By Oshun (Illustrated by Pandemonium_213)
Whether in the guise of Gandalf the Grey or Gandalf the White, Tolkien’s most famous wizard plays the role of the nearly perfect guide, instigator, and mentor for the heroes of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He steps into the fray as an active combatant as well, e.g., Gandalf is not simply an armchair general. Tolkien devoted an entire essay to his Wizards, emissaries from the Valar sent to level the playing field in the struggle against the dark Maia Sauron by the free peoples of Middle-earth: the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits. “The Istari” in Unfinished Tales was written in 1954, late enough to be considered one of the more authoritative texts, provides an excellent source for everything one might have wanted to know about the Wizards.
The majority of readers first encounter Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring in the form of an elderly bearded man. "An old man was driving it [a horse cart] all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of this hat."1 One quickly learns that he is a friend of Hobbits, Men and Elves, wise and somewhat mysterious. A significant number of readers will have already met Gandalf in The Hobbit, wherein he is described almost word-for-word as he is in The Fellowship of the Ring: the same pointed blue hat, long grey cloak and silver scarf, beard and bushy eyebrows.2 The narrator of the opening pages of The Hobbit, however, emphasizes of mystery which surrounds Gandalf in his introduction of this important character.
Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion.3
Gandalf appears in The Hobbit as the wise and mysterious wanderer, a wizard no less, who first proposes an adventure to Bilbo Baggins who is surprised and appalled at the very idea. Disappearing in and out of the story, as Gandalf is wont to do, he charges Bilbo with a seemingly nearly impossible task. He changes the conservative Hobbit forever by placing him in the middle of an adventure of a lifetime and simultaneously draws the reader into the marvelous world of Middle-earth.
Gandalf also appears in the published version of The Silmarillion in a markedly different aspect: that of a semi-divine Maia hidden within the guise of an old man, whom we met in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien introduces him in The Silmarillion as the Maia Olórin. "Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience."4 [More will be added later on the significance of Gandalf’s residence in the gardens of Irmo in Lórien, place of dreams and consolation, so different from the strife and hardship in Middle-earth.]
One may find in the Unfinished Tales article a precise and comprehensive explanation of whom and what Gandalf actually is. Christopher Tolkien confirms that Gandalf is one of the Istari, who are of the Maiar. “It appears indeed from the mention of Olórin in the Valaquenta (The Silmarillion pp. 30 –1) that the Istari were Maiar; for Olórin was Gandalf.”5 It goes on to explain that
". . . though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.6
Gandalf bears a proliferation of names, as do most of the major characters in Tolkien’s legendarium. The name by which he is known as a Maia of Aman is Olórin. In The Two Towers, Faramir lists several of Gandalf’s names,
'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.'7
Gandalf fascinates and attracts the reader because he fundamentally satisfies a need. Literary archetypes exist because they appeal to certain universal desires to look to a guide, guardian, protector, mentor, or adviser who knows more than the struggling protagonist. He represents the Other, the supernatural or unknowable, coming from outside of the ordinary world of the protagonists. Tolkien himself has referred to Gandalf as angelic.
he was an incarnate 'angel'– strictly an ἄγγελος,8 that is, with the other Istari, wizards, 'those who know', an emissary from the Lords of the West, sent to Middle-earth, as the great crisis of Sauron loomed on the horizon. By 'incarnate' I mean they were embodied in physical bodies capable of pain, and weariness, and of afflicting the spirit with physical fear, and of being 'killed', though supported by the angelic spirit they might endure long, and only show slowly the wearing of care and labour.9
The archetypes that Gandalf epitomizes include those of the wizard or magician, the wise old man who acts as a teacher and/or manipulator and whose principle role is to see that the major actors complete their quest and achieve their goals. This figure necessarily possesses the attribute of wisdom and also certain magical powers or qualities. Gandalf has been compared to the wizard Merlin, who is most often in modern interpretations of Arthurian legend as a wizard and senior advisor to Arthur.
