It goes without saying that in among the ingredients for a great a great fantasy story includes the presence of magic. It gives the story a sense of wonder and mystery, and tells the reader that some things just can’t be explained. In order for there to be magic there will be a wizard. Oz was ruled by Oz the Great and Powerful. The Harry Potter books focus on an entire school filled with young Wizards. The classic tales from the court of King Arthur featured the wizard Merlin. The Narnia books featured Coriakin and Ramandu, anthropomorphic stars, but wizards none-the less. Of course in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is Gandalf.
Gandalf is one of the few characters who reoccur in both books. He was also one of the most popular characters in the series. In fact he made a spot on Time Magazine’s list of the Top 10 Most Beloved Wizards. While the 1960’s and 70’s were none for their social upheaval, and teenagers rebelling against “the man” and saying don’t trust anyone over 30, these same youths proudly sported buttons reading “Gandalf for President.” Gandalf, to them was the kind of authority figure they wanted, wise, compassionate, but strong, willing to fight that good fight, and yet willing to give you room to figure things on your own.
Even within that fantasy world, he is regarded with an air of mystery. He is known by the name of Gandalf, but he also goes by other names including Olorin, and Mithrandir. Rumors and legend of him spread throughout Middle-earth and he is known from the majestic halls of Gondor to the rolling hills of the Shire. When he turns up, things seem to happen and the simple minded can’t comprehend those things.
Those who know him note that many times he imparts wisdom to them in the form of riddles. This allows them time to try and learn it on their own. One would think that a friend or teacher would speak plainly, but that is only the case if you want to give them quick digestible facts. If someone wants to give another person real honest knowledge, they are going to give them something to really think about. Not just something they can parrot back.
When he arrives in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is more than aware of just who Gandalf is, at least once he says his name. Bilbo says,
“Gandalf, Gandalf! Not the wandering wizard…Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties….not the man who used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!.. dear me ,,.. not the Gandalf responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures. Anything from climbing trees to visiting Elves—or sailing in ships sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter—I mean , you used to upset things in these parts once upon a time.”
Even a little creature, known for living a quiet simple life knows things become more fun once Gandalf invites you on an adventure. Like the great mentors in literature and mythology, Gandalf is the one who issues the invitation for the hero to go on the life changing quest. He comes and goes as he pleases and quite can’t be nailed down, but you always know you are in good company when he is on your side.
Tolkien based the appearance of Gandalf of the Nordic deity Odin, appearing in human form as an old man dressed in grey with a pointed hat. He describes him as being not as tall as the other wizards, he appeared to be older than the others, and seemed to be the very least of them.
British Actor Sir Ian McKellan who played Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films said of Gandalf,
“Gandalf is not just a creation of Tolkien, he is the wizard, the prototype of wizards. He looks like how we expect a wizard to look.”
McKellen even noted that upon getting the part he got letters from adults and teenagers from around the world that loved Gandalf and had an opinion on the character. They all had advice to give him, as well as some expectations and even fears and warnings. They wanted Gandalf to meet what they envisioned. More than any character, he was the one who, the moment he walked up to Bilbo’s door in The Hobbit to invite him on the adventure to the Misty Mountains, who invited the readers too. We were Bilbo Baggins, and Gandalf was simply Gandalf, the one pulling us into this incredible journey.
However, the fact that he is a wizard has given a few readers, and viewers who only give Tolkien’s world a cursory look some areas of concern. One viewer even complained that people can’t do the things Gandalf does in the real world. This would be a true statement, if in fact Gandalf lived in the “real-world”, and not a mythical fantasy world, and if he were in fact human.
Make no mistake. Gandalf is not human. We learn in Tolkien’s posthumous publication, The Silmarillion, that,
“Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the West of Middle- earth the Istari, whom men call the Wizards…they were sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should rise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds. In the likeness of Men they appeared, old but vigorous…”
In the book A Guide to Tolkien’s World: A Bestiary, author David Day notes that,
“Though the Istari came secretly and in humble form, in the beginning, before their arrival in Middle-earth, they were Maiar, spirits older than the world itself and of that first race came from the mind of Illuvatar, in the Timeless Halls. Yet in the diminished world of Middle-earth in the Third Age they were forbidden to come for in power as Maiar. They were limited to the form of Men and the powers that might be found within the mortal world.”
