And here it is – the passage where Gandalf dies. So many other things happen, of course – there’s the discovery of Balin’s Tomb, the Orc attack, and the revelation of the Balrog. Actually, there’s even more. In this five mile stretch, the Fellowship makes it out of Moria, past Durin’s stone and the Mirrormere.
But what I want to take a look at today are the last moments of Gandalf the Grey’s life. His leaving the Fellowship is huge, to be sure, but in the days of Bilbo and The Hobbit, it was just how Gandalf worked. He’d be with them for a bit, and then simply leave for some other task. Even in this story, he had been “delayed” by something or other.
From the time they rose that morning, Gandalf’s only mission was to get them out of Moria. They were close to its edge, but he wasn’t sure of their exact position. Still, Gandalf wished to have a look around while they searched for the exit.
This is how they found Balin’s Tomb, which not only gave Gandalf a good idea where they were, but where they had to go to get out. And then there were drums.
‘Trapped!’ cried Gandalf. ‘Why did I delay? Here we are, caught, just as they were before.’
Gimli had been mesmerized by the last entry in the Book of Mazarbul “We cannot get out.” He was repeating it, and it seems as if Gandalf might have been taken under its “spell” for a second. Then he says, “But I was not here then. We will see what – ”
With that, Gandalf took charge, correcting the plans of both Aragorn and Boromir, hunks to the end. It was soon discovered that there were Orcs, Uruks and even a cave-troll. During the ensuing melee, Gandalf isn’t mentioned at all, until the end when he calls for a timely retreat. Through it, he acts as a rear guard, though Aragorn protested. ‘Do as I say!’ said Gandalf fiercely. ‘Swords are no more use here. Go!’
Through his powers, Gandalf held back the enemy for as long as he could, admitting that he was “rather shaken.” After walking for an hour without the sounds of pursuit (mostly going down stairs), Gandalf admitted that he had been “suddenly faced by something that I have not met before.”
Gandalf had heard the Orcs talking of fire, and then he felt through the door that something else had entered the chamber. “The orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent.” Gandalf could tell that the thing had “perceived” him and his spell cast upon the door.
This was the Balrog, and here we learn a bit about it (before actually knowing it’s a Balrog). Gandalf did not have any idea what it was, “but I have never felt such a challenge.” It wasn’t necessarily stronger than him, but it cast a counter-spell, which nearly broke Gandalf. He doesn’t just say that it nearly broke his own spell, but that it nearly broke him. Of course, Gandalf’s spell was fully broken by the Balrog’s counter, and he had to cast another, which ultimately broke the door.
With the door gone, Gandalf should have been able to get a look at the thing before him. But the only glimpse afforded to him before it threw the wizard down the stairs showed him that “something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside.”
It can’t be stressed enough that Gandalf didn’t know that it was a Balrog. This says quite a bit about the War of Wrath that closed out the First Age. So thorough was the destruction of Morgoth that everything related to him was wiped out, including Balrogs – or so it was thought.
Gandalf knew that there were many evil things in Middle-earth that had no connection to either Morgoth or Sauron. They were evil for evil’s sake and maybe even too numerous to count. So it’s not really surprising that he didn’t know specifically what it was.
During a brief respite, Gandalf said to Frodo that he took after Bilbo. “There is more about you than meets the eye, as I said of him long ago.” Gandalf said that a couple of times to Bilbo – or something similar. “There is always more about you than anyone expects!”
As they continued, led by Gandalf, they saw the light of fire set by the Orcs. It seems to have been set before they confronted them in Balin’s Tomb, as Gandalf led them through another passageway instead of the main corridor. It placed the fire between the Fellowship and the Orcs. All that separated our heroes from escape was the Bridge of Khazad-Dum.
The bridge was narrow and dangerous, and spanned a dark and seemingly bottomless chasm. Gimli now took the lead while Gandalf and Legolas took the rear guard position.
After giving the description of the Balrog (“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’s Legolas who knows what it is.
Since he was born after the War of Wrath, Legolas had definitely never seen a Balrog before. But he was probably raised with the legends enough to know exactly what one looked like. That probably seems a bit of a stretch. Why have Legolas know what it is at all? Why not Gandalf?
‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’
Now Gandalf understood what he saw at the door in the brief second before he was thrown down the stairs. Like Legolas (apparently), he knew the history of the Balrogs, their powers, and that they could kill all of them before breakfast.
‘Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!’
The battle between Gandalf and the Balrog is really fascinating. Though Gandalf had Glamdring in his right hand, this wasn’t really a battle of physical strength. The Balrog could see what Gandalf was – an Ishtar, a wizard. Or at the very least, he could see that Gandalf was no ordinary Man or even some lofty necromancer. Just to drive that point home, Gandalf called:
“I am the servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Arnor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”
Here, Gandalf was telling the Balrog that he was one of the Ainur – that he was a Maiar. The flame of Arnor is the same Flame Imperishable that Illuvatar gave to the Ainur in the Ainulindale of the Silmarillion. And while Gandalf had within him the Flame Imperishable, the Balrog was merely the “flame of Udun,” a flame from beneath Thangorodrim, where Morgoth used to live. Unlike Gandalf, the Balrog served a dead master.
The fight then turned more physical, though both were obviously augmented by their powers. But that didn’t last long. With his staff, Gandalf purposely broke the bridge which the Balrog had now stepped upon. The demon fell, but caught Gandalf with his whip. “He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss.”
A Few Notes
- I realize that I’m necessarily skipping quite a bit. A slew of things happen and there are a slew of things to talk about. Soon enough, Tolkien will enter another walking montage and it’ll allow me to go back and rummage around some.
- It’s fun that Boromir’s horn stops the Balrog for a moment. It must have been some crazy Chuck Mangione coming from that Horn of Blasting, no? It feels so good!
- Did you ever notice the similarities between the fight between the Gandalf vs. Balrog fight and the Obi-Wan vs. Vader fight? Obi-War even has his very own “Fly you fools!” moment (Run, Luke, Run!).
About the Photo
Obviously, finding a bridge in a mine which spans a chasm is pretty unlikely. And while I had certain land bridges in mind (such as a dark, b&w shot of something like this), I wasn’t able to get to any. So there’s this old railroad drawbridge in Lewiston, Idaho. Look! You can even seen Gandalf’s “blinding sheet of white flame” springing up to crack the bridge!
- Day 170
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 839 (385 from Rivendell)
- 52 miles to Lothlórien
- 940 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s place in the narrative begins with: Frodo sat up. and ends with …calling Boromir to come with him. Book II, Chapter 4-6. From Moria’s East Gate to near the Silverload. 22nd day out of Rivendell. January 15, 3019 TA. (map)