The fourth of July always makes me think of Gandalf.
This is probably the direct response to several things in my life:
1) My family has never ever been anything even remotely resembling patriotic. As such, the Fourth of July was never celebrated in any regard in my household. It was just another day except for…
2) The fact that my father is a pyromaniac. The sale and use of fireworks is illegal in New York without a professional license, but the house I grew up in was very close to the Connecticut border (where the sale and use of amateur fireworks is quite legal) and in a lake community. You do the math.
3) It was my father who first introduced me to the wonderful world of J.R.R. Tolkien and, thereby, fantasy literature (thanks, dad!). He read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story when I was a kid, then we worked our way through The Lord of the Rings.
4) My dad loves wizards.
Today, my father is a professional pyrotechnician (though not a full-time one). He may never make flying, fire-breathing dragons come out of mortar and cannon-fuse, but he
does put on one hell of a show. As you can imagine, July fourth and its surrounding environs tend to be busy season for the hobbyist pyro.
So, in honor of blow-stuff-up-for-your-country-day, let’s talk about Gandalf.
Tolkein’s inclusion of fireworks as one of Gandalf’s many talents was meant to hint at the well-roundedness which made Gandalf the Gray unique amongst the other wizards within Tolkein’s universe. Remember how Sarumon and the White Council were continually perplexed at Gandalf’s interest in Hobbits? I always had the impression that Gandalf’s talent with fireworks was another of his dirty little secrets that the Council would have frowned upon. Despite that, Gandalf continued to innovate with fireworks and always brought at least one new trick to his shows in the Shire.
What this all boils down to is that Gandalf was one hip wizard. He knew, even though no one else did, that Hobbits were more resilient than perhaps any other sentient race in Middle Earth. His knowledge of the arcane was something which he mingled with gunpowder, an advanced bit of technology in the sword-swinging Middle Earth (yes, technically China was making fireworks and gun powder since the seventh century here in the real world, but this knowledge would not migrate to Western Europe until the thirteenth century which is a good long time after Lord of the Rings was supposedly set… remember that Tolkein wrote it as a series of pre-European-history myths and thereby it would have pre-dated Arthur in the late fifth century). This makes Gandalf not only a wizard, but also a scientist (and probably an alchemist, though we could debate the extension of that meaning until next Tuesday).
This is an interesting move on Tolkein’s part. Though writing from deep inside the Modernist movement, Tolkein’s work harkens back to Romanticism. The motifs on display within Lord of the Rings (i.e. the fading of an old world, anxiety created by technology (see especially the scourging of the shire), and lengthy/idealized portraits of the natural world) are themes directly out of Wordsworth. The Romantic rejection of modern technology as a device which leads to an ugly, impersonal world (see: “The World is too Much With us”) seems to be one which Tolkein would have upheld (at least within Rings).
And yet, here we find one of the book’s most powerful, influential, and sympathetic characters as a proprietor of this modern technology. At this juncture, we must again recall that Gandalf did everything he could to keep the War away from the Shire. It was because of his efforts that the Shire was able to remain so pristine and innocent through the vast majority of an otherwise middle-earth-shaking cataclysm. The Shire, the ultimate site of the novel’s pastoral, was also the primary enjoyer of Gandalf’s technological deviancy. So it wasn’t that Gandalf was working to keep technology entirely away from the Shire (if he was, he wouldn’t have brought fireworks), but it also wasn’t that he wanted technology to be a way of life amongst the Hobbits either.
If this isn’t a mixed message, then I’m not certain what is.
Despite the complications of this analysis, the literary function of the fireworks is very simple. Tolkein very clearly set forth to create a visually stunning world (as made abundantly clear by Peter Jackson’s breathtaking films). This is no small feat for a novel-writer (though perhaps was made slightly easier by the not-so-film-centric WWII era which spawned Tolkein’s most famous work). Gandalf’s fireworks, like the white horses he creates at the Ford of Rivendell, are an aspect to this world; a writer’s flourish which adds character and depth to an already imagery-laden universe.
Happy July fourth, everyone. Now go find yourself some wizardly technology to ogle!