The Death of Gandalf: When Tolkien Pierced My Heart

“Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone.

These are the last words of Gandalf before he slides into the abyss beneath the Bridge of Kahzad-Dum. In all my fourteen years, no words had ever pierced me so.

Our junior high teacher read The Hobbit to us as an after-lunch treat. We loved it. But he challenged us that the really good stuff was to be found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In ninth grade, I took up his challenge. At first it was quite a slog. There were all those long songs, and so much talking! “The Council of Elrond” was the thickest chapter I had ever attempted. It took me days. But when at last the Fellowship engaged the quest to destroy the Ring, things picked up.

‘Fly, You Fools’

One Friday night, I skipped my usual ABC sitcoms and just read on the couch. The watcher in the water outside of the Mines of Moria terrified me. I had to read on.

I stayed with it all through “A Journey in the Dark.” It wasn’t a school night, so my parents didn’t send me to bed as I started one more chapter. The future writer in me was thrilled when the company finds a decaying book in which the deeds of the dwarves in Moria were recorded until their last hour. The scribe’s writing trails off with the ominous “They are coming . . .” My heart pounded as the Fellowship realizes they are trapped like the dwarves of old and will have to fight their way out.

Near disaster follows upon near disaster. Even Frodo is stabbed with a spear that should kill him. But his hidden shirt of mithril silver turns away the lethal point. This is how it’s supposed to go. Against impossible odds, heroes still triumph. So when Gandalf faces the demon Balrog on the last bridge out, I felt sure he would win. It seemed like he had. Three times the wizard commands, “You cannot pass.” Then Gandalf’s power breaks the bridge right where the Balrog stands, and the demon falls into the darkness below.

“Yes!” I shouted silently. Then, “Noooo!” For the plummeting Balrog swings its whip and snares Gandalf’s legs. Tolkien writes, “He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, then slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

Wounded by a Sentence

I was totally shocked. Stabbed. My favorite character had died (so it seemed). It cut. It hurt more than I imagined a book, a single sentence, could make me feel. I wanted to howl. Yet, at the very same time, I loved it. I didn’t know one could experience this depth of emotion from reading. So terrible and so beautiful. Gandalf slid into the abyss. Gandalf was gone. I could hardly stand it.

I was only newly awake to Christ, so I felt, but did not consciously notice, the gospel implications in this scene. Through the following years, Tolkien himself would teach me some deeper meanings of this sentence.

Sorrow follows wherever sin remains.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien laid the foundation for his entire legendarium. In this mythic world, the Creator, Ilúvatar, brings the world into being through themes of great music. But
one of the Creator’s angelic beings, Melkor, wants to create music of his own.

Seeking his own glory, Melkor begins to sing a theme contrary to the music of Ilúvatar. Discordant notes bring turbulence to the good creation. Ilúvatar allows this chaos to rage for a long time until it seems beyond repair. Then Ilúvatar rises and declares another theme of music. This new music is “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (The Silmarillion, 1977, pp. 16–17). The Creator weaves disharmony into more wondrous music. The new song incorporates sadness.

“Sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is.”

We feel this sorrow underneath all the goodness we love in this present world. Sorrow flows through the deeps of creation because created beings sought glory of themselves over against the Creator. In short, sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is. I’m reminded of the days of Noah, when the Lord beheld the wickedness of man. “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The sadness that struck me that night as I read of Gandalf’s fall partook of this primal sorrow. My heart cried first, It’s not supposed to be this way! The good and wise are not supposed to be overcome by evil. And second, It didn’t have to be this way! Gandalf had already defeated the Balrog. But evil never concedes. The Balrog’s whip could so easily have missed. Instead, evil once more begat sorrow.

Our freely chosen sin over time hardens into malice. The result is loss and harm that weaves a song of lament woven through everything. Even our God feels it. That night I tasted its bitterness.

Sacrifice often breeds redemption.

Gandalf descends into the abyss. Grief dismays the company. They don’t know how they can go on. But they do. The story does not end with this shocking loss.

The wizard’s gruff but affectionate final words rouse the Fellowship from the paralysis of horror. Even as they weep, they dash safely out of Moria. Gandalf’s sacrifice has opened the way for them to escape and to carry on the quest. But more: his gift now impels them to find courage beyond grief, to kindle hope in the darkness ahead and to hold to the cliff’s edge of faith until the very end. The remaining eight members go on to sacrifice mightily for one another.

“Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.”

One’s giving his life for many is the heart of our faith: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This sacrifice is meant to change the course of our lives, for “he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.

The evil chance of the Balrog’s whip snaring Gandalf does not void the wizard’s sacrifice. Gandalf’s giving of his life bears the immediate result of the Fellowship’s escape. But that leads to the whole redemptive resolution with which The Lord of the Rings concludes, a victory for which Tolkien would coin a beautiful word.

In the end, expect eucatastrophe.

I would have to read on to learn of Gandalf’s return. And go further still to see the Ring destroyed, the rightful king enthroned, and Middle-Earth restored. But the sacrifice of Gandalf, in all its shocking, piercing sadness, yet laid down a hope in me. This seed of love buried in Moria’s abyss would yield the fruit of life. I had to believe that.

Tolkien used the word eucatastrophe to express the sudden reversal in a story that leads to a longed-for but unexpected happy ending. This is the resolution against all odds that stirs hope in the human heart that the world’s destiny will not be the death and destruction toward which it appears to rush. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son that the eucatastrophe in a story

pierces you with a joy that brings tears. . . . It produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature . . . feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our souls were made. . . . The Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible . . . and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1976, p. 100)

The hope I felt even as I was stabbed with grief at Gandalf’s fall foreshadowed the great reversal of the entire story.

Gandalf Rose and Laughed

Delightfully, we see this deepest truth in the humble simplicity of Sam Gamgee. After the Ring is destroyed, Sam awakes to see Gandalf smiling on him. He exclaims,

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land. (The Return of the King, 1976, p. 988)

Reading of Gandalf’s fall that night struck me with the full force of the deep truth in every story of redemption. Each one is a shadow of the one true Story. Christ died. He entered the full stop of being lost in the abyss. And then he rose, changing everything.

When Gandalf fell, though I could not say it then, my heart was struck with the sorrow of man in his death and ruin. But the Fellowship carried on. I would read on. The Quest was not thwarted. Gandalf would rise. So will we. In a world restored, where everything sad comes untrue.

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