71

So if memory serves right, the premise of the Hobbit is that Gandalf gets this rag-tag team together to retrieve the Arkenstone, so that the Dwarves can reunite, so that they can take back their homeland, so that they get rid of Smaug, so that Sauron can't use him. So they get Bilbo to sneak in there to get the stone.

But why couldn't Gandalf just get some warriors together and kill Smaug in a surprise attack? Certainly Smaug was around the same level of toughness as a Balrog and Gandalf killed one of those by himself. Gandalf's former plan seems way more complicated and way more risky.

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    Cleaned up the comments. I'd say that he killed the Balrog because he had to as a last resort. Killing Smaug would basically be murder. – Paulie_D Apr 28 '17 at 15:06
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    Lack of reading effort, it's clear from the Lord of the Rings that it's not Gandolf's place to intervene directly in middle earth. He's a facilitator first, and sometime shepherd (in the sense that he protects/attacks only when those under him are directly attacked by wolves to strong for them), not a knight. – Ryan Apr 28 '17 at 17:59
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    Gandalf might have killed Smaug on his own, but he could have died trying. – RichS Apr 28 '17 at 23:14
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    To add to @RichS's comment, Gandalf killed a Balrog, and did die trying. – Wildcard Apr 28 '17 at 23:22
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    @aroth It wasn't, though. He didn't know he would be sent back until it happened. – zwol May 1 '17 at 13:12
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It was not his job.

The Istari (wizards) were sent to Middle Earth to oppose Sauron, but to do so by stirring the free people's of Middle Earth to resistance. They were explicitly forbidden from "Matching Sauron's power with power".

While Smaug was not Sauron, and so one could argue that technically he did not fall under the ban, the reason for the ban was still important - when the great Powers of the world clashed, there was normally a lot of collateral damage. Nearby things get destroyed - little things like towns, cities, mountain ranges, and continents. While it's unlikely that Gandalf's confrontation with Smaug would have done damage on that level, it could still have destroyed Lake Town and potentially the elf-kingdom of Mirkwood.

That said, I don't think that would have been enough to stop Gandalf from just doing the job himself if he had to. If it had really come to it, I'm sure Gandalf could and would have destroyed Smaug, especially in defence of others. But...

The destruction of the dragon would be only half the job. Gandalf needed not only Smaug gone, but a stronghold of free peoples reestablished. Had Gandalf simply turned up and destroyed the dragon, the dwarf-hoard would have remained there unguarded, almost certainly to become a source of terrible strife among the people in the north. This is covered in Appendix A of Lord of the Rings:

Among many cares he was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew then already that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he felt strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt from the East to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect.

Despite all of which, if it had come to it, Gandalf likely would have been able to fight and destroy Smaug, if there had been no other choice. But as it happened, while he was trying to decide what to do about the dragon, he had a 'chance' encounter. In the same appendix:

It was even as Gandalf sat and pondered this [in the Inn at Bree] that Thorin stood before him, and said: 'Master Gandalf, I know you only by sight, but now I should be glad to speak with you. For you have often come into my thoughts of late, as if I were bidden to seek you. Indeed I should have done so, if I had known where to find you.'

Gandalf looked at him with wonder. 'That is strange, Thorn Oakenshield,' he said. 'For I have thought of you also; and though I am on my way to the Shire, it was in my mind that is the way also to your halls.'

[...]

'...You would be welcome there, if you would come. For they say that you are wise and know more than any other what goes on in the world...'

'I will come,' said Gandalf; 'for I guess that we share one trouble at least. The Dragon of Erebor is on my mind, and I do not think that he will be forgotten by the grandson of Thror.'

[...]

...But Dain Ironfoot...became then King Dain II, and the Kingdom under the Mountain was restored, even as Gandalf had desired. Dain proved a great and wise king, and the Dwarves prospered and grew strong again in his day.

This was Gandalf's job - not to kill all the various nasties of the world, but to support and strengthen the free peoples of Middle Earth to resist Sauron. If in the end he was left no other choice - as when he faced the Balrog - he could have destroyed Smaug; but as it turned out, doing so would have weakened the Free Peoples. Because...

