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Gandalf Shines in The White Rider

white
Katie

Katie

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.
Katie

Is it cheating to bring a character back from the dead?

I don’t remember reading “The White Rider” for the first time. I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was working under the assumption that Gandalf was fully, irrevocably gone. And at this point it’s hard to even imagine a story in which he doesn’t come back, in which the fellowship struggles forward as they were, imperfect and alone.

And it doesn’t feel like cheating to me: not for any plot or mythos specific reason, but simply because it’s good for the story. Gandalf is a wonderful, vibrant character from his first appearance. He’s funny, charming, wise, and sometimes hasty. He’s fallible and intensely aware of it. He always feels like such a human character, and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that he’s just a wise, talented old man in a pointy hat. But he’s not. Gandalf is old—nearly incomprehensibly old by human standards. He lived with the Valar, he walked Middle-earth for ages. There are depths to Gandalf—it’s no wonder he and Treebeard got on so splendidly. And one of the great treats of “The White Rider” is catching of glimpse of these depths, as buried facets of Gandalf simmer to the surface.

The White Rider

Gandalf the White makes his first appearance as a threat. Legolas spies him skulking through the woods, a hooded figure in white. He’s meant to be ominous:

At that moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood motionless looking down. There was no sound.

It’s a creepy scene. The figure’s speed changes jarringly, the silence draws out the tension. When our trio react with fear, they are stricken by an inability to move or speak. The man will not identify himself, and insists the others talk about themselves. At one point he laughs “long and softly” which is a horrifying way to describe a laugh? And even after everyone recognizes this figure, he only remembers his name when Aragorn speaks it to him.

A lot of this is designed to ratchet up tension for first time readers. Most of the trio – especially Gimli – is convinced that this is an impending Saruman attack, so the ominous underlay makes perfect sense. But it also has the interesting side effect of forefronting danger as a key aspect of who Gandalf is. Gandalf himself makes this explicit later:

“I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous, more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli, son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.”

Gandalf has always been dangerous. But underlining his return with a sense of danger and strangeness makes the reader immediately aware that something has changed. Gandalf has returned, but he’s not quite who he had been.

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The Wizard and the Balrog

And, to be fair, who would expect him to be? Gandalf has had a *rough* couple of weeks. After taking a tandem dive off Khazad-dûm with a fire demon, he plunged into an icy pool and then had a forty-eight-hour battle royale on a frozen mountaintop. When he cast the balrog down, he broke the mountain. This is a nice taste of Gandalf’s recent experiences: 

“Far below the deepest delvings of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope.”

Yikes, Gandalf! That’s rough, buddy! The degree to which this was a traumatizing experience can be seen in his description of the battle, as he slips in an out of first person:

“But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapor and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”

 It’s interesting how Gandalf tells his story, and how he abstracts himself until the moment of victory. Before that, everything is told from the perspective of a hypothetical third party or in the passive tense. It creates the sense that Gandalf only partially relates to that Gandalf on the mountaintop, and creates a distance between past and present identity. And that raises an important question: who is Gandalf the White?

Gandalf the White 

“Then darkness came to me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”

We get two different glimpses of Gandalf in the course of “The White Rider.” The first comes from Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. When Aragorn first hears the hooded figure laugh—before he knows his identity—he describes the sound as giving him a “strange, cold thrill” comparable to “the sudden bite of keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes an uneasy sleeper.” After that, nearly every description of Gandalf features sunlight.

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The first description given to him after being revealed states that his hair “was white as snow in the sunshine, gleaming white was his robe, his eyes under deep brows were bright, like rays of the sun; power was in his hand.” His laugh, no longer long and soft, is “kindly as a gleam of sunshine.” The Trio looks over to see another gleam of sun, this time filtering through the clouds and filling Gandalf’s hands with light “as a cup is with water.” At one point he looks straight into the sun; at another he recalls Gwaihir’s shock that Gandalf’s body was so light that “the Sun shines through you.”

In this line of thinking we get the easiest interpretation of Gandalf’s ordeals: it was a process of purification. Gandalf as always been associated with fire. He bears Narya, the ring of fire. Tolkien described him as inherently opposing “the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles… his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.”

