“I am the Servant of the Secret Fire”: On Gandalf’s Hobbit hobby

The following are some rough, underdeveloped notes attempting to connect some different aspects of Gandalf’s character, history, and peculiar mission and practice in Middle-earth. The first datum comes from Tolkien’s long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman describing one of the central “motives” in The Lord of the Rings:

Here [in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak—owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama…” (Letters 149, emphasis mine)

So the first reference point for the present discussion is the central theme in Tolkien’s work of the small, the unknown, the unobtrusive, and the weak—animated by a “secret life in creation”—being responsible for accomplishing things not possible or anticipated by the strong, the noble, and the great.

A second point is that this “secret life in creation” by which “the One” unexpectedly and eucatastrophically intrudes himself and his purposes into the world sounds a lot like the Secret Fire or Flame Imperishable which Ilúvatar in the Ainulindalë, to the surprise and joy of the Ainur, sends into the Void to burn at the heart of the world, “kindling” it into its very existence. And though the Secret Fire is not mentioned by name, I think we see something of its distinctive agency in the vision Manwë is treated to in the chapter “On Aulë and Yavanna”:

Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Ilúvatar. Then it seemed to Manwë that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur. (Emphasis mine)

This characterization of the Secret Fire, taken together with the first point, suggests that the above theme of the weak doing great things on behalf of the great is something of a signature or trade-mark activity of the Secret Fire. Beyond merely bringing the world into being (or rather, precisely on account of it), this is the kind of “business” that the Secret Fire is in, the kind of work that the Secret Fire does.

A third point is that, as is well known, it is this same Secret Fire whose servant Gandalf identifies himself as when facing down the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Assuming for the moment the principle of “like master, like servant,” we are led to the conclusion that it is this same line of work that Gandalf also specializes in, the paradoxical business of accomplishing mighty deeds through comparatively weak, insignificant, or overlooked means. (Tolkien’s indication in an interview with Clyde Kilby and elsewhere that the Secret Fire is the Holy Spirit would seem to further identify Gandalf as something of a Pentecostal, but I digress.) It is also interesting to note in this context Tolkien’s particular choice of words in one letter to explain why it is that Gandalf ultimately never has to personally fight and overcome the Lord of the Nazgûl: “so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he [Gandalf] himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands” (Letters no. 156, emphasis added). As the protégé of the Secret Fire, Gandalf’s apostolic ministry (something I comment on elsewhere) involves him in going about and “kindling” fires among the Children of Ilúvatar, the unexpected but necessary consequence of which is that it is a mere shieldmaden of Rohan and her Hobbit-thain who together slay the Witch King whom no man is said to be able to kill.

Fourth and lastly, knowing this about Gandalf helps explain in part his attachment to and involvement with Hobbits, in whom Tolkien says above that the theme of the “great policies of world history” being accomplished by the “seemingly unknown and weak” comes to be particularly manifest. Enfranchising and fellowshipping with Hobbits, in short, is “Secret Fire” work, something that helps round out Gandalf’s already christological typology: if you’ve seen Gandalf, you’ve seen the Secret Fire who sends him.

Hobbits: non-mediating mediators

Christopher Tolkien opens The Book of Lost Tales: Part 1 with the well-known and intractable problem of The Silmarillion, namely what many readers have discovered to be its comparative impenetrability. To Tolkien’s credit, two of the main challenges with The Silmarillion noted by Christopher were ones already anticipated by his father. The first problem is, as Christopher puts it, that there “is in The Silmarillion no ‘mediation’ of the kind provided by the hobbits.” With no comic, familiar creatures to lighten the levity and seriousness of mood and theme, in other words, the “draught” of The Silmarillion is “pure and unmixed.” A second source of The Silmarillion’s comparative lack of appeal is that The Lord of the Rings, similar to the Beowulf poem (at least as Tolkien interprets it), gives us a profound “impression of depth” through its subtle allusions to a vast backcloth of “untold stories,” whereas The Silmarillion inevitably must spoil this effect or break the spell somewhat by telling the untold stories themselves, of making the implicit explicit. As Tolkien posed the problem in his own words,

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

Although Christopher doesn’t make the point expressly, his discussion points to a sense in which these two “problems” with The Silmarillion are really one and the same problem. Just as the hobbits help “mediate” for the reader the epic, mythical, and faerie dimensions of Middle-earth at large, referencing them to the more familiar, prosaic framework of the Shire, so likewise does The Lord of the Rings as a whole, through its narrative immediacy, function as a kind of “hobbitization” of the remote yet expansive, mythical backcloth of Tolkien’s legendarium. We see the coincidence of these two themes, I think, in a passage which Christopher himself discusses. After Gimli’s song about Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam responds with “I like that! … I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-dûm. But it makes the darkness seem heavier, thinking of all those lamps.” Christopher comments that by means of “his enthusiastic ‘I like that!’ Sam not only ‘mediates’ (and engagingly ‘Gamgifies’) the ‘high’, the mighty kings of Nargothrond and Gondolin, Durin on his carven throne, but places them at once at an even remoter distance, a magical distance that it might well seem (at that moment) destructive to traverse.”

Part of the irony of the hobbits, accordingly, is that their “mediation” is in fact a kind of non-mediation: in providing the reader with a way of access into the remote (to us) realities they experience, the hobbits at the same time draw attention to and thus accentuate that very remoteness, and in that very process (paradoxically) serve to further displace or distance the reader from the world they are helping to mediate. Put more succinctly, in pulling the reader into the wide realm of Middle-earth, the hobbits also help ensure (to the great aesthetic satisfaction of the reader) that that realm never becomes entirely immanentized, realized, or experienced. (To adapt Wittgenstein’s famous distinction, the hobbits help “say” what Middle-earth is without ever really “showing” it.) In this way the hobbits serve to elicit in the reader a profound desire for the world into which they themselves have been thrust, and yet by always intervening between the reader and that world, they also help sustain that desire by ensuring that it remains perpetually unsatiated.