...with his far-stretched right hand Sauron might have done great evil in the North, if King Dain and King Brand had not stood in his path.

  • That conversation is interesting. I wonder if there is more than mere coincidence behind the chance meeting of Thorin and Gandalf. – J Doe Apr 28 '17 at 18:20
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    Very likely there was; there is a partial version of an expanded form of that meeting published in Unfinished Tales, where Gandalf says "I did not more than follow the lead of 'chance' ". Quotation marks are in the original, as in Gandalf did not think it purely chance. – Werrf Apr 28 '17 at 18:26
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    I disagree with the first aspect that Gandalf would not have been allowed to fight Smaug. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/142741/…. I do believe that IF he needed to fight Smaug, Gandalf would have held them off. I think that his main goal was to put Thorin on the throne, re-establishing his reign over the region and securing the strategic asset that was the lonely mountain. Rather than kill the dragon, he wanted Thorin to come to power and unite the dwarves. What he planned to do with Smaug, is a mystery? – Josafoot Apr 28 '17 at 19:00
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    Up near the top, you might want to add that during his battle with the Balrog, they literally broke the mountain - a perfect example of the destruction you refer to. – Omegacron Apr 28 '17 at 20:28
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    @Werff Agreed - as much 'chance' as the west wind blowing away Orodruin's clouds at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. – Neal May 1 '17 at 14:03
54

Because Gandalf might not have won

This is an out-of-universe explanation based on what we know of the author.

The concept of A > B when comparing the fighting power of various superheroes, Jedi, Pokemon or whatever is a product of modern worldview, one that is familiar with numbers based video games and Dungeons and Dragons.

Tolkien was not familiar with any of that, but keep in mind that he was familiar first hand with actual war. It is worth pointing out that none of us on this forum, even Iraq veterans (like me), have ever fought in anything remotely resembling the Battle of the Somme, as Tolkien did. The lesson of that sort of mechanized trench warfare is that anyone can be killed, at any time.

Going back to the story, it is possible that in a vacuum Gandalf is more powerful than Smaug. But that guarantees nothing. Tolkien may have watched the best men in his regiment get killed by chance. Conflict is unpredictable, and there is always a chance that something could go wrong. After all, who could have predicted that Goliath would lose to David, or that invulnerable Achilles would be slain by one arrow?

The point is this, even if Gandalf had a 90% chance of winning a direct battle with Smaug, what about the other 10% chance? Gandalf didn't come to Middle Earth and plan and scheme for 3000 years just to throw it all to chance right before the big showdown with Sauron.

In fact, Sauron himself is the best proof that Tolkien shared the viewpoint I am putting forth. Was Isildur more powerful than Sauron? Was Isildur more powerful than his father or Gil-galad who were both cut down by Sauron's hand? No, he was not; he was victorious by chance. Fortune is the master of all, even wizards.

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    This explanation is totally antithetical both to Tolkien's beliefs and to Gandalf's character. "“Despair, or folly?' said Gandalf. 'It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. ... It is wisdom to recognize necessity, ... though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope." – Werrf Apr 28 '17 at 22:32
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    Suggest you add to this the Beowulf did not beat the dragon, and that hero was prominent in Tolkien's background in myth and legend. – KorvinStarmast Apr 28 '17 at 23:01
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    Where do you get the impression that maiar are stronger than dragons? Morgoth had balrogs at his command but needed to make dragons to win. And Gandalf didn't have a maiar's power execept under limited circumstances. Normally he was limited to human power. Old man human power not great human warrior and dragon slayer power. – M. A. Golding Apr 29 '17 at 2:37
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    I think another point along the lines of "Tolkein didn't subscribe to an A > B power metric" is that he often emphasises different kinds of power (and that evil only values "raw strength" kinds of power). Gandalf may well have been "more powerful" than Smaug, but his power is almost never shown to be useful in a straight out fight to the death with a titanic fire-breathing beast. – Ben May 1 '17 at 7:23
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    @Neal Gandalf's statements indicate he did more than return to Valinor. "Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell." One theory is that the Istari had their nature fundamentally altered by Eru; they weren't just Maiar in disguise. When Gandalf died, he died, and went where all Men go when they die, and it was Eru himself who sent him (or perhaps allowed him the choice of being sent) back to finish his task. – chepner Feb 23 at 18:48
17

