The White Rider
In this chapter, Tolkien springs another surprise on the first-time reader. They are led to expect that Aragorn and the others will encounter Saruman. Instead they find Gandalf, clearly revealed now as something much more than human.
But first we work through their attempts to help their captured friends. All through Book Three, we have swapped between the two hobbits and the three who seek to rescue them. Now we have them working out how the hobbits got away.
They begin by worrying about the mysterious old man. But suspect that the lost horses joined someone they welcomed – we later learn it was Shadowfax, the chief of the horses of Rohan.
They look for signs, and Aragorn concludes that at least one hobbit was carried by an orc and then got free. And had some lembas as a snack, with crumbs and a wrapping leaf from Lorien left behind.
He also decides that the orcs had been told to capture hobbits, but not who or why or even how many. At the end of Book Four we learn that Shagrat got equally vague orders. Evil has the problem that none of its servants are trustworthy.
Aragorn had earlier seen five dead Orcs from the Misty Mountains, and earlier similar Orcs mixed with larger Orcs displaying a White Hand that he deduces to stand for Saruman. He had no way to know of the conflict between the rival Uruk-Hai of Mordor and Isengard. Nor that Grishnakh probably knew more than his masters intended, and wanted the One Ring for himself. But he sensibly deduces that there was treachery.
“I think that I now begin to understand a matter that has puzzled me from the beginning: why when Boromir had fallen were the Orcs content with the capture of Merry and Pippin? They did not seek out the rest of us, nor attack our camp; but instead they went with all speed towards Isengard. Did they suppose they had captured the Ring-bearer and his faithful comrade? I think not. Their masters would not dare to give such plain orders to Orcs, even if they knew so much themselves; they would not speak openly to them of the Ring: they are not trusty servants. But I think the Orcs had been commanded to capture hobbits, alive, at all costs. An attempt was made to slip out with the precious prisoners before the battle. Treachery perhaps, likely enough with such folk; some large and bold Orc may have been trying to escape with the prize alone, for his own ends.”
He had earlier deduced that the horsemen slew that Orc, while at least one hobbit got free.
Legolas then assesses the forest:
“‘I do not think the wood feels evil, whatever tales may say,’ said Legolas. He stood under the eaves of the forest, stooping forward, as if he were listening, and peering with wide eyes into the shadows. ‘No, it is not evil; or what evil is in it is far away. I catch only the faintest echoes of dark places where the hearts of the trees are black. There is no malice near us; but there is watchfulness, and anger.’
“’Well, it has no cause to be angry with me,’ said Gimli. ‘I have done it no harm. ‘
“’That is just as well,’ said Legolas. ‘But nonetheless it has suffered harm. There is something happening inside, or going to happen. Do you not feel the tenseness? It takes my breath.’
“’I feel the air is stuffy,’ said the Dwarf. ‘This wood is lighter than Mirkwood, but it is musty and shabby.’
“’It is old, very old,’ said the Elf. ‘So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children. It is old and full of memory. I could have been happy here, if I had come in days of peace.’”
Next, they see two sets of hobbit footprints, confirming both Merry and Pippin got free. And see other marks that Aragorn does not understand – Treebeard, obviously, But then he spots an old man: perhaps the same man as drove off their horses. They are naturally alarmed. Legolas thinks of shooting him, which Gimli urges:
“’Why are you waiting? What is the matter with you?’ said Gimli in a hissing whisper.
“’Legolas is right,’ said Aragorn quietly. ‘We may not shoot an old man so, at unawares and unchallenged, whatever fear or doubt be on us. Watch and wait!’”
They confront this mysterious stranger:
“At last the old man broke the silence. ‘Well met indeed, my friends,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘I wish to speak to you. Will you come down or shall I come up?’ Without waiting for an answer he began to climb.
“’Now!’ said Gimli. ‘Stop him, Legolas!’
“’Did I not say that I wished to speak to you?’ said the old man. ‘Put away that bow, Master Elf!’
“The bow and arrow fell from Legolas’ hands, and his arms hung loose at his sides.