But instead of a buried, turbulent flame, Gandalf’s ordeals have distilled him into purer sunlight, clearer and more assured. All of this also takes on more poignant tone, as Gandalf—when first sent as an emissary to Middle-earth by Manwë—attempted to decline, saying he was too fearful to go. It happens nearly entirely off-page, but it’s a lovely character arc. His battle with the balrog has concentrated him, illuminating the aspects that always lay underneath.

The Turn of the Tide

That’s not the whole story, though. Gandalf is more powerful than he was, and more self-assured. But there is a sense that he still feels somewhat powerless:

There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all the lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.

And later:

I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.

Gandalf’s knowledge feels greater than it ever was; he can sense Saruman’s thoughts and sense Sauron’s purpose. He can hear the “rumor of the lands” and glimpse far-off things. But knowledge never brings him a sense of omnipotence or control. The “rumor” he hears is chaotic and contradictory, filled with slow, large-scale trends but lacking focus. His knowledge reaches to the “far-off” but not the close up. There is a permeating sense that Gandalf knows so much, but not enough.

It’s a double thematic bonus for Tolkien. It gives Gandalf limitations, so his assertion that “much will be destroyed and all may be lost” and that “I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still” does ring true. And more importantly, it implicitly highlights the importance of free will and individual action in the narrative. Gandalf can know so much, but still not that Sam would accompany Frodo, that Merry and Pippin would be cast into Treebeard’s path, or any of the other “small stones that start an avalanche in the mountains.” All power in Tolkien’s universe must be limited. There are too many factors at play.

[Side note: This also places a nice capstone on Aragorn’s arc. On several occasions he has wished for more information in order to make a decision; it’s suggested here that knowledge does not necessarily come accompanied by the comfort of certitude]

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Empathy and the Enemy

Despite all of these character beats from Gandalf, I can imagine complaints from those, ermm, less sympathetic to Tolkien’s style. Gandalf’s massive Balrog battle happens off-page, and is quickly summarized in about two paragraphs. And before we even get to it, we get pages of speechifying. It’s understandable that some people may grumble about trading a mountain battle for a mountain of exposition.

I think it’s good exposition though, and rather needed. Sauron and Saruman have been such distant, obscure threats for most of the story. And that’s been fine: so much of the drama of The Fellowship of the Ring was predicated on that distance and obscurity, and the real conflict happened largely within our characters. But at the same time, it’s nice to get some insight from the newly-insightful Gandalf.

[Sauron] assumes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place… Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered his darkest dream.

It is so satisfying to me that Sauron’s—and Saruman’s—downfall boil down to a lack of empathy. The only reason that anything in Lord of the Rings works is because the bad guys simply lack the imagination to consider that the world is different from what they imagined it to be. Sauron’s world is one of conflict, strife, power. That’s understandable, given his history. It’s also, in part, incorrect. Saruman is in the same position:

There is much that he does not know…. His thought is ever on the Ring. Was it present in the battle? Was it found? What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble the assault upon Rohan. And all that time there is another danger, close at hand, which he does not see, busy with his fiery thoughts. He has forgotten Treebeard.

It’s a lovely little twist: Gandalf and Aragorn stress throughout the first half of The Two Towers concerning the things that they could not possibly know. They are acutely aware of them. Sauron and Saruman fear what they don’t know as well, but they also assume that they know what to fear. Evil fails in Middle-earth due to a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. This revelation pairs so well with the newly-minted Gandalf the White’s thoughts and troubles (and Aragorn’s up to this point) that this chapter provides a good argument that Tolkien had a very strong sense of thematic cohesion in his work, and that these themes work on a multitude of levels.

