Gandalf the Torturer

by Varda

In issue 43 of the Tolkien Society's magazine Mallorn there was an article by Adam Rosman called 'Gandalf As Torturer', which looked at Gandalf's treatment of Gollum when he forced information about the Ring out of him. Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond he had to use harsh methods to 'wring' what he needed out of the creature, threatening to burn him.

In the current issue of Mallorn, two readers take up the subject, and defend Gandalf. Jeff Stevenson points out that Gandalf actually doesn't hurt Gollum, merely makes him think Gandalf is about to burn him. He also dismisses Rosman's reference to the United Nations' conventions and their definition of the subject as 'not applicable'.

Stevenson concludes that Gandalf could not have done anything 'wrong' morally, in his treatment of Gollum, because when he 'dies' in Khazad-dum he is sent back to finish his task. Had he erred in his treatment he would not have been trusted again.

A second reader, Virginia Lulling, defends Gandalf but admits that the whole assumption of Tolkien's work is that Gandalf represents absolute good, but Gandalf admits he 'had to know' the truth, so he was in the 'ticking bomb' situation; bad men held the truth, and good men had to get it out of them or people would die. So Gandalf, though good, had to do something not so good to achieve good.

Lulling also repeats Stevenson's defence that Gandalf did not actually burn Gollum. She admits, however, that Gandalf even threatening to burn him has always bothered her. Gollum does not know he won't be burned!

But both writers admit that actually, the information Gollum gives Gandalf is not conclusive; the Wizard still has to 'test' the Ring in the fire at Bag End, and also tunnel through the archives in Minas Tirith before he clicks to what this Ring really is. So leaning on Gollum is a life or death necessity at all, but just part of the information gathering process that finally tells Gandalf this is the Great Ring.

This is an interesting discussion, and there is a lot more said by all, but I would just like to add my own thoughts.

The first thing that struck me is this debate perfectly justifies those critics who attack The Lord of The Rings for not being valuable literature, as one at least of the major characters - Gandalf - has wisdom and powers beyond the merely human, so we can't discuss an important moral issue like the permissibility or not of torture in extreme circumstances, and so LOTR is really fantasy, irrelevant to human lives.

But maybe Gandalf is not as infallible as all that. He is an avuncular figure to the hobbits, a patriarchal power broker to the Elves, but in the grand scheme of things he is also an old duffer who smokes too much and is totally fooled by Saruman. In, fact, he makes a great deal of mistakes, as he says to Frodo;
'And then I made a great mistake. Yes, Frodo, and not the first.'

Stevenson's claim that Gandalf is sent back to earth because he has done no wrong is not true; he is sent back 'till my task is done[i]' In other words, he has failed to finish his task, and gets sent back to finish it. His school report could read;
'Must do better; spends too much time smoking in the bicycle shed.'

Also, it is remarkable that Gandalf does not use his magical powers to get the truth out of Gollum; he resorts to methods that any human would. In the book, at least, Gandalf reserves his quasi-divine powers for moments like the summoning of the Eagles at the end, or the breaking of the Bridge at Khazad dum. In dealing with people (if Gollum can be seen as a person) he uses no magic.

My own feeling is this is a passage that raises a very hard moral question, and which slightly tarnishes Gandalf;
'I endured him for as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling'

Lulling says that Gandalf did not torture Gollum but 'scared' him. But that is mental torture. The truth is Gandalf tortures Gollum, and worse, he builds on torture done by Sauron; the reaso Gollum feared fire so much is that Sauron had also tortured Gollum, with fire, and the memory, as Gandalf says, is so horrendous that when threatened again with fire he tells the truth.

Nor is this affair over quickly; 'bit by bit' could mean a day, a week or even a month. So Gollum, nasty as he is, suffered this treatment for a long time.

This information was not vital. It was very important, but not conclusive. It saved no lives, just confirmed a doubting wizard's worst fears, and not even then to the point that he acted.

But there is worse; Aragorn also torments Gollum; he says at the Council;
'I caught him, Gollum. He will never love me, because he bit me and I was not gentle. ...making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, till he was tamed by lack of drink and food...'

Oh dear, this is terrible. We are trying to sort out if Gandalf tortured Gollum and then we find that Aragorn really did torture him, because roughing him up, starving him and depriving him of water and dragging him home with a rope round his neck is torture, in any culture.

Yet there is the depressing fact that Gandalf is an Istari, sent to guide mankind (and presumably Elfkind) so if he tortures Gollum, how can we reproach Aragorn with doing the same?

I think part of the answer to this question is in Tolkien's writing. He changed his vision of the story as he wrote it; early parts, like Aragorn when the hobbits meet him first, change dramatically in later chapters. The first parts of The Fellowship read somewhat like The Hobbit (Tom Bombadil especially) but by the time we reach Rivendell the tale has expanded, the themes have suddenly become more epic and even tragic, the characters have developed, and Tolkien is writing a different book. The Aragorn who humbly asks Frodo, in Rivendell, if he can accompany him on his quest is not the rude, loud stranger who waves his broken sword at the hobbits in Bree and announces his interminable lineage.

Tolkien's idea of a hero develops as he writes his book. If the mark of a successful fictional character is that he or she changes in the story, then Aragorn changes from a rough wanderer who will beat up a miserable creature like Gollum, to a king who spares his enemies if they surrender.

Similarly Gandalf changes; he tells Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli that they must go at once to the court of King Theoden, showing a perception of the need for urgency that is long overdue. He at last sees the tasks to be done, and takes the lead in the war. At the same time, he does not take power away from either Theoden or Denethor, even when they make mistakes.

The real issue is whether Gandalf and Aragorn were justified in what they did, and if it is ever right to do the wrong thing in a right cause. As Sybilla says in 'Kingdom of Heaven' ''Do a little wrong to do much right.' I think the fact that both characters come out of the episode slightly tarnished supplies the answer to that.

