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When Gandalf meets the fellowship again in The Lord of the Rings, he says:

Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.

According to this answer, Sauron, along with the rest of the Maiar, is among the first beings (except perhaps Eru himself). So who can be older than him?

I realize that there is already a question what these creatures are (and the answer is that we do not know). But I only want to know how it is possible that they are older than Sauron, or what could make Gandalf say such a thing, since he himself is as old as Sauron and should presumably know that they came first.

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    I don't have a reference hence comment instead of answer, but "older" could mean "existed in the world for longer". We know that even though the Ainur were all created at the same time, they didn't enter the world at the same point; maybe those creatures existed before Sauron arrived. Aug 7, 2021 at 12:51
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    @chepner Have you got a reference for that? In any case I don't see how you can say something is older than Sauron if Sauron is older than time
    – Wade
    Aug 7, 2021 at 14:31
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    @Wade The point is that "older" only applies to things in Arda, where time exists. If the Nameless Things entered Arda before Sauron, they are older, whether or not one predates the other (whatever that would mean) prior to either's entry to Arda.
    – chepner
    Aug 7, 2021 at 16:08
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    On a less metaphysical note, it could just mean that the Nameless Things have been there longer than Sauron the Dark Lord (as opposed to Sauron, Lieutenant of Morgoth) has existed.
    – chepner
    Aug 7, 2021 at 16:10
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    @chepner that is certainly how I always read it. Sauron wasn't always exactly Sauron. Even as Morgoth's lieutenant he might be expected to know about evil things under Middle-Earth, but maybe not when he was Mairon, unfallen Maia of Aule hanging out in Valinor. Aug 11, 2021 at 2:03

2 Answers 2

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The answer depends on exactly what the Nameless Things are. Are they indigenous creatures from Middle-Earth, perhaps created when Eru sent the Flame to be the heart of Arda?

And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be; and those of you that will may go down into it.' And suddenly the Ainur saw afar off a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame; and they knew that this was no vision only, but that Ilúvatar had made a new thing: Eä, the World that Is. (The Silmarillion)

One of the strongest Tom Bombadil theories is that he is some kind of spirit indigenous to the world, created when Eru sent the Flame into Ea and made things Be. The reason many people believe this is that Bombadil makes a similar claim about himself: he's the Eldest.

‘Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.’ (The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring)

Given the other claims (before the first rain-drop and the first acorn, before the Elves past westward), this is usually understood as meaning that Tom was there before the Dark Lord Morgoth. But Morgoth was there 'from the first.'

And in this work the chief part was taken by Manwë and Aulë and Ulmo; but Melkor too was there from the first, (The Silmarillion)

(There's a better quote about Morgoth being the first of the Ainur in Ea, but I can't remember where it is.)

If Bombadil can claim to be Eldest, based on this, then maybe so can the Nameless Things be older than Sauron in the same sense - and if the Nameless Things came into being at the creation of the world, or at least before the Ainur (or specifically Sauron) entered it, then they would in this sense be older any of the Ainur - the Ainur at this time do not have an age, because they exist outside of Time, in the Timeless Halls and the Void outside of Ea.

Then those of the Ainur who desired it arose and entered into the World at the beginning of Time; and it was their task to achieve it, and by their labours to fulfil the vision which they had seen. (The Silmarillion)

But if they are Ainur, then some of the Ainur are described as older and younger than others.

Námo the elder dwells in Mandos, which is westward in Valinor. [...] Irmo the younger is the master of visions and dreams. [...] The spouse of Oromë is Vána, the Ever-young; she is the younger sister of Yavanna. (The Silmarillion)

It's hard to conceptualize this given the above - them existing outside of Time, and all, nobody could have been created before, at the same time as, or after anyone else, but maybe it's simply some kind of 'spiritual' difference analogous to age, such as when we're told Manwë and Melkor are "brethren in the thought of Ilúvatar". In this case, the Nameless Things could be 'older' than Sauron or other Ainur. It could also simply be that the relative age of the Ainur was accounted from the time they entered Ea - but in this case, it would still be no problem for Nameless Thing as Ainur to be older than Sauron. Even if Sauron had known them in the Timeless Halls, who knows how much they might have changed from the time they entered the world until he did?

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    You probably should not assume that everyone -- even Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel -- is correct in everything they say. Even if they are good folk, they may be mistaken or mis-remembering, or simply ignorant of the full details of Arda.
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 7, 2021 at 14:57
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    @MarkOlson: I don't think we should doubt them unless we have some compelling reason to, either, as we do with Treebeard and Bombadil contradicting each other. While we can imagine Gandalf might have been speaking a little poetically, I don't see a reason to doubt one of the Ainur except insofar he could not have actually known what Sauron knew, only that he himself did not know of them prior to his experience and had no reason to believe any of the other Ainur did either, and that he had some reason for believing they predated his and Sauron's arrival into the world.
    – Shamshiel
    Aug 7, 2021 at 15:29
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    I find characters contradicting each other and the words of the narrator -- as you pretty clearly show above that they do -- to be a good reason to entertain the possibility that someone is simply wrong or unclear. And I would note that even the Ainur regularly show their fallibility. They are not God and they are not all-knowing.
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 7, 2021 at 15:39
  • @Mark Olson Even God is not God - atleast, despite what is claimed, Eru seems to sometimes be imperfect. Aug 7, 2021 at 17:46
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    @M. A. Golding Quite so: JRRT would say (and I think said) that he was recording ancient legends passed down by the Elves, not divinely inspired truth. This is a big part of what makes his work so real and hence interesting. It does make interpretation a lot harder...which is also, IMO, more fun.
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 7, 2021 at 18:07
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Since there's nothing else said about them outside of Gandalf's words, I think the logical conclusion is that they're older in the sense that they inhabited Arda before Sauron did. In real life, one can say that the person who inhabits a place earlier is "older" there than the person who does later. "Old" can mean many things, not just in regard to age but also to things like how long a person has been in a place, or how long an object has been used. The Nameless Things came to Arda before Sauron, hence they're "older" than him.

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