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Final Comments

  • FIRST THINGS FIRST: I honestly can’t believe Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, aren’t freaking out over losing Éomer’s horses. It’s been a couple of hours and he basically said that his life relied on them returning them safely. They are so wrapped up in their new mystery-solving club that they don’t even pay poor Éomer a second thought.
  • Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” A million continuity purists and Tom Bombadil fans cry out in anguish.
  • As a kid, it bothered me a bit when Aslan rose from the dead in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m sympathetic to people being bothered in a similar capacity by Gandalf’s return. But at the same time, it feels very different to me. Aslan’s resurrection is unavoidably allegorical; Gandalf’s is not. Tolkien’s worldbuilding is wonky and multifaceted enough that very few things —even those that are obviously influenced by Christianity—feel rigidly Christian.
  • This is a good chapter for Gimli, who continues to be a great character. He’s moody and emotional but always endearing. I very much enjoyed his unbridled faith in Aragorn’s investigative abilities, his shame over failing to recognize Gandalf (and trying to hit in the head with an axe) and his teasing of Legolas. My favorite, though, has to be his dramatic overreaction to thinking Galadriel failed to send him a message. Legolas point out that the messages were… ominous. “Would you have her speak openly to you of your death?” he asks. “Yes,” says Gimli, “if she had nought else to say.” I believe this is what kids these days call being EXTRA.
  • Legolas does well for himself too: he calls Aragorn and Gimli “children” and teases Merry and Pippin for celebrating their escape by immediately sitting down for a snack.
  • “What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No. For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.”
    “I am no longer young even in the reckoning of men of the Ancient Houses,” said Aragorn.
    I enjoy how petulant Aragorn sounds here. He sounds like a teenager insisting he’s an adult.
  • Prose Prize: “The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some kind out of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings.”
  • Contemporary to this chapter: It is also March in Middle-earth. Gandalf makes his reappearance on March 1st, the second day of the Entmoot. Meanwhile, over the east, Frodo and Sam are entering the Dead Marshes.
    • It’s been about six weeks since Gandalf’s disappearance – he fell at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm on January 15th. His battle with the Balrog on Zirak-Zigil was on January 23-25, which means poor Gandalf spent a solid week in the pits of the earth. After the Balrog’s death he lied on the mountaintop for about three weeks, awakening in mid-February while Frodo was looking into the Mirror of Galadriel. He only missed the Company in Lórien by a day.
  • Éowyn countdown: NEXT CHAPTER. Mark your calendars Tolkienites, our favorite shield maiden makes her debut on March 29th.

Art Credits: In order of appearance, images are courtesy of rysowAnia, Laura Tolton, kinko white, Peter Xavier Price, and Ted Nasmith. 

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Voted Thanks!
 
  • Kaesy

    I loved so much when I was most recently reading this chapter how much Gandalf keeps making these statements that just don’t explain anything – a trait that seems specific to, or at least magnified in, the White. Even over totally simple things, like when he calls Shadowfax. He just goes ‘I’m not going to walk’ and waits for them to figure out he’s got a horse coming, and then when Aragon says there are three horses coming he just goes ‘Of course, we are too great a burden for one.’ Thanks Gandalf, we got that. You couldn’t have just said ‘yeah your horses met up with Shadowfax’? I love it.
    Also how when Gimli is all in despair about his lack of message and Gandalf is all ‘oh sorry I got distracted, she totally said hi.’
    My favorite part about Aragorn saying he’s no longer young is that he *is* the youngest one present – at 87. (Incidentally, by the time he tells Eowyn his age in the movies (is that just EE? I can’t remember sometimes) he would have turned 88, but I can accept he could easily have forgotten his birthday in all the bustle)
    This is such a good chapter for character interaction, I love it.

    • Bo

      Say what you want about Gimli, but he loves him some Galadriel.

      • Priscilla

        Can’t blame him!

    • Katie

      It’s fun, isn’t it? I feel like it’s a neat cheat for Tolkien, since it often allows him to build some tension. But it’s also in-character, as Gandalf is newly-arrived in Middle-earth in his new form, and he’s probably mentally a bit all over the place.

      I love to think of Aragorn insisting that he’s ancient by human standards while everyone else is just sort of like “sure, buddy! keep telling yourself that!”

      • Mytly

        *Pictures everyone patting the 87-year-old kid on the head and saying “Sure, you’re a grown-up, honey.”*

  • Priscilla

    What a beautiful analysis!

