As ever, dear readers, welcome.
We recently received an e-mail from our dear friend, Erik, which included a new Ted Nasmith illustration of Gandalf opposing the Witch King of Angmar at the ruined main gate of Minas Tirith (see The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).
As Ted Nasmith is one of our favorite Tolkien artists, this would have been a treat in itself, but Erik included a quotation from the artist, which we present here since, so far, this is the only direct description we’ve seen of such an artist at work–
“I’m pleased to present a newly completed commission, ‘Gandalf Defies the Witch King’. A lot of thought went into this work, and it was more focused and difficult than some. How to capture the intensity of this scene, where the wizard is described as “silent and still”, so I’ve used perspective (seeing from a low angle), and the wizard’s staff alit to evoke his power and steadiness in the face of the onslaught by Sauron’s minions and their Captain.
The riven doors of Minas Tirith were another concern. A blow powerful enough to shatter iron was tricky to depict, and I spent a good deal of effort showing the imagined effect, and recognized that it in itself gave the viewer a perfect metaphor for the destruction and violence the Enemy was bringing to the war.
Pippin is not described in detail at this point, but was present. It is impressed upon us that anyone in the vicinity of the Witch King was seized with intense terror, but I chose that Pippin, a Guard of Minas Tirith in uniform, would need to be at least standing, if frightened, waiting to confront Gandalf with the news he brings so urgently about what was unfolding far above at Rath Dinan, with Faramir and his father Denethor. And yes, I included the rooster which heralds the dawn, and whose crowing is answered by the horns of Rohan.”
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, we see numerous Gandalfs: the wise counselor of Bilbo and Frodo, in turn, the scholar of the Ring, the hardy traveler in the trip south, the mysterious figure in white seemingly returned from the dead, but a role which he assumes only a few times is that of which he really is, one of the Maiar, spirits sent from Valinor to Middle-earth to combat the influence of Sauron, himself one of them before his corruption by Melkor. In this role, Gandalf speaks with an authority he rarely uses. We see this the first time when the Fellowship is desperately trying to escape the Mines of Moria and they are being pursued by orcs and trolls—and something more:
“The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.
‘Ai! ai! wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come!’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)
As Gandalf encourages the others to run—“Over the bridge! Fly!…This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!”—he himself stands in the middle of the bridge, “leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white.”
There are many depictions of this—and here are just a few. First, by the Hildebrandts,
then a rough sketch by John Howe
and some preliminary work by Alan Lee
and finally two complete pictures by Ted Nasmith.
It interests us to see what will be the focus of the illustration. In JRRT’s complete description of the scene, we see the two figures juxtaposed when Gandalf challenges him:
“The Balrog made no answer The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.”
In the images we’ve selected, the focus is generally on the physical confrontation, but the first of the two Nasmiths shows a defiant Gandalf, mirroring his actual challenge:
“ ‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’ “
Here, for a moment, Gandalf sheds his pose as an elderly counselor, revealing that he is one of the Maiar, a servant of the divine figure Eru Illuvatar, who had placed that Secret Fire at the heart of Arda, or earth. The Balrog is itself a Maia, but Gandalf then makes a strong contrast between them. “Anor” is the sun, the flame of which burns away the shadows. “Udun” presents two possibilities. In the present, it’s a valley on the northwest side of Mordor, whose exit is the Black Gate, thus tying the Balrog to Sauron. In the past, it’s a version of the name of a stronghold of the rebel Vala, Melkor, Utumno. Thus, Gandalf is implying that, even though a Maia, the Balrog has less power as servant of the “Shadow”, that is, Sauron, who has lost his previous form and only appears as the searching eye or, at his fall, as “a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”) before collapsing and disappearing.
The second time Gandalf reveals himself, it is in the scene with which we began.
“And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder; there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.
In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax.”
(The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).
We’ve already seen Nasmith’s illustration, but here are several more.
The first we believe is by the Hildebrandts
and the second is by Angus McBride, mostly known as a military artist, but who also did a series of Tolkien illustrations.
The difference in focus is clear: the Hildebrandts want us to see Gandalf facing the Witch King, with all of his servants behind and the gate barely there at all. In the McBride, Gandalf is placed directly on top of the fragments of the gate, sharing the focus, his hand raised to block the King, who is framed in the arch of the gate. In the Nasmith,
the gate has become much more developed and detailed, being a long passageway, into which the King has ridden, behind him Grond, the ram which has (perhaps along with the power of the King?) destroyed the gate. The center of the picture is Gandalf and, in contrast to all of that detail—from the elaborate ram in the background to the fragments of the gate and even to the King’s horse’s breastband—he is the picture of simplicity: Shadowfax has no tack (saddle, saddle cloth, halter, reins) and Gandalf himself is dressed simply in a long, white robe.
Against this are Gandalf’s words, not quite so revealing as those he spoke to the Balrog, but with the same force—here not in sun/flame imagery, but in prophecy:
“ ‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master. Go!’ ”
In return, the Witch King laughs and threatens, but the simple crowing of a cock—and then the sound of distant horns—both reassure us that dawn is coming and the Shadow to which Gandalf presents a contrast: Witch King black to Gandalf white, will soon be swept away.
Thanks, as ever, for reading and, as always,