But there is some comment on Gandalf and Aragorn later in the book, in the actions of Faramir. Gollum ventures into the forbidden places of Henneth Anun, and for that he merits death. On Frodo's pleading, Faramir spares Gollum, but he then questions him. He makes Gollum swear good behaviour on what Frodo advises will hold him, the Ring, then Faramir asks Gollum has he done anything wrong. Gollum says no, but then Faramir just stares in his eyes, and Gollum crumples.

Faramir has used his brains not torture, get information. He in fact, unlike what is shown in the film, orders his men to 'treat (Gollum) kindly', and when he has doubts about him, he voices them to Frodo only after Gollum has been taken away. He tells Frodo also that he would not even trap an orc with a falsehood.

It is also by genuine kindness mixed with guile that Faramir coaxes out of Frodo and Sam the truth about THEIR quest. Faramir comes across in the end as more humane and more cunning than both Gandalf and Aragorn because he is able to discover the truth without subverting good to do it.

Thanks for listening!


Response by Alfirin

Interesting discussion. But cannot Tolkien's characters grow as any human would? Would they not do things they later regretted? And thereby learn from that act. Both Gandalf and Aragorn carry swords, and use them. They are not infallible... Aragorn regrets the choice of Moria because his friend met death there, Gandalf says those immortal words to Frodo "there are many who deserve life, can you give it to them. then..." The character of Saruman the White shows us that those who are meant to be good can turn very bad indeed.

Response by Beruthiel

I commented on Gollum's treatment years ago as part of my orcish inkling and couldn't abide by Aragorn's, Gandalf's or the Mirkwood elves behaviour.If you remember they kept him in a tree in the daylight when he found the sunlight painful.No doubt Faramir's task was easy after that.He only had to look at him to make him crumble.Sam and Frodo were also cruel to Gollum, you may recall.One with threats of hot water and the other with a rope and a strange preview of Gollum's final end.Lots of people in the movie theatre laughed when Gollum complained about that elvish rope but again Sauron and Mirkwood must be remembered ( and the prisons of Iraq).
JRRT must have known soldiers who had post traumatic stress after WWI ( though the term wasn't coined then) so he knew what he was writing about.
I felt Aragorn's actions were the worst, considering that he knew the creature had just suffered unimaginable torment in Mordor and just found a puddle with mud to scamper around in .Had it been anyone else he would have been wrapped in cotton wool but for Gollum it was thirst and starvation at the end of a rope.
It is an apt time to consider torture and to remember a different approach as shown in South Africa ( JRRT's birthplace ) where the word humane may finally be rehabilitated.

Response by Alfirin

Frodo did pity Gollum, and let him live, when Sam would have killed him. Frodo saved Gollum's life more than once, and trusted him with his own - even when others said he should not.

Response by Beruthiel

Chapter : The Black Gate is closed
Frodo says:

" You will never get it back.In the last need,Smeagol ,I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago.If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or cast yourself into the fire.And such would be my command.So have a care Smeagol!  ....Frodo waited patiently for a while, then he spoke again less sternly....But Gollum was in a pitiable state, and Frodo's threat had quite unnerved him....he crawled on the floor and begged them both to be kind..."

Is this surprising when Sauron probably used the nice voice alternating with the nasty deed method on Gollum.

Response by Agape4Rivendell

Ever since the movie, my own thoughts and feelings about Gandalf have changed drastically. NOT because what PJ did was according to the book (it was not and I was horrified of his treatment of Pippin at Meduseld and Denethor on the Citadel), but because it brought to my mind the character of Gandalf, and I began to research him a little more, re-reading the parts concerning him.

I agree 100% that Gandalf did not always act in morally 'right' ways. As Varda points out, he tortured Gollum by way of his words and implied actions. The sheen of glorious Istari is gone. However, the Elves' sheen left a long time ago with the Kin-slaying and the burning of the ships at Helcaraxe. I don't know why I thought that, just because Gandalf was a messenger of the Valar, that made him good.

As for Aragorn, I completely agree. His treatment of Gollum was hideous. As was Frodo's if one takes off the rose-colored glasses. Beruthless' comments are right from the book! As for Faramir - I have to go back and re-read the parts where he had Frodo imprisoned. I think he was not as kind as you, dear heart, might think. But tell me different - and I will listen.

A lot of times - because we love the characters Tolkien created so very much - we (or perhaps it's just me) tend to 'idolize' them... which I think would send Tolkien over the top! The joy and beauty of the characters are that they are weak, just like us, but overcome that weakness and goodness, truth and love prevail.

Varda - this would have been worth the reading of your musing alone, but you bring up many good points -
'Must do better; spends too much time smoking in the bicycle shed.'

Reply by Varda

Thanks for your replies, folks, and yes Agape, it is a bit of a shock to realise that Gandalf isn't so shining white after all. To be fair, I had less distance to come down; I never liked him, from the first reading of the book. His failure to appear at Bree led to Frodo's wounding, and his psychological disintegration. When Frodo wakes up in Rivendell and asks Gandalf
'Where were you?' he happily hums 'Oh, I was delayed.'
Then, he muses of the severely altered Frodo;
'He will be a clear light for people to see'. There is just a certain lack of remorse that bothers me.

Gandalf it is who hands the poisoned chalice of the Ring to Frodo in the first place. I just never forgave him. That there were all these stickers Gandalf's head (put there by Tolkien) saying 'GOOD GUY' only made me more suspicious.

The real problem is that Gandalf, like characters such as Elrond and Galadriel, is not human. So using him to debate important moral issues like doing evil to do good is inherently unsafe. But Gandalf acts as moral headmaster to the whole cast of characters in LOTR, telling everyone, from Sam to Denethor, what they OUGHT to do. He is obviously supposed to be a moral guide; that was why the Valar sent the Istari to earth (although their track record is not too good, two disappear, one is off with the birds and the other is Saruman, bad to the bone)

It is in this context that Gandalf's treatment of Gollum is so despicable. Aragorn acts badly, but he is just a man, and presumably, fallible. Gandalf is supposed to be above this kind of thing.