Gandalf is not a warrior. He is not even a wizard in the Harry Potter sense. In body he appears as an old man. He is fit, but he is no Beren, and his performance of "magic" is limited to a few flashes, bangs, setting fire to pinecones and causing the bridge that held the balrog to break. In a straight sword-fight the Balrog would have won. This is the will of Manwë, that the istari should inspire the fight against Sauron, but not become warriors or kings themselves.

So why not get some warriors together and kill the dragon in a surprise attack? This was Gandalf's "plan A", in the book this is directly addressed during the initial meeting at Bag End. Gandalf wanted to find a hero, but couldn't:

"‘That would be no good,’ said the wizard, ‘not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands (…). That is why I settled on burglary (…)" (page 26 in my edition)

It's not clear to me what battles were on-going in TA. 2941, so the comment about "warriors fighting one another" may be a bit of hyperbole. Or just because the Hobbit was written before any detail history of the Third age had been developed. Turgon was Steward of Gondor, and his rule is generally considered to have been peaceful.

So Gandalf could not have fought the dragon himself, even if he had felt inclined to do so, and there was no warrior available and willing to fight on his behalf.

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    I'm not sure your answer allows for the fact that he did kill the balrog. – gef05 Apr 29 '17 at 11:20
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    And the Balrog killed Gandalf. Gandalf and the Balrog fell. In body both died. In the fall, they may have continued to fight, but I see that more as battle of spirits than of swords and whips. I know not what happened to the spirit that inhabited the Balrog, but Gandalf's spirit was reborn through the intervention of the Valar. This is not like Fëanor killing 9(?) balrogs with the sword, alone at the gates of Angband (before finally succumbing). – James K Apr 29 '17 at 11:57
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    I've now checked, Gandalf is a bit more bad-ass than I'd remembered. He survives the initial fall from the bridge, the balrog's flames are extinguished in the waters at the bottom of the chasm. The balrog tries to leave by a staircase that leads to the top of the mountains. Gandalf pursues him for over a week. From the peak of the mountain the balrog is thrown off (lots of "fallen angel" parallels here) but the body of Gandalf is broken. – James K Apr 29 '17 at 18:57
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    No, Gandalf was not restored to his incarnation by the Valar! In Letter 156 Tolkien tell us: He was sent by a mere prudent plan of the angelic Valar or governors; but Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure. 'Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done'. Sent back by whom, and whence? Not by the 'gods' whose business is only with this embodied world and its time; for he passed ‘out of thought and time’. The Powers are bound by time. It was the One alone who took up their failed plan, sanctifying it—and Gandalf the White. – tchrist Apr 30 '17 at 1:29
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    @DeadMG "Perhaps the books show something radically different to the films." Say it ain't so! That never happens. Right? – David Richerby Apr 30 '17 at 11:33
16

Certainly Smaug was around the same level of toughness as a Balrog and Gandalf killed one of those by himself.

And died. It's not like he beat the Balrog and did a victory dance. He fought the Balrog evenly. Both died at the end of the battle.

It's also worth noting what he did there. He didn't fight the Balrog with the help of the Fellowship. He deliberately drew the Balrog away from the others. Presumably because they were far more vulnerable to the Balrog than the Balrog was to them.

Another issue is that the events of the Hobbit do more than just defeat Smaug. Let's consider some things that occurred.

  1. The elves made friends among the current mortals. This made it easier to involve them later.

  2. The dwarves made friends with humans ('Men') and Bilbo. This left them more easily involved in the subsequent war.

  3. Restored the friendship between Lake-town and the dwarves.

  4. Restored the friendship between the different tribes of dwarves.

Without that, the races would have been even more divided and less prepared when Sauron rose.