[Gandalf’s] function as a 'wizard' is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers: to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided. But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power – when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) – is evil, these 'wizards' were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.10
Some of the popular interpretations of the story of Merlin, in which one might say he bears more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien’s Gandalf, include T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Mary Stuart’s Arthurian series which begins with The Crystal Cave. Those writers came after Tolkien and retold the tales of the most famous of wizards written about in English with a conscious look back at the legendarium, beginning largely with Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. If anything, Tolkien would have consciously avoided mirroring too closely those sources that prominently included the figure of the elder wizard or magical adviser. The traditional figure of Merlin, like Gandalf, is of uncertain, mysterious, and not entirely natural origins. Yet, like Gandalf, he can still suffer human distress and must struggle to achieve his purpose, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.
They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of 'fall', of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. But the situation became so much the worse by the fall of Saruman, that the 'good' were obliged to greater effort and sacrifice. Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power.11
In Rohan, when he approaches King Theoden’s court, the reader is given pictures of both Gandalf the mundane and Gandalf the extraordinary in the space of a few lines.
Old and weary you seem now, and yet you are fell and grim beneath, I deem. [The guard at the gates of Edoras says addressing Gandalf]
Suddenly he threw back his grey cloak, and cast aside his hat, and leaped to horseback. He wore no helm nor mail. His snowy hair flew free in the wind, his white robes shone dazzling in the sun.12
Others have analyzed in some detail the similarities of Tolkien’s Gandalf to the Scandinavian deity Odin in his earthy more humble form. Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns, in her article “Gandalf and Odin,”13 notes the similarity in physical description of Gandalf to Odin, not to mention his habits, characteristics and reasons for his earthly wanderings.
. . . it was specific attributes that Gandalf and Odin share that suggested a link between the wizard and the god. They saw that the most distinctive features of Gandalf -- his hat, beard, staff, and penchant for wandering -- were, as well, the key characteristics that Odin displays when he leaves Asgard and travels in disguise through the plane of human existence, the middle-earth of Norse mythology. During these earthly journeys, Odin does not appear as a stern and forbidding deity or a bloodthirsty god of battle -- but rather as a grey-bearded old man who carries a staff and wears a hood or a cloak (usually blue) and a wide-brimmed, floppy hat.14
She continues to cite one of the most prolific of academics currently publishing in Tolkien studies, Verlyn Flieger, who she quotes as saying, “she noted that both Merlin and Odin play a part in Gandalf's character, though the connection Flieger recognized between Odin and Gandalf was not so much their appearance as their shared ability to lead. ‘A kind of Odin-figure,’ she calls Gandalf, ‘mustering troops and bringing them to battle’."15
A magnificent description of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, paints him as a true mixture of the near godlike and the humble:
Gandalf was shorter in stature than the other two; but his long white hair, his sweeping silver beard, and his broad shoulders, made him look like some wise king of ancient legend. In his aged face under great snowy brows his eyes were set like coals that could suddenly burst into fire.16
In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf acts as counselor and wise confidant of the remaining High Elves in Middle-earth, like Galadriel and Elrond. He is the trusted friend of the secretive Dwarves, a champion of the Hobbits and a teacher and support to the leaders among the Men of Middle-earth.
For with the consent of Eru they sent members of their own high order, but clad in bodies as of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years. And this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seclude the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men or Elves by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt.17
- The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Long-Expected Party.”
- The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party.”
- The Silmarillion, Valaquenta, “Of the Maiar.”
- Unfinished Tales, “The Istari.”
- The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers.
- Greek: ággelos = a messenger or a delegate, could indicate either human or celestial.
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 156 To Robert Murray, SJ (draft).
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 181.
- The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The King of the Golden Hall.”
- Verlyn Flieger, and Carl E. Hostetter, eds., Tolkien's Legendarium Essays on the History of Middle-Earth (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000) 220, Questia, Web, 2 Mar. 2012.
- The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Many Meetings."
- Unfinished Tales, “The Istari.”
About the Author
Oshun's Silmarillion-based stories may be found on the SWG archive.