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Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


The Quest For Erebor

If there is one entry in the "Unfinished Tales" collection that most resembles the form of a "deleted scene" originally intended for inclusion in the final draft, it's most certainly "The Quest For Erebor". This is Tolkien's account of the events that led up to "The Hobbit" from Gandalf's point of view, written in a style similar to that of "Shadows of the Past" and "The Council of Elrond". This story was to be a part of the resolution chapters in "The Return of the King" that followed the destruction of the Ring at Mount Doom.

The text begins:
"He would say no more that day. But later we brought the matter up again, and he told us the whole strange story; how he came to arrange the journey to Erebor, why he thought of Bilbo, and how he persuaded the proud Thorin Oakenshield to take him into his company."
In this draft, the tale is recounted by Frodo as to what Gandalf told him, Pippin, Merry and Gimli in Minas Tirith as the New Age began in Middle-Earth.

When you consider that "The Hobbit" was created wholly from the opening line "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit" with no prior conception of the characters and events of the saga he would later go on to write, it's particularly fascinating how Tolkien is able to develop and piece together the details of this back story.

At the time of these events, Gandalf and the White Council had given a lot of thought to the nature of the evil power manifesting itself at Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. Originally thought to be merely a dark sorcerer - possibly one of the Nazgul - he was referred to as the "necromancer" by Gandalf in "The Hobbit" (indeed, even Tolkien had not yet created the character of Sauron). Though Gandalf himself would come to believe that the necromancer was in fact Sauron, he would not say so openly until he could divine some evidence to support this. It is not clearly stated to what extent this possibility was discussed among the members of the White Council, but Gandalf became so convinced of it just prior to the year 2941 that his concerns led him to set events into motion that would ultimately have a ripple effect that would affect the outcome of the War of the Ring.

Gandalf's chief concern was the vulnerability of the northern lands of Middle-Earth. The Dunedain had been reduced to a force too small to counter Sauron's armies and the Elven realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien also lacked the strength to repel a concentrated attack by the forces of the Dark Lord. The Wizard strongly suspected that this was in fact part of Sauron's original plans being conceived at Dol Guldur. In addition, the presence of the Dragon Smaug at Erebor (also known as the Lonely Mountain) proved a threat that Sauron could use "with terrible effect".

So Gandalf's goal was twofold: he wanted to find a way to deal with the Dragon and also convince the White Council that they should move against Dol Guldur and disturb Sauron's plans before he could reach his full power. What came next was a chance meeting on the Great East-West Road, not far from the village of Bree. Thorin Oakenshield, a Dwarf in the line of Durin who had been living in exile in the northwestern corner of Eriador, passed Gandalf on the road and struck up a conversation with the Wizard. Thorin was troubled and in need of counsel. He invited Gandalf to his halls in the Blue Mountains and there he told him about his designs to seek revenge upon Smaug for killing so many of his brethren and depriving him of his treasure. He longed to reclaim his rightful title of "King under the Mountain". Thorin's plans were, in Gandalf's view, too rash and overambitious since they amounted to an all-out battle that would prove hopeless with his limited resources.

Nevertheless, the idea stuck with Gandalf and after turning it over in his mind he devised an alternative plan that would require an ally whose talents lay in stealth. For such assistance, he knew that his best option could be found among the Hobbits, a race with which he had become intimately acquainted over the years. He even had a particular hobbit in mind. He though of Bilbo Baggins:
"He had not quite come of age when I had last seen him. He had stayed in my mind ever since, with his eagerness and his bright eyes, and his love of tales, and his questions about the wide world outside the Shire."
These qualities, attributed to his mother's side - the Tooks - made Bilbo very much unlike other hobbits. As the spring of 2941 approached, Gandalf made an attempt to meet with Bilbo only to find upon his arrival at Bag End that he was not at home. His gardener, Holman Greenhand (to whom Sam's father was apprenticed at the time) informed the Wizard that Bilbo was off on one of his journeys, seeking out the Elves. This kind of "odd" activity was the source of much gossip in the Shire. The idea that Bilbo seemed to retain his curiosity over the years encouraged him but with an impending meeting of the White Council approaching he made haste back to Thorin. He persuaded the Dwarves that they should adopt his more secret approach to Erebor and that they should set out immediately, taking Bilbo Baggins as a party to the quest. The problem was that Bilbo was not yet aware of Gandalf's plan.

When he showed up at Bag End again on the fateful April morning, he was dismayed to find that Bilbo had changed. Gandalf estimated that Bilbo "was getting rather greedy and fat, and his old desires had dwindled down to a sort of private dream." But the Wizard was not deterred and before he left he scratched his "G" rune on Bilbo's door so that the Dwarves would find their appointed meeting place. The next day, Bilbo founded himself exasperated to be hosting such a large "unexpected party".

