Inspired by this question (which in turn was inspired by that one), to what name does "that is forgotten" apply to?

Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers

There are currently two competing top answers: the first one says that his "youth in the West" is now forgotten, because it was so long ago and in a different place, or "the West", because it is unreachable and mythical to humans.

How should this sentence be parsed?

For people unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings, the person speaking in the quote is Gandalf. Gandalf is a lesser God (an angel, or Maia) who might have been born "outside" the world. He spent his "youth" (Maiar do not age, but they can grow in experience and wisdom) in "the West". In a sense, his youth happened either before Earth was created, or in its infancy.

The West is the name given to a continent (Aman, The Undying Lands) that was once west of Middle-Earth, on the other side of the sea. This is where the Gods live. By the time the story takes place in the Lord of the Rings, this continent has been removed from the world, so that

those that sailed far came only to the new lands, and found them like to the old lands, and subject to death. And those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said:

'All roads are now bent.'

The Silmarillion

In this sense, both can be considered "forgotten", either from a time, space or knowledge point of view.

Although it might be a mistake from the translator, the French translation applies "forgotten" to "youth", not West:

Mes noms sont nombreux dans de nombreux pays, disait-il. Mithrandir chez les Elfes, Tharkûn pour les Nains ; j'étais Olorin dans ma jeunesse dans l'Ouest, qui est oubliée, Incanus dans le Sud, dans le Nord Gandalf ; dans l'Est, je n'y vais pas.

I know Tolkien was very protective of his texts and would actively verify translations. He also knew French.

  • 3
    I haven't followed the link, but unless the writer has made a mistake (which seems unlikely in such a carefully-crafted context), it's refering to a West that's now forgotten (the real "Wild West", before Hollywood gave it a makeover?). Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:26
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers reading of the syntax is right, and his conjecture as to what West is intended is entertaining. Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:40
  • 2
    Because Tolkien is a Real Writer and would have said "in the West, in my youth that is forgotten" if that's what he meant. Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:43
  • 1
    @isanae: Technically speaking I suppose it could be, but pragmatically it's not likely to be. Apart from anything else, I can't really picture Gandalf digressing to lament his forgotten youth, when the whole structure of the statement is focused on naming the four quarters of the world (or Middle Earth, I should say! :). Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:45
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers It's entertaining precisely because it's you. It's sorta like Einstein absent-mindedly writing c=em2. It would be even funnier if tchrist made the same mistake. Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:59

5 Answers 5


Simply in the context it is given, it means that the West was forgotten: he immediately proceeds to mention north, south and east. I can see how one can assert either, but there is a very strong pull towards the cardinal directions in the sentence.

In the greater context of the mythology, West is often a synonym for Aman. Additionally, the only place he was known as Olórin was in Aman.

However one can plausibly assert that he means Beleriand, which used to be the Westernmost extent of Middle Earth until after the overthrow of Morgoth and the world was changed. Beleriand is now under the sea and the Western shore of middle earth when Gandalf is speaking is actually the easternmost extents of Beleriand from the First Age, more or less.

Note also that Gandalf/Olórin is a spirit who existed outside of time before the making of the world. Youth doesn't really have meaning for him.

  • 1
    What "the West" means was never a problem: it is the Undying Lands.
    – isanae
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:45
  • 1
    Obviously. Which is why I pointed out that he was only known as Olorin there, and possibly when he fought with the Host of Valinor in Beleriand. Both qualify as "the West," but they also both strongly link his statement to the cardinal direction.
    – Yorik
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 18:54
  • Incidentally this was the original information of who Gandalf is in the LoTR long before the Silmarillion was published. Breaking down the name revealed the language from whence it came and therefore must have meant Valinor (Aman was not published yet).
    – Joshua
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 18:12

The modifier "that is forgotten" is a restrictive relative clause, which we can tell from the facts that commas do not set it off and "that" is used rather than "which". A restrictive relative clause has the effect of restricting the reference -- that is the meaning of the term "restrictive". If a reference is already unique, it obviously cannot be further restricted, so restrictive relative clauses cannot modify nominals whose reference is already unique.

How many things could "my youth in the West" refer to? Just one -- Gandalf's young life happened just once -- so that is a unique reference.

What about "West"? That is less obvious. West the direction? West the territories lying in that direction? West a place of myth rather than an existing land? Whatever it means, to interpret the force of the restrictive clause, it seems we have to imagine "West" as having variable reference, so we can single one out as being the one that is forgotten.