    When I first read I actually thought Gandalf was dead for real, so the tension and subsequent joy worked nicely for me. I don’t think it bothered me that he was brought from the dead, as it doesn’t today. It makes sense for the story and the character..

    I honestly don’t like when writers use this trick too often – it gives me the impression they want the shock and emotion caused by killing a character, but don’t actually have the guts to do so. But Tolkien employs this nicely, and he actually kills some characters too, so I’m cool.

    • Kaesy

      I think it works well because it doesn’t feel like it’s ‘undoing’ anything. It has consequences, both for the Fellowship, for whom the affects of Gandalf’s absence are real whether or not he stayed dead, and for Gandalf, who is undeniably altered and clearly went through a great ordeal even if it didn’t ultimately end in death. It adds to people’s arcs instead of cheapening them.

      • Katie

        Ooh, that’s a great point Kaesy.

      • Priscilla

        Great point indeed!

    • Katie

      Priscilla, was a it a big shock for you? Or did you guess it was happening earlier? I feel like it would be so fun to be expecting an encounter with Saruman and then boom, Gandalf’s back.

      • Priscilla

        It was a happy surprise! I actually thought it could be Saruman, or perhaps something else, but I wasn’t expecting that. To be fair I was 13 when I first read it and I was THE WORST in guessing what would happen next in stories. I was still a summer child and mentor figures dying was “OMG the mentor figure died who could’ve guessed that certainly not me”, hahaha.

        Now I’m trying to imagine 13-year-old me reading ASOIAF and utterly convinced Jon was dead forever.

        • Katie

          I am honestly still the worst at it, haha. It can be the most obvious, well-seeded thing in the world and I’ll still be like WAIT, WHAT?!

  • Bo

    “After taking a tandem dive off Khazad-dûm with a fire demon, he plunged into an icy pool and then had a forty-eight-hour battle royale on a frozen mountaintop.”

    This wins the Katie Prose Prize. Hell of a weekend, there.

    I’ve always liked that Gandalf came back for many of the things you talk about here. He’s aware enough to provide needed purpose to the story, but not so much to avoid further strife. He’s still full of personality and doubt. Thematically he is essential to what follows. I feel like Gandalf’s return unfairly gets lumped in with the “LOTR is super cliche and happy” criticisms I’ve always believed unfounded.

    These books are full of loss, and as you point out Gandalf the White’s emergence comes at the expense of Gandalf the Grey. And just like everyone else, Gandalf can only do his best moving forward with the incomplete picture of events he has. In no way does he break the story or make things easy for the heroes.

    • Katie

      I am filled with rage whenever someone says LotR is too happy. They missed the point! And clearly they didn’t see thirteen-year-old Katie sobbing at the end of it!

      Everyone is always very human in Tolkien, even when they’re not human. Everyone just kinda fumbles around, and good intentions are rewarded at high costs.

      • Mytly

        “LOTR is too happy” – like, what book did they read?! It’s a story about loss, about a fading world, where the main characters’ actions serve essentially to undo what the elves have been doing to keep the world from declining permanently. It’s a book that ends with the main character permanently injured and being unable to find happiness in the home he risked everything to help save. Yeah, that’s so happy.

        • Katie

          Right? I don’t think I’m a terribly judgmental person, but if someone said they didn’t like Lord of the Rings “because it was too happy” I would judge them HARD

        • Maidens&Mules

          The LoTR has a real sense of melancholy to it. The Third Age is going to end whatever the heroes do; they can no more stop it than they can stop themselves from getting older. Either Sauron will recover the Ring and the Fourth Age will be one of darkness and terror, or the Ring will be destroyed and with it the great and beautiful things made by the elves, which are inexorably tied to the Three Rings and the One Ring in order to prevent oblivion. Tolkien pulls of a mix of tragedy and hope as few others can.

          • Katie

            Reading your comment, it makes me think that Legolas is a very interesting character in this context. So many of his brethren (older than him, but still) has essentially removed themselves from conflict except for acting in a pretty passive capacity. They’ll help the Fellowship to an extent, but in the background is the consistent knowledge that they’re pretty screwed either way. So they don’t get too deeply involved.

