Greetings! And welcome to Midyear’s Day, 3018 of the Third Age of Middle-earth! This is an odd little day, but an important one in our story.
Midyear’s Day is not in June or July. It’s in a three-day span called Lithe which falls between June and July. It goes like this: June 30 > Lithe 1 > Midyear’s Day > Lithe 2 > July 1. In our modern calendars, we don’t have Lithe, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m just going to chuck it into the final days of June.
But keep in mind that the events in this post actually took place three days after Gollum escaped the Wood-elves (and even that date was speculation). With a bit of hand-waving, we’ll all be fine.
A Week Without Gandalf
Midyear’s Day is a turning point in the Lord of the Rings story, and we hear all about it at the Council of Elrond. Of course, we’ll remember that Gandalf had left The Shire on June 25. For the next week he rode with a “foreboding of some danger, still hidden from me but drawing near.”
Somehow or another, he had messages coming to him. These likely came from the Dunédine, though if so, they came quickly. The Battle of Osgiliath happened on June 20th, roughly 800 miles to the southeast. But rumors and news can be passed along quickly by horse, so it’s not impossible (though stretches credulity a tad).
Gandalf claims to have heard of the Nazgûl leading the attacking Enemy from “a few fugitives from the South.” This seems incredibly unlikely given the timeline, but I think it hints at the “unpublished manuscript” in which Tolkien toyed with the idea that the Nazgûl were actually unleashed a month or so before the battle. This would give the refugees time to flee those 800 miles.
The important part of this day, however, is Gandalf’s meeting with Radagast the Brown. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Radagast’s Travels and Timeline Ideas
From the text of Lord of the Rings, we learn very little about Radagast’s movements prior to meeting Gandalf (or after meeting Gandalf, for that matter). Tolkien, however, worked out a scenario, which we’ve already covered.
Briefly, around May 15, Radagast saw the Nazgûl. Now, in order for this to have happened then, we’d have to follow the timeline from the “unpublished manuscript” appearing in Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Companion.
Tolkien realized that “On June 29th Radagast could not know this [that the Nine were abroad, etc.], if Black Riders did not cross the Anduin till June 20 [Battle of Osgiliath].” And he was right.
To fix this problem, he decided not only that Sauron had released the Nazgûl to search for the Ring much earlier than Osgiliath; that Osgiliath was merely their coming out party. In actuality, he speculated, they had been called by Sauron around the end of April. They operated in secrecy, taking no forms, but still scaring the hell out of everybody.
Radagast, being a wizard, witnessed what they truly were around May 15. With that, he made his way to Saruman in Isengard, arriving in early June. In this timeline, the Nazgûl have just visited Isengard to suss out Saruman, but their potential and speculative visit doesn’t really play into this (at least, it doesn’t have to).
Radagast arrived at Isengard, and stayed until June 15ish, when he was sent by Saruman to find Gandalf. Of course, he unwittingly played this role in Saruman’s plan to capture Gandalf and ultimately get the One Ring for himself.
Over the next fortnight, Radagast searched for Gandalf, knowing that he “might be found in a wild region with the uncouth name of Shire.” Perhaps exhausted and spent, Radagast plopped himself down along the Greenway somewhere not far south of Bree.
Meeting on the Greenway
Upon their meeting, Radagast tells Gandalf that he has “an urgent errand” and that his “news is evil.” Quietly, he then whispers “Nazgûl. The Nine are abroad again. They have crossed the River secretly and are moving westward. They have taken the guise of riders in black.”
In typical Gandalf fashion, he knew about this, though he didn’t actually know about this. He feared it, and now realized that he suspected it, he “dreaded without knowing it.”
The Riders, Radagast explained, were asking “for news of a land called Shire.” He reveals that Saruman sent him with the offer to help Gandalf if needed.
Gandalf reasoned that since Saruman was “the greatest of my order,” and had “long studied the arts of the Enemy himself,” perhaps Saruman had already found a way to “drive back the Nine” just as he drove Sauron into Dol Guldur long ago.
Radagast urged Gandalf to hurry, telling Gandalf that he probably couldn’t reach Isengard “before the Nine discover” the Shire.
Before parting, Gandalf gave Radagast a mission, one that (as we’ll later discover) Saruman didn’t consider. “Send out messages to all the beasts and birds that are your friends. Tell them to bring news of anything that bears on this matter to Saruman and Gandalf.” Radagast assured him it would be done, and they parted.
Never a Greater Mistake!
Because Gandalf was so close to Bree and was already weary from the day’s ride, he decided to stay overnight at the Prancing Pony in Bree. He wanted to return to the Shire to tell Frodo to leave immediately, but thought that leaving a note for him with Mr. Butterbur, in innkeeper, would suffice.
Gandalf (the king of ‘hindsight is 20/20’) would later admit that this was his greatest mistake. And it seems a little baffling how he could make it.
When he arrived at the Prancing Pony, a pub where he was apparently well-known, he took a room and composed a letter to Frodo:
The most important takeaways were that Gandalf wanted Frodo to leave the Shire by the end of July and head to Bree. Prior to this, Gandalf suggested Bree, but basically left it up to Frodo.
In Gandalf’s mind, he would give a quick visit to Saruman in Isengard and then dash back to Bree. By that time, he hoped, Frodo would have already passed through and left a message for him.
Gandalf told Frodo that he would likely meet “Strider” who was actually named Aragorn (neither names meant anything to Hobbits). After Bree, Frodo was to go directly to Rivendell.
In a postscript, Frodo was warned not to use the Ring again. In another, Gandalf admitted that Butterbur had a horrible memory and would possibly forget to send this letter. In that event, Frodo was to confide in Elrond at Rivendell.
On the envelope he wrote: “Mr. Frodo Baggings, Bag End, Hobbiton in the Shire” – a curious address seeing as how the Nazgûl were specifically searching for “Baggins” and “Shire.” Seriously, why would Gandalf write that on the envelope?
With letter in hand, he burst into Butterbur’s office without even knocking.
“Barley, I’m off in the morning,” he said as a greeting. “Will you do something for me?”
Butterbur agreed without knowing even the nature of the favor.
“I’m in a hurry,” said Gandalf, “and I’ve no time myself, but I want a message took to the Shire. Have you anyone you can send, and trust to go?”
Butterbur assured him that he could find someone the following day or maybe the next. Gandalf admonished him to make it tomorrow and handed him the letter. Butterbur “put it by safe.” Not in the safe – by the safe. (I’d love to know what Butterbur’s safe was like. Also, the combination was absolutely 1-2-3.)
It’s a little curious that Gandalf didn’t go directly to the Shire. Of course, if he did, we wouldn’t have as much tension and drama in The Fellowship of the Ring. Still, Gandalf knew this was quite possibly life or death, that the Nazgûl would likely find the Shire in the next week or so (according to Radagast), and that Butterbur was likely to forget to send it.
Ultimately it would take the Nazgûl a little longer than feared, but there’s little excuse for Gandalf’s mistake.
The next morning, Gandalf would leave for Isengard.
Since we’ve already covered everything that happened tomorrow (Lithe 2), our next stop will be July 1st, which is tomorrow. See how this can get a bit confusing? But tomorrow, we’ll be back on track with the calendar, just in time for the Nazgûl to begin their search for the Ring.