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?