It has been observed that the good people in LOTR are 'too' white, and the bad 'too' black. Most real people are shades of grey, but in LOTR characters who wobble between the two worlds, like Boromir and Denethor, end up being seen as almost as bad as the enemy. But these are good characters, who have just made mistakes. Tolkien seems to suggest that error has no rights, and that whoever goes wrong is doomed, and also that, like Gollum, if they do go wrong, they can expect to be mistreated. Both Gandalf and Aragorn seem to suggest that Gollum is a nasty creature, therefore it is all right to mistreat him.

About Frodo mistreating Gollum, that I don't find as bad, for the simple reason that Frodo never sets himself up as a moral guide to the world, in fact he started off wishing Gollum was dead; just threatening him is a step up. Also, Frodo is in a life or death situation and it is HIS life. He is not looking for academic information. Frodo is utterly human in his fear and his resulting harshness towards Gollum. It is in this bitter, desperate struggle between Gollum and Frodo (and Sam) that real human emotions ring true, not in characters like Gandalf, some magical superhuman who swings between dozy musings and stern sermons. Frodo making Gollum swear by the Ring is an example of an ordinary person, plucked from his quiet life and thrust into a horrible situation and taking a desperate but necessary decision in order to achieve a task on which many lives depend. Gandalf's and or Aragorn's situations are not remotely similar.

About Faramir's treatment of Gollum, Agape, I read the passages when I was thinking out the essay, and he is extremely careful not to hurt Gollum. He tells his men 'treat him kindly'. But even Faramir cannot change the fact that the penalty for seeing the pool at Henneth Anun is death, for anyone, and Faramir questions Gollum in order to find a way to let him live. In the end, Faramir spares Gollum on Frodo's word.

The sad thing about it, when I thought it out, is that Faramir's compassion means Gollum is able to disguise his true objective in taking Frodo through Cirith Ungol. Had Faramir wracked Gollum and burned him, the poor wretch would almost certainly have revealed his plot to feed Frodo to Shelob. But Faramir only asks Gollum certain questions, and although he gets true answers, he does not ask the right questions!

Faramir's humane method, therefore, fails to reveal Gollum's true intentions. But of course, Shelob taking Frodo in the end allows him and Sam to get through and continue into Mordor. So Faramir's sparing of Gollum has an unexpected but beneficial outcome.

This suggests that truths revealed under torture might not really be that useful, as Gandalf finds when he still has to test the ring. It also shows us that one has to know what questions to ask, and that in the end knowledge itself is of less importance than hope and courage.

At the end of the Return of The King Aragorn, who once tortured Gollum is himself tortured by the Mouth of Sauron who holds up Frodo's clothes and taunts Aragorn, asking him 'was this one dear to you?'. Aragorn and Gandalf too mistakenly think Frodo is dead; they are crushed with grief and must fight the last battle with little to hope for. So indirectly they pay for their torture of Gollum.

As with the evil legacy of the 'Seeing Stones' the Palantiri, knowledge, however obtained, can be dangerous. Saruman thought it conferred power, even while he was being enslaved. To try do to the the right thing and to keep hope is perhaps more important than to try to control through knowing everything.

Just my humble onion.

Response by Beruthiel

When it comes down to the crunch none of the characters are really human and Gandalf implies that there are other forces involved throughout.What looked like chance, wasn't, and the puppets thought they were finding something to do with the time allotted. The music for the performance was played long before and the dark theme was mingled rather than stopped by one who should have known better.But then Tolkien was religious and to him dying and suffering in the name of faith ( with some beautiful Latin songs thrown in for good measure ) was as normal as breathing.

This is just my humble cynical opinion and not meant to upset anyone here or to imply that I don't like Tolkien or his books.

Reply by Varda

You make great points, Beruthless!  ;-)

The problem is no fictional character is human like real people. But they can be given convincing elements of humanity that enable the readers to identify with them as humans, and enable the writer to explore certain issues that are relevant to us, like courage, hope and loss.

Frodo is not human, but he has enough human traits for us to identify with him while not knowing him fully. The human mind is infinite, and to suggest that depth in a fictional character is very hard, and the sign of a great writer. Had Tolkien been a modernist Frodo would have been a far more cynical and laid back hero, perhaps given to little sins. But Tolkien, to be fair to him, made it clear he was writing something akin to myth, and for that we don't want to know the hero cheated in his maths exam.

The subject of predestination in LOTR is interesting. All the characters face choices, but it is up to the reader to decide if the outcome of those choicese is predestined. Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf, and the theme of that is that the hero is doomed but our lives do not consist in obeying fate like lemmings, but in acting with courage, hope and wisdom. As Gandalf says, even the wise cannot see all ends, and if you can't see it, you don't know what is predestined, and your choices still matter very much.

It is true that Tolkien was a Christian, but his story is not a sermon. He suggests there is something that 'means' Frodo to find the Ring. But is it the same something that made Isildur find it? If Fate is blind and brings about bad as well as good, what overreaching will governs it? It appears more to resemble chaos.

In any case, Tolkien does not centre his characters on iChristian deas of redemption or salvation. The only salvation for these heroes lies in their own hands, in their courage and hope and actions. That is an almost pagan ideal, even though hope is one of the seven Christian virtues. In The Lord of The Rings no-one knows anything for sure; anything can happen, and the real sin is not to try.

Response by Alfirin

It is an interesting discussion... I must be a strange person, though, because I find analysing stories affects my enjoyment of them. I don't like watching movie previews or reading critiques of them, I like to see them without any preconceptions. Tolkien wrote his characters as the ideas and inspirations came to him. He wasn't trying to make political statements, nor did he have any idea that his story would become so popular. He wrote to write, because he couldn't imagine not writing. So his writing reflects his vast scholarship, his own identity, his own experiences, and his inspiration. So for us in later years to question his characterizations... not that we shouldn't, but I prefer to acknowledge the struggle of the author to write a story that made sense to him over the course of 10 years. I'm sure, like many of us, he saw errors and inconsistencies in his writing in hindsight. But that doesn't negate his tremendous accomplishments in creating Middle Earth.

And if I can add another thought... many things have been done on this Earth in the name of "goodness" - like the Spanish Inquisition & the burning of 'witches'. It doesn't seem strange to me at all that Tolkien's characters struggle with this same issue of "goodness". Perhaps that is the point.

