Welcome to March 23, 3018 (Third Age). On this day Gandalf made it to Mirkwood where he met Aragorn, who was holding Gollum prisoner.
While he’d remain here for about five days, let’s take a look at what he was up to before this. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going, right?
Gandalf Post-Hobbit – Expecting a Party
When last we left Gandalf, he and Balin the Dwarf were visiting Bilbo “some years” after the Battle of Five Armies. Of course, The Hobbit doesn’t give us any solid dates – those solid dates didn’t even exist when Tolkien wrote it. But when figuring out the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and connected both to the larger framework of his legendarium.
The “some years” later turned out to be seven years – 2949, according to the “Tale of Years” in Appendix B – or 69 years before the Fellowship gathers in 3018. Frodo was not yet even born.
Four years after the visit, in 2951, Gandalf met with the White Council to mull over the Rings of Power. This is where Saruman lied about the One Ring, telling everyone that it washed out to sea. He also has spies following Gandalf, being suspicious that the gray wizard might be onto him (he wasn’t).
Five years later still, in 2956, Gandalf meets Aragorn, then merely a pup at the age of 25.
Gandalf doesn’t show up again in the “Tale of Years” until Bilbo’s farewell feast on his eleventy-first birthday, the Long Expected Party, at the beginning of Lord of the Rings.
There must have been some communication between Bilbo and Gandalf shortly before, however. Gandalf asks out of nowhere: “You mean to go on with your plan then?” Bilbo says that he had made up his mind “months ago.”
After Bilbo puts on the Ring and disappears, the two meet up back at Bag End. Gandalf makes sure that Bilbo follows through with his plan to a) leave and b) leave the Ring with Frodo. Bilbo leaves for his last adventure (to Rivendell) and Frodo leaves the party for Bag End, where he and Gandalf both spend the night (Frodo, of course, has been living there for years).
Not So Fast!
Due to the Peter Jackson films, it’s easy to forget that Frodo didn’t just up and leave on the heels of Bilbo’s departure. Seventeen years passed between the Long Expected Party and when Frodo left the Shire. So what was Gandalf up to?
We learn in the “Shadow of the Past” chapter that after Bilbo’s party in 3001, he was away from the Shire for three years. Then, he dropped by to “take a good look” at Frodo. Every year or so after that, until the autumn of 3008, he had showed up to pay Frodo a visit. After that “his visits had ceased.”
It’s speculated that from the party until 3008 Gandalf was operating nearby, possibly based out of Rivendell, but definitely west of the Misty Mountains. After that, however, he was likely to their east.
We learn in the “Tale of Years” that it was then that Gandalf and Aragorn renewed their search for Gollum in hopes that he would reveal whether the ring he once carried was the Ring. They searched “the vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Rhovanion to the confines of Mordor.” They heard rumor of Gollum, but they never found him.
The Search for Gollum and the A-ha Moment
We learn from Gandalf in the Council of Elrond that over the next eight years Gandalf and Aragorn searched for Gollum. Gandalf then recalled that Sauron once said that the Ring could be read by someone “skilled.” With that, in the year 3017, Gandalf broke off the search for Gollum and went immediately to Gondor.
Of course, through much of this, Gollum was held as a prisoner by Sauron in Mordor. He was, however, released around this time. As Aragorn continued the search, Gandalf made his way to search through King Denethor’s mass of scrolls at Minas Tirith.
Specifically, Gandalf was looking for the scroll written by Isildur – the last to possess the Ring. Gandalf found the scroll and learned that Isildur had seen the markings on the Ring. Though he couldn’t read them, he copied them down. Gandalf, though, could read them. Now he knew what to look for. All he had to do was go back to the Shire, take a good hard look at Frodo’s ring and see if it was a match.
Not So Fast! (Again)
With this handy bit of knowledge, Gandalf left Minas Tirith in a hurry for the Shire, heading north. But he learned from the Elves at Lórien that Aragorn had captured Gollum. It was a bit of a Battleship Potemkin moment for Gandalf. Did he go towards the northeast to Mirkwood to interview Gollum? Or should he continue northwest to the Shire?
Gandalf chose the latter, but didn’t give much of an explanation. Of course, at this point, nobody knew that every hour was critical. It was, as it turned out, still 183 days before Frodo would leave the Shire on September 23rd.
Aragorn and Gandalf would remain with Gollum and the Elves in Mirkwood for five days, leaving on March 29th. And it’s then that we’ll take a closer look at what they learned from Gollum and just what this delay might have cost Gandalf.