It is always risky for a writer to drag characters back from the dead. When George R.R. Martin does it in the Game of Thrones series I lose interest in the story, because if that can happen, the world no longer has inviolable rules or a nature; nothing is definitive, no action matters, if death has been overruled. This might be acceptable in the New Testament, which asserts the rule of a higher intelligence than nature; but if a novelist resurrects dead characters, it smells of cheating, and is a betrayal of the cogency of the world that he has taken such pains to create. In The Fellowship of the Ring, every reader gasps with shock when the Balrog takes Gandalf into the abyss, and together with his companions we grieve for him. What are we to think of his return to life in The Two Towers? The “death” of Gandalf in the first volume was as momentous a turning-point as Virgil’s departure in Dante’s Purgatorio: suddenly the protagonists are “on their own” and have to become their own lights. So when he reappears, it is impossible not to ask why, how, and what it all means.
He himself says that he is not the same person and that “Gandalf” did die — but he is willing to be called Gandalf if that is how everyone thinks of him. He is now virtually interchangeable with Saruman, as if he is now in fact no particular person but an impersonal distillation of the ideal wizard: ‘Yes, I am white now,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been… I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.’ (98) The others point out that light shines through the new Gandalf; he is translucent, as if the gross body has evaporated and dissolved in “fire and deep water.” Is this a ghost, a spirit? Is he dead? What exactly happened with the Balrog, what was that fight really about? Cleverly, Tolkien the narrator refrains from giving us the answer: he knows we are all bursting to know how Gandalf escaped, but he also knows that trying to describe it objectively will both stretch credulity and render nearly everything that follows anticlimactic — for what could follow a detailed account of Gandalf’s vanquishing of the Balrog? Yet if he is going to resurrect Gandalf, he must give a plausible account. If Gandalf himself were to give the account, he would give us “what happened” from his point of view, but that point of view will be dazed, confused, shell-shocked, unremembering — convincingly so. Thus Tolkien the author would be absolved from working out all the details. The narrative will not be a recounting of a causal sequence of physical events, but will follow some other kind of logic.
It begins awkwardly:
Then tell us what you will, and time allows!’ said Gimli. ‘Come, Gandalf, tell us how you fared with the Balrog!’
‘Name him not!’ said Gandalf, and for a moment it seemed that a cloud of pain passed over his face, and he sat silent, looking old as death. ‘Long time I fell,’ he said at last, slowly, as if thinking back with difficulty. ‘Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart.’
The sentence beginning “Name him not!” is a lapse into the histrionically portentous epic style that mars Tolkien’s writing when he tries to elevate the narrative to the mythic. “Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart”: the syntactical inversion also strains at sounding archaic, sage-like, and otherworldly. This is the kind of language that Yoda’s speech patterns affectionately parody: “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.” Gandalf’s language here lacks Yoda’s wry humor and manages to be both vague and pedantic: why “almost it froze my heart”?
So far he has given us the conventional fire-water imagery of death before rebirth, but then he hits his stride, and the account becomes both interesting and original:
‘Deep is the abyss that is spanned by Durin’s Bridge, and none has measured it,’ said Gimli.
‘Yet it has a bottom, beyond light and knowledge,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.
‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Glóin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair.’
In a previous essay I wondered if the Balrog expresses the dread-beyond-meaning in the face of which all heroism is pointless. Gandalf sacrifices himself to quell the meaningless beast and restore the possibility of the war of good against evil in the many pages to follow. This passage, however, recasts the Balrog as still firmly within the realm of meaningful polarity. They descend beneath the living earth to where time is not counted, a world gnawed by nameless things older than Sauron and unknown to him. It is a world that precedes meaning, and does not know good and evil, light and dark. The “nameless things” cannot be imagined. Is it the world there that is gnawed, or is it the foundation of our own world? “Gnawed” is a word choice of genius, suggesting futility, the eternal sound of teeth against bone or rock: we hear it and feel it, because we know what it is to gnaw. We also know what it is to be gnawed. The word carries emotional connotations: gnawing anguish, gnawing anxiety, gnawing thoughts — all expressing persistent misery and a concealed wearing down. “Gnawing” does not invoke worms chomping on dead things, but teeth that can bite yet have no power to eat. It is a hell of craving and endless starvation. When Gandalf calls it “that despair,” he might simply mean “that place of despair” — but more probably what he means is a state of soul without hope, a spiritual agony “gnawed by nameless things.” Gandalf’s experience is of the underneath of our world, the foundations of sentient life. It turns out that even the Balrog cannot endure this and has to flee, taking Gandalf with him. Thus both Gandalf and his enemy need their enmity; paradoxically, it is the Balrog that saves Gandalf, because it too cannot bear the hell of meaninglessness. And when it flees, it takes an upward path from abyss to heights, uncharacteristically seeking the light.
‘Long has that been lost,’ said Gimli. ‘Many have said that it was never made save in legend, but others say that it was destroyed.’
‘It was made, and it had not been destroyed,’ said Gandalf. ‘From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed. ascending in unbroken spiral in many thousand steps, until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirak-zigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine.
‘There upon Celebdil was a lonely window in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame. There was none to see, or perhaps in after ages songs would still be sung of the Battle of the Peak.’ Suddenly Gandalf laughed. ‘But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain.’
It was made. Gimli’s musing and Gandalf’s response bring the narrative back to tangible materiality — an actual staircase, built by historical Dwarves. But immediately after this the description takes on cinematic special effects as Gandalf tries to render a fight that occurs on an impossible scale and in fire and smoke as well as ice: it cannot be seen, so how could it be sung? He gives up describing it. His language then suddenly takes on the register of the King James Bible: I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. The diction of this single sentence veils Gandalf’s account in sacred speech, and this allows a transition into mythopoeic language to convey an experience beyond life and death:
Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.
‘Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.’ (106-7)
This new location mirrors the place “far below the deepest delving”: the “slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone” echoes the uttermost foundations of stone and the “gnawing of nameless things,” and “each day was as long as a life-age of the earth” balances the depth “where time is not counted.” Gandalf has experienced both poles of meaninglessness, one beneath the world and one above it — and from the one above, the realm of human endeavor and song feel faint, irrelevant. That realm occupies an edge between these two inhospitable eternities. Gandalf, having experienced both, has to return to the world of human time to complete the plot, but he is happy to. Gandalf, the White, is resolutely cheerful to be an actor again; the war against Sauron is far better than the two forms of living death he has just experienced.
This is partly why the first half of The Two Towers feels lighter than the rest, more optimistic. There are some things worse than losing to Sauron, and a long destructive war against an evil enemy gives at least a comforting frame of meaning: even if you die, it will have been alright. The Enemy will have saved you.