Reply by Varda

Thanks, Alfirin, and I do understand that many people would just prefer to enjoy a work of literature, or any art, without picking it to bits wink

When I fell in love with LOTR so many years ago I had a great desire to know how this work was put together, where it came from, what it said and above all why it moved me. To do that I had to analyse....

At first there was little or no good Tolkien criticism. It is only recently you can discuss his work without getting laughed at by the critical establishment. But all along I felt it was important to look not just at what Tolkien said but how he said it.

I would not agree however that Tolkien just wrote as ideas came to him. We have the published drafts of The Lord of The Rings to show us that he wrote, re-wrote and re-re-wrote as he saw the need to polish his raw material to make it into what he wanted it to be, and often that was very different from the initial inspiration; Strider started out as Trotter, a hobbit.

Also Tolkien in fact might never have written, or finished the book if he had not had the encouragement and criticism of his fellow Inklings. The more we know of this quite closed circle the more we realise that Tolkien had no trouble creating an imaginary personal world, but turning that into a book readable by others was a mammoth task, and had it not been for this circle of friends urging him on he might never have finished it. As it was, he left it aside all during the war.

Tolkien strenuously refuted any notion that his work made political statements. But he did admit what he called 'applicability'. That is, if there is a similarity to some situation out in the world, well that is what great literature does, provide parallels.

Tolkien's characterisation is endlessly interesting. Aragorn was a character that Tolkien had made dry runs for in Beren and Turin, but then he had to try to indue him with some personality. Faramir, on the other hand, came to him 'walking in Ithilien,' fully formed. It is clear these are characters born out of different literary processes and backgrounds. I think it is interesting and not impertinent to try to tease these origins out.

Tolkien certainly used his experience and his scholarship and his own identity in his work. But the osmosis by which life is transmuted into art is a mystery, and I would beg the indulgence of the gentle reader to explore that mystery, while not in any way seeking to dismantle the magic.

Response by Alfirin

I agree, Tolkien started with inspiration and then worked on craft.

I like the idea that characters are striving to be good, rather than being 'perfectly good'.

In any case, I understand that this kind of discussion is fascinating for some, I was just expressing my own view of wanting to retain the magic for myself. I can't watch the DVDs about the making of the movies yet... I'm not ready to lose the magic of imagining the actors to be the characters I love. I don't want to see them out of character yet. See, told you I'm strange.  :-P

Response by Primula

Varda wrote:
I never liked him, from the first reading of the book. His failure to appear at Bree led to Frodo's wounding, and his psychological disintegration. When Frodo wakes up in Rivendell and asks Gandalf
'Where were you?' he happily hums 'Oh, I was delayed.'
Then, he muses of the severely altered Frodo;
'He will be a clear light for people to see'. There is just a certain lack of remorse that bothers me.

I am curious to know if your opinion about his delay was modified at all when at the Council he was finally able to relate why (i.e. Saruman betrayed him, and had him imprisoned) - in other words he did have a Hall Pass to be out of class for a while, a valid excuse, but couldn't exactly look at a bedbound hobbit who at that point had hardly an inkling of the Wide World and all the complexities of it and try to sum it all up, especially as he wasn't supposed to talk him into more weariness. He wisely saved the long tale for later.

I saw the musing about Frodo's light to be more of an attempt to make lemonade from lemons, to find something good out of all the mess Saruman had inadvertantly created. And Gandalf did make sure Aragorn would joining them in Bree, without which they would have been entirely hosed.

This is not to say he had other areas where his thinking globally meant the details were treated more harshly than they had wont to be... on the other hand, I'm not sure I would have treated Gollum any better, in fact I probably would have been a bit like Sam and just wanted to be rid of the whiny thing.

Response by Agape4Rivendell

Psst - don't watch how the movies were made!
They really really upset me. Made me very cynical of PJ and company.
They also were fun, if that makes any sense - but it took awhile to at least forgive PJ some of his idiocy!
As for the Professor, I don't think I'll ever forgive him that he killed off Boromir - however, it's better than one of his ideas of having him return to Minas Tirith and working WITH Sauron!!!

Good grief - that would have been hideous!!!!

I think most of you know my feelings on Gollum!

BUT - I agree with Varda that the Elves tortured him by imprisoning him in the tree - HOWEVER... was it really torture? Their idea of joy was to commune with trees, live amongst them, and refresh themselves from the woodland.... perhaps they hoped it would do the same for Gollum? I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially since they disobeyed the ogre Gandalf by letting him out of their dungeons for air.

As for Gandalf's response to Frodo - I suppose dear Frodo was used to this kind of 'talk' or non-talk from Gandalf. I agree with Prim that it could have been compassion for the dear Hobbit, just recovering from an experience that would further curl his toe hair!!!

However, I am still not letting Gandalf off the hook! I letting Tolkien off the hook - some of his 'mistakes' created a real problem in reading and understanding. I know the man, most of the time, had reasons for some of the mistakes, but being in the midst of an epic tale myself at the moment, I have to give him leeway - I have way too many times made mistakes - some I've found and corrected - some I'm sure I haven't!!!

Response by Dinledhwen

Agape said:  Psst - don't watch how the movies were made!...
I think in my case I was fortunate to not have read the book before seeing the movies. That way I could enjoy them without feeling the need to tar and feather PJ because he either didn't include something or added something that went against the ideas I had of what the characters would look like or whatever.

Reply by Varda

Many thanks for your replies, folks. You have opened out this issue for me far beyond the original essay in Mallorn!

Of course I understand you don't want to lose that magic, Alfirin.
When I was at college however the literary establishment regarded the idea of studying Tolkien critically with horror. At best, his work was just fantasy to be read and enjoyed without thinking. That I can engage in literary criticism of his work is to me something of a triumph against literary prejudice.

When I first read The Lord of The Rings, I too enjoyed that wonderful enchanted rush. But on re-reads, I found I needed to dig deeper and dissect a little bit. As Tolkien himself was a critic, and never read uncritically, I felt somewhat justified.

