.  Just moments ago, he had been totally  convinced, enough so to make the initial decision to do away with the Ring.  But the Ring protects itself. 

With an extreme effort, Frodo finally moves to cast the Ring in the fire.  And what happens?  Somehow both his hand and the Ring end up back in his pocket. 

It doesn’t matter that neither hammer or fire would have consumed the Ring.  What matters is Frodo’s intent.  He is resolved to destroy the Ring, at first.  Then, through some outer force, he doubts himself and doubts Gandalf’s wisdom.  Frodo reasserts himself, however, and harnesses his will to destroy the Ring.  But he doesn’t succeed.  The Ring and his own attachment to it, on some subconscious level change his gesture to return the Ring to his pocket.

This moment is of utmost importance.  Hobbits, according to Gandalf and the wise, are quite resilient to the power of the Ring.  And yet, after little use, the Ring appears to have complete hold over Frodo.  This explains and brings new meaning to all subsequent scenes of the Lord of the Rings.  It is not to say that Frodo is weak, or that he never can defy the Ring or turn its power to his own use.  However, it is obvious that the Ring’s power over Frodo is more far reaching than most would suspect.

Think on it.

Frodo is sent on a quest to destroy the One Ring.  That is his goal.  What is the Ring’s goal?  To return to Sauron.  For a time, the purpose of the Ring and the purpose of Frodo coinside.  But remember, as Frodo penetrates Mordor and comes closer to his goal, the burden and power of the Ring increase.  It now truly begins to fight Frodo’s quest.  How can Frodo ever have been expected to destroy the Ring, when he cannot even cast it into a fire?  And, more importantly, how can Gandalf, being cognizant of this failure, still have hope?  This scene, from the very beginning, calls the entire quest into question and doubt.  How may the Ring be destroyed? 

It is this scene, more than any other, that begins to establish the themes of hope and grace.  They often grow out of hopelessness.  This moment makes the final eucatastrophe potent and meaningful.

Tolkien Reading Day and Eucatastrophe

Tomorrow, March 25th is Tolkien Reading Day.  It is a day set aside for reading and appreciating Tolkien’s works.  It is also the day of the downfall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring.  Hence, it is one of the most important dates in Tolkien’s legendarium.

However, the date was also of central importance to Tolkien’s Catholic faith.  March 25th is the feastday of the annunciation, or conception of Jesus.  Traditionally, this date is also the day of the Cruxifiction.  Like the kingdom of Godor, March 25th was also the beginning of the year.  This is the one and only explicit link in The Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s faith.  As an important date in his life and faith is makes sense to choose this day.  Yet we should also consider the nature of eucatastrophe.  This wasn’t a choice made lightly, just for this association.  There are deeper layers to the link.

Eucatastrophe is the sudden intervention of Grace which causes a miraculous change in the course of events.  Both the Annunciation and the Cruxifiction expemplify this chain of events.  The meeting between Gabriel and Mary leads to the conception of Jesus through the divine grace of the Holy Spirit.  The Cruxifiction is another moment of eucatastrophe within the larger context of the Easter Tridium. 

By chance, Gollum finds Frodo once more at the Cracks of Doom.  He regains the Ring.  He celebrates, and inadvertently falls to his death and the destruction of the Ring.  Is it any consequence, that at this exact moment, the army of the West is nearing defeat?  Or that Frodo has finally succumbed and the Sauron is finally aware of his doom?  No.  Here is crux of the story.  Here is the entrance of Grace.

It is interesting to look at the association in another way.  The Lord of the Rings as well as the Silmarillion were created as a pre-history, long forgotten.  Many of the dates of Christian and even pagan feasts and rituals are derived from the seasons or past traditions long forgotten.  Using this same mechanism, Tolkien is easily able to place Middle Earth within our own history.

Shadows of the Truth

“You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”~JRR Tolkien

The second chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Shadow of the Past, begins with the aftermath of Bilbo’s joke and small tidbits from the outside world. Rumors of Mordor and an Enemy appear in the Shire.  Elves pass through in greater numbers to reach the Grey Havens.  The great East-West road is filled with Dwarves passing through.  What little knowledge the hobbits have of the world outside comes through the dwarves; if they ever ask.   These rumors are little more than tales to scare young hobbits into bed. 

 Sam and Ted Sandyman talk in the Green Dragon about myth and rumor.  As Ted says, ” there’s only one Dragon in Bywater, and that’s Green.”  This statement, while simple and minor, is extremely important to beginning to understand the nature of hobbits and vicariously the way that we also see the outside world.  Only the here and now is truly accepted.  Only that which can be seen and proved without shadow of a doubt is believed.  Yet Sam is different.  He is drawn to dragons, elves and (unknowlingly) ents.  The two hobbits discuss walking trees, the passage of Elves and the Sea.  Ted is skeptical, while Sam yearns to find truth in these tales. 

The quote above has always been my favorite quote by Tolkien.  It is found in Humphrey’s biography of Tolkien’s life.  CS Lewis and Tolkien were great friends.  In fact, Tolkien is one of the most important figures in Lewis’ quest for faith.  Lewis questioned the Bible, asking how could anyone believe in myth, it can’t be true.  The above was Tolkien’s response.  As we are God’s children, created in His image and likeness, we are also drawn to create.  Everything we create is subcreation, a creation of God by proxy through us.  Therefore in all things there is a shred of truth.