“’And you, Master Dwarf, pray take your hand from your axe-haft, till I am up! You will not need such arguments.’
“Gimli started and then stood still as stone, staring, while the old man sprang up the rough steps as nimbly as a goat. All weariness seemed to have left him.”
That shows the cost of being ethical – had this been Saruman, they would have been doomed. But Legolas then sees who this really is, and Aragorn too, while Gimli still doubts:
“At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!’ Gimli said nothing, but sank to his knees, shading his eyes.
“’Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’
“He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’
“He laid his hand on Gimli’s head, and the Dwarf looked up and laughed suddenly. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘But you are all in white!’
“’Yes, I am white now,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been. But come now, tell me of yourselves! I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. 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. Tell me of yourselves!’
That Gandalf barely remembers the name he was known by among men and hobbits is odd: but what he has been through is presumably beyond human understanding. He has met God, and some of what he remembers may be things he had forgotten even before he left Valinor. Indeed, if Tolkien at this stage imagined him a being born among the Maia of Valinor, he would not have had any direct experience before then of what lay beyond the Created World.
None of this matches my view of the universe, or even of how magic would work if magic was real. But as I’ve said before, I am accepting that in Tolkien’s Secondary World, things happen according to his rules.
He then explains that he has taken over Saruman’s role. But remains finite in power, and does not know in detail what they have done, even thought the eagle they saw earlier has been reporting to him.
He is pleased that Frodo has separated. Perhaps he thinks that even Sauron getting the ring would be less evil than someone well-intentions being corrupted. This makes sense from a religious viewpoint – the world is there to test you, and evil is ultimately doomed regardless. I don’t see it so, but I see that it is so within Tolkien’s Secondary World.
He sees Boromir as saved in the end:
“’You have not said all that you know or guess, Aragorn my friend,’ he said quietly. ‘Poor Boromir! I could not see what happened to him. It was a sore trial for such a man: a warrior, and a lord of men. Galadriel told me that he was in peril. But he escaped in the end. I am glad. It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir’s sake. But that is not the only part they have to play. They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Even as we talk here, I hear the first rumblings. Saruman had best not be caught away from home when the dam bursts!’”
We learned earlier that Aragorn did not speak of Boromir’s attempt to steal the One Ring till much later: but of course Gandalf guesses.
How he knows that the Ents are about to attack Saruman is not explained. But perhaps he can sense the change in the land and the mood of the hitherto-passive Ents.
He also sees Sauron as foolish, as well as dangerous:
“The Enemy, of course, has long known that the Ring is abroad, and that it is borne by a hobbit. He knows now the number of our Company that set out from Rivendell, and the kind of each of us. But he does not yet perceive our purpose clearly. He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. 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 into his darkest dream. In which no doubt you will see our good fortune and our hope. For imagining war he has let loose war, believing that he has no time to waste; for he that strikes the first blow, if he strikes it hard enough, may need to strike no more. So the forces that he has long been preparing he is now setting in motion, sooner than he intended. Wise fool. For if he had used all his power to guard Mordor, so that none could enter, and bent all his guile to the hunting of the Ring, then indeed hope would have faded: neither Ring nor Bearer could long have eluded him. But now his eye gazes abroad rather than near at home; and mostly he looks towards Minas Tirith. Very soon now his strength will fall upon it like a storm.
Saruman’s treachery has been self-defeating:
“’For already [Sauron] knows that the messengers that he sent to waylay the Company have failed again. They have not found the Ring. Neither have they brought away any hobbits as hostages. Had they done even so much as that, it would have been a heavy blow to us, and it might have been fatal. But let us not darken our hearts by imagining the trial of their gentle loyalty in the Dark Tower. For the Enemy has failed-so far. Thanks to Saruman:’
“’Then is not Saruman a traitor?’ said Gimli.
“’Indeed yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘Doubly. And is not that strange? Nothing that we have endured of late has seemed so grievous as the treason of Isengard. Even reckoned as a lord and captain Saruman has grown very strong. He threatens the Men of Rohan and draws off their help from Minas Tirith, even as the main blow is approaching from the East. Yet a treacherous weapon is ever a danger to the hand. Saruman also had a mind to capture the Ring, for himself, or at least to snare some hobbits for his evil purposes. So between them our enemies have contrived only to bring Merry and Pippin with marvellous speed, and in the nick of time, to Fangorn, where otherwise they would never have come at all!