Essentially, the Wizards are emissaries from Eru Illuvatar, beings that according to Tolkien were
“…. a ‘created person; though possibly a spirit that existed before the physical world. His function as a ‘wizard’ is an angelos (from where we derive the English word “Angel”) or messenger from the Valar to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power o great for them unaided.”
They may look like normal humans, but they do possess just a few of their natural abilities to help their cause. For example, Gandalf will make his staff light up when they are in a dark tunnel. When the trolls in The Hobbit are discussing how they should properly cook Bilbo and the Dwarves, Gandalf tricks them with mimicry just long enough for the sun to rise, thereby causing the dwarves to turn to stone. Even his fireworks are lit like the ones we are familiar with, you light the fuse at the end and they take off and explode.
Beyond that, there are many limits upon their skills Gandalf possesses. In many ways by limiting the magic in Middle-earth it helps make the book more realistic. Writer David Colbert notes,
“He (Tolkien) didn’t want characters to build towers with the wave of a magic wand, or to fly to Mount Doom by sprinkling fairy dust. He wanted life in Middle-Earth to be hard. He wanted the Fellowship’s mission to destroy the One Ring to be tough and dangerous. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”
However, because he associates with humans and Hobbits, he is regarded as a wizard. He can do things that they cannot fully comprehend. Consider how amazed and charmed a small child is by Christmas lights blinking. Or how surprised they are if you point that strange thing at the TV set and it turns on and off, or by hearing a voice on a telephone. They don’t understand a thing about how electrical currents work to make the lights blink, or how signals work to make a TV turn on and off, or how sound waves travel through the phone. To that child, it is all magic.
Because of his skills with light and fire Gandalf was associated with fire. In fact he claims to the Balrog as the fights the creature on the bridge of Khazad-dûm that he is a servent of the Secret Fire and the weilder of the Flame of Arnor. After the One Ring is destroyed he becomes possessor of tone of the Elven Rings of Power, one that has the skill to control fire.
Tolkien described him as,
“Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise…”
This is also why Gandalf does not use his powers to their full potential. Many readers wonder why he just doesn’t wave his staff and vaporize all the Goblins. He has incredible power and strength and could lead all the armies of Middle-Earth in combat against their foes and vanquish all evil from the land. However, as Bilbo’s nephew Frodo learns when he tries to offer him the One Ring,
“Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”
Gandalf knows that if he were to claim absolute power, he could become a being like Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, also known as The Necromancer in The Hobbit. Sauron was once a being like Gandalf who was swayed to evil and sought to dominate all life on Middle-earth. For if another of their kind would not defeat him at all, but it would just replace him with another Dark Lord, one perhaps worse than the first.
In fact as we see in Lord of the Rings, one of their kind does in fact turn. The Wizard Saruman. Once the leader of Gandalf’s order, he was considered the most powerful wizard on Middle-Earth. He was also the leader of the council of the Wise, or The White Council. Saruman was wise and powerful and would do anything to amass more power to defeat the Dark Lord. One of their order nominated Gandalf for the spot leadership on the council, but he refused.
Gandalf would rather look for the traits in others and help guide them to their destiny. More over Gandalf has another reason for choosing to help the company. It turns out that the quest for Erebor is just a small conflict going on in Middle-Earth. The Dark Lord Sauron was amassing power in the north and they had to contend with him.
We learn in the Appendix of Return of the King, that,
“Among many cares he was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew then already that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he was strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt to regain the lands of Angmar and Northern passes in the mountains there were now only the dwarves of the iron hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use to terrible effect. How then could the end of Smaug be achieved.”
The dragon has to be defeated; otherwise it could make a bad situation worse. Since Gandalf is otherwise occupied, and the dwarves refuse to go with only 13 (as it is an unlucky number and they are superstitious), Gandalf chooses Bilbo. This conflict has to be won by all the free peoples of Middle-earth, elves, dwarves, men, and even the Shire-folk, even though many of the wise do not take them into account.
