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Inspired by this question and namely by this passage (emphasis mine):

“Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.”

Why does Gandalf say that West is forgotten? What does he mean?

  • I won't try to go into details at the level of the answers below as many are far more versed in the lore than i however - in visiting the Lord of The Rings Project looking at there oldest timeline and working upward - There is 8,472 years of history from start of the "Year of the Tree's" until the "Third age of man - year 2941" where "The hobbit" storyline begins. Much of the forgotten West, occurs in the wars and events of that timeline. – DMSJax Dec 24 '15 at 16:51
41

The "west that is forgotten" is the Undying Lands. I imagine that over the years, the idea of a place where the Elves rest for eternity would retreat into legend since Elves became more introverted among mortal Men and the knowledge of their existence and fate was less known. Especially to men who aren't necessarily of Numenorean descent.

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    I would imagine Aman being made inaccessible to men in the 2nd Age may, over the course of centuries, have had a far stronger effect on the memories of men than mere elvish introversion. – tjd Dec 23 '15 at 14:27
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    @tjd, who knows! I think my answer has a bit of speculation about how much men of the Third Age knew about Aman, because of this quote regarding the ring: "And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge." If it were possible for the One Ring to be a forgotten myth, maybe it's not too difficult to imagine forbidden mysterious domains to be forgotten too. – John Bell Dec 23 '15 at 15:10
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    @JohnBell Note however that, although the books convey the general idea that few people knew of the rings of power, that precise quote comes from the movie (if I remember correctly, those lines were an idea of Philippa Boyens'). – lfurini Dec 23 '15 at 17:37
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    I can't provide quotes, but I seem to recall that Gondor and the Dunedain are pretty much the only non-elvish peoples in Middle Earth who hold The Lords of the West in reverence. This is one of the defining features of Elendil and his kin and people. – Yorik Dec 23 '15 at 19:45
  • @Ifurini. Good point well noted. – John Bell Dec 24 '15 at 9:08
22

I think you're parsing that wrong. It's not the West that is forgotten, but Gandalf's youth there.

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    @SokPomaranczowy: Nope. Daniels interpretation is correct. There's no comma necessary there. Gandalf, like most LotR characters, does speak a little 'strangely' for our sensibilities: we would probably formulate it "I was Olorin in my forgotten youth in the West", but there's nothing wrong with the way he said it. And that's the only interpretation that makes sense: the West is obviously not forgotten, Gandalf's youth is. – Shamshiel Dec 23 '15 at 13:34
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    The only grammatically correct interpretation of the construction as written is that "the West that is forgotten" is one noun by itself. Given Tolkein's fluency with language in general I doubt he would have written it this way if he intended what Daniel suggests – Daenyth Dec 23 '15 at 13:49
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    Maybe that should be an ELU.SE question?\ – Matt Gutting Dec 23 '15 at 14:16
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    For what it's worth, the French translation is "j'étais Olorin dans ma jeunesse dans l'Ouest, qui est oubliée". Oubliee (forgotten) is an adjective in feminine form, so applies to a feminine noun. But Ouest (West) is masculine, so what is forgotten is Gandalf's youth (jeunesse, which is indeed feminine). I took the quote on Wikipedia, and I couldn't which version of the translation it was (and if it matters). – Taladris Dec 23 '15 at 16:57
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    I've been reading the books yearly for 15 years and I've always parsed it the other way around. Taking @MattGutting's recommendation, I've asked this on ELU. – isanae Dec 23 '15 at 18:23
4

Taking it as written, it is the West that is forgotten. It's a similar construction to "blade that was broken."

I took it to mean the majority of regular folk, hobbits, non-noble dwarves, and men of Gondor and Rohan, and all those who live beyond the edges of Tolkein's map, do not know about the Undying Lands. (Although most of the characters we become intimate with: wizards, kings, elves, and more-sophisticated hobbits, have not forgotten the West and know its importance, it "is forgotton" by most folk living at the end of the Third Age.)

To me it also hints at Gandalf's understanding that such knowledge will eventually be completely forgotten by all who remain in Middle Earth. The decline and fall that is a strong theme of Tolkien's work.

And if you take the tales of Middle Earth at their stated (by the author) purpose, as millennia-old tales of a mythic Britain, he's talking about our days, long after all the Elves left, and dwarves and hobbits faded or merged with Men.

No doubt I'm reading too much into such a brief expression.

3

The only people who care about Valinor ("the West") in The Two Towers are the remnants of the Noldorin exiles in Rivendell, Loth-Lorien and the Grey Havens. We know from Frodo's accounts that some of these elves have been traveling through the Shire on their way to the Grey Havens to catch the last ships into the West, and we know that their leaders leave soon after the events of the Lord of the Rings. The remaining elves -- the Moriquendi -- have no first-hand knowledge of the West, and no desire to travel there (unless, like Legolas, they glimpse the sea and are overcome by sea-longing). Thus, except for the very few Noldorin exiles left after the last ship sails into the West, Valinor will be completely forgotten -- as indeed it would have been, if the Red Book of Westmarch had not been written cataloging these stories.

2

I always interpreted it as Gandalf's youth (in the West) that was forgotten, since all Elves and Dunedain remembered Valinor.

Any elf who had not definitely refused the call to go to Valinor - planning to say in Middle-earth and fade away instead - intended to go to Valinor someday in the near or very distant future. The elves had been told time and time again that it was their destiny to go to Valinor or else fade, and they could see the world becoming less and less hospitable to them over the millennia. Galadriel was the only exile who was still forbidden to return to Valinor at the time of LOTR, and she certainly had not forgotten Valinor. She sang about wondering if a ship could ever now come to carry her back across so wide a sea.

And the Dunedain could not forget about Valinor without forgetting the reason for the downfall of Numenor, the most important part of their origin myths and legends. In Gondor they still stood in silence and gazed at the west before meals, looking toward Numenor that was, Elvenhome that is, and Valinor that ever shall be.

The west was not forgotten but was a vital part of the intellectual and spiritual lives of millions of elves and Dunedain and non Dunedain Gordorians - the population of Gondor should have been a few million.

But certainly even Elven and Dunedain lore masters would seldom have mentioned or thought about the deeds of Olorin in Valinor, since he mostly worked unseen by elves. Gandalf's (relative) youth as Olorin in the West was largely forgotten and at most barely a footnote in Middle-earth.

1

There are also remarks in "Unfinished Tales" and "The Silmarillion" concerning the Istari (Wizards) and specifically, but briefly, Olorin (Gandalf). In the Undying Lands he was of the race of beings that were worshiped by the Elves. I had always assumed that as Gandalf in Middle-earth he was "clothed" in a human form, and that that necessitated a lessening of his power and knowledge. Note his curious lack of memory when he first returns from death and meets with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in the eaves of Fangorn.

  • The question asked why the West was forgotten. – Blackwood May 5 '18 at 11:40

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