I always believed there was a lot going on in The Lord of The Rings. Its raw material ranged from medieval studies to experiences in the trenches, and I needed to know, for my own peace of mind, just how this fascinating work came to be cooked up from these ingredients. And also, I knew, that only great books get taken to bits and analysed. I loved Eragon, but you won't find me reading it in a forensic manner like I do with The Lord of The Rings. (lucky Eragon, you are thinking :D )

About the idea of doing good, you are absolutely right, the characters try to do the right thing but they are not perfectly good.

What the book tells us is that choices are always important, and even a small choice made with the intention of doing the right thing can have a powerful impact, as Galadriel tells Frodo; even the smallest person can make a difference.

But the story also shows that people who desire power in order to do good come to terrible grief; Denethor uses the Palantir to try to save his city and brings despair and disaster on himself. Gandalf refuses the Ring because he says, out of a desire to do good he would turn himself into another Dark Lord. Galadriel is also tempted to use the Ring to set herself up as a force pushing back evil. Both Gandalf and Galadriel know that the desire for power will warp and ruin any good they might have wanted to do in the first place.

Thanks for your reply, Prim, and you pose a very pertinent question   o.o

The problem with Gandalf's explanation, or lack of it, to Frodo is twofold;
firstly, Frodo has regarded Gandalf as a father. Frodo is an orphan, and Gandalf, certainly after Bilbo goes, takes on something of a father figure role. He even promises to Bilbo that he will 'look after Frodo'.
But he doesn't. In the book's sixty years between Bilbo going and Gandalf returning to see about the Ring Gandalf hardly visits him. But Frodo still loves Gandalf, as we know from his response when Gandalf falls in Moria.

This being the case, when Frodo opens his eyes and asks Gandalf where he was, it was the moral duty of the wizard to explain to the hobbit - PERSONALLY - how he failed him so fatally. Saying 'oh you'll hear it all at the committee meeting' is just not good enough. Gandalf's failure to turn up was a terrible betrayal and requires immediate explanation.

In the book Gandalf says more than in the film, he says he was imprisoned, but then will say no more, just tells Frodo he will hear it all in the council. He says Frodo needs rest, but Frodo replies;
'But talking would stop me thinking and wondering, which are just as tiring.'

Gandalf won't tell him how he failed to appear at Rivendell....but then he talks for ages about the true nature of Strider, which I would have thought was just as tiring (and boring)

But what is really galling, to me, is that when Frodo wakes up Gandalf tells him, the first words out of his mouth, 'You are lucky to be here, after all the absurd things you have done.'

Really, Gandalf? Absurd as in leaving your home burdened by a deadly weapon of mass destruction and fleeing, pursued by demons, to meet a wizard in Bree? That wizard who never turned up? And whose idea was that to begin with?

The second reason why Gandalf's reply is inadequate refers to his being sent back to earth after his fall in Moria.
'I am sent back, till my task is done.' he says

Well, Gandalf's task, and that of the other Istari, was to advise mankind. When Gandalf is sent back, he is shown that, as I said, he must do better[i]. In short, Gandalf has failed. And the person he fails most is Frodo. And the way he fails is to not notice that Saruman has turned Isengard into a fortress and is destroying the leaders of Rohan and breeding giant orcs. Gandalf is a wizard who travels far and wide in Middle Earth and has spies in every bird and tree but sees nothing.

Gandalf knows that Theoden's 'mind is gone' due to Grima, but hasn't managed to work out who sent Grima. Nor has Gandalf noticed the Middle Earth equivalent of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan being trained and brushed up for battle by a fellow wizard under his very nose.

In short, Gandalf's imprisonment is not an excuse for not turning up at Bree. On the contrary, it is the culmination of a succession of failures to use his great powers in the way he was given them to use; by guarding and guiding Middle Earth.

Gandalf should have noticed something was wrong about Saruman, or at least not have been so stupid as to ride into the wizard's front garden. And then when Saruman unveiled his ambitions, why did Gandalf not see the desperate importance of escaping to save Frodo and warn the West? Why didn't he just talk his way out? Instead he lets himself be taunted into a fight he must know he can't win because, even gone bad, Saruman is his superior.

Prim, doesn't all this make you wonder was Gandalf a bit, well, stupid for a wizard? Certainly he was not blameless; at the Council he admits it;
'I was at fault..I was lulled by the words of Saruman the Wise; but I should have sought for the truth sooner, and our peril would now be less'.

And Frodo would not have been maimed. It is true that Aragorn met the hobbits in Gandalf's stead, but sadly, he was not up to the job of defending Frodo, who was wounded under his protection.

As regards Frodo not having much inkling of the wide world beside a wizard, that has always bothered me, as it bothered Sam. Why did Gandalf dump Frodo with the job in the first place? How hard did he look for an alternative? As Sam saw it, that task should have gone to 'great ones'. But like Gandalf and everyone who has or imagines they have powers beyond that of ordinary folk, they preferred to play golf with the lives of little - literally - people.

Thanks for listening!

Varda, not a fan of wizards  :-|

Response by Awelyn

I agree with Alfirin as a lover of Tolkien and his works. I just enjoy a good read and don't like to dissect what I am reading. If it was a text book it would be different but I read for pleasure. I don't think I read any of you speak of Gollum as being evil. I would defend myself with whatever I could to live and stop evil. I have always thought Gollum's main objective was to get the ring and stop at nothing to get it. Of course as we all know he killed to get the ring. I have only read the LOTR book once and I am reading it again so I am probably not as well read as some here but I thought I would throw in in my two cents worth.

Oh one more thing if all these things had not happened Gandalf's delay ,Frodo being the ring carrier etc, there would not have been a story. I wish I could remember what my literature professor taught me about this but that was a long time ago. I am 55 but without all these things it would not have been a great work of art as far as literature is concerned.