  • 2
    This makes sense, but "West" is not really a "variable reference" in this context. It refers to a piece of land where the Gods live. At the time when the story is told, that land has been made unreachable by normal means and has fallen into legend.
    – isanae
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 19:16
  • 3
    The definite article in "the West" makes it a specific reference. "I was known as Joey Pajamas in my yout' in the Hoboken that's gone now."
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 19:21
  • 1
    @TimRomano, yes, but restrictive relative clauses do not modify NPs -- they modify nouns. So the parsing is not [[the West] [that is forgotten]], but rather [the [[West] [that is forgotten]]]. That is, the definite article makes "West that is forgotten" a specific reference, not "West".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 19:29
  • There can be several Wests, and although it's clear from context that he means Aman, part of the context is the "that is forgotten". Without it he could be referring to the lands to the west of where they are now. Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 4:54
  • 1
    The problem with this is that in exactly the kind of archaic and archaising prose that Tolkien writes, that is sometimes used non-restrictively with completely unambiguous and unique references. Removing the prepositional phrase, it would still be perfectly Gandalfian to say “Olórin I was in my youth that is forgotten”. Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 18:14

IMHO What Gandalf says more or less means he was Olorin in his forgotten youth in the West, not that he was Olorin in the forgotten West when he was young. I have always interpreted it to mean that "that is forgotten" refers to the time when Gandalf was, if not exactly young, thousands of years younger, and not to "the West".

I don't really have grammatical reason for that opinion as much as story reasons.

The West was not forgotten by the Elves whose history was mostly shaped by relations with the West, nor by Gondorians who who were taught that the fall of Numenor resulted from invading the West.

But all first hand reports of the West came through elves who had been there, and apparently Olorin had not been among the most well known Maia, preferring to wander disembodied among them and put good thoughts into the minds of Elves with telepathy instead of forming a body and speaking to them with words. So I deduced that Olorin's time and deeds in the West would have been almost forgotten in Middle-earth.

Here is a link to another question on the topic:


And here are links to two somewhat related questions:



  • 2
    Grammatically it's a question of parsing the sentence as (in my youth in the West)(that is forgotten) or (in my youth)(in the West that is forgotten), as other answers have posited. Your reading is valid and backed up by the story itself.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 21:02

A relatively recent comment on an answer to the question that inspired this one is thus:

In "The Quest for Erebor" (Unfinished Tales), Gandalf gives a variation on the quote that omits the reference to his youth: "Olórin I was in the West that is forgotten..."

chepner, Aug 22 '19 at 1:45

Before seeing this comment, I was inclined to think that the French translation was right that it is Gandalf's youth that is forgotten, especially because...

  1. When Gandalf said this, he was speaking to Faramir or his soldiers, as seen in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stack Exchange answer 202865:

    ‘Mithrandir we called him in elf-fashion,’ said Faramir, ‘and he was content. Many are my names in many countries, he said. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.’

    The Lord of the Rings Book Four, Chapter 5: The Window on the West
    Page 670 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

    Blackwood, Jan 6 '19 at 4:45


  2. Faramir and his soldiers certainly have not forgotten the West, as seen in SFF.SX answer 149236:

    Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do likewise.

    'So we always do.' he said, as they sat down: 'we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.

    The Two Towers Book IV Chapter 5: "The Window on the West"

    Jason Baker, Jan 4 '17 at 14:09

However — although I am hardly an expert on Tolkien's works as some Stack Exchange users seem to be (I haven't even a copy of any of them at hand) — I am inclined to see chepner's comment of 22 August 2019 as fairly conclusive evidence, stronger than trying to analyse the grammar of the passage, that it is the West that is forgotten

Perhaps one can be more specific than that, too. In SFF.SX answer 46415, "user8719"² wrote that

Tolkien notes that '"The West" here plainly means the Far West beyond the Sea, not part of Middle-earth; the name Olórin is of High-Elven form'

user8719 did not cite the source of this quotation, but feeding part of it to Google quickly shows that it comes from the section "The Istari" in, again, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth.

Thus, the answer to "what is forgotten?" is "the Far West beyond the Sea".

¹ (...unless Tolkien meant to write "in my youth" in "The Quest for Erebor" and simply forgot to)
² "a deleted account for a Tolkien expert", according to Ian Thompson


Whilst there is an understandable desire for a unique parsing of "in my youth in the West that is forgotten", I think due consideration should be given to Tolkien's literary and linguistic abilities and the distinct possibility that whether "that" refers to "the West" or "my youth in the West" was immaterial to him - at least to the extent that he might have chosen to be less ambiguous in his expression but ultimately was not.

I suspect it means either or both according to the reader's need or mood, and Tolkien found no reason to discard either possibility.

The beauty of language lies not only it's capacity for clarity, but also in its potential for powerful ambiguity.

As a poetic writer, I also enjoy saying two things at once; one can sew with but a single thread, but warp and weft together weave.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.