There is also another reason he chooses Bilbo. He knew a few of his more interesting ancestors, and knew how quickly they would go on adventure. He could probably also notice that Bilbo did indeed think things were more interesting when Gandalf would show up, but he just caught himself to try and stay proper. He knows that there is a strength that Bilbo has that the dwarves will desperately need. The dwarves may have the skills as fighters and miners, but Bilbo has something else.
Hobbits can sneak around quickly and quietly, they can go about relatively unnoticed cause most would just think they saw a child walk by. They are clever and resourceful and fond of riddles and puzzles. He knows that the dwarves also need heart, specifically a heart that is not going to be as easily tainted by a lust for power and treasure.
Since Gandalf has a special interest in the Shire, he tends to look out for the little Hobbits. Even though he hadn’t visited the Shire for twenty years he still knew Bilbo well enough to know what strengths he possessed. Sir Ian McKellen deduced that this was part of the reason he went to get Bilbo to join the quest,
“Bilbo is not Frodo. Frodo is the little lad who goes off to save the world. Bilbo is more settled in his ways. He’s absolutely adamant that he doesn’t want to go on any journey.. there’s a dullness to him that Gandalf doesn’t like and wants to shake it out of him….And he sends Bilbo on this adventure –or, rather throws him into it! Because he doesn’t like the life Bilbo is leading!”
Gandalf even tells Frodo something to that same extent in the first Lord of the Rings film. As the wizard is riding into the Shire Frodo spots him a, greets him and rides along with him, informing him how Gandalf shook things up in taking Bilbo on that quest. Gandalf replies,
“If you mean that incident with the dragon, I was hardly involved. I just merely gave your uncle a nudge out the door.”
Like any good mentor he looks at his charge and gives them the invitation to go. However, since Gandalf is a mentor-figure, that also means he has to leave them for a time to learn and grow on their own. Throughout the course of The Hobbit, readers note that Gandalf suddenly goes off on his own, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to fend for themselves. To some this may seem cruel. After all, he since he is so wise and powerful, nothing could stand against this little group.
However, as any parent can tell you, as hard as it is to let a child fall down and go boom while they learn to walk, it is necessary for growth. A child may need a little help taking those first few steps, but if they are helped the whole time, they can never fully grow and develop on their own. The longer they hold to mom and dad, the less likely those steps they take can be their own.
This is the case, not just with Gandalf, but with many a mentor figure in literature and film. In order for the hero to not only walk the path appointed them, it has to be on his, or her, own steam. Obi-Wan Kenobi cannot defeat the Empire for Luke Skywalker and his friends. Dumbledore can’t defeat Voldemort for Harry Potter. Merlin cannot rule over Camelot for Arthur. And Bilbo and the other heroes of Middle-Earth cannot save their world if Gandalf does it for them.
However, he always seems to return just when they need him most, and not in some sort of Deus Ex Machina fashion. Perhaps early on, like when Bilbo and the Dwarves are about to be eaten by the Trolls or when they are captured by Goblins. As the journey goes on and they find their strength he doesn’t show up as much, leaving them to fend for themselves.
As he tells Frodo in the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Wizard is never early. Nor is he late. He only arrives exactly when he means too.”
This means it is a point of absolute need. This is seen in The Two Towers when Gandalf returns to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. They, and the rest of the Fellowship watched as Gandalf fell in combat against a Balrog in the Mines of Moria, fearing him dead. Gandalf defeated the Balrog and returned to them .He had not yet completed his task on Middle-earth. Gandalf had even received a promotion. No longer was he Gandalf the Grey, but Gandalf The White. As they look on him he tells them,
“Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.”
It’s what makes his eventual return even better. Not only do things get more interesting, as Bilbo said, but they get better. Because when Gandalf enters the scene, and when all the forces of good in Middle-earth stand together, there is little chance for the forces of evil to triumph in the end.
No wonder the youth of the 60’s and 70s’s wanted him for President!
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This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved or prepared by any persons involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views or ownership of the JRR Tolkien Estate, the Saul Zaentz Company, Houghton Mifflin Books, Warner Brothers Studios, MGM/UA, AOL-Time-Warner Inc., New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson or any other persons or parties involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films and books.