Reply by Varda

Thanks, Awelyn, and I do respect people who read for pleasure. But analysing The Lord of The Rings actually gives me pleasure, so it is just an extension of my reading. Does knowing what is in the recipe spoil the enjoyment of a good meal? (except in those rare cases where the ingredients include locust larvae  0.o )

You say 'if all these things had not happened Gandalf's delay, Frodo being the Ring carrier etc there would not have been a story.' Well there would have been, only a different story. As Boromir says, there are many paths to take, and that applies to the author as well.

But the point I am trying to make is the path Tolkien does take, with all its inconsistencies and what ifs, shows what he is trying to say. It is no accident that Gandalf appears to stumble; it has meaning later on in the book when he tells Aragorn his time has passed and he must leave Middle Earth. THEN we look back at his career and realise that yes, it is time he left. The time of wizards, and of Elves, and even of magic is over, and we can see that that is not all to be regretted.

I just believe that Tolkien, a professor who held the chair of of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and was a friend to some of the most gifted and learned writers of that time, never wrote an sentence that did not have meaning - layers of meaning, in fact. And the old fox expected us to follow that trail.

Tolkien says himself in his preface that he wrote both for those who take the book as it is and enjoy it as a good read, and those who 'want to go further'.

Let's go further, further than Bree, further than Rivendell, to Lothlorien itself and beyond.....

Response by MithrandirCQ

I am afraid I do not see what the real problem is here with “me”. Yes, Gandalf’s first words out are the reference to “all the absurd things you have done since you left home.” Yet, 3 paragraphs down he also says -
'You have talked long in your sleep, Frodo,' said Gandalf gently, 'and it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory. Do not worry! Though I said "absurd" just now, I did not mean it. I think well of you—and of the others. It is no small feat to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the Ring.'

'But we needed you. I did not know what to do without you.' I was delayed, said Gandalf, and that nearly proved our ruin. And yet I am not sure: it may have been better so. I wish you would tell me what happened! All in good time! You are not supposed to talk or worry about anything today, by Elrond's orders. You will soon hear all you wish to know, said Gandalf. We shall have a Council, as soon as you are well enough. At the moment I will only say that I was held captive. You?' cried Frodo. Yes, I, Gandalf the Grey, said the wizard solemnly. There are many powers in the world, for good or for evil. Some are greater than I am. Against some I have not yet been measured. But my time is coming. The Morgul-lord and his Black Riders have come forth. War is preparing!

This also occurred twice with Pippin. Once in Moria and the second in Edoras. “I” initially rebuke ‘The fool of the Took” then placate the issue almost immediately after.
Is it pride and arrogance to say in front of all of the Council in the form of a public apology?
And that Frodo is the end of my account. May Elrond and others forgive the length of it. But such a thing has not happened before, that Gandalf broke tryst and did not come when he promised. An account to the Ring-bearer of so strange an event was required, I think.’

Gandalf -'Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.' (I, 65)
The quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is often the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.

Gandalf adjusts to his setting, not becoming all things to all persons, but not presuming, either, on the knowledge or capacities of anyone. He is flexible, and he is also limited: this is not a wizard who can do anything he likes; he can fall as anyone can.

T.A. 1000. - Olórin was specifically appointed by Manwë to leave Valinor and Aman to aid in the quest against Sauron and in the mind of Varda he was not the third but the first and wisest.
The reason for the Istari arriving in Middle-Earth was to directly contest the growth of the Shadow and the ultimate defeat of Sauron. They were forbidden to match power with power or to dominate the Peoples of Middle-Earth by force or fear. Advising the various peoples of Middle-Earth was secondary to this. In the beginning they gained knowledge of Middle-Earth and all that dwelt there, revealing none of their powers or aims. Each time the Shadow grew they would become more active, inspiring the races of Middle-earth and make them aware of their peril. Of the Istari, only Gandalf remained faithful to this goal. Not becoming enamored, not being ensnared, and never seeking praise.

Regarding Saruman, I think the power of his voice had the greatest sway while still dealing with various truisms still prevalent among the wise and great. It was still believed for many years that the Ring was lost. As the leader of the Istari and foremost in the knowledge of the Rings, it was an easier matter to sway the Council to this belief, even with Galadriel’s demurring of his rank and title. Why should Gandalf believe differently? Even after Bilbo’s return, there was nothing to show until the time of his 111th birthday. It was only then when Bilbo’s actions “filled me with fear that no words of Saruman could allay”. Even when Gandalf was not there, the Rangers of the North were guarding the Shire for much of the time.

Let’s see the time line of events related to this issue:
2942 Bilbo returns to the Shire with the Ring. Sauron returns in secret to Mordor.
2944 Gollum leaves the Mountains and begins his search for the 'thief of the Ring.
2951 Sauron declares himself openly and gathers power in Mordor. He begins the rebuilding of Barad-dur. Gollum turns towards Mordor. Sauron sends three of the Nazgul to reoccupy Dol Guldur.
2953 Last meeting of the White Council. They debate the Rings. Saruman feigns that he has discovered that the One Ring has passed down Anduin to the Sea. Saruman withdraws to Isengard, which he takes as his own, and fortifies it. Being jealous and afraid of Gandalf he sets spies to watch all his movements; and notes his interest in the Shire. He soon begins to keep agents in Bree and the South-farthing.
2956 Aragorn meets Gandalf and their friendship begins.
2980 About this time Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor and becomes acquainted with Shelob.
3000 The shadow of Mordor lengthens. Saruman dares to use the palantir of Orthanc, but becomes ensnared by Sauron, who has the Ithil Stone. He becomes a traitor to the Council. His spies report that the Shire is being closely guarded by the Rangers. Implication-It has been going on for some time.
3001 Bilbo’s farewell feast. Gandalf suspects his ring to be the One Ring. The guard on the Shire is doubled. Gandalf seeks for news of Gollum and calls on the help of Aragorn.
3004 Gandalf visits Frodo in the Shire, and does so at intervals during the next four years.
3008 In the autumn Gandalf pays his last visit to Frodo.
3009 Gandalf and Aragorn renew their hunt for Gollum at intervals during the next eight years, searching in the vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Rhovanion to the confines of Mordor. At some time during these years Gollum himself ventured into Mordor, and was captured by Sauron.
3017 Gollum is released from Mordor. He is taken by Aragorn in the Dead Marshes, and brought to Thranduil in Mirkwood. Gandalf visits Minas Tirith and reads the scroll of Isildur
3018 June29 Gandalf meets Radagast along the Greenway not far from Bree. He informs him that the Nine are abroad as Riders in Black seeking for the Shire. Gandalf leaves a message in Bree for Frodo and departs for Orthanc. He asks Radagast to have all the beasts and birds that are his friends to send any news to Orthanc.