            Legolas seems like a particularly generous and heroic person in this context – he knows his people are on their way out, but he’s very actively helping regardless.

          • Mytly

            The thing is, they’re not his people per se. The elves who are on their way out are the Eldar – the ones who went to Valinor and then returned to Middle-earth with Feanor. Legolas himself is of Sindarin descent and a prince of the Silvan Elves, neither of which groups ever left Middle-earth. So while the Eldar – such as Elrond and Galadriel – are understandably upset at the thought of the work of the Rings being undone and having to return to Valinor, the Silvan Elves are less concerned, as Middle-earth always was and will remain their home. They’re also more proactive in the war in general – IIRC, there is some mention of Silvan Elves fighting Sauron’s forces in the east, along with the Dwarves and the Men of Dale (correct me if I’m wrong). So in that sense, Legolas isn’t really an outlier. (His personal choice to go to Valinor in the end, and his friendship with Gimli, on the other hand, definitely make him unique among his people.)

          • Katie

            Ah, good point! I forgot about that. Because he goes off to Valinor I always sort of lump him in with all the other elves.

  • Katie

    Also, bonus shout out to the artist of the cover image. I love it so much.

  • Maidens&Mules

    Gandalf is an immortal spirit, given physical form so it’s not entirely accurate to say that he died, at least in the sense that mortals die. The body of Gandalf the Grey was certainly mortal and does die after the fight with the Balrog. While his spirit doesn’t die, exactly, it is, as you say, changed. Gandalf the White seems more spirit and less human than Gandalf the Grey. His line about being sent back just for a short while sums things up perfectly: once his task is completed, or it cannot be completed, he will go wherever immortal spirits go and Gandalf the White will also cease to be, dying in a sense.

    It occurred to me as I was re-reading the chapter that Ringwraiths are in many ways a mockery of wizards created by Sauron. Both serve as messengers and servants for their masters. Wizards are immortal spirits given physical form in order to better deal with mortals and other lesser beings. Ringwraiths were once mortal men who have become spirits. Sauron cannot make physical bodies so they make do with black robes and horses when dealing with the living.

    I also loved the foreshadowing in this chapter. Aragorn’s future journey on the paths of the dead is alluded to, as is Legolas deciding that he will leave Middle Earth once he sees the sea, not to mention Gandalf’s spot on analysis of how Sauron thinks. It’s interesting that, while Sauron is wrong about what Gandalf plans to do with the Ring, he’s absolutely right about what Saruman’s plans are. It’s an interest glimpse into Sauron’s psyche: he cannot conceive that those who oppose him may be good or selfless. Instead he imagines them to be as greedy and selfish as he is, only weaker and he fears that they will use the Ring to tip the balance.

    • Katie

      That’s a really nice point. It’s another good things the films do, if I remember correctly – the reveal that the Ringwraiths are back and mounted on flying dragon monsters comes directly before the scene in which Gandalf returns. It underlines that parallel nicely.

      Do we know that Gandalf the White dies after his mission is over? I was thinking about that, and I genuinely don’t know. I always sort of assumed Maiar can’t die (their spirits at least) and that Gandalf is still just hanging out in Valinor with Nienna or something. Or maybe “Gandalf the White” dies in the same way that Gandalf the Grey did, and now he’s back to being Olorin? I dunno, I don’t really know how this works. It’s an interesting thing to think about, though. The difference in what mortality means to men and elves is such a key part of Tolkien’s legendarium it does make me wonder how Maiar do / don’t fit in.

      • Maidens&Mules

        As I see it Olorin didn’t die and can’t die, but his guise, Gandalf the Grey can and does. Gandalf does depart for the Undying Lands at the end of the story, but you’re right that we don’t know if he remains Gandalf the White, reverts back to Olorin, or assumes some other guise. Tolkien was influenced by Norse mythology, which has several tales of gods assuming numerous different guises, complete with different personalities, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he was going for something similar with Gandalf. This also raises interesting questions about the ultimate fates other Maiar/Ainur such as the Balrog, Saruman, and Sauron himself, who also “died” in a sense.