Let’s return to the hobbits.  As I’ve stated before, hobbits are essentially the same as us.  In myth their views are similar to CS Lewis.  Their maps are blank a small distance from the Shire.  The sea is a nebulous idea a vague wave away.  Elves are a rarity of the past and rumor never to be proven.  Everything is taken on face value.  In the prologue, it is said that hobbits prefer books which tell only things they already know.  Their focus is on ordering that knowledge, neat and tidy, but rarely added to. 

Saddly, in many ways, this is the state that our society has sunk to.  It is the same problem I discussed before in the challenges of fantasy.  It is a lack of belief.  It is a need to have proof and physical evidence.  And this is untrue.  Humans and hobbits are limited in our foresight and awareness of the world.  Yet we, like them, have the opportunity to learn the truth.  The Lord of the Rings is a tale about the truth of tales, the revelation that behind every myth and rumor is kernal of truth.

Bilbo and the Hold of the Ring

How strong is the Ring’s hold?  This question doesn’t have a clear answer, and it appears Tolkien worked on this very issue continuously throughout the writing of Lord of the Rings. 

At times the Ring appears to be a sentient entity, capable of thought and planning.  In the Hobbit, and later explained in Lord of the Rings, the Ring apparently chooses  to leave Gollum.  Somehow the Ring is able to sense the renewed rise of Sauron in the outside world and see that the only way to become reunited is to leave Gollum and the caves.  But can this really be true?  If this were so, wouldn’t the Ring have chosen anyone other than Bilbo?  So the Ring’s power has set limits.  This moment could even be interpreted as a moment of Eucatastrophe.  By chance, Bilbo is knocked down the right tunnel and happens to place his hand directly on the Ring.  Also by chance he figures out the workings of the Ring to escape Gollum.  Now this second element could be the first touch of the Ring on Bilbo to ensure its own escape from Gollum and as a consequence also saving Bilbo.

However, the reader can still question the foresight and sentience of the Ring.  In leaving Gollum, it sets up a whole chain of events which would have led to its recovery.  Gollum, following Bilbo, eventually finds out his true name and where he comes from: Bilbo Baggins from the Shire.  In time he finds himself drawn to Mordor, where he is captured and questioned.  The Nazgul have returned to power and soon leave Minas Morgul to abduct Bilbo and retrieve the Ring.  All this is set in motion solely by the Ring’s “choice” to leave Gollum.  Is this just fate?  Or, by some contrivance, is the Ring actually able to orchestrate these events?  One has to remember that Sauron poured much of his own power and essence into the Ring.  It isn’t that much of stretch to assume that the Ring, as a consequence, has its own agenda or is in some manner still controlled by Sauron.

And yet this plan is foiled.  How?  By the will of single Hobbit.

Bilbo is not a central figure in the Lord of the Rings.  Yet, while always off stage, he is one of the truest heroes in the tale.  Unlike Borromir, unlike Frodo, unlike Gollum, only he and Sam are able to escape the Ring’s hold.  If he could not, if he had kept the Ring, if he had succumbed, the quest would have failed before it began.  Sauron would have returned.

It is obvious upon reading “The Long Expected Party” that the Ring has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.  It is an obvious struggle for him to relinquish it to Frodo.  The whole purpose of the party and giving away so many and so lavish gifts was solely to make the giving of the Ring easier.  This fails.

After Bilbo’s “joke,” Bilbo returns to Bag End, places the Ring in envelope and then puts it back in his pocket.  No more is  said.  It appears to be an automatic, reflexive action.  When asked about the Ring, at first Bilbo is confused by this act, then rationalizes it.  The Ring should be mine, he thinks.  Yet when we think about this action, it truly seems to be foreign; as if an outside force, without Bilbo’s awareness, molds his actions to its needs.  Then, being confronted with this action, Bilbo makes it his own and proclaims his right to the Ring.  Is this outburst his own true feelings against Gandalf, or a manifestation of the Ring’s hold?  I would claim both.  Remember the Ring of the drafts: the Ring gains power over Bilbo as a memento of his travels.  He is now set on leaving the Shire and reliving those adventures.  Why would he leave his most precious heirloom behind?

Consider Bilbo, he has none of the knowledge or superstition of Gandalf to make him fear the Ring.  He is confused by Gandalf’s focus on it.  This confusion grows into anger and jealousy.  While this is a reasonable reaction, it is logical to see the Ring’s effect here as well, amplifying his feelings.  It is also possible that this jealousy increases the power of the Ring’s hold on Bilbo.

Yet out of Bilbo’s trust for Gandalf, and his unflappable innocence and humor, Bilbo holds true to his original decision.  He takes out the envelope and makes to put it on the mantel.  The motion is jerky and forced, as if made against some will.  He cannot complete the gesture, dropping the envelope on the floor.  Gandalf immediately scoops it up and places it on the mantel.  This sets off a moment of extreme anger in Bilbo, possibly the last vestiges of the Ring’s direct hold.  Then, almost as suddenly, Bilbo returns to his carefree, happy state the reader remembers from the end of the Hobbit.  He is free.  While the Ring still has some hold over him, Bilbo will never be ruled by it again. 

It almost never mentioned, but in this Bilbo becomes one of the most important figures in the Lord of the Rings.  He is, in fact, a hero.