From here, Gandalf is imprisoned in Orthanc on July 10. He does not come here on his own but at the intercession of a fellow Istari. One who rarely travels and was only in the Shire out of great need to convey his message. Gandalf does not have legions of spies everywhere. That is not his way. When aid is required it is defensive. It is Gandalf himself who goes to Dol Guldur and finds that the Necromancer is Sauron (2850). He did this previously in 2063. Where are these legions of spies? If they existed why would it be necessary for “the direct approach”? Can we know that the treachery of Saruman would have been revealed at a later time had not this occurred? Who can say? Once in Orthanc, Gandalf could not talk his way out of it. He either had to ally himself with Saruman in the New Order or not. Since he could only refuse, he was imprisoned.

I am not denying that Gandalf is a very fallable character. But I will say that there were certain guidelines that were supposed to be followed and Gandalf, of all the Istari, tried to follow them and remain true to the reason for the Istari to be in Middle-Earth.

Regarding the torturing of Gollum, I can only say that with any history it is the greatest mistake to view from hindsight or with the standards and mores that prevail in the present. Only out of desperate need was the “fear of fire” used. Gandalf did not know beforehand that resulting information would be inconclusive or that the greater torment from Sauron would withhold any remaining information. I cannot even know what that represents. Gollum feared the light of the Sun and Moon. Can the Flame of Anor be an anathema to those who have been corrupted or are evil? I am neither condoning nor placating the issue. In times of war many things are done to achieve victory.

Response by sarahstitcher

A fascinating thread.
I wonder what JRRT's own experience concerning torture was. I doubt if he underwent it himself, but what did he read or hear about it during the war years, did he believe it could be effective or not? Or only in a story? Even now, writers of dramas admit they use it more as a device than to somehow endorse it as effective. Unfortunately, audiences who consume more drama than reality end up thinking it's useful. Was T taught to think it was useful, but had his own doubts, expressed in these various characters' attitudes? Or that it was something shameful only the enemy would do... but then learned it wasn't only them...

Reply by Varda

Many thanks for your reply, Mith! Nice to see you again, and to reap the benefit of your great ME scholarship. I am not surprised you leaped to the defence of your namesake.  ;-)

On the matter of what Gandalf says to Frodo when he awakes.

My point is that Gandalf in the Shire had been as a father to Frodo, who had loved him as a father, especially after Bilbo, his only family, left. Gandalf also promised Bilbo he would look after Frodo.

So, tired or not, when Frodo wakes up and sees a friend dear almost as a father and asks him why he let him down, he has a right to a personal explanation. No, it did not have to be an epic,nor did it have to disobey Elrond's orders about rest, but just saying 'you will hear all in council' was a rebuff, a way of placing Frodo at arm's length.

It seems that Gandalf felt everything had all moved to a higher level now, and he is slightly ashamed of all the time he spent with the hobbits, and of being caught out. He might feel the need to establish a distance and recover his role as 'The Wise', or even The Great. To act like an Istari, and not an uncle. Sadly, Gandalf is reverting to his character as a wizard, and ceasing to be Frodo's father substitute.

Mith, what I am saying is what I have always said, that the Lord of The Rings is a great story and a successful book because it convinces us on a human level, that it shows realistic characters with believable motivation, even if they are hobbits, and for that reason we become involved with them, we care about them, and we read on to find out what happens to them.

The problem is, Gandalf is not human; he is a wizard, and his motivations are not that of ordinary people, nor can he be expected to have the emotions of humans. As guide and guardian of mortals, he can be expected to give practical and moral advice, but he cannot give love and affection as a real person does. He is fond of Frodo, but when Frodo wakes, he gets the response due to him from a Wizard, and no more.

In the passages set in Rivendell, Tolkien must re-establish Gandalf as a Wizard; a non-human, almost-omniscient advisor to the leaders of Middle Earth. As Galadriel says, 'needless were never Gandalf's deeds in life'. But to establish this role for Gandalf, Tolkien has to sacrifice the old, lovable, avuncular purveyor of the best fireworks in the Shire. In short, Frodo wakes to a new Gandalf, a Gandalf whose creator Tolkien needs to make tougher, wiser, more prescient; one who can lead them into the perils that lie ahead, and be believed.

It is this transformation that explains Gandalf's comment on the events up to the flight to the Ford, that 'it may have been better so.'

To say that the sequence of events that left Frodo with a wound that will never heal, and will send him off, at the end of the quest, to seek peace beyond the sea - to die, in short - is quite callous, unless you see that this is Gandalf advisor to the leaders of Middle Earth that is speaking, not Gandalf Frodo's friend. In the circumstances of great peril for the earth, it would be irrelevant and almost perverse for Gandalf to waste time on grieving that Frodo will never again be whole. That is the kind of thing a friend like Sam would do, not a wizard who has the whole world to worry about, not just one hobbit.

In short, this is a Wizard, and he is an Istari, so he must see the bigger picture, and not get mired down by an attachment to a hobbit. But the problem with mentioning the Grand Plan, which as you say Gandalf does several times is, no-one knows what it is, so it might as well not exist. Bad things as well as good happen, like the deaths of Boromir, Denethor and Theoden; are they part of the plan too? Then death for good people certainly can't be ruled out, so no-one is safe.

In The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien shows that fate, far from being set in stone, is fearfully erratic. Gandalf says Frodo was meant to have the ring, but he had it by pure chance. Also, Gollum got it by pure chance, and it was destroyed by pure chance. But was chance directed by something? But if so, what? The Valar? We can only assume if it says it in the book. And it doesn't.

