This is a story that take place, in the main, in the “Blessed Realm” of Aman – the place over the Sea to which the elves of Middle Earth sail.
For those unfamiliar with the names and stories of the Blessed Realm, Olorin is the original name of Gandalf the Grey. He was/is of the Maiar – eternal angel-like beings of somewhat lesser status than the Valar (the “gods” of Aman such as Manwe and Varda [or Elbereth]). Maiar can appear in “human” form in Aman or move invisibly as spirits among the Elves, inspiring and directing them. Melian – the mother of Luthien – was also a Maia.
Lorien – well known to LotR fans – is also the name of the dreamlike gardens in Valinor where Irmo (also called Lorien) and his wife Este dwelt.
Twilight was settling over the gardens of Lorien. Standing with his back to the house of Irmo, Olorin watched as the mists began to drift through the trees by the shores of Lorellin.
His heart was heavy, as the peace he so often found in this place was inexplicably absent – and it was not the gardens that had changed. He sighed.
Soon Este, the wife of Irmo, would awaken on her island in the middle of the lake and join her lord for a brief time before Irmo went to his rest. Then Este, the queen of dreams, would preside over the Elves of Aman as they slept, filling their minds with fair visions and imaginings and making their rest as fruitful as the works of their waking hours.
How Olorin had marvelled, all those ages ago, as Este had helped encourage the thoughts of Feanor as he slept. Through her, Feanor’s inspiration to create the Silmarils – greatest of all jewels in Arda – had been given greater clarity and wisdom, though he had never acknowledged any hand or power other than his own.
As Olorin thought of things past, Este’s white-clad form stirred and arose on the island. Slowly she walked across the gleaming silver-grey bridge that separated her resting place from the surrounding gardens, and came to where Olorin stood, quiet and thoughtful, beneath a copse of cedar trees.
“Your mind is troubled, my friend,” she said in her soft voice. “I heard the summons of Manwe in my sleep – has he called you also?”
Olorin nodded. “I do not understand why I of all people should be needed at his council,” he said. “I, who have so many flaws of temper and weakness, and so much to learn…” his voice trailed off and he gazed out upon the water again.
“But you are not your own,” Este replied gently. “As a Maia it is your task to serve and Manwe is your lord. And you have learned much since … since that day in the Mahanaxar. You are changed.”
“I wonder,” said Olorin. He ruffled a hand through his dark brown hair, his bushy eyebrows knotting together. “I will answer the summons,” he said at last. “But I am restless and wish to spend some time at the window of Nienna first. Will you tell Manwe this?”
“I will, she said, nodding her understanding. “Go now, and quickly. Spend the time you need and join us soon.”
Olorin bowed and closed his eyes, reaching out with his thought to the far edges of the world, where the quiet and sorrowful Nienna lived in her simple timber house with windows that looked out from the light and beauty of Aman to the shores of nothingness – an empty void that few in the Blessed Realm could endure.
Returning to his native spirit form, Olorin began to traverse the distance to the uttermost edge of creation. When he had first come there, so long ago, angry and full of bitterness, Olorin had been repulsed and frightened by the sight. No bright cities, no lush green pasturelands or snow-capped mountains, no splashing waves and stands of yew or pine, no other voices or sounds. Just darkness and silence.
In time, however, he had come to understand the power of Nienna’s window. Here one was truly humbled – even if he were a Maia of Eru, born of his thought before the creation of the world, just as the Valar had been. For in looking out upon the void, Olorin was able to discern his own smallness in the universe. The race of the Maiar might be eternal, but they were still created beings – still flawed, still prone to error and prey to evil.
Evil. It was this that had resulted in his removal to the house of Nienna all those ages ago. Not evil in himself, but anger at the evil that had been done through the lies of Morgoth. Olorin had denounced a prideful Feanor before the council of the Valar – even though Feanor had been deceived by Morgoth and any words of judgment had belonged to Manwe alone. So when Feanor had been exiled for his wrong, Olorin also left the city of the Valar, to learn from Nienna.
A firebrand – that is what Manwe had called him, and so he had been. Eager to serve, but also quick to anger and slow to forgive or to pity. The years in quiet and solitude, the unfolding tragedy of the Noldor in Middle Earth, the sorrow of Nienna in all that was marred or wounded – and the ever-present reminder from her window that his will and pride counted for nothing – these had taught Olorin, slowly but carefully, as the history of Arda unwound itself.
As Olorin resumed his bodily form at the door of Nienna’s grey house, he wondered what Manwe’s summons could mean. For despite being a Maia dedicated to Manwe, Olorin had remained away from high king’s courts ever since his banishment – for so he thought of it. And though Nienna had turned to him one soft, silver evening as the moon was rising and told him he had learned all she could teach, it was to the gardens of Lorien that he had turned, not back to Manwe’s high seat in the tower of Ilmarin.
Quiet and contemplation were what he sought, and to guide – in secret – the thoughts, plans and hopes of the Eldar who chose to wander though Lorien’s dreamy, winding paths. Olorin stayed by them in spirit while they pondered and sought rest, and rejoiced when he saw his elven charges leave the gardens filled with peace and new hope. This was his joy, and he had no desire to do anything else.