“’Also they have filled themselves with new doubts that disturb their plans. No tidings of the battle will come to Mordor, thanks to the horsemen of Rohan; but the Dark Lord knows that two hobbits were taken in the Emyn Muil and borne away towards Isengard against the will of his own servants. He now has Isengard to fear as well as Minas Tirith. If Minas Tirith falls, it will go ill with Saruman.’
“’It is a pity that our friends lie in between,’ said Gimli. ‘If no land divided Isengard and Mordor, then they could fight while we watched and waited.’
“’The victor would emerge stronger than either, and free from doubt,’ said Gandalf. ‘But Isengard cannot fight Mordor, unless Saruman first obtains the Ring. That he will never do now. He does not yet know his peril. There is much that he does not know. He was so eager to lay his hands on his prey that he could not wait at home, and he came forth to meet and to spy on his messengers. But he came too late, for once, and the battle was over and beyond his help before he reached these parts. He did not remain here long. I look into his mind and I see his doubt. He has no woodcraft. He believes that the horsemen slew and burned all upon the field of battle; but he does not know whether the Orcs were bringing any prisoners or not. And he does not know of the quarrel between his servants and the Orcs of Mordor; nor does he know of the Winged Messenger.’”
It is interesting to note that the enhanced Gandalf can now see at least some of Saruman’s thought. As Gandalf the Grey, he had some ability to do this, even for fellow wizards like Radagast, whom he correctly thought loyal because he had seemed loyal. But now he knows what Saruman is doing even without meeting him.
This could also imply that he’d have much later known about Saruman invading the hobbit’s shire. As I read it, he did but decided that they must cure it by their own efforts.
He then explains about Treebeard and the Ents. Aragorn knows of them only as a legend of Rohan that might not be true. Legolas knows they are real, but even to the elves they are only a memory. But Gandalf knows far more:
“Treebeard is Fangorn, the guardian of the forest; he is the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth. I hope indeed, Legolas, that you may yet meet him. Merry and Pippin have been fortunate: they met him here, even where we sit. For he came here two days ago and bore them away to his dwelling far off by the roots of the mountains. He often comes here, especially when his mind is uneasy, and rumours of the world outside trouble him. I saw him four days ago striding among the trees, and I think he saw me, for he paused; but I did not speak, for I was heavy with thought, and weary after my struggle with the Eye of Mordor; and he did not speak either, nor call my name.’”
This would be when he was the Voice that persuaded Frodo to take off the ring after he had worn it to get away from Boromir.
In his long years of wandering, Gandalf has evidently come to know the forest, and understand it better than Saruman does:
“Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous-not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless. But now his long slow wrath is brimming over, and all the forest is filled with it. The coming of the hobbits and the tidings that they brought have spilled it: it will soon be running like a flood; but its tide is turned against Saruman and the axes of Isengard. A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days: the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.’”
He then gives them the wider picture and what they should do next:
“Do we go to find our friends and to see Treebeard?’ asked Aragorn.
“’No,’ said Gandalf. ‘That is not the road that you must take. I have spoken words of hope. But only of hope. Hope is not victory. War is upon us and all our friends, a war in which only the use of the Ring could give us surety of victory. It fills me with great sorrow and great fear: for much shall be destroyed and all may be lost. I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still.’
“He rose and gazed out eastward, shading his eyes, as if he saw things far away that none of them could see. Then he shook his head. ‘No,’ he said in a soft voice, ‘it has gone beyond our reach. Of that at least let us be glad. We can no longer be tempted to use the Ring. We must go down to face a peril near despair, yet that deadly peril is removed.’
