Gandalf (Olórin)

By Oshun (Illustrated by Pandemonium_213)
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Continued from Part 1.

Gandalf is one of the more popular figures Tolkien created. It is impossible not to like and admire him. As was noted in the first half of this biography, he plays multiple roles throughout his intervention into the history of Arda. But, in all of those aspects, he offers himself to the readers and the protagonist alike as a guide and beacon throughout a heroic undertaking, the failure of which is too horrible to contemplate. He is the wise man whose advice, based in near-forgotten knowledge and his own ongoing investigations, if used correctly, could lead to triumph.

Gandalf as a character is deeply rooted in Tolkien's history and not simply because of the later connection of Gandalf of The Hobbit to the Istar described in most detail in the Unfinished Tales, or Gandalf as the Maia Olórin introduced in The Silmarillion.

In Tolkien's fiction, all roads lead to "The Silmarillion." When Tolkien finally finished The Lord of the Rings in 1950, he told Sir Stanley Unwin that it was "not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion" (L, 136). . . . the nature of the story itself was an inevitable consequence of "The Silmarillion," in which Tolkien's imagination had been steeping for several years.1

The Hobbit, with its limitations of having been written as a children's tale, can only provide a sneak preview into Tolkien's already extensively developed world of Arda. It, however, shows Gandalf playing a significant role as a caretaker on the shores of Middle-earth. He takes upon himself the responsibility to support and defend within his limited means (he is not as strong as Sauron, or initially even Saruman, but in the end wiser than both) the forces of light against an ever encroaching darkness. There is always the sense that when Gandalf recruits players to accomplish a discrete goal within his larger game, this is necessary because he himself is already involved in some other mysterious aspect of strategic importance.

It is Gandalf who researches the origins and possible location of the One Ring in the libraries of Minas Tirith, having exhausted other means, and also Gandalf who suspects and proves that the Necromancer in Dol Guldur is actually Sauron, once again returned to Middle-earth after the destruction of Númenor. Gandalf also is first aware that Saruman has turned to the dark side.

The Lord of the Rings, of course, is not simply the story of the triumph of a final collaboration of the Elves, Men, Dwarves and Hobbits, which leads to the Age of Men and final days of the Elves in Middle-earth. It is the story of Gandalf's central role, which cannot be overestimated, in the victory over Sauron. One might call it the final attempt by the Valar to intervene directly into the affairs of Middle-earth.

In The Hobbit, the reader learns that Gandalf acts within in the context of events that lie well beyond the attention of the simple, homely people of the Shire.

It was in this way that he [Bilbo] learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.2

Gandalf takes upon himself the positive roles of mentor, guide, deus ex machina, counselor, wise man, kindly grandfather and noble Maia. In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf speaks to Frodo of Saruman, he indicates that Saruman once held a place above him in the hierarchy of the Istari.

Yet he is great among the Wise. He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council. His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling. The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears.3

There are different versions of the time and circumstances of the arrival of the Istari in Middle-earth. In the Unfinished Tales version of the story of Olórin/Gandalf, the Istari included five Maiar sent to Middle-earth in the year 1000 of the Third Age, to assist the free people of Middle-earth in resisting the rise again of Sauron. Along with Gandalf, Manwë sent a group of five: Alatar, Pallando, Radagast, and Saruman.4 At the beginning of Tolkien's epic novel, The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf refers to himself as a humble member of a larger group of angelic spirits sent to help the people of Middle-earth fight the long battle against Sauron and the remnants of Melkor's minions. But a little less than midway through, the reader is convinced that Gandalf is the wisest and the best of the Istari.

Tolkien summarizes well the possibility of the Istari choosing good or evil and notes therein Gandalf's moral superiority over Saruman.

. . . these 'wizards' were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. 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.5

The Lord of the Rings begins in a manner not at all dissimilar from the opening passages of The Hobbit. Gandalf appears in The Shire, with the eventual purpose of involving a somewhat less than enthusiastic Hobbit in an adventure that will strain his resources beyond any previously acknowledged limit for purposes beyond his wildest imagination.

After drawing Frodo out of The Shire and into the affairs of Men, Elves and Dwarves and becoming the pivotal piece in the standoff between good and evil in Middle-earth, Gandalf disappears twice. He first misses a meeting point on the road to Rivendell and later falls in the underground caverns of Moria in the process of combating and destroying a Balrog.

From the moment that Gandalf reappears, in resplendent glory, and names himself Gandalf the White, no reader has any remaining doubt that this Balrog-killer is a wizard of great power. When Gimli shows relief at identifying their dear old friend Gandalf, the wizard asserts:

'Dangerous!' cried Gandalf. 'And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord.6

He stresses that he is overshadowed in power at this point by arguably only Sauron. He is not only dangerous and no longer to be confused with the grandfatherly figure whose first purpose in this novel appeared to have been to entertain Hobbit children with fabulous fireworks. The physical manifestation of his newly revealed power is an otherworldly glow.

They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.