        • Katie

          It’s interesting to think about! I’m curious how much continuity there is between the different guises. Gandalf the White clearly has Gandalf the Grey’s memories, but there’s also definitely something different? I wonder how he feels about it. If he feels like the same person, substantially changed, or if he feels like a different entity.

          And ooh, great question! Morgoth never died, right? He just got cast into the void? There’s a part of me that thinks that since the ‘good’ Maiar get to go hang out in Valinor, the ‘bad’ ones should have to wait around with Morgoth in the Void. But I dunno if that makes all that much sense, since Morgoth had to be forcibly sent there.

          A quick google (of “what happens to balrogs when they die,” haha) brings up the fact that when Sauron’s body was destroyed and he subsequently returned, the first time his spirit arose “from the deep” and the second from “waste places.” There also seems to be a theory that one of two things can happen:

          (1) the spirit goes to the Halls of Mandos and is imprisoned there,

          (2) if the spirit had held onto its bodily form for too long – and invested too much more in it – it essentially dissipated with the death of its body. This is what people interpret as happening to Sauron upon his third death (at the end of LotR).

          Another idea seems to be that most of the weaker maiar spirits die with the body (Balrogs) while stronger ones can persist.

          I’m super curious now!

          • Fyodor

            Gandalf/Olorin, Saruman and Sauron are all Maia, or lesser Ainur, and, like the elves, are bound to Ea, i.e. the material universe created by Eru. If they have taken a physical form when those bodies die their spirits remain, bound to the world until the end of that world. What happens to evil Ainur (e.g. Morgoth, Sauron and the Balrogs) is unclear. Morgoth is referred to as being cast out into the “void”, but that could mean the void outside of Arda (“Earth”) but still within Ea (“creation”, the universe). In this the Ainur (and elves) are different from men, whose souls pass out of Ea altogether, presumably to be with Eru, in Tolkien’s equivalent of the Christian heaven, beyond space-time (hence Iluvatar’s “Timeless Halls”).

          • Katie

            Yes! “The gift of Iluvatar to men.” I think it’s safe to say that – regardless of where they do end up – Maiar deaths are *very* different than human deaths.

          • Mytly

            My guess is (2) is also what happened to Saruman in the end. The description of his death suggests that he was definitely not welcome in the West (i.e. Valinor):

            “To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.”

          • Katie

            I don’t think this is how it works (or how Tolkien thought of it) but it almost feels contractual? Like if a Maia stays true to his or her mission, their spirit passes back to Valinor. If not, they dissipate. And then there are cases like Sauron, who I suppose managed to gain enough power that he could survive a couple of times before being permanently destroyed.

        • Fyodor

          Yes, Tolkien was undoubtedly influenced by Norse mythology in creating Gandalf. The name itself is that of a dwarf from one of the Norse Eddas (Gandalf = “wand elf”) and Gandalf’s appearance is very like that of Odin’s in his “wanderer” guise, e.g. an old man with a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a staff. It’s no coincidence that Gandalf’s Sindarin name, Mithrandir, means “grey pilgrim”. Theoden calls him “Stormcrow”, which is allegorical to Odin’s ravens, Huginn & Muninn (i.e. “thought” & “memory”, cf. Olorin, from “olor”, meaning “of dreams”, or “mind”), but also a call-back to Odin’s nature as a trouble-maker and inciter to strife and violence. Like Odin, Gandalf also experiences a sacrificial death that brings new insight. When Odin hangs himself upon Yggdrasil for nine days, he is rewarded with the knowledge of runes, i.e. magic (“run” = “secret”) and of course Gandalf is a wizard. Like Odin’s Sleipnir, Gandalf’s horse is pale and magical (though not eight-legged!). Odin is unusual as a patriarchal god in that his personality encompasses both leadership and authority as patriarch of the Aesir, but also chaos and disruption in his aspect as a “trickster” god, the god of magic, and we see both sides manifest in Gandalf’s troublemaking shaman-wanderer. Gandalf’s role in LOTR is similar to that of Odin in the Volsungsaga: guiding, advising and intervening physically at critical moments of the narrative. Wagner reworked this into his version of Wotan (i.e. Odin) in the Ring Cycle operatic translation of the Volsungsaga/Nibelungenlied.