“He turned. ‘Come, Aragorn son of Arathorn!’ he said. ‘Do not regret your choice in the valley of the Emyn Muil, nor call it a vain pursuit. You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just, and it has been rewarded. For so we have met in time, who otherwise might have met too late. But the quest of your companions is over. Your next journey is marked by your given word. You must go to Edoras and seek out Theoden in his hall. For you are needed. The light of Andúril must now be uncovered in the battle for which it has so long waited. There is war in Rohan, and worse evil: it goes ill with Theoden.’
“’Then are we not to see the merry young hobbits again?’ said Legolas.
“’I did not say so,’ said Gandalf. ‘Who knows? Have patience. Go where you must go, and hope! To Edoras! I go thither also.’”
He says that good choices get a reward, though clearly not always. Yet in Tolkien, disasters tend to follow on from some bad choice by well-intentioned characters. Gandalf had earlier explained how the One Ring tempted him, and still does. With it he could defeat Sauron, but also would become corrupted while still able to seem virtuous, as Sauron once could. That might be worse in the end than Sauron winning. He is glad that the One Ring is no longer there to tempt him.
He is then asked about the Balrog and explains, including the matter of creatures older than Sauron:
“Far, far below the deepest delving 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, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair.’
“’Long has that been lost,’ said Gimli. ‘Many have said that it was never made save in legend, but others say that it was destroyed.’
“’It was made, and it had not been destroyed,’ said Gandalf. ‘From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed ascending in unbroken spiral in many thousand steps, until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirak-zigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine…
“I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.
“’Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. 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 rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.
Monsters gnawing at the world reminds one of Norse mythology, though there it is more self-consistent and less believable, with monsters gnawing at the world-tree that holds the Nine Worlds. You could also see a touch of Lovecraft’s visions of horror – Mallorn 59 suggests there could have been an influence. You are made aware that Sauron is just the most immediate and dangerous of many evils in or under Middle-Earth.
You could also wonder why Gandalf even mentions them to people who have no need to know. I’d see that as meeting the needs of storytelling. If you viewed it as a real situation, Gandalf would not mention that there was anything in the Extreme Depths except the balrog and himself.
Tolkien’s style is very different from Lovecraft, of course. The fight with the balrog gets half a page, with ugly monsters mentioned but not described. This in a book where a walk in the countryside might get five or six pages: I prefer this approach.
The notion of the monsters being older than Sauron does not fit the final published version of The Silmarillion, in which Sauron, Gandalf and the others are angelic spirits who existed before the world was made. But in 1951, in a letter to letter to publisher Milton Waldman to explain his belief that The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings should be published together, he refers to the Valar as gods. (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 131.) On that basis there might be many generations of them. It would also mean that Treebeard could indeed have been older than Gandalf and Saruman.
Whatever he was viewed as being as Gandalf the Grey, he was returned as a more powerful being – yet still limited by a quasi-human form that can suffer pain and injury. He is not like C. S. Lewis’s Aslan, who can be shaved and sacrificed and then come back withtout a scratch on him. Gandalf tells how he was taken to Lorien and healed there. He also has messages from Galadriel: a suggestion to Aragorn that he will need to take the Paths of the Dead, and a warning to Legolas that if he hears the sound of the sea, he will find himself compelled to leave Middle-Earth and join the other elves sailing to the True West. Gimli feels left out, but for him there is also a greating, though it means little.
Then he introduces them to Shadowfax, who has their lost horses. And off they go to meet the King of the Golden Hall.
Note how all of this should surprise and impress the first-time reader. Myself, I had long ago read The Hobbit and decided to try Lord of the Rings when at university in Bangor North Wales. There were some fans in my Hall of Residence, and a three-volume edition in their library. But as far as I recall, only The Return of the King was there when I looked and I read that first, spoiling some surprises. Just when I read the entire book I am not sure: probably when I got a 1976 paperback edition.
Looking at the book as a whole, this moment is clearly the ‘turn of the tide’. For a first-time reader, there is nothing to say that the Ent’s bold venture will not be another tragedy. But with Gandalf back, they’d guess that things are about to go better. Or at least go better in the grand war of Rohan and Gondor against Saruman and Sauron: the first-time reader will know nothing about what Frodo and Sam are doing until Book Four, and there things soon get darker.