Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Gray Pilgrim

Today - March 25 - marks the day in which Sauron, the strongest lieutenant of Morgoth, was defeated in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Every year, this day is commemorated by fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien as a day in which to read and reflect on his writing. The Tolkien Society has suggested that, as we read our favorite passages of Tolkien's writing today, we reflect on the theme "Hope."

My reading material for today, a nice cuppa, and my husband's briar pipe

The Gray Pilgrim, in my opinion, represents "Hope" more than any other character in the Tolkien canon. Known to the Valar as Olórin, to the Elves as Mithrandir, and to Men from the North as Gandalf, this gray-clad traveler roamed Middle-earth as its protector and friend. Gandalf was always getting up to something, checking on things, listening. He loved Middle-earth and its inhabitants, and countless times put his own life at stake to battle the threatening darkness of Sauron and his hoards.

The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by artist Alan Lee, open to the pages on Ganfalf 
Gandalf was equipped with great power, especially in the manipulation of fire, but chose to dress in a cloak the color of ash and display his power only for the mirth of the folk - in the form of fireworks - so that his influence never derived from fear.

Gandalf's qualities were unique among the Istari, the order of wizards from which he came, and he was the only one out of the 5 Istari who stayed true to their original mission. Tolkien writes of the order, and Gandalf's unique role in it, in an essay that first appeared in 1954 and is now part of the compiled works in Unfinished Tales, edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Here is a passage from that essay:

"Indeed, of all the Istari, one only remained faithful, and he was the last-comer. For Radagast, the fourth, became enamored of the many beasts and birds that dwelt in Middle-earth, and forsook Elves and Men, and spent his days among the wild creatures. ... And Curunír 'Lân, Saruman the White, fell from his high errand, and becoming proud and impatient and enamored of power sought to have his own will by force, and to oust Sauron; but he was ensnared by that dark spirit, mightier than he.

But the last-comer was named among the Elves Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, for he dwelt in no place, and gathered to himself neither wealth nor followers, but ever went to and fro in the Westlands from Gondor to Angmar, and from Lindon to Lórien, befriending all folk in times of need. Warm and eager was his spirit ... for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succors in wanhope and distress; but 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."

Detail from Alan Lee's painting of Gandalf and Frodo
It was Gandalf's express purpose to provide council and hope to the good folk of Middle-earth, and not only did he do that, he also single handedly set in motion the events that would turn in to The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gandalf appears on the doorstep of Bilbo Baggins, revealing before anything else that he is funny, and soon begins to fluster the furry-footed Hobbit with wordplay and talk of adventures...

"By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) - Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion."
" -'I beg your pardon, I haven't asked for anything!" [said Bilbo]
  -'Yes, you have! Twice now. My pardon. I give it to you. In fact I will go so far as to send you on this adventure. Very amusing for me, very good for you - and profitable too, very likely, if you ever get over it.'
  -'Sorry! I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea - any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!' With that the hobbit turned and scuttled inside his round green door, and shut it as quickly as he dared, not to seem rude. Wizards after all are wizards. ... Gandalf in the meantime was still standing outside the door, and laughing long but quietly. After a while he stepped up, and with the spike on his staff scratched a queer sign on the hobbit's beautiful green front-door. Then he strode away, just about the time when Bilbo was finishing his second cake and beginning to think that he had escaped adventures very well."

"Gandalf returns to Hobbiton" by John Howe
Gandalf is my favorite Tolkien character - which is saying a lot, as Tolkien made sure his readers had no shortage of wonderful characters from which to chose a favorite. I like Gandalf so much because in spite of the enormous power he wielded as a result of his magic, he chose more often than not to use his wits and wisdom, the everyday "magic" of language.

Gandalf seemed to always understand when to use kind or harsh words; he knew when to remain silent and allow the truth to reveal itself. The hope and power that Gandalf brings to Middle-earth is contained in the everyday magic of language. By studying and respecting and practicing the magic of language, Gandalf helped defeat a looming evil power. Most importantly, he never abandoned Middle-earth, even after his "death." In many ways, Tolkien has done the same, providing generation after generation with a new worlds and languages to combat the encroaching apathy of the mechanized modern world.

I am fascinated by Peter Jackson's film adaptations of Tolkien's most famed novels, in part because they use modern machinery and technology to enter into those worlds and languages in a new way. I adore the films and could think of no finer actor to portray Gandalf than Sir Ian McKellen. The second film installment of The Hobbit was released today to coincide with this special day of commemoration of Tolkien's work. This evening, after reading aloud from the books, my husband and I plan to watch this film (after only having gotten the chance to see it twice while in theaters).

I wish you all a happy Tolkien Reading Day, and hope that the magic of Gandalf's words provides you with some small but significant miracle today...

Waking up early to read from The Silmarillion
I will leave you with one final quote - this time from a letter Tolkien wrote - in which Tolkien himself discusses the way Gandalf gave hope to his friends by sacrificing the hope of his own personal fame or even survival:

"Gandalf alone [among the wizards] passes the tests ... For in his condition it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defense of his companions, less perhaps than for a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to 'the Rules': for all he could know at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his mission was vain. He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success."
(Excerpt taken from a letter written to Robert Murray, S.J. as printed in The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter.)

Who are your favorite Tolkien characters? What passages will you be reading this evening?

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely post. Makes me long to leave my desk behind to head home and do a little Tolkien reading and film viewing. I discovered your site from a link on the site of the dear Midori Snyder. It was fun to come across the passages you included as I have been reading similar things about Gandalf on Michael Martinez's blog: http://middle-earth.xenite.org/

    I hope you and your husband had a marvelous time remembering Tolkien and his creations back in March.