          • Katie

            Thank you for that! I wasn’t aware of almost any of that.

            I hadn’t realized it before, but when reading about this chapter I came across the painting Der Berggeist (“the mountain spirit” in German, at least according to Tolkien Gateway). It’s a painting by Josef Madlener that Tolkien came across in 1911 – he bought a postcard of it, and wrote “Origin of Gandalf” upon it. The Mountain Spirit was apparently a mixture of “humorous and compassionate,” which seems fitting for Gandalf, and in line with what you said about the trickster/authority dichotomy also present in Odin.

  • WanderingUndine

    I really enjoyed what the film did with Gandalf’s ordeal. It showed what he described, in an abbreviated yet beautiful pair of sequences which couldn’t have done it justice — especially since so much of the drama is in his mind, not the physical world — but is preferable to the sort of long drawn-out battle sequences the films are prone to.
    You mention Merry and Pippin’s escape and reunion with the others. Isn’t that a lot later?

    • Katie

      Haha! I love this misunderstanding because it relies on the fact that Merry and Pippin escape multiple times and always eat afterwards. Hobbits.

      I was talking about their escape from the Uruk-Hai back in chapter three. They sit on the outskirts of the impending battle and snack on some lembas before heading into Fangorn.

      • WanderingUndine

        I was confused because you referenced their reunion with Legolas (et al.), which hasn’t happened yet.

        • Katie

          Sorry, I see what you mean! That was just some confusing syntax on my part. He teases them outside of Fangorn (to Aragorn and Gimli) when they aren’t present.

    • Katie

      And yes, that’s a good point. It probably would have been tempting for a director to make it all visually explicit, since Gandalf’s explanation implies that it was very visually intense. But I think you’re right – it wouldn’t have been able to be conveyed properly, and Frodo’s dream gives it the same flickering, piecemeal quality that Gandalf’s memory has later on, so they fit together nicely.

  • Ангелина (Angelina)

    Great analysis – as always! Thanks!

    It stroke me on the re-read that Gandalf seems a bit lacking his… ehm, humanity? – here. Well, I mean he became more of a Maya, but much less of a living being. Omniscience, rebirth and purification – that all came really at a great cost of his earthly life or something like, and he has to remember what it was – to be Gandalf, to be friend, to be teacher. Not half-absent adviser, not a shadow leader. He coped with it, I think, by the time he is in Minas-Tirith, after his own lack of empathy and estrangement lead to very traumatic Pippin event.

    Btw, didn’t notice it was March, 1. That makes reborn Gandalf a birthday present to Aragorn)))

    • Katie

      Aww, really? I didn’t know it was Aragorn’s birthday! That makes me happy. It’s a good gift for him.

      And yes! That’s definitely something I’m going to keep an eye on. I don’t remember well enough if his attitude here continues or if he falls back into his old ways as he settles back into Middle-earth life (I’m guessing somewhere in between). Gandalf the Grey was always a very empathetic and insightful about the people around him, and that’s absent here – in other contexts it would be sort of a jerk move to reveal himself the way he did.

      • Ангелина (Angelina)

        Yeah, Aragorn was born at 03.01. 2931)

        It’s interesting though that Gandalf seems to be trying to act like he did. All this ‘Surprise!’ stuff, a bit of trickery – it was Gandalf-y, but the execution failed as though he… well, didn’t even consider that his friends could be sincerely scared? Because he has been already accustomed to prescience and seeing everything at once.
        Therefore I think he lacks some ‘close’ knowledge due to that blindness, too. He is now too big to see what is behind his own nose.

  • Mytly

    “Yikes, Gandalf! That’s rough, buddy!”

    Why? His girlfriend didn’t turn into the moon.

    • Katie

      I’m happy someone noticed. <3