LotRFI Pt. 26–The White Rider

When the Three Hunters encounter a mysterious old man in Fangorn, I immediately assumed it was Saruman. His way of speaking was so obvious an attempt to avoid revealing his identity from them. There is no reason for anyone else to wish to conceal who they are so completely. The confrontation between the Hunters and the old man is so tense and the stakes so high, unexpectedly, that I thought for a moment that the Hunters would be executed in quick succession.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

When this is revealed to be Gandalf, I still had a hard time understanding why he did not reveal himself straight away. Was he testing the Three Hunters? This would be similar to what Aragorn does back at the Prancing Pony with the hobbits. Surely, the powers of evil have set traps for Gandalf before!

It took me a long time to accept that Gandalf has memory issues here, and I still doubt it sometimes. He remembers so much, and is not newly revived, so I did not understand why he should have forgotten who he is when he can remember who Galadriel and Gwaihir are. All this nit picking aside, the return of Gandalf was a complete shock to me.

Of all the miraculous things that happen in books, one that I certainly never expected was the return of Gandalf. The warmth and joviality that the Three Hunters express is as nothing compared to the elation of my little eleven-year-old heart. Especially with the tidings which he brings with him. He tells the others:

Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. That great storm is coming, but the tide has turned. (TT, III, v, 495)

Not only is Gandalf returned, he has returned stronger than he was. He also prophesizes that he and the others are now a part of the side which is gaining in strength, a stark contrast from the waning which characterized their forces earlier. It was a very long time before I would understand what happened to Gandalf. In my first reading, I just knew that he had died and that Something sent him back. Undoubtedly, my Christian upbringing made me assume a particular spiritual connotation to the whole event.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Onward, to King Théoden and the Golden Hall

What Do You Think?

What was your reaction to Gandalf’s reappearance?
​What did you make of his premonition?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.16–Gandalf Falls

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.

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Image copyright David Wyatt

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.)

LotRFI Pt.2–Of Difficult Words and Gandalf

I wrote the previous entry, primarily concerning Tom Bombadil, largely from memory and without revisiting the text. I have subsequently had the opportunity to revisit The Fellowship of the Ring from the beginning, and this might explain why this second post concerning my first impressions of the text is out of chronological order from the narrative. Instead of pushing forward to Bree, which had been my intention, I want to take a step back and briefly discuss some elements of the Shire that I passed over because they seemed small at the time. When I look back now and add them together they have a large impact on my experience as a reader and to my interpretation of LOTR.

Perhaps one of the most engaging, or off-putting, elements of Tolkien’s text is his use of archaic or unfamiliar terms. This particular aspect of Tolkien’s writing has led to a number of silly misunderstandings surrounding phrases like “pipe weed” which were perfectly understandable choices, but now have very distinct connotations. For a child, this part of Tolkien’s idiom was not really problematic. I was used to adults using words that I did not know and having to search for meaning by using context clues. In fact, there are several words that Tolkien used that I, essentially, learned as part of my everyday vocabulary.

The word mathom in this Shire passages is one such word. Like most readers, I certainly did not know what it meant before I read LOTR. It was not until I used as many of my vocabulary-learning skills as I knew at the time that I could to understand it. This process, though, was not odd to me. It was not a fantastic element of the story. Instead, it was just an extension of the work that I already did every day to learn to understand the world around me. So instead of being a spark of the fantastic in the text, it was a source of what could perhaps be termed realism. It was something that made me engage with the text in a mode that I was already using to engage with the world around me. This creates an interesting observation of how what is used to engender a sense of the fantastic or the surreal in adults can have the opposite effect on children. I quickly realized that mathom was a rare word, but it was not until much later that I learned that it was Tolkien’s own invention.

This tendency for children to frequently experience indeterminacy in their surroundings is perhaps related to my understanding of the character of Gandalf. Again allow me to preface by saying that I am sure that my interpretation is heavily influenced by The Hobbit and the characterization of Gandalf found there. In the first chapter of LOTR, Gandalf frequently contradicts himself in the same sentence. A good example of this tendency is at the end of the chapter before he leaves. His parting words to Frodo are cautionary. Gandalf says “Expect me when you see me” and “look out for me, especially at unlikely times.” As a child these sentences defined Gandalf for me (perhaps owing in part to the high status I have always associated with parting words). These phrases conveyed several things to me about Gandalf. From them I deduced that his character was mysterious. These were obvious contradictions to me: how can you expect (here I thought of anticipate as a synonym) something only when you see it and not before? And if you are “looking out” for something, then how would the time be unlikely? Surely these were cryptic expressions.

At the same time, I understood these sentences to be paradoxes in that, while contradictory, they expressed a kind of truth. The movings of the wizard were beyond comprehension and hobbits, and children, should not expect to understand or be able to follow them. So, naturally, Gandalf would come in a way or at a time unanticipated, even if he was waited for. There was more, though. By choosing to express himself in the complex and contradictory ways, Gandalf became comical to me. I do not mean to say that he was laughable or farcical, but that he seemed humorous in a way that I found endearing. These were the passages, more than his wisdom in chapter two or his guidance of the fellowship that made me cry when he fell in Khazad-dûm.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I still intend to cover all of the topics from my previous post, but it may take a little more time to reach them. I think I will have a second post covering the Shire before we move on to Bree. I do intend to talk about interpretation of characters, but I may do so as the thematic urge arises, like I have done with Gandalf in this post.

What Do You Think?

How did you approach Tolkien’s archaisms or neologisms?
What were your first impressions of Gandalf?
Does the idea that elements used to inspire wonder in adults can be a source of realism to children make sense? Can you think of any others?