(Disclaimer: This is meant to be very tongue-in-cheek, and purely Watsonian. Also, I work with the Silmarillion version of the First Age story, mostly, since it’s the most accessible.)
Writing fanfiction can open your horizon to unknown subtleties of your chosen universe, but it can unfortunately also expose its limitations in a very stark way. Such was the fate I met with while writing a Tolkien fic and trying to make all of those grand-sounding decisions of his heroes make sense. Turns out it’s one hell of a job, and downright impossible in some cases – enough to make me want to look into it systematically and in detail. So let’s see what Tolkien actually means when he calls someone wise, with a selection of the most popular characters given this epithet and an overview of their multitude of sins.
I’ll try to include enough information for this to make sense even for someone who hasn’t read The Silmarillion, and I’m leaving aside all those many follies that Tolkien himself calls out as stupid, and will only concentrate on the actions of those he himself presents as admirable. And because fish rot from the head down, let’s look at the noblest of the noblest first.
The Valar are supposed to be the most noble and powerful rulers of the world, somewhere between angels and gods, unquestionably good, serving Eru, the God of Tolkienverse. They first come in touch with the elves when one of them finds the recently woken creatures by accident, and given that all of Middle-Earth is in a kind of stasis in which nothing really grows, and it’s dark there except for the stars, they offer them a journey to Valinor, the bit of land they themselves inhabit and which is full of light. Some elves refuse, some agree to go, and travel on the Great Journey to the Western seas, where they are ferried across to the Blessed Lands. Most of them are, that is. Thingol, the king of one of the largest group, got lost in a forest and fell in love in one of the lesser god-like beings, and his subjects wished to wait for him. That was allowed for a while, but then they were forced to chose between the loyalty for their king and their desire to go to paradise…for no real reason. It wasn’t like there was a schedule to keep. The Valar are immortal, and so are the elves. But in spite of this, some of them had to stay behind in the dark, sleeping Middle-earth and be denied the Blessed Lands, for no other reason than that they were loyal to their king.
The rest was ferried over, and for reasons that are equally unclear, it was strongly discouraged that they visit Middle-Earth again or come in contact with their friends and relations who were left behind. In exchange for this partial loss of autonomy, they were promised protection and safety, an assurance that became someone more problematic when Melkor, Middle-Earth’s overpowered (even Tolkien admits so) version of the devil, is released from prison because he pinky-swears he’ll be good now.
Needless to say, he is not.
The Valar cheerfully ignore the discord he sows among the elves, because there’s clearly no reason to keep tabs on a freshly released mass murder and war criminal who is also the most powerful being in the world. They only notice something is wrong when the elves end up drawing swords on each other, at which point Melkor very smartly runs for the hills and the offending elf is punished. This entire situation later spirals into a disaster that is Middle-earth’s equivalent of banishment from Paradise and Cain’s murder of Abel at the same time, only more tragic. Did I mention The Silmarillion wasn’t a happy story?
Anyway, so it didn’t go all that well with the elves. Maybe the Valar will do better with Men?
Apparently they were so frustrated by what happened with the elves that they simply gave up with men…leaving them completely unprepared for Melkor, who didn’t waste any time in finding them and making them worship him. Which is framed as bad Men turning away from one true God, but seriously. Even treating Eru’s existence as objective reality in Tolkienverse, what were they supposed to do? They didn’t know it was objective reality. From what Tolkien says, Eru’s presence manifested basically as a voice of conscience…and then this super powerful god-like dude walks in and demonstrates that he actually is god, and you’ve never even heard of anyone else of the same order of being as he is. Worshipping him seems like the smart choice to me.
So, to summarize, the Valar place unreasonable, whimsical demands, don’t deliver on their promises and sometimes even straight out ignore what is their responsibility. Not so great.
There is also one of the lesser godlike beings who played an important part in the story of Silmarillion, and that was Melian, the lady who fell in love with Thingol and who is called most wise, even. She certainly never acts like a fool, but her complete lack of influence over her husband, who is a racist jerk, makes her somewhat less impressive. The fact that she doesn’t step in even when he treats their daughter like dirt in front of her, doesn’t even try to intervene, means she doesn’t quite get a pass from me, though I admit this is more of a subject for a feminist analysis.
Does it get better when we look at the elves?
There are two who are mentioned as being wise who do quite well: Finarfin and Nerdanel. They both didn’t do too great of a job of controlling their explosive siblings/husband, but given the menace these guys were, no one can really blame them, and they certainly tried. They also both stayed firmly in Valinor. Once we look at those who actually left, however, it gets worse.
The first one mentioned as wise among them is Fingolfin, in many ways portrayed as the ideal king. And compared to some other cases we will have here, he isn’t a complete disaster. There’s just one issue I have with him, really, but it’s a major one.
