February 7, 2012
The Fall of Gandalf
We have been reading The Lord of the Rings as a family and we are currently approaching the Cirith Ungol with Frodo, Sam and Golum. Cathy does a great job with the voices and characters and most nights when she finishes there is an outcry from the younger ranks. Don’t stop! Just keep reading it all night!
And no, our kid have not seen the movies. I admit so a certain degree of irritation when they tell me that all their friends seem to know everything about LOTR but only because they have seen the movies. This includes spoilers like “Golum dies in the end.” Bah. Cheap knowledge. Where is the depth, the sacrifice? Did you really run across Rohan with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimly? Did you really wander through the Emyn-Muil with Frodo and Sam? Did you really lose all hope at the bridge of Khazad-dum and weep on the slopes of Dimrill Dale? I don’t think so.
Speaking of spoilers, when we approached the chapter titled “The Bridge of Khazad-dum” it was let out that “someone was going to die” and this became the topic of intense speculation. Could it be Frodo? No, he’s like the main guy. Sam? No way. There is something enduring about Sam Gamgee. One of the other hobbits like, say, Pipin? It was thought that he might be expendable. Or maybe Gimly. He’s just a boring old dwarf. But Gandalf? What?! Don’t be silly. Gandalf practically is LOTR. You can pretend that Gandalf will die, but it could never come to that.
For the rare reader who neither read the book nor thinks he knows it all because he saw the movie , SPOILER ALERT!
And so we arrive at the bridge of Khazad-dum. Few scenes in literary history match it. The small, desperate, band has nearly been wiped out by the vile herd of orcs. They flee for their lives through the dark maze of caverns and tunnels. But now as they approach their escape route there comes a greater evil, the Balrog. We are never told precisely what it is, but what little slips through is reminiscent of a devil or a demon. A creature of immense power that dwells in the depths and terrifies even its allies. And even the brave elf Legolas falters and cannot loose an arrow at it, and the unstoppable Gimly covers his face in dread. If individuals of this stature falter, the evil here is deep indeed. Only Gandalf can hope to match his strength, but he is spend from the fight.
And so the showdown set up between Gandalf and the Balrog. The small band escapes over the narrow and fateful bridge while the orc hoard amasses behind them, pounding on their deep drums, “doom, doom, doom.” And the grey wizard takes his stand on the bridge, holding back the tide to save his friends and the ring (in a sense, to save the wold). He cries out against his nemesis with chilling determination: “You cannot pass!” “You cannot pass!” “You cannot pass!” Finally, when it seems he might falter he chooses to destroy the ancient bridge rather than allow the Balrog to take it. And for a moment it seems as though he has succeeded. The narrow archway crumbles, hurling the Balrog into the depths, but Gandalf’s side of the stone structure still holds. He will make it after all, we think. Gandalf wins! And yet something is wrong. You can sense it even on the first read. It can’t be that easy. The Balrog is too evil. He’s too other. You can’t just toss him into the pit. And hasn’t Aragorn been warning Gandalf about the peril of entering Moria all along? No, even now as the evil fiend falls we sense a final dreadful revelation is in store. The perch is too precarious; the adversary is too great. And there it comes: almost as an afterthought one of the thongs of the Balrog’s whip lashes out and drag’s the mighty wizard down with him into the depths.
This part was portrayed devastatingly in the film, btw. I can still see Gandalf holding on to the edge for one last moment – not out of desperation, no. Just so he can yell one last thing to his gaping friends: “Fly you fools!” Then he’s gone.
When we came to this part my kids were aghast, incensed, incredulous. They both agreed that Tolkien was a terrible author. It’s just not done! You don’t kill off your best guy, and we aren’t even a third of the way into the story! Cathy and I remained quite smug in our knowledge of upcoming events and I agreed: You don’t kill off Gandalf. He’s too good.
I know that Tolkien made much of the fact that he was not writing an allegory (contra Lewis). He was not trying to explain Christian ideas through the use of fiction. He was just writing an amazing story, nay, saga. And yet, it seems beyond doubt that he was inspired by the Christian story. The showdown with evil at the bridge of Khazad-dum is reminiscent of the showdown between Jesus and the powers of hell in the biblical narrative. He is the only one who stands between the small band of humans and the powers of darkness. He casts them out. He declares, “You cannot pass!” He sacrifices himself for his friends. He casts Satan down into the pit, but not without a great cost to himself. He may not be snatched away by the thong of a whip, but he is bitten in the heel. Maybe this redefines the meaning of heroism. The powerful taking side with the powerless, giving all for those who lack the strength. And this against great odds. The forces of evil are amassed against us, but we have a champion.
And our champion, like Gandalf, comes back in glory. Maybe the best way to say it is that LOTR is a story in its own right, but we hear in this story majestic echoes of The Story.