Gandalf is very firm.
“I always meant to see you all safe (if possible) over the mountains…and now by good management and good luck I have done it. Indeed we are now a good deal further east than I ever meant to come with you, for after all this is not my adventure. I may look in on it again before it is all over, but in the meanwhile I have some other pressing business to attend to.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, Queer Lodgings”)
Even when the dwarves beg him to stay, even when they offer him gold, which, as we know, would be very unusual for such grasping folk, Gandalf resists. And so Thorin and Co, with their burglar, Bilbo, are about to be on their own.
Welcome, dear readers, as always!
Wizards are always shown to us as ancient and mysterious creatures, with great powers, and rather severe behavior. Think of Mickey’s sorcerer in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, for example.
Even so, when called upon, they usually do what they’re requested or obliged to—even coming back from death, as Gandalf does after finally defeating the Balrog—
to complete what they’ve begun.
For those reading The Hobbit for the first time, then, it must come as quite a disappointment (never mind to Bilbo and the dwarves) that Gandalf seems almost to shrug, saying ”It’s not my adventure”, and disappearing, just as the company is about to enter the perilous Mirkwood.
After all, it was Gandalf who originally appeared on Bilbo’s doorstep
and brought the dwarves
and coaxed and threatened both Bilbo and the dwarves to make a contract,
as well as producing the map with its secret moon runes.
On their journey, Gandalf saved the company from the trolls,
obtained shelter for them—and a reading of the map’s secret—at Rivendell,
was instrumental in their escaping the goblins,
indirectly in their rescue from the Wargs,
as well as cheerfully tricking their way into their refreshing and reequipping at Beorn’s.
(This is a Ted Nasmith illustration wonderfully showing the puzzlement of Beorn at the appearance of the dwarves in installments. He, along with the Hildebrandts and Alan Lee, are among my real heroes of Tolkien illustration. This isn’t to leave other brilliant artists out, however, and, some time soon, I want to write a post about as many of the wonderful illustrators of JRRT’s work as I can. We are truly blessed that so many gifted artists have spent so much time on Tolkien’s work.)
This is not the only wizardly disappointment I’ve encountered recently, however.
Think of what Dorothy and her friends have gone through, not only to reach Oz,
but then to return, having fulfilled his demand that they deal with the Wicked Witch of the West, which Dorothy does with a simple bucket of water.
They then find that he is a fraud,
and, although he gently tricks Dorothy’s friends into believing in themselves,
he sails off in his balloon,
leaving Dorothy herself to take one more hazardous trip to find the way home.
Add to this list a more recent installment. In 1981, the Disney studio produced Dragonslayer.
It’s a film I recently rewatched and enjoyed—pre-CGI, I don’t think that you’d ever see a more wonderfully imagined dragon (built, in fact, by the same Industrial Light and Magic which had just done the special effects for Star Wars 4 and 5)—
but in which the wizard, having agreed to help villagers plagued by a dragon, never even leaves his keep,
but appears to be murdered in his own courtyard!
“Appears” is the right word, however, because the wizard, Ulrich, reappears in a rather spectacular way and is instrumental in the ultimate destruction of the dragon.
As well, although the Wizard, who accurately describes himself as “a good man, but a bad wizard”, fails her, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, tells Dorothy the secret of the silver (not ruby, as in the film) slippers and Dorothy flies home to Kansas.
Gandalf, however, is another matter. When he leaves the company, they are then faced with Mirkwood
and its spiders,
from the Elvenking’s dungeons even before they reach the Lonely Mountain
and Smaug the dragon.
When Gandalf does reappear, he has little to do with the story, participating in the Battle of the Five Armies, but mostly acting as a traveling companion on Bilbo’s return journey, via Beorn,
until he finally reaches home again, where, a few years later, Gandalf turns up with a dwarvish friend to visit.
In fact, as events prove (and we might imagine that Gandalf believed that they would), Bilbo has very ably filled Gandalf’s place through the latter part of the story, not only defeating the spiders and rescuing the dwarves from the dungeons, but even in finding out Smaug’s vulnerability,
as well as in using the Arkenstone as a political tool to gain concessions from the extremely reluctant Thorin.
But what was Gandalf actually doing, when he told the dwarves that he had “pressing business” (later adding “pressing business away south”), which took him away from his role in their adventure?
In fact, as we learn in “The Council of Elrond” in Book Two of The Lord of the Rings, it was to deal with another disappointing wizard—and this almost a fatal one, not only for Gandalf, but perhaps for Middle-earth as a whole.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Avoid disappointments—and wizards who may be good men, but…
And know that, as always, there’s
If you’re interested in Dragonslayer, don’t be put off by the very mixed reviews it initially received. Although, as some critics jumped to point out, it doesn’t have the most original plot (apprentice wizard, left on his own, is initially brash, but finds his way), on what is maybe my third viewing, I was still pleased by the lush settings and costume designs, and, for 1981, very imaginative special effects and there are several twists—and not only the apparent early death of the wizard–which are quite unexpected…