Gandalf was my favorite character from the beginning of LotR. As I noted in a previous post, I always found him mysterious and funny. Unlike H, Gandalf was present throughout LotR, so the reader has the chance to know him well. His character was so well developed that I could often laugh at the little word-games he played on the hobbits, while always taking his warnings seriously. This is probably why his death at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm was so heart-wrenching for me.
My reaction was not immediate. I thought that it was surely some kind of trick, Gandalf would levitate out of the chasm somehow. It was not until the other characters reacted and the chapter ended that it finally sunk in. This death was sudden and unexpected. There was no dramatic pause in his fall, as the movie depicts, rather this famous line comes out of the pit while he is falling. Aragorn’s seizing of control and his determination to get the Fellowship out of Moria drives the reader on and does not leave time for reflection until the chapter concludes.
I must admit that I cried profusely before I began reading the next chapter. . I ruminated a while on how nonchalant the passage about Gandalf’s death seemed. It was not built-up and magnanimous as Thorin’s in H. Perhaps it was Tolkien’s war experience that taught him how death is a sudden separation. Unfortunately, when I read LotR, I was too young to know about literary tropes. I knew of the quest archetype, of course, but I had no indication whatsoever that Gandalf, as the mentor figure, had to leave in order for the rest of the fellowship to mature.
As much as the heights of Caradhras shaped my understanding of Tolkien’s world, the depths underneath the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm defined the terms of the quest. Suddenly, I became aware that the true hazard of the quest was death; abduction or discovery were no longer the worst possible outcomes, but sudden and permanent death. As someone who had read mostly “children’s literature” up to this point, death was not the consequence of failure in most of my reading. Perhaps this is the point when I realized that the world I entered weeks before was more than just a fantasy land, but there were dire consequences here, worse than in the real world (I was, and still am, fortunate in how few times I have had to experience the death of a loved one).
I will take a moment to clarify that, on my initial reading, I did not fall victim to either of two popular fan interpretations of this passage. I never believed that Gandalf meant anything other than “run” when he shouts the word fly. Also, I never had any notion that the Balrog had literal wings. I always read the passage which sparked this fan theory as a metaphor, and I suppose I never questioned it because the Balrog falls down the expanse. I probably just justified that he could not have fallen if he had wings. (Perhaps this is a bit easier with the naiveté and certainty of youth, as I never considered alternatives such as “the Balrog had wings, but their span was too large to be efficacious in the depths.)