Without Bilbo's example, it is unlikely that Frodo, Sam, Merry, or Pippin would have participated. The hobbits would have stayed out. This would have been important because hobbits were more resistant to the powers of the One Ring. Boromir certainly wouldn't have taken the One Ring to be destroyed.

Even Frodo couldn't bear to destroy the ring in the end. He needed Gollum's intervention to finish the job. Would anyone other than Frodo and Sam have spared Gollum that long? Particularly under the influence of the One Ring.

Gandalf could have picked a better party for the singular purpose of killing Smaug. But for the longer term purpose of defeating Sauron, his actual party had many advantages. And by not protecting people from Smaug, he forced people to step up to do so. And brought people together to defeat the orcs.

Gandalf fighting the Balrog did this again. The apparent loss of Gandalf forced the others to step up. Then when Gandalf returned, it left Sauron concentrating on the wrong foe. Sauron presumed that the One Ring would defeat Frodo. He could concentrate on more dangerous enemies. This gave Frodo the chance to get the ring where it needed to be. And then Gollum finished the job. All while the others fought the orcs where they needed to be.

7

We know (from the Ainulindale) that the Maia took after the Vala they were "under" -- sorry I do not have the text at hand so I can't quote it word-by-word.

There are two warrior Vala: Tulkas and Oromë. Alatar, one of the Blue wizards were sent by Oromë and presumedly the other Blue wizard was also of the same kind. Radagast was of Yavanna, Saruman was of Aulë and Gandalf was of Manwë himself. So while the Blue wizards might be somewhat warrior like but remember that

For it is said indeed that being embodied the Istari had needs to learn much anew by slow experience, and though they knew whence they came the memory of the Blessed Realm was to them a vision from afar off

In short: Gandalf was never a warrior and even if he had been he would have forgotten much of the "divine" lore.

So then how did he beat the Balrog? Quite simple: Manwë intervened. At this point of time, Manwë must have had his attention fixed on Gandalf. His eagle surely reported that Saruman have fallen to evil and that the ring was found, the Nazgul are abroad and all that. So when Gandalf faces down a Maia as strong as a Balrog, He changes the rules of engagement -- or asks Eru Illuvatar to do so (Gandalf explicitly calls himself "a servant of the Secret Fire" which is the fire that Illuvatar set burning into the heart of the world). We know that after the fight Eru did intervene and sent poor Olorin back and also it's more than likely that Manwë asked for this until his task is done. What we know for sure that Manwë must have had his attention on Gandalf before and after so his presence during is not unlikely. As a supporting evidence, a mountain top is Manwë's territory, pretty much. You might ask, why not do the same with Sauron then? Well, free will is important and Sauron does offer a decision to live under his rule. A Balrog is just a tool of destruction, noone's free will is violated by temporarily buffing Gandalf a little to be able to destroy it. Also, it's somewhat embarrassing that one escaped the War Of Wrath, high time to fix it.

There's no way Gandalf could've thought on a beautiful spring day "hey I will walk up to the dragon and hope Manwë borrows me a little might so I can smite it down".

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    I agree about Gandalf's inclinations, but I don't think he needed help to defeat the Balrog. They were both Maiar in physical bodies - Gandalf was put in a body by the Valar when he became one of the Wizards, the Balrogs became stuck in physical form by remaining in it a long time & doing much evil (this is discussed in History of Middle Earth X: Morgoth's Ring). And the Balrogs were not among the strongest Maiar - another Morgoth's Ring essay says that Morgoth had Maiar servants 'some great as Sauron, others less as Balrogs'. – cometaryorbit Apr 30 '17 at 0:30
  • Less than Sauron is saying almost nothing because "Sauron […] was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself." which I interpret that he has grown close to Vala like strength. Also during the decades while Tolkien was writing, the number and strength of the balrogs were changing and by the time of Morgoth's Ring only 3-7 existed in accordance with their power growing. – chx May 2 '17 at 1:45

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