He marched with his army, likely at least tens of thousand strong, to Middle-Earth from Valinor. He fought a bunch of battles with Melkor’s armies, all of them victorious, and then started a siege of Melkor’s huge fortress – basically a policy of containment. He was well aware that Melkor was breeding orcs in his fortress, that he wasn’t completely cut off (the siege was incomplete) and, two hundred years after the siege started at the latest, he also knew Melkor was developing new weapons. He himself did shit-all during this time, and as his son departed for a hidden city with what was likely about a quarter of his forces, he actually grew weaker in the meantime – the elves do breed, so the numbers slowly improved again in time, but still, he was unlikely to be better off than he had been at the beginning, given that the elves born in Middle-Earth would have actually been weaker than those from Valinor, because of how paradise in Tolkienverse works. And then, at some point after doing nothing for at least three hundred years in spite of knowing about the weapon development, he suddenly decides to attack Melkor’s fortress.
Fortunately the other elves around him talk him out, but unfortunately they don’t manage to transform this sudden energy into something useful like working on new weapons or armour or something, or strengthening their border defences, and so when Melkor rolls out his WMDs a couple of decades later, it goes about as well as you’d imagine.
Fingolfin has two sons in the Silmarillion version of the story, one of which is Fingon the Valiant and the other is Turgon the Wise. However, I’d respectfully like to suggest that a more appropriate name for the second one would be Turgon the Ostrich, because his acts during the entirety of his stay in Middle-Earth are reminiscent of nothing as much as sticking his head in the sand.
Now his wife died on the way there, so I know he was traumatized and am willing to cut him some slack, but seriously. He is inspired by a divine vision to build a secret, well defended city, which he does…and departs there with all of his vassals and his sister, who hates confined spaces and loves riding most of all (and who, rather predictably, gets fed up after a couple of centuries, which leads to another disaster). He then proceeds to stay in the city for three hundred years, through the battle that kills some of his relations, and even when a fortress containing his cousin’s son is under siege and his attack could have easily broken it. And to top it all, when the same divinity who had originally suggested he builds the city sends a message saying ‘the end is night, fly, you fools,’ he thinks about it for a moment and then is like, nah, resulting in basically everyone being very dead. This, at least, Tolkien clearly pronounces to be foolish, but seriously. The best thing about Turgon is his daughter, Idril, who is truly wise and awesome, perhaps the only Silmarillion character truly deserving of that epithet. But the only way I can think of Turgon getting to be called ‘wise’ is that people looked at him and said, well, he’s not exactly valiant like his brother, but we should call him something, otherwise it’s gonna get awkward…and so they came up with Wise.
His cousin and best friend, Finrod, is a different matter. He’s the only one who manages to deal with the cranky King Thingol through diplomacy, free of racism enough that he makes Men his best buddies and hangs out with dwarves, and while he got a divine tip to establish a well defended city as well, he realized it doesn’t actually have to mean “lock everyone in and never help anyone out ever.” There’s only one big question when it comes to him, and that’s this: he founded his own kingdom, and was the first and undisputed ruler of it for roughly three hundred years. Then his two most dickish cousins came around, and for some reason (fandom likes to imagine he slept with them, and honestly it seems like the only reasonable answer) he lets them into his realm, in spite of knowing they were unrepentant murderers. Then, even more amazingly, these two dickish cousins manage to gain control of his kingdom in ten years, enough that when he tells his people to go to war with him, they tell him to piss off. In ten years. After he’s been ruling the realm for three hundred. He must have been really exceptionally bad at it – or, alternatively, hardly ever there. The book does tell us he visited his cousins living in distant parts and Men quite often, so maybe that was how this happened. Either way, not such a great performance for a king.
Finrod had a sister, Galadriel, who everyone who read or saw Lord of the Rings is familiar with. She’s an awesome lady and my favourite character, but unfortunately, she doesn’t exactly do much in The Silmarillion. Like with Melian, this partly concerns Tolkien’s treatment of women in general, which is an issue I’ll probably write about in a separate article, but let’s just say that after leaving Valinor because she wanted a kingdom of her own, Galadriel falls in love, gets married, and proceeds to do nothing for the entirety of the book. Her wisdom, which Tolkien insists was great, took no part, and there were things happening right around her, or in he brother’s realm, which she really should have been involved in. Instead, she just sits quietly, something she has in common with other supposedly wise characters like the aforementioned Melian or Círdan. I suppose we can imagine she tried to offer advice and it was ignored, but seriously, there is hardly a mention of her.
She is also a character who can bring us from the first age to the second one, also known as the age when the elves totally dropped the ball.