The door opened and Nienna, grey-clad as always, stood before him with a gentle smile. “My sister Este told me to expect you,” she said in her quiet voice. “I am also bidden to appear at the Mahanaxar, but I tarried until I saw you.”
“Do you know what this thing is that Manwe wishes to debate?” asked Olorin. “It is many a year since all were called together in this way. Does it portend some new evil, some attack upon Aman?”
“I do not think so,” said Nienna thoughtfully. “Rather, I believe it is an ancient evil to which Manwe’s heart has turned in his continuing sorrow for the wounds of Middle Earth. More than that I cannot see. It is a sorrow that I share, but I do not know his full mind on this.”
She stood aside to let Olorin in, then bid him farewell, gesturing to the western windows as she departed. “Do not tarry too long,” she advised. “You will be needed in this debate.”
“I? Why?” asked Olorin – but Nienna was gone.
With a troubled heart he turned and looked out upon the blackness, the empty mass before him. What could he do to aid the Valar and help heal the hurts of the world? That was for the great ones, not for him.
But as Olorin gazed out into the inky void the troubles of his mind were gradually stilled. He felt no fear here, as he once had done. Rather, he felt a gradual deepening of serenity and peace. Here he knew his place in the world. Here there were no lies, no wars for mastery and no place for pride. He smiled, then bowed his head, knowing it was time to gather his strength and remove to Manwe’s side.
Returning to spirit form, he left the house of Nienna and turned north-east, crossing the fruitful plains of Yavanna towards Taniquetil – the great mountain of Aman on which Manwe and Varda’s great palace was set. At the feet of Taniquetil stood the great gold gates of the city of the Valar, and beyond that was the stone circle of the Mahanaxar – called the Ring of Doom because it was here that the great decisions of Aman were made.
Olorin closed his eyes and resumed his body just outside the Ring, clothing himself in grey as Nienna has done. The stone seats encircling the high throne of Manwe at the northern edge of the Ring were filled by the Valar – and behind them stood great numbers of Maiar, here to play their part in the council.
Raising his head, Olorin pulled his cloak around him and walked to the outer rim of the assembly to hear Manwe speak.
“I have taken counsel with Eru,” Manwe was saying, “and he has commanded us to send help to the peoples of Middle Earth in their fight against Sauron. We must, therefore, decide what form this assistance will take and how it should be done.”
“There is nothing we can do to aid the ills of the world!” exclaimed Tulkas, ever impulsive. “Since the seas were bent at the fall of Númenor we may no longer walk the paths of Middle Earth.”
“The Valar may not walk in Middle Earth, that is true,” said Manwe. “But our Maiar brothers and sisters are not included in this ban. Iarwain – whom we all remember with fondness – has dwelt in the forests of Middle Earth since the days before the moon and the sun. And there, too, dwells Sauron – Gorthaur of old – whose power wreaked havoc on the land before a Ring was cut from his hand more than a thousand years of the earth ago.”
“Some thought this deed would prove the end of Sauron. Yet it has not been so. This Ring contained the core of his power and because it was not destroyed, Sauron survives.”
There were murmurs among some of those assembled. The affairs of Middle Earth had not been the concern of all, and parts of this story were completely new to them. But Manwe raised his hand, bidding everyone be silent.
“There is more, my friends,” he said. “And thus we come to the reason I have summoned you here. A shadow of Sauron is beginning to grow again, it is said. So it seems fitting to me that we send emissaries from Sauron’s ancient order to unite people in the fight against him.”
Olorin took in a sharp breath as a ripple of assent moved around the ring. It was fitting indeed. So this was why the Maiar had been bidden to this council. Who among them would it be? There was a moment’s silence and then Aule, the great shaper and builder of Arda, stepped forward.
“Sauron was under my command when the world was made,” he said. “His fall into the service of Morgoth, while no doing of mine, is an act for which I should offer reparation. However many we send to the shores of Middle Earth, I ask that a Maiar in my service be among them.”
“That is well,” said Manwe. “I have given thought to the number and I believe it must be small. We would alarm the races of Middle Earth by sending a great force – and it is fated that we cannot reveal ourselves to them or make them follow our way of thinking. We must guide and guard only. I suggest we send only three; but three of the strongest and wisest among us.”
Aule bowed. “I nominate Curumo,” he said at once. “There is none wiser or more skilled among all my servants.” He gestured, and a striking, dark-haired Maia came forward and made a deep obeisance before Manwe.
Then Orome arose. “For the great love I bear for the Middle Earth and its peoples, I ask also to send an emissary: my great friend and helper, Alatar, who travelled with me many times to the hither shore before the world was changed.” At this a tall, slender Maia stood and bowed to the council.
Manwe nodded assent, searching the other faces before him. “But where is Olorin?” he said at last. “He also received the summons, did he not?” Olorin’s heart stopped in his chest. He felt numb, frozen to the spot in fear – or was it simply self-doubt? Nienna was speaking softly for him, telling of his journey and her expectation that he would be among them soon, and Olorin hung his head. He could not remain hidden.
He threw back his hood and walked into their midst. “I am here, my lord,” he said, bowing low before Manwe. “Forgive my late arrival.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the high king, smiling warmly upon him. “I am glad to look upon you once more, my friend, even if it is to ask this great thing of you. Will you be an emissary to Middle Earth on our behalf? Will you go?”