‘When did you last see Gandalf?’ asked Frodo. ‘Do you know where he is, or what he is doing?’
Strider looked grave. ‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘I came west with him in the spring. I have often kept watch on the borders of the Shire in the last few years, when he was busy elsewhere.’
–Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 10.
When the hobbits first met Aragorn, as Strider, in Bree at the Prancing Pony, he explained to them that he “came west” with Gandalf in the spring.
To be specific, Aragorn had captured Gollum, taking him to Mirkwood. Two days later, Gandalf met up with them. After five days – this day, March 29 – they departed Mirkwood, leaving Gollum under the watch and care of Thranduil and the Silvan elves. And while Aragorn didn’t reveal to the hobbits what he and Gandalf had accomplished with Gollum, that story would soon come out at the Council of Elrond.
But that’s far in the future, and much must happen before we get there.
What Gollum Told Gandalf
As it stands now, over the past five days, Gandalf and Aragorn interviewed Gollum. This was clearly a more pleasant experience for the creature than his previous interview with Sauron.
Through torture and abuse, Sauron could get only two words out of Gollum: “Shire” and “Baggins.” But how did Aragorn and Gandalf do?
Aragon, for his part, admitted to putting a halter around Gollum’s neck, gagging him, and depriving him of food and water. It was Gandalf, not he, who “endured long speech with him.”
In the Lord of the Rings chapter, “Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf tells Frodo the story of Sméagol, Déagol and the Ring. The only way he could know any of the more personal details of the story is through Sméagol, Gollum, himself. The only time Gandalf ever had that chance was over the past few days, March 23-28, 3018.
Gandalf will explain a bit more at the Council of Elrond (which wouldn’t take place for another six months): “But I learned then first that Gollum’s ring came out of the Great River nigh to the Gladden Fields. And I learned also that he had possessed it long. Many lives of his small kind. The power of the ring had lengthened his years far beyond their span; but that power only the Great Rings wield.”
This was huge.
Over the past few months, Gandalf had been in Minas Tirith learning all he could about the Ring of Power, fearing that Bilbo’s Ring was just that. And now he was all but certain.
There was no time to waste. In fact, this little detour had already cost him dearly. Sure, Gollum’s confession was important, but Gandalf was fairly certain that he would be able to tell upon seeing the Ring itself.
If Gandalf would have went straight to the Shire rather than to Mirkwood, he would have saved perhaps no time at all.
Let me try to explain this wild speculation.
The detour to Thranduil’s Caverns took Gandalf roughly 500 miles out of his way. Additionally, it tacked on five days to the journey (the five days spent interviewing Gollum).
It seems that Gandalf was on foot traveling from Minas Tirith through Lórien. Once he received the news of Gollum’s capture, it’s likely that he acquired a horse. But had he not received that news, he probably would have continued to the Shire on foot.
From Lórien to the Shire is a distance of 600ish miles. On foot that would take a able-bodied hiker about three weeks – a time that would have brought Gandalf to the Shire by April 10th-ish.
In actuality, Gandalf made it to the Shire, following the five days with Aragorn and Gollum in Mirkwood, by April 12th (and we’ll go into more detail on that later, but for now let’s just say that he had help). Regardless of which path he chose – to detour to meet Aragorn and Gollum, or to go straight to the Shire – he would have arrived at Frodo’s door at around the same time.
But the meeting with Gollum showed very clearly how time was a factor – something that he wouldn’t have known with any certainty had he went straight to the Shire. It stressed to him that the Enemy was aware that the One Ring was likely in play. He learned that Sauron knew of “Baggins” and “Shire” and that it was only a matter of time before all the pieces would be put together.
What Was Sauron Up To?
At this point, not much. When Sauron let Gollum go he hoped that his spies would keep track of him. He expected him to find “Baggins” and seek some kind of revenge on this thief. We learn in “The Hunt for the Ring” in Unfinished Tales that after leaving Mordor Gollum had been followed by Sauron’s spies, but he hid inside the Dead Marshes, “where Sauron’s emissaries could not or would not follow him.” It is near here where Aragorn tracked him down.
“The Hunt for the Ring” doesn’t give any exact dates for when Sauron learned of Gollum’s capture and whereabouts. And from how it seems, he would not learn for several months.
This was also due to the servants of Saruman (the wizard) misleading Sauron’s spies. Also, the Dúnedain, Aragorn’s Rangers, vigilantly kept guard over the Shire as well as, it seems, Mirkwood.
Sauron would soon (or already had by this time) become aware of this, but there was little left to do. We’re told that Sauron’s “arm was not yet long enough to reach Saruman in Isengard.”
Eventually, Sauron would turn to the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, to track down “Baggins,” but this is a decision he couldn’t make lightly. Because of this, he would hesitate, not making any move at all until June.
But now, on March 29th, it’s 177 days before Frodo leaves the Shire.
April 3rd – Let’s talk a bit about Gollum.