Galadriel finally gets a kingdom of her own. Well, maybe. Tolkien is unclear on this. Either she did, or her little nephew ruled Eregion and she just stayed there, content to watch from the background I guess. At any rate, there came a point when a strange personality came calling. He named himself Lord of Gifts and was super kind and pleasant to everyone and taught them a lot of interesting things. In spite of this being vaguely reminiscent of something she went through in Valinor before, with Melkor, and in spite of this Giftman being a seriously suspicious fellow – I mean, it was clear he wasn’t an elf or a Man or a dwarf, so aside from orcs, there were basically only the angel-like beings left, or the fallen angels – Galadriel is just completely chill. Until she isn’t, three hundred years later. Then she decides to just up and leave instead of fighting the jerk, which she should have totally been capable of doing, because her brother had a pretty even duel with the guy and she was at least as powerful as Finrod if not more so, and had an entire kingdom to back her, while Finrod only had about ten elves. But maybe Lord of Gifts had turned the realm against her like the dickish cousins had against Finrod? If so, this family should seriously work on their loyalty-inspiring skills.
Not that she is the only one to be blamed for this mess. Gil-Galad and Elrond, two other very wise characters you might remember from Lord of the Rings, thought there was something weird about the Gift Giver and banned him from entering their realm. Apparently, though, it’d have been too much work to let Galadriel (who was either Gil-Galad’s first cousin once removed or great-aunt, depending on which version you’re working with, so not exactly a stranger – leaving aside that she was the ruler of one of four elven kingdoms that existed at that time) know about their suspicions. Or, alternatively, they did let her know and she told them to shut up because this guy was giving away such awesome gifts. Whichever way you look at it, someone who was supposed to be wise was being pretty idiotic.
When it’s finally revealed that Lord of Gifts is Sauron and that he isn’t the sweet friend everyone in Eregion assumed he was, they cut contact…and basically sit and wait for a hundred years until Sauron comes and attacks them, destroys the kingdom, and would go on destroying if Men didn’t come from the Middle-Earth version of Atlantis and saved the elves’ sorry asses. That satisfies the elves, who are happy Sauron was defeated in a battle and leave the matter be. The Men sigh and start building colonies in Middle-Earth after seeing how completely incapable the elves are of taking care of themselves.
Sauron is growing strong again in his little realm you might have heard about called Mordor, while the elves, like I’ve said, do nothing. Then one king of Men finally runs out of patience with this, sails to Mordor, defeats Sauron and captures him and takes him to Atlantis. Of course that turns out to be quite a disaster as well, but given that he was just a regular king dude power-struggling with a fallen angel, I’d personally vote for cutting him some slack. Maybe, just maybe, the Valar could have stepped in here and taken custody of the angel-like being – but then we’ve already established that the Valar didn’t care one whit about Men, which also makes the human ‘rebellion,’ induced by Sauron, more understandable.
When some Men sail back to Middle-Earth from the sinking Atlantis, pretty pissed off about Sauron, they manage to bully the elves into getting an army together within a hundred years, basically. After more than ten times as much time of sitting around. But yeah, Isildur doesn’t destroy the Ring, so ‘Men are weak.’ Sure, Elrond. Whatever you say.
Anyway, this is the end of the second age and beginning of the third, also known as (or should be, anyway) The Age of Clusterfuck.
There are two main points of interest here. The first one is the chronology of Sauron’s reappearance. It is said to happen around year 1000 of the Third Age, and given the way Tolkien writes his books, it isn’t the omniscient narrator telling us this. If he says so, it means it was recorded that way in elven annals, or human ones, or some sort of records. Sure, it was hypothesized in retrospective, but still, it means they noticed something strange was happening, and then they smacked their foreheads and went all ‘right, it was him all the time’ later. The place where Sauron started to reappear used to be called Greenwood the Great, but after this new and strange darkness, it was renamed Mirkwood. It was known there was something fishy going on. Not what it was, of course, but there was no doubt about ti being evil.
Now, by this time, Gandalf and his wizarding buddies were in Middle-Earth already, sent there by the Valar pretty much with one intention: to fight Sauron. They were of those lesser angel-like beings as well, but very sensibly for this quest, the Valar wiped their memory. Not to make it too easy I guess? Anyway, so what does Gandalf do when this strange new evil appears?
Those of you who said ‘nothing’ can have a candy.
He does nothing even three hundred years later, when the ringwraiths appear, about as good a proof that Sauron’s coming back that you can get. Still, Gandalf doesn’t care, and in fact, it isn’t until year 2063 that he gets his ass there and casts the evil spirit out, without finding out what it was. A thousand years after the danger appeared. Seriously, Gandalf?