You see Mith, Gandalf suggests that there is something directing it all, but he does not define any directing powers. The Ring was 'meant' to come to Frodo. 'Meant' in the passive, so there is no subject 'meaning' it to do so. The fate could come from Frodo rather than descend on him like a master playing chess. It is a neat way of saying there is a plan but at the same time avoiding the issue of whose plan. Because a plan suggests a planner. Without saying who is in the driving seat, Gandalf might as well be reading Frodo's horoscope when he says he was meant to find the ring.

Even as a Wizard, Gandalf was not all pride and arrogance. Certainly it was humbling for him to tell the Council of his failure. My point is that it was Frodo who deserved the explanation and the apology, and right away, but Gandalf was too busy planning his spot of grandstanding to communicate meaningfully with the hobbit.

In the end, Frodo gives up trying to learn what he wants because 'he did not think he would win the argument', not because he stops wanting to know. And Gandalf has the better of him because he has learned everything about Frodo when the hobbit talked in his sleep.

Gandalf has literally read Frodo's mind, but won't even give him information he has a right to know, because Gandalf assumes he has the right to tell Frodo what he wants when he wants.

But this right and power is turned upside down at the Council of Elrond; it turns out that the Prologue was right, and that it is hobbits and not wizards that will rule the fate of all, when the Council decides that the Ring must be thrown into the Fires of Mt Doom the hobbit who saves the day by volunteering to carry the Ring to Mordor.

This is a turn of events never suggested by Gandalf when he tells Frodo about the Ring at Bag End. Or if he does foresee it, he says nothing. Frodo only thought he was taking the Ring to Bree, or at most Rivendell. When Frodo volunteers he becomes the true hero of this quest; Gandalf does indeed have to adjust, because Frodo the Ringbearer from now on is the hero and the moral centre not only of the quest but also of Tolkien's story. Gandalf's didactic lectures become increasingly marginalised as the true moral centre of struggle becomes Frodo's heart and even his physical frame, where he fights desperately against the powerful evil spreading from the Ring.

We know all this is true, because Elrond tells us;

'I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo, and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it: Or if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?'

From now on, the hero of The Lord of The Rings is unquestionably human, and tiny; it is Frodo, and he will achieve his quest with the help not of a wizard but of a real friend, Sam.

Thank you for the chronology! You were always a genius at the timelines of Middle Earth.  ;-)  However, your timetable shows that from the last meeting of the White Council, where Saruman tells a lie (and so must already be working for Sauron or planning to do so) to the time he imprisons Gandalf over 50 years elapses. The host of genetically enhanced Uruk-hai that attack Rohan did not happen in five minutes; Saruman has been breeding his armies for a very long time, and despoiling and destroying the land around Isengard to do it. There is no excuse for Gandalf not seeing this, it must have been visible from outer space.

This is what Gandalf was put on Middle Earth for, to guide and direct, and see dangers. Of course he doesn't have spies; he has something much better; the good will of men and Elves and animals and trees and birds. All he had to do was watch and listen, he did not have to torture or spy. This wasn't something easily hidden, and yet he fails to see it. The fires of Orthanc must have blotted out the sun; bird and beast would have known, waters would have been fouled. Yet Gandalf, the Wise, did not see anything? Even Saruman can't believe his luck, when he says in the film, 'the love of the halfling's leaf has dulled your brain'

Well, it is a better excuse then just not doing his job, I suppose. But Gandalf DOES ask for information; when Gwaihir rescues him, he at once questions him; 'Are the men of Rohan still to be trusted, do you think?' he frets.

But Gandalf, as I said, has been a visitor to the court of King Theoden. He knows Wormtongue. Did he never wonder where Wormtongue came from and who was behind him? Did Gandalf, with his talent for, ahem, creative questioning, not think of putting the squeeze on Grima to learn something?

As I said in my post, the fact that Gandalf 'dies' yet gets sent back shows he has not achieved his task. He has not done the job.

Interestingly, there is another job he does not do. He bears one of the great Elven Rings. And yet it falls to Galadriel to tell Frodo how to understand his task of ringbearer. It is she who tells him;
'To bear a ring of power is to be alone'. They talk for a long time, and Frodo asks her many questions about the Ring, and receives answers as if from an equal. Now, Gandalf, a ringbearer, could have prepared Frodo for his task in this way, but he fails to. Must do better.

About the issue of torture, you say;
''I can only say that with any history it is the greatest mistake to view from hindsight or with the standards and mores that prevail in the present''

Mith, this is not history, it is fiction, and fantasy fiction at that. The mores of Middle Earth are the mores of the present, because it was written in comparatively recent times. Tolkien's idea of good and evil are not those of Beowulf or even of Chaucer, but of ourselves. Even if it weren't, torture has always been seen as the tool of the blackguard and the tyrant.

Bu in any case, Gandalf is an Istari, and you say;
''They (the Istari) were forbidden to match power with power or to dominate the Peoples of Middle-Earth by force or fear''

Well, torturing Gollum IS dominating by force and fear. Gandalf says he does this out of 'desperate need', but it is just a need for information, information which proves inadequate to tell Gandalf all he needs to know. Gollum is not tortured in order to save lives, or prevent evil; he is just tortured because Gandalf has not been doing his job and needs a quick way to find out what he should have known a long time ago. His cruelty to Gollum reflects his own desperation, not a desperate need.

But Mith, as I said, Gandalf is not human; he is superhuman, a wizard, an Istari who should not do like humans and become desperate and resort to savagery. If an Istari who has been sent to be a moral guide to the world resorts to torture, where is their moral authority? Pretty well thrown away. As if to prove that, Aragorn imitates him and repeats the torture, adding starvation and beating. Sure, if an Istari resorts to torture, why should a mere king not as well?

You say; 'In times of war many things are done to achieve victory.'

Well the Fenian leader George Mitchell said; 'there are things that a man should never do, no not even for his country.' If the victory requires that you do evil, what kind of victory is it, and for what kind of cause?

Both Gandalf and Aragorn, Aragorn especially, are tarnished by torturing Gollum. That is answer enough to the question of should they have done it.