Gandalf the Torturer
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
" 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 )
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
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
'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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.