The ‘Unanswerable Question’ of Gandalf and Bilbo

Finally! Frodo and Bilbo are reunited! On his 111th birthday, Bilbo left the Shire. Seventeen years later, he and Frodo meet again. For twelve years, Frodo had lived with Bilbo, and they were basically inseparable. When Bilbo left, Frodo more or less took on his roll as weird guy at Bag End, but mostly, he just missed his old friend.

The biggest reason that Frodo set out on this journey was to see Bilbo once again. Sure, he knew he had an important task – to bring the Ring to Rivendell – but mostly, the separation was a killer.

Bilbo related what he had done the year before settling in Rivendell. He had traveled all over the place, making it to Dale to visit the dwarves, “but somehow he had steered all the time towards Rivendell. That’s all pretty simple, but there’s something he says that is not. At least not at first glance.

He relates that he had heard about the Ring from Gandalf, who had been to Rivendell often. “It is a pity that Gandalf did not find out more sooner.” Bilbo considered returning to Hobbiton to get the Ring several times, but he was getting old and neither Gandalf nor Elrond would let him. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.”

As we know, Gandalf had suspected something was strange with the Ring ever since he learned that Bilbo had it. But he wasn’t sure what it was. In fact, he wasn’t completely sure until April of 3018 (it was now October of 3018). Gandalf’s whereabouts are well known through that timespan.

When Gandalf learned about the Ring, he went immediately to the Shire to see Frodo. This was, as stated, in April. As he was leaving the Shire, he ran into Radagast, who told him that the Nazgul were closing in. He also told him to seek our Saruman. Gandalf then went to Bree, where he left a note for Frodo. This was on Midyear’s Day (basically, the middle of the three days between June and July). Immediately after that, Gandalf went to Isengard to see Saruman. He was a guest at Orthanc from July 10th till September 18th. The next week was spent in Edoras where he tamed Shadowfax. He then made haste for the Shire, where he arrived September 29th. From that point on, he’s a few days behind Frodo and the hobbits.

At no point in any of this time did he have a chance to check back in at Rivendell. So, by the time that Gandalf knew for sure that the ring was the One Ring, it’s impossible that he could have spoken to Bilbo, which seems to make this statement a bit of a mistake on Tolkien’s part.

It isn’t so rare that this happens. Many times in his writing, Tolkien would be headed in a certain direction, but then change that thought, and neglect to go back and change what came before it. Maybe this is one of those instances.

Or maybe not. It’s possible that sometime before he knew for certain that Bilbo’s ring was The Ring, he could have told Bilbo his mind.

In 3001, Bilbo left the Shire. At that point, Gandalf was suspicious that his ring was the One Ring, but he urged Bilbo not to take it with him to Rivendell. A year later, Bilbo arrived in Rivendell, and Gandalf set off in search of Gollum, and doubled the guard on the Shire. He would only have done this if he thought that the Enemy would try to get The Ring. In 3008, Gandalf visited the Shire for the last time (until he met again with Frodo in April of 3018).

For the next eight years, Gandalf and Aragorn searched for Gollum, but were unable to find him – this was when Gollum was in Mordor. But in 3017, a year before our tale begins, Gollum was released only to be captured by Aragorn. The next year, in June, Gollum escaped.

Gandalf wouldn’t have basically dedicated his entire life to finding Gollum and thus the true nature of The Ring unless he was pretty damn sure that the ring was The Ring. And while he didn’t know with absolute certainty what it was, he was probably confident enough to tell Bilbo to stick to Rivendell.

The reasons he gave him, however, might have been less than truthful. He warned that the Enemy was on the prowl (not quite true yet), and would make mincemeat out of him. And while Sauron wouldn’t know the name “Baggins” until he captured Gollum (3009 – 3017ish), Gandalf would not have known that.

The true reason might have been for Bilbo’s own safety from himself and The Ring. When Bilbo was leaving the Shire in 3001, he was going to take The Ring. Gandalf pleaded with him to leave it – at least in The Shire it would be safe (and Gandalf didn’t know at that point that Bilbo was going to Rivendell). Bilbo seriously didn’t want to leave it behind: “I won’t give my Precious away, I tell you!” After he said that, he went for his sword.

It was only through Gandalf’s threats (“you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked”) that Bilbo was convinced to leave it behind. Certainly Gandalf wouldn’t have forgotten this when Bilbo later suggested that he simply return to Hobbiton, pick up the Ring and bring it back to Rivendell. He had zero reason to trust that Bilbo wouldn’t once again be possessed by the Ring. Bilbo had rid himself of it in Rivendell, and so in Rivendell he should remain.

A Few Notes

  • The idea of the “unanswerable questions” over Gandalf’s timeline comes from Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Guide. While this book is an essential resource, I can’t agree with their conclusion that these are actually “unanswerable.”
  • I hope I’m not moving too slowly through the Rivendell chapters. I really want to be able to delve into the Council of Elrond. So far I’m stuck in Many Meetings. Here’s hoping!
Camera: Kodak Brownie Hawkeye || Film: Kodak PPF-2 (expired 09/1999)

Camera: Kodak Brownie Hawkeye || Film: Kodak PPF-2 (expired 09/1999)

About the Photo
When I think of Bilbo, I think of the open road. Even though Frodo (probably) traveled a greater distance, Bilbo’s heart was in the journey. Gandalf, of course, was always on the road. And now that it’s basically summer, so am I!


  • Day 112
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 560 (107 from Rivendell)
  • 360 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,218 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book II, Chapter 3. Walking south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. Yule 1 – Yule 2, 3018-9 TA. (map)

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