Anyway, so all was fine for a time, and a period called The Watchful Peace started. Four hundred years later, it ended. Once again, clearly, someone noticed, because they wrote down in their annals that it’s the end of peaceful times…yet it takes Gandalf another four hundred years to go there again, by which point – whoops – Sauron is already so strong he barely gets out alive. At least he’s finally able to confirm the identity of the evil. Everyone acts surprised.
Galadriel, meanwhile, doesn’t hesitate and as soon as the mysterious shadow reappears, she calls the White Council, a bunch of supposedly wise entities who can, then, do nothing collectively. At this point, the text gives us an excuse for inaction in the form of Saruman, head of the council, who insists there’s no need to do anything. But…look. This council was a new thing. It wasn’t some ancient institution everyone was bound by. Even if we suppose that the wizards had to obey their supposed head, Saruman, and couldn’t do anything without him (something the text certainly doesn’t support, since Gandalf is pretty independent in other respects), what exactly was stopping Galadriel or Elrond from acting? They didn’t have to care about Saruman’s opinion one whit. And Sauron’s seat in Mirkwood was roughly a hundred miles from the edges of Galadriel’s realm. After their intimate acquaintance from Eregion, you’d think she’d be able to tell he was there. And she could have certainly been useful in identifying him if she ever bothered to go and see this weird dark fortress a few days’ ride from her house.
Anyway, Saruman finally relents for his own reasons and the White Council goes and casts Sauron out, only for him to flee to Mordor, where – guess what – he has been preparing a realm for himself for quite some time. Instead of immediately starting to call people to arms, or attempting to follow him there to finish him off, the Council continues in its great tradition of doing nothing.
And now comes the real treat, the absolute height of the clusterfucks that were so typical for the third age. And who else could possibly be responsible for this but Gandalf?
Bilbo finds One Ring in 2942. Gandalf knows about the ‘gift’, knows what it can do, and he also knows there was something strange about it because it compelled Bilbo to tell a lie about the way it got to him. Besides, let me say it in his own words:
“It is a ring. What then? The Nine the Nazgul keep. The Seven are taken or destroyed. The Three we know of. What then is this one that he desires so much?”
He states this in 3018 at Elrond’s council. The same thing should have been exactly as obvious in 2942. Yet Gandalf just lets it be and does nothing. In 3001, the Long Expected Party rolls around and Gandalf witnesses the enormous trouble Bilbo has leaving the ring behind, and hears him complain that he feels like a bit of butter spread over too large a slice. In spite of that, he just leaves the ring with Frodo with a vague warning and lets the matter rest for further seventeen years.
In April of 3018, he arrives to the Shire and identifies Frodo’s ring as One Ring. Frodo deduces he’ll have to leave the Shire, and asks Gandalf if going in September is okay…and Gandalf is like, yeah, fine. Perfectly all right. Just don’t wait any longer, but, you know. Chill.
He remains guarding Frodo for two more months, but then gets a premonition of danger and so does the completely logical thing of leaving him, with the Ring, behind, and leaving the Shire to go hunt for some information. He meets Radagast, who tells him that the ringwraiths have ridden out of Mordor, that they’re looking for the Shire, but that Saruman (who’s been acting seriously strange on White Council for ages) is willing to help. Gandalf comments that he was afraid, because even the Wise can be afraid of the ringwraiths when they’re all together…and so he, once again, does the perfectly logical thing of turning and riding to Saruman and leaving Frodo alone – to face the ringwraiths. And tries to salvage the situation by sending him a note. And there has the gut to blame Butterbur for not passing it on. If it hadn’t been for Aragorn, almost the only one in Middle-Earth beside Idril who actually deserves to be called wise, and an enormous dose of luck, Frodo would have ended up very dead.
Was there any way Gandalf could have fucked it up any more?
And yet in spite of all this, they still allowed him to lead the Fellowship and decide who should be its members. It was him who insisted on Merry and Pippin, while Elrond wanted to replace at least one of them with ‘someone of his household.’ Now seems like a good place to remind you that his household contained, among others, one Glorfindel, a reincarnated elf from Valinor who had taken down a balrog before. For some reason, I can’t shake the feeling that a guy like that might have come in handy on their journey.
And yes, I’m aware that Merry contributed to the death of the Witch-King and Pippin saved Faramir (another person who does actually deserve to be called wise, by the way), so Gandalf turned out to be right in this, but who’s to say Glorfindel wouldn’t have been useful at some point as well? Perhaps Boromir would still be alive if he had been with them. Given Gandalf’s previous record, it seems like more of a lucky guess. Give me Idril, Aragorn or Faramir as leaders of my group any time. The wizard, on the other hand, you can keep, as well as the rest of this bunch. They spell trouble.