Hello, and welcome to September 20, 3018 of the Third Age. Though today is the day that Gandalf received Shadowfax (I’ll get to that later), we’ll be focusing mostly upon an idea that Tolkien kicked around, abandoned and yet is still taken as canon-adjacent by many readers. I’m not a huge fan of this idea, and you’ll see why. Let’s go!
In the book, the Nazgûl cross the Fords of Isen on the 18th – the same day Gandalf was rescued by Gwaihir. They then appeared at Sarn Ford on the 22nd to fight the Rangers and made their way into the Shire the next morning.
Somehow or another they quickly figured out not only where the Shire was located, but where Hobbiton was within the Shire. This speed must have bothered Tolkien as he devised at least three schemes as to how it happened.
In his notes, you can tell that he wasn’t even fully sure when Gandalf was to be rescued. For the first (and second) attempts, he had the date set for the night of the 16th/17th – a day before what he would later solidify in the “Tale of Years.”
Regardless of exactly when it happened, he wished to solved this overly-wise Nazgûl issue by having them show up at Isengard. This would take care of the other issue of Saruman’s lies to Sauron.
Saruman’s Convenient Voice
And so, on this day – two days after Gandalf’s escape – Tolkien originally wished for the Nazgûl to show up. This account was later published in Unfinished Tales as part of the “Hunt for the Ring” chapter.
When the Nazgûl showed up, Saruman realized the danger of “standing between enemies, a known traitor to both.” He understood that now he would have to gain the Ring for himself, that from this point on, he could no longer hope to stay in Sauron’s good graces if the Dark Lord of victorious.
In this version, Saruman never met personally with the Witch-king, now at the Gate of Isengard. Instead, the Nazgûl “received only the answer of the voice of Saruman, that spoke by some art as though it came from the Gate itself.”
Saruman knew that the Witch-king wasn’t just looking for the Shire and Baggins, that he was searching for the Ring, and told him as much. But while he neither had it or knew where it was, he told the Nazgûl that he knew who might have this knowledge: “Mithrandir, enemy of Sauron” – Gandalf. He even told the Nazgûl that the Grey Wizard had departed two days prior.
And though it seems incredibly difficult to believe, the Nazgûl believed it because of the “power of the voice of Saruman.” It’s a handy little hand-waving device that Tolkien employed here and there.
Anyway, the Riders immediately abandoned their search for the Shire and went looking for Gandalf in Rohan.
Enter the Wormtongue
Because this “never happened,” I’m going to write about the rest of this version here, even though it jumps ahead a bit. A day after leaving Isengard (and thus three days after Gandalf’s escape on the night of the 16th/17th), the Nazgûl ran into none other than Gríma Wormtongue!
Gandalf had made it to Edoras “and had warned King Théoden of the treacherous designs of Isengard.” Out of terror, Gríma told the Witch-king everything he knew, including that Gandalf was asking for a swift horse to take him to the Shire. Gríma also told them how to get there: “West through the Gap of Rohan yonder, and then north and a little west, until the next great river bars the way….”
To make matters worse for Saruman, he told the Witch-king that Saruman knew all along about the Shire as he engages in trade with them.
How the Wormtongue Must Live
Now we come to perhaps the most unbelievable thing that Tolkien ever wrote down. And while he quickly abandoned it, I’m still unsure how he ever thought this was a fine idea.
The issue with Gríma meeting the Nazgûl was that he needed Gríma to survive this encounter as he appeared later in the main story. But what reason might the Nazgûl have to keep someone so unfaithful and so treacherous? They certainly couldn’t use him for their own as he flipped and waffled as the mere breath of danger.
Tolkien wrote that the Witch-king “spared the life of the Wormtongue, not out of pity, but because he [W.K.] deemed that so great a terror was upon him that he would never dare to speak of their encounter (as proved true), and he saw that the creature was evil and was likely to do great harm yet to Saruman, if he lived. So he [again, W.K.] left him lying on the ground, and rode away, and did not trouble to go back to Isengard. Sauron’s vengeance [upon Saruman] could wait.”
So, the Nazgûl didn’t bother to tie off a loose end because that loose end was scared and evil. Obviously, that didn’t sit well with Tolkien, but this version of the story isn’t quite finished.
Even Nazgûl Need Maps
They didn’t just meet Gríma on the road. Shortly after, they divided into four pairs, with the Witch-king traveling with the fastest of them to Tharbad. Near Minhiriath, they encountered “two spies and servants of Saruman.” One of these “had been used much in the traffic between Isengard and the Shire.”
Not only that, but this spy and servant “had charts prepared by Saruman which clearly depicted and described the Shire.” The Nazgûl took the maps and sent the spy to Bree, warning him that he was now “in the service of Mordor, and that if ever he tried to return to Isengard they would slay him with torture.”
In the final version of the story, this spy turned out to be the “squint-eyed southerner at the Inn.”
In Other (Actual) News…
In the “Tale of Years,” we learn that Gandalf was finally allowed to enter Edoras. Théoden commands him to “Take any horse, only be gone ere tomorrow is old!”
It’s not much to go on, but in notes marked “official & final”, Tolkien expanded a bit.
“It is not until Sept 20 that his [Gandalf’s] persistence (and growing anger which alarms the doorwards) gains him entrance to Théoden warning him against Saruman. Wormtongue (secretly in Saruman’s service , and with great influence over the king) is absent for some reason and Théodred (the king’s son) is more favourable to Gandalf; so Théoden is troubled but will not make up his mind. He says he will speak of it again next day.”
Gríma’s absence seems to jive with the Nazgûl story as above, though Tolkien probably abandoned it at some point (honestly, who knows).
Tolkien never settled upon a story about the Nazgûl and their meeting with Saruman. In fact, Tolkien went on to write “a large number of unfinished accounts of Saruman’s earlier dealings with the Shire.” In Unfinished Tales we are given one of those version, the most complete. We’ll discuss this as “the final version” in tomorrow’s post.