The Dwarves impression of Bilbo was less than favorable, however. Thorin himself would object to Bilbo's hesitant nature and was unconvinced that the hobbit could be anything to the company beyond a hindrance. But Gandalf had an ace up his sleeve. He was in possession of the map to the secret entrance to Erebor and the key that opened it.

Ninety-one years earlier, Gandalf had entered Dol Guldur in disguise to engage in a little reconnaissance. While there, he found a Dwarf who lay dying and ranting about a great ring - "the last of the Seven". It had been taken from him and was, in fact, one of the Seven Rings forged by Sauron to ensnare the Dwarves. But rather than make them Sauron's servants, their effect was merely to enhance their already strong desire for the accumulation of riches. Four of the Rings were eaten by Dragons (presumably while they were on the wearer's fingers at the time), two had already been reclaimed by Sauron and this was the last which had been handed down from father to son since the time of Durin III.

Gandalf did not know the Ring's significance at the time nor did he know that he was in the presence of Thrain II, Thorin's father. Just before he died, the Dwarf entrusted a map and a key to Gandalf, asking him to give them to his son. The Wizard did not know his son was Thorin, so he held onto these tokens until such a time when their importance became known to him. It was through his conversations with Thorin that he realized who the Dwarf in Dol Guldur had been and to whom the map and key was intended.

The morning after the party at Bag End, Thorin was angry with Gandalf and intent upon leaving without Bilbo. But Gandalf argued that Thorin essentially owed him this favor in return for returning the map and key to him and further promised to assist them in the quest and offered his friendship "to the end of your days". Thorin reluctantly agreed.

This journey "there and back again" not only led to the finding of the One Ring and the destruction of Smaug. It re-established both the Kingdom of the Dwarves under Dain Ironfoot and the Kingdom of the men of Dale, which served as important allies in the War of the Ring. Without them, Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North while Gondor was under siege. Gandalf explains:
"When you think of the battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash. But that has been averted - because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-Earth."
Christopher Tolkien notes that there was an earlier manuscript that gave a lengthy version of Gandalf's conversations with the Dwarves when he first persuaded them to set out for Erebor. Presented in bits and pieces with accompanying commentary, he includes these writings in an appendix to the essay. The material provides more insight into Gandalf's strategy and his vigorous defense of the race of Hobbits and the rationale for including Bilbo, who they had not yet met.

In the end, Tolkien would cut this tale by Gandalf from the final version of "The Return of the King". Some of it appeared in summary form in the Appendices. Here, in the fleshed out version, we get to see more of Gandalf's through process. Indeed, in "The Hobbit", the Wizard is presented as somewhat of a mystery and almost an incidental character. But with "The Quest for Erebor", we can appreciate that story as a more integral part of the bigger picture.

Next up is a more detailed account of the journey of the Nazgul to the Shire in "The Hunt for the Ring".


At 6:36 AM, Blogger Panday said...

Excellent summary!

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still remember the first time I found myself thinking of Erebor as the strategic right flank of Sauron's planned attack on the West and The Hobbit as a tale (from Bilbo's perspective) of Gandalf's chess moves to check that threat.

Speaking of The Hobbit and the back-story, I cannot recall that the Stone Giants, mentioned in Bilbo's journey over the High Pass of the Misty Mountains, ever make another appearance anywhere. I can only suppose that Tolkien deliberately decided not to follow up with these characters. Nonetheless, I believe they are the only ones that didn't make the transition from the smaller to the larger story. Not too shabby, considering - as you note - that Tolkien wasn't thinking epic when he put The Hobbit together.

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robbo, good point on the stone-giants. I always assumed they were the same as Stone Trolls but (as with the case of "goblin" for Orc) it was just another name given to them by Tolkien.

But this isn't the case.

Note: The Encyclopedia of Arda says: "The difficulty of fitting Stone-giants (and all giants, for that matter) into Tolkien's world has led some to see the Stone-giants as a metaphor for crashing thunderbolts, or something similar. However, the detail of the Stone-giants' description, and the occurrence of other giants in Tolkien's work, makes it seem likely that these creatures actually did exist in Middle-earth".

At 2:46 AM, Blogger Pigman said...

How ironic in the fellowship gandalf says in the council that they would have needed an old, hot dragon to destroy the ring as the only alternative to mt doom. Well there they are in the hobbit; ring and smaug in the same room! If bilbo had been slow to outrun the flame the ring would have been destroyed!


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