Welcome to June 28, 3018, the day (well, night) that Gollum escaped from the Wood-elves. We don’t have a lot of information to go on, but let’s dive on in.
The Back Story
There are two main actors in the backstory of Gollum’s escape – Gollum himself, and Sauron. Gollum had been held captive by Sauron for some indeterminable amount of time (this was discussed here). Sauron allowed Gollum to escape Mordor hoping that he would flap his way back to his homeland where the Dark Lord believed “Baggins” and “Shire” might be found.
This plan was dashed when Aragorn tracked down and captured Gollum in the Dead Marshes in the suburbs of Mordor. After dragging the gross little creature to Mirkwood, Gandalf questioned him, and learned the truth of Bilbo’s Ring.
Unfortunately for everyone, Khamûl, the second-in-command Nazgûl was overseeing affairs in Dol Guldur, Southern Mirkwood. His spies learned that Gollum had been captured by a man and taken to Thranduil’s Realm in Northern Mirkwood. After a bit of making-sure, Khamûl sends word to Sauron.
Tolkien speculated that Khamûl would have waited a bit to be certain that Gandalf was involved. Word, then, didn’t get to Sauron in Mordor until late Aprilish.
Sauron’s Two Strokes
We learn in “The Hunt for the Ring” that when Sauron was told about Gollum’s capture and Gandalf’s involvement, he was “in great haste and fear.” He needed more information, but because of the Dúnedain and Saruman’s own spies were spreading disinformation, Sauron could learn nothing.
Calming some, Sauron decided to basically say “fuck it” and plan an attack. If he couldn’t be all crafty about getting his Ring back, he would just start a war.
His first move was to release the Nazgûl. Though Tolkien toyed with the idea of Sauron releasing the Nazgûl a bit earlier (April), he seems to have mostly decided that they would be unleashed for the Battle of Osgiliath. At the same time, Sauron’s forces would also attack the Wood-elves.
“The Orcs assailed the realm of Thranduil, with orders to recapture Gollum; and the Lord of Morgul was sent forth openly to battle against Gondor.”
Escaped? That Is Ill News Indeed
At the Council of Elrond, Legolas told a little bit about how Gollum escaped. It was “not through lack of watchfulness,” but “perhaps through over-kindliness.”
Under Thranduil’s totally-unfaulty watch, Gollum was guarded all day and night. He was a prisoner, but they would take him for walks in the forest. Gollum had a particular tree that he liked to climb. One day (probably today, June 28), he refused to come down. The elves, being elves, didn’t want to climb up after him. They figured that he would eventually have to come down, so why bother?
The elves kept watch on the tree after nightfall. Curiously, that same night is when Sauron’s Orcs attacked.
“It was that very night of summer, yet moonless and starless, that Orcs came on us at unawares. We drove them off after some time; they were many and fierce, but they came from over the mountains, and were unused to the woods. When the battle was over, we found that Gollum was gone, and his guards were slain or taken.”
It was obvious that the reason Gollum didn’t want to come down was because he believed the Orcs were there to recapture them. Of course, he had no desire to go with them and thus back to Mordor, but he must have figured out that within the confusion he could make his own escape.
Looking a few days into the future (so, into the beginning of July), we learn that the Wood-elves pursued the trail left by the Orcs. It seems that they believed that Gollum was still with the Enemy. The pursuit took them too close to Dol Guldur and it was called off.
Were the Nazgûl Involved?
One of the many things left vague about the early War of the Rings events is the location of Khamûl. We’re told in Unfinished Tales that he and another Nazgûl resided at Dol Guldur. The other Nazgûl is unnamed, but he is referred to as “his messenger.”
It’s not crazy to assume that this “messenger” was the individual who delivered the message of Gollum’s imprisonment by the Wood-elves to Sauron in Mordor. Of course, it’s also possible that Khamûl himself went. Or that they both went. Or neither went. We simply don’t know.
Nowhere in the Lord of the Rings is it even suggested that a Nazgûl was involved in the attack upon Thranduil’s realm. It’s made explicit that at least one (the Witch-king of Angmar) was involved in the Battle of Osgiliath.
Little more is made clear in the main text itself. For further information, we have to look to “The Hunt for the Ring” again. And there, as we know, lies madness. Or at least a bit of confusion.
Though not much is said, we read there that after Osgiliath fell “the Nazgûl were ordered to begin the search for the Ring.” We also read that seven of the Nazgûl lived in Mordor, while two others, Khamûl and “his messenger” lived in Dol Guldur.
Again looking into the future, the seven Nazgûl will meet up with the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur on July 22nd. This makes it clear that when the Orcs attacked Thranduil Khamûl was still at Dol Guldur with his messenger.
Still, no concrete evidence is there for either Nazgûl being directly involved. For that, we have to look to the “unpublished manuscript” ultimately published in Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Companion.
Though this follows a slightly different timeline (concerning just when the Nazgûl began their search for the Ring), Tolkien wrote that just before the Battle of Osgiliath, several of the Nazgûl remained in Anduin Vale while the Witch-king led the attack.
“One or more actually direct the attack on Thranduil when Gollum escapes.”
Of course, this is speculation and was likely abandoned by Tolkien (though who knows for sure). Still, it makes a lot of sense that Khamûl would have directed the attack on Thranduil. It was a basic attack and his actual presence at the battle would have been a hindrance as it would have tipped their hands that the Nazgûl were now active and in the field.
So basically, while the Witch-king personally led the attack on Osgiliath, the other Mordor-based Nazgûl were somewhere else (maybe Anduin Vale, maybe Dol Guldur). Additionally, Khamûl likely planned out the specifics of the Orc-attack upon the Wood-elves, though he was not there in person.
The last thing I want to look at is Gandalf’s idea that Gollum might be cured. The Ring had done a number on him and without its power, Gollum’s days were coming to an end. Before Gollum died, Gandalf wanted to see him turn his life around.
So the Wood-elves decided not to throw him in their dungeons “where he would fall back into his old black thoughts.”
This says a lot. Through Gandalf’s few days with him, Gollum must have been coming out of his dark thoughts. He must have been becoming somewhat more like he used to be before the Ring. Of course, he used to be a pretty nasty Sméagol, so while it was definitely an improvement over being Gollum, it still wasn’t that great.
But maybe the Wood-elves could have cured him of that too. More than likely, Gollum was mostly cured of the immediate effects of the Ring – he was at least on the road to recovery. Unfortunately for everyone, that long road lead him straight back into his pre-Ring days of assholery.
Still, even that was the right decision.
Quick note about the date.
In the June 20th entry in the “Tale of Years” we learn that Thranduil was attacked “about the same time” as the attack on Osgiliath. However, at the Council of Elrond, Legolas tells us that it was a “moonless and starless” night.
In the book Untangling Tolkien, author Michael W. Perry suggests the date of June 28th since the 20th was three days after a full moon. “On June 28 a waning crescent moon did not rise until after 3am, giving the Orcs plenty of time to attack and disappear into the depths of Mirkwood.”
That addresses the “moonless,” but the “starless” is harder to dismiss. Perry suggests that it could have been cloudy, but that the clouds wouldn’t have obscured a nearly full moon. So I suppose he’s suggesting that the 28th is the most likely because a cloudy night would have hidden the stars and the moon wouldn’t have been an issue until 3am.
It’s shaky, but I’ll take it.
We’re coming up on Midyear’s Day and Lithe! It’s then that Gandalf meets up with Radagast and heads for Isengard. Good news, right?