At last Aragorn stirred. 'Gandalf!' he said. 'Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!' Gimli said nothing, hut sank to his knees, shading his eyes.7

To his enemies, or those who are unable to distinguish between the forces of light and darkness, he is described in less positive terms. The ailing and ensorcelled King Theoden from his throne in the Meduseld bitterly names him Stormcrow:

But news from afar is seldom sooth. Here you come again! And with you come evils worse than before, as might be expected. Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow?'8

Grima Wormtongue adds malice to mistrust when he addresses Gandalf,

'It is not yet five days since the bitter tidings came that Théodred your son was slain upon the West Marches: your right hand, Second Marshal Of the Mark. In Éomer there is little trust. Few men would be left to guard your walls, if he had been allowed to rule. And even now we learn from Gondor that the Dark Lord is stirring in the East. Such is the hour in which this wanderer chooses to return. Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Láthspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say.'9

Finally, in Minas Tirith, immediately preceding the Battle of Pelennor Fields, we learn that Gandalf is viewed as a mentor also by Faramir while profoundly distrusted and feared by Denethor, himself driven mad by his constant contact with Sauron through his unwise use of the Palantír. Denethor echoes the emphasis of Theoden and Grima Wormtongue when identifies Gandalf as a bearer of bad news.

Indeed, in literature as well as life, the wise man bearing news that the recipient does not want to hear is no more welcome than Cassandra with her prophecies that no one wants to believe. Gandalf is characterized as one who tells people things they to not want to know: that the Shadow will rise again, that the Ring is dangerous and uncontrollable, that neither the Maiar (Wizards) nor the Elves will be able to destroy it and, thus, they need to trust the Hobbits to fulfill this epic task. At no time is he less welcome--except, of course, with Saruman--than when he walks into the Citadel in Minas Tirith and present himself to Denethor.

The guards who greet Gandalf at the wall of Minas Tirith note that he often carries bitter news, and he explains why that would be true.

'May you bring good counsel to Denethor in his need, and to us all, Mithrandir!' Ingold cried. 'But you come with tidings of grief and danger, as is your wont, they say.'

'Because I come seldom but when my help is needed,' answered Gandalf.

* * * *

'Mithrandir! Mithrandir!' men cried. 'Now we know that the storm is indeed nigh!'

'It is upon you,' said Gandalf. 'I have ridden on its wings. Let me pass! I must come to your Lord Denethor, while his stewardship lasts. Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known. Let me pass!'10

And along the same lines as his city guard above, we have Denethor.

'Dark indeed is the hour,' said the old man, 'and at such times you are wont to come, Mithrandir. But though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.'11

Although it eventually becomes clear that Denethor reacts to Gandalf with considerable antagonism, his demeanor and attitude is far more lordly and impressive than Peter Jackson's interpretation of the Steward of Gondor in the movie.

The most revealing aspect of Denethor's mistrust of and aversion for Gandalf is revealed in his attitude toward Faramir. Up the point when Faramir arrives, Denethor is in large part gracious although not warm toward Gandalf. That all changes after Faramir describes his meeting with Sam and Frodo in Ithilien.

'Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.

'My son, your father is old but not yet dotard. I can see and hear, as was my wont; and little of what you have half said or left unsaid is now hidden from me. I know the answer to many riddles.'12

Denethor directly expresses a fear that Faramir withholds information from him that he would willingly share with Gandalf. His paranoia stems in part from the despair nurtured by Sauron and in part from the fact that Faramir is indeed a "wizard's pupil"13 in that Denethor's younger son has the wisdom and courage to have placed his trust in Gandalf.

When Denethor completely loses contact with reality, it is Gandalf who then takes on the role of leader and captain of the defense of the city in the Siege of Minas Tirith. After the victory of the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Gandalf joins with the Captains of the West in planning their strategy to buy time for Frodo to destroy the Ring, and it is he, along with the Great Eagles, who rescue Sam and Frodo in the end.

His work accomplished, Gandalf at last leaves Middle-earth in the company of Elrond, Galadriel, Bilbo and Frodo, along with his great steed Shadowfax.

Then Círdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them. As he turned and came towards them Frodo saw that Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire. Then those who were to go were glad, for they knew that Gandalf also would take ship with them.14

Thus, Gandalf returned as he had come to the land across the Sundering Seas, with these last words to the Hobbits whom he had loved.

Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.'15

Works Cited

  1. Verlyn Flieger and Carl E. Hostetter, eds., Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on the History of Middle-Earth (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000) 177, Questia, Web, 2 June 2012.
  2. The Hobbit, "The Last Stage."
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past."
  4. Unfinished Tales, The Istari.
  5. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, "181 to Michael Straight [drafts]."
  6. The Two Towers, "The White Rider."
  7. Ibid.
  8. The Two Towers, "The King of the Golden Hall."
  9. Ibid.
  10. The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith."
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The Return of the King, "The Siege of Gondor."
  14. The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens."
  15. Ibid.

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Oshun's Silmarillion-based stories may be found on the SWG archive.

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