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Servants of the Secret Fire
The Purpose and Significance Of Gandalf's Words to the Balrog
Greetings, all! Josh here. I was traveling last weekend and busier than usual this week but wanted to keep the Lord of the Rings goodness headed straight into your inboxes, so today I have a guest piece for you from . Amy is a Jokien with Tolkien subscriber who has her own Substack at and is also a contributor to the Substack.
Today’s piece is all about the deeper meaning of the lines Gandalf says during his epic confrontation with the Balrog—Durin’s Bane—on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. I’m so excited for you all to read it, so I’ll stop writing and let you get to the good stuff!
Servants of the Secret Fire
There is a famous passage in The Fellowship of the Ring that stirs my heart whenever I read it. Not only does it remind me of the classic scene in Peter Jackson’s film, but it also marks the point at which Gandalf’s mission is revealed most clearly.
The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’1
What makes this passage so emotionally resonant is Gandalf’s words to the Balrog: not only his emphatic and repeated statement that, “You cannot pass,” which shows his courage and determination, but his identification of himself: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.” He also identifies his opponent as a “flame of Udûn.” With these words, he reveals his purpose and the significance of this fight.
The Secret Fire is thoroughly in opposition to the fires of Morgoth, which are seen in the Balrog. Morgoth was the original villain in Tolkien’s legendarium, more powerful even than Sauron. But although he created bright blazes in the caverns of Udûn, the fires of Morgoth belonged to the darkness. That is why Gandalf tells the Balrog that “dark fire” will not avail him.
The fire of Ilúvatar, the God in Tolkien’s legendarium, is light and life. From The Silmarillion, we learn that the Secret Fire is the very spark of creative energy that resides in all creatures in Tolkien’s mythical world of Arda, giving them life.2 Not only that, but it lies at the heart of creation, enabling everything that exists to do so. It is the product of the great creator, in whom is found the Flame Imperishable. Only the one with the Flame Imperishable can truly create new beings with sentient life. Only he can send forth the Secret Fire.
In the very beginning, Melkor (later renamed Morgoth) sought ought the Flame Imperishable, wanting to have that creative power himself. He discovered that the Flame Imperishable resides in God and cannot be usurped by even the most powerful Valar. Melkor’s desire to possess this flame and thereby bestow the Secret Fire upon new beings reveals his desire to be equal to God, but as a created being himself, Melkor cannot bring truly new things into being. He can only change what already exists, perverting it to his evil purposes. Even the orcs were not created out of nothing but made by twisting and perverting Elves. (Editor’s note: for more on Tolkien’s development of this idea of Melkor’s corruption of elves into orcs and the problems with it that he wrestled with, see this past issue of “Ask Jokien” where a reader asked “What is the Lifecycle of an Orc?”)
This understanding of evil is in line with Neo-Platonic and Augustinian thought, and the technical term is the privation theory of evil. Those who hold to this theory believe that evil has no real existence in itself but is merely the absence of good. Tolkien not only believed this, but also stressed that while God is creator, man can only ever be a sub-creator. Thus, we see in the legendarium he developed that even the Valar (powerful angel-like beings) are only sub-creators. When the Vala Aulë creates the Dwarves, they do not have free spirits of their own until Ilúvatar chooses in his mercy to grant them.
Melkor wanted to possess the Flame Imperishable and have control over the Secret Fire, but Gandalf proclaims himself to be a servant of the Secret Fire. This is akin to saying that he is a servant of the creator or a servant of the will of God. The wizard’s purpose in the world is to see the will of God done and honor Ilúvatar’s creative intent. Unlike his fellow wizard Saruman, Gandalf is not seeking a kingdom of his own or the power to control others. He is not setting himself up as equal to God.
I may only be a human being living in the present age of our own world, but I feel a deep connection with Gandalf. It was never Gandalf’s doom to be the ultimate hero in that war. It was his doom to come alongside others, speaking hope into their hearts—to sacrifice himself on behalf of the cause, thus revealing his character to be fully in line with the will of God. It was his doom to raise up others who would fight on, while himself standing in the face of the storm and declaring, “You cannot pass,” which is to say, “Over my dead body alone may you pass.”
In this world, we have plenty of people who are willing to be the leaders on horseback, charging out to face the enemy lines and slay dozens of orcs. Many would bear a Ring of Power or set up a kingdom, undoubtedly with themselves as kings and queens. But there are very few people who would offer to make the treacherous and relatively anonymous journey to Mordor. Likewise, few who would say to others, “You go on and get the greater glory. I will stand here and sacrifice myself. The enemy will only progress over my dead body, for I would rather see the will of God done and acknowledge the creator in a darkening world than enjoy whatever glories this present age has to offer.”
Gandalf is a type of leader, but he ultimately passes leadership of the Company to Aragorn, whose fate it is to be the greater heroic figure in the eyes of many. However, I do not doubt that to Aragorn, Gandalf is the hero. It is the wizard who stands in the gap to preserve the possibility of Aragorn’s kingship. Even so, Frodo likely sees Gandalf as the greater hero, for without the sacrifices and guidance of Gandalf, Frodo would be nothing: he would have no hope of making it to Mordor to destroy the Ring.
Like Gandalf, I must see the purpose of my life in alignment with the will of my creator. Even as the world rebels against the creator and revels in darkness, I must hold to the light. When I am tested by fire, I must declare to anyone who asks, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire. You cannot pass.”
Gandalf’s philosophy is exactly what Christians in the modern world need. We have plenty of people ready to gain glory on the ideological battlefield, but few who would lay down their lives for the sheep, forsaking their own glory to promote the glory of God. There is great dignity in being a servant of the Secret Fire, which only the breaking and remaking of the world can fully reveal. Gandalf was willing to make the long investment. Are we?
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Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, Single volume movie tie-in